Derek Freal

Derek Freal

" ǝʌıʇɔǝdsɹǝd ɹǝɥʇouɐ ɯoɹɟ sƃuıɥʇ ǝǝs oʇ ǝʌol ı "
Derek is a perpetual wanderer, cultural enthusiast, and lifelong traveler. He loves going places where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, as well as places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo (supposedly its healthier and more efficient). Say Hello On Twitter!

New York City consistently ranks in the top ten of destinations for American travelers, and for good reason. With a population of over 16 million people and countless buildings and sights instantly recognizable around the world, NYC is always a "must-see" destination for both US citizens and foreign tourists alike. But few experience the real offbeat, quirky, obscure side of New York City off the beaten path.

Whether Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, or even Ground Zero, most visitors already have a long list of sights to see before they even arrive in the city. And while all those destinations are interesting for their own reasons, they are also rather predictable. There is so much more to NYC than just the stereotypical spots!

Seek out the obscure and off the beaten path things to do in New York City! Below are some of my favorite finds. Know of any others? Add it in the comments.


I am equally happy in a penthouse or a hostel...but luxury travel is necessary occasionally

Recently I returned to the Big Apple with a local and we decided to check out some of the odd, obscure and offbeat things to do in NYC. I was also able to experience the city itself from a whole new side: a Manhattan penthouse overlooking Central Park.

  My Favorite Offbeat & Obscure NYC Sights:

Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium

Definitely more offbeat than obscure, this destination will leave you amazed, intrigued, confused, and possibly even a tiny bit grossed out. While the building exterior may not be as wild as some of the other Ripley's locations, inside it spans two massive floors and is a great way to kill an hour or two. If you have never tour a Ripley's museum before, well then you might as well start with what is arguably one of their best. It's located at Times Square and is imposible to miss.

Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium at Times Square in New York City, one of the cool offbeat things to do in NYC
NYC building codes prevent this structure from being more extravagant

Night Court

Looking for a cheap date or a bit of one-of-a-kind entertainment? Go to night court!

Many know that crime in NYC has always been a problem, one that even to this day is not yet fully under control. (In fact the only modern metropolis to have effectively curtailed blue collar crimes thus far has been Tokyo). While America is infamous for its court cases and legal proceedings that can drag on for years or even decades, current laws mandate that those arrested be charged within 24 hours. Although increasing amounts of US citizens are unjustly being denied this basic right in the post-9/11 America, those suspected of petty crimes and misdemeanors are still afforded this right. In the Big Apple that equates to well over 1,000 people every day!

As such, the courts in NYC are forced to extend their hours just to cope with the sheer influx of new "suspects." Night court is like any other small courts session: there are judges and lawyers, defendants but no juries. However often there are also spectators from the general public getting their jollies in.


For once I was glad to be in the audience, instead of the one in front of the judge

Things kick off half hour after the traditional courts close, at 5:30pm, and run until 1am, with a brief recess for the night shift lunch break. But you won't see any high profile murder cases here, as most individuals are represented by public defenders (aka court-appointed attorneys).

Admission is free, just be prepared to have to clear security. Oh and be respectable inside the courtrooms -- no photos or loud talking. But that should go without saying.

Museum Of Sex

"Ehhh...you were good, but not great." That was my feeling, at least. However the missus absolutely loved this place. Conveniently referred to as MoSEX, it should go without saying that although this is not a kid-friendly destination, most open-minded adults will enjoy the exhibits. Especially those who get a kick out of controversy or anyone fascinated by sex.

The Museum Of Sex in New York City, one of the cool offbeat things to do in NYC
I recommend being drunk when you visit. Seriously.

Like what you're reading?     More Offbeat Travel Guides!

Chinatown

You've Seen It In Countless Movies...Now See It In Real Life!

Yes, in one word Chinatown is AWESOME! From the unmistakable sights and smells pervading the area to the downright impressive "people-watching" that the region offers, there is nothing disappointing about a trek thru Chinatown -- especially if you are a fan of people watching. Come hungry and definitely indulge in some authentic Chinese food.


Yes, it really is just that great. Like all Chinatowns, "same same but different"

The Abandoned City Hall Subway Stop

Dating back to 1904, the now forgotten City Hall station has always been an amazing site -- perhaps ever more so since it was officially closed down in 1945. However the glass skylights and impressive tile-work are still visible to this very day.

Because this station is at the "end of the line," it is characterized by its curve. Unfortunately it was this iconic curve that eventually led to the station's demise, as it proved to be an issue for the newer and longer trains running these lines.

Abandoned city hall subway station in New York City, one of the obscure and off the beaten things to do in NYC
This spectacular photo is not mine -- it was taken by John-Paul Palescandolo and Eric Kazmirek.

Until a couple years ago the only way for the public to observe this long forgotten subway station was by riding the 6 train to its final stop, the Brooklyn Bridge, and then hiding when they cleared the train to turn it around and send it back along its course in the opposite direction.

Thanks to the sheer spectacle of this urban underside combined with the power of social media, the "train 6 turnaround" secret eventually got out. Due to the subsequent increase in people attempting to see this historic sight, the MTA now allows the public to ride the turnaround, instead of clearing everyone off at the last stop.

Yes, whether you love New York City or hate it, the fact remains that NYC is an amazing city which offers up something spectacular around nearly every corner -- you just have to know where to look!

Speaking of, let me leave you all with one final off the beaten path recommendation to get your jollies on while visiting NYC: connect with a local and try some "urban exploring" -- New York City has a hidden underbelly to it that most never even see!

  More Offbeat Travel Guides     Other New York Travel Advice     USA Archives

Have any other offbeat NYC recommendations?

Share your comments below!

One of the best things about foreign travel is the knowledge that invariably comes with it. It provides the opportunity for each of us to learn more about the world and its' many diverse cultures, as well as a little bit about ourselves. Another bonus is the chance to see which technology, trends, and practices are popular in the local region.

Think back and I'm sure you can recall a few things that made you go "Why don't they sell these back home?" or "Damn, why aren't we doing this at home?" even "Look at that, how awesome!" Most often those thoughts and semi-rhetorical questions are soon enough forgotten. But for me, at least in the case of Japan, not a day goes by that I don't miss all the great things about that country.

Japan is full of innovative ideas, futuristic technology, impressive customs, and other things that make you say WOW. Don't believe me? Take a look below and feel free to add your suggestions after the post.

Those Fancy Japanese Toilets

Let's get the obvious one out of the way first. Many people already know that these crappers are in a league all of their own. I wrote an entire article about fancy Japanese toilets and other bathroom innovations. Their toilets have features most Westerners have never dreamed of, including background noise to cover any sounds that the user may make, a warm cleansing spray, self-warming seat, built-in water-saving sink, and other impressive features. Be sure to read that post for more intriguing info.

Japanese toilets are top-notch toilets and the best Japanese innovation ever!

  Photo Gallery: Japanese Toilets 101

Underground Bicycle Garages

These things are pretty neat, Mayu showed me how to use one. Basically you just hop off your bike and roll it onto this platform. Insert your card and the machine will automatically stow your bike in a huge underground cylinder. This keeps it safe from both thieves and natural disasters while also reducing the amount of clutter at street level. To retrieve it simply re-insert your card into the attached machine and it will spit your bike back out in around ten seconds.

In areas without the Eco Cycle storage it is not uncommon to see hundreds of bicycles crammed together as part of a makeshift bicycle lot (a trend which I hope has died out since my last trip to Japan).

I don't have any personal photos, unfortunately, but I did find this  

Underground bicycle garages in Tokyo, Japan

Automated Vehicle Garages

An enlarged version of the bicycle garages, these things are amazing! They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are pretty wild to watch in action. Some are drive-thrus that slide the vehicle off to the side. Others in the basement of high-rise buildings feature a circular pad so that the vehicle can be rotated 180° and driven out in the opposite direction it was driven it.

Automatic underground car parking garage in Tokyo, Japan
Ramps down to these underground garages can be seen all over the big cities

Other models are individual lifts that hoist one vehicle up into the air so that a second can be driven in underneath it. Walk past people's homes in the evening and it is not uncommon to see two vehicles stacked atop each other.

Astonishing Array Of Vending Machines

In the big metropolises of Japan you are never more than two blocks from a vending machine. They are usually found in pairs but sometimes also in long banks of a dozen or more. They sell all the traditional items you would expect such as refreshing beverages (soda, water, tea, milk, juice, beer...essentially everything liquid) and cigarettes (requires scan of a Japanese ID to dispense product) to other more unconventional items including ramen, electronics, umbrellas, even underwear and ties.

Vending machines in Japan sell everything from drinks to cigarettes, electronics, toys and even panties -- both new and used. Yes, seriously.

Automatically Opening Taxi Doors

This one is essentially self-explanatory, I don't know what more I can write about them. They are controlled by a button up front and swing open really fast. Oh and they are twice as great when its raining out.

Japanese taxis have automatically opening doors

Touchscreen Menus At Upscale Restaurants


These reduce the number of (and stress on) restaurant employees. Expect to see more in the future.

Pachinko Parlors That Nearly Induce Seizures

Anyone who has ever walked past one of these has undoubtedly heard the noise and flashing lights blaring out. They are basically like arcade halls combined with casinos, some being multiple levels and taking up entire blocks. I never played myself but did wander through a couple of them.

Japanese citizens love these things and have been know to spend hours playing in these giant parlors, like the stereotypical American Grandma glued to the Las Vegas slots. Not very popular among foreigners though due to the constant flashing lights and never-ending din of bells, chimes, tings, tongs, pings, and general noise of hundreds of people gambling.


Japanese crack

Love Hotels

Love hotels are plush yet discreet hotels that rent rooms either by the hour, a several-hour "short stay" period, or for the entire night. Each room has different themes with the fanciest being compared to a brief stay in paradise. These swanky rooms would undoubtedly fit right in with some of the classy hotels of Las Vegas or Dubai.

When I say the theme varies greatly between rooms, I cannot stress that enough. One could be Egyptian theme, the next dungeon-themed, another a retro-hippie love-nest, etc. I highly recommend you check out a love hotel, especially if you've met a cute little Asian girl at the club that night.


Impressive, huh? Love hotels are common in neighborhoods with lots of clubs and an active nightlife.

Other Unique Types Of Japanese Lodging  

White-Gloved Helpers...Everywhere

A variety of businesses have staff that are ready and waiting to help you at a moment's notice. For lack of an official term (that I know of) I jokingly refer to these people at the white glove crew. Whether standing next to the trash cans in McDonald's waiting to take your tray from you and dispose of it themselves or inside the elevator, eager to take you to whichever floor has what you need, these people always have a smile on their face and white cloth gloves on their hands.

The railway attendants are dressed similarly and also sport the white gloves. However, they don't always have a smile on their face -- especially not during rush hour.

Drunk Female Attendants At Clubs

It's not what you may think. Big clubs in Japan frequently stay open until sunrise. Many even have an employee on hand who's sole job is to care for the ladies that have had way too much to drink; other employees that are walking around the club will bring these women down to him. Not only does this prevent them from getting taken advantage of or robbed, but it also leaves their boyfriend free to keep partying (guilty, I'll admit it).

This employee is even armed with rubber bands and miniature black trash bags for -- you guessed it -- tying up their hair and puking. This "drunk person attendant" is located near the entrance, making it easy to retrieve your drunk person on the way home. Hope you saved money for a cab because they will not be fit to walk!

Now that is a level of service that is hard to match. Unfortunately I never thought to get a photo.

Clubbing In Tokyo  

All The Paper Currency Is Perfectly Crisp

Now this isn't so much a Japanese innovation, but rather a testament to their level of perfection. Every bank note is impeccably crisp, whether receiving it from an ATM or as change from the local corner store. No bills are ever raggedy, torn, of limp, as other countries currency often is. I suspect that the banks simply rotate out worn bills at an increased rate. Whatever it is the fact remains that this simple little thing is surprisingly easy to get used to.


Image coutesy of Japan Scene

100¥ Stores

Based on the American dollar stores, Japan revamped these into stores that offer products that are not utter crap -- even fresh food -- and people are not shopping at them because they are poor.


These stores take the embarrassment out of bargain shopping

Designated Smoking Areas Cubes

Although you can smoke inside restaurants, clubs, and a variety of other places in Japan -- basically everywhere except grocery and clothing stores -- many cities have restrictions on outdoor smoking. For example outside railway stations and airports there are sporadic smoking areas. Some are merely painted rectangles on the ground but others are actually fully enclosed cubicles with high-powered ventilation to combat the smoke, as pictured below.


Indoor smoking area at an establishment that had recently banned smoking

(Almost) No Homeless People In Tokyo

Given the fact that Tokyo is the most populated metropolis in the world (36.9 million people, over 10 million more than #2, Mexico City) I initially expected there to be a lot of homeless people as well. After all, I was born in NYC. I'm familiar with homeless people.

There is nothing more depressing than walking around a big city only to pass underneath a bridge and realize you are walking through someone's home. And damn, now I've got to keep smelling this God-awful smell until getting out from underneath this bridge and several paces away.

In my many months of wandering around Tokyo at all hours of the day and night, I only recall seeing a single homeless person. I'm not saying that they do not exist, just saying that thanks to the strong principles of the Japanese culture, homelessness is not near the problem there that it is in many other countries.

There is plenty more that makes Japan a fantastic country to visit, but you'll just have to experience it yourself and see what you find!

  What are your thoughts? Have any additions to this list?

If you want to be a happy crapper, use a Japanese toilet

There is nothing more gratifying than a top notch toilet. And when it comes to fancy toilets it is fairly common knowledge that Japan leads the pack. Their toilets have features most Westerners have never dreamed of, including background noise to cover any sounds that the user may make, a warm cleansing spray, self-warming seat, built-in water-saving sink, and other innovative features. Their proper name are bidets, although many locals refer to them as washlets.

At first glance these washlets can be a little much for foreigners to take in. For example, in America if you sit on a warm toilet seat it means some other warm posterier just vacated that spot mere seconds before. Not the most appealing sensation, to say the least. I've even moved one stall over, just for a cold seat! (Like that one was any more sanitary.) Yet warm toilet seats are preferred in Japan, especially during the colder months. For many Westerners this definitely takes some getting used to, but they will grow on you if you spend long enough there. Trust me ;).

Of course the surprises do not stop there. Another aspect is that every model is slightly different, so there can be a bit of a learning curve. Luckily most of the important bidet functions have icons.

Bidet Control Panels

Yes...Hands-Free Cleansing!

What, the toilets have control panels? How complicated can they be? As you can see below, some are fairly self-explanatory while others can be a bit tricky. The control panel is most often built into what Westerners would view as an armrest on the right-hand side. However some bidets, particularly in private households, have more customized models which often feature a remote control panel built into the nearby wall instead.

Japanese bidet instructions were sometimes a bit confusing...or just downright hilarious. Thankfully this one came with an English translation.
Thankfully this one came with the translation

What, the toilets have control panels? How complicated can they be? As you can see below, some are fairly self-explanatory while others can be a bit tricky. The control panel is most often built into what Westerners would view as an armrest on the right-hand side. However some bidets, particularly in private households, have more customized models which often feature a remote control panel built into the nearby wall instead.

A collage of Japanese toilet control panels

These control panels are what transforms the mere toilet into a sophisticated bidet, which is the technical term of a fixture intended for cleaning the genitalia. Using the appropriate buttons a warm sanitizing spray will gently clean all your important areas, one for the males and another for the ladies. Many inside flats and private residences include the ability to adjust the temperature of this cleansing spray. Some even feature a strategically positioned blow dryer to be used afterwards! Have no fear if not, all it takes is a single square of paper to dry off and you're set.

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

The Toilet Paper Holder

These things are awesome! They have a lightweight flap that overhangs the toilet paper roll and has a downward curve along its front side that features perforated teeth. Thanks to gravity and a slight upwards tug this handy little device tears off individual t.p. square for you.

But the fancy features don't stop there. Rather than have a cylindrical mount that runs through the toilet paper tube and requires 5+ seconds to reload, Japanese toilet paper holders feature one-inch plastic prongs that flip out on either side to hold the roll in place and can be changed in literally one second. (Some Westerners will recognize these as being very similar to the paper towel holders which some people have in their kitchen.)

To remove an empty roll you simply flip up the overhanging flap and lift the old tube straight up. New rolls are loaded from the bottom, it's pure genius! It is simple yet effective innovations like that which make visiting Japan an unforgettable experience. Ask anyone who has ever visited.

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

  HoliDaze Tip   These one-of-a-kind toilet paper holders can be purchased individually at department stores throughout Japan. They make amazing gifts for friends back home because they are 1) useful on a daily basis; 2) unquestionably unique; and 3) great conversation starters.

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll holder

Bathroom Noises

We've all been there, whether a culprit or the audience. Admit it. After all, sounds have a tendency to be audible to those in the adjoining room thanks to thin walls and doors without insulation. But many of these Japanese bidets combat this by featuring a type of audio masking that is designed to cover any sounds generated by the user. Some are triggered by a button or hand-operated motion sensor, others simply by exerting pressure on the toilet seat, but they all sound exactly the same: like flushing water.

Otohime, the Sound Princess, muffles any noises you make while on the toilet
Motion activated "Sound Princess" muffles any noises you make while on the toilet (found in a public restroom)

After making a comment about this to Mayu I learned that apparently this feature is referred to as Otohime, the Sound Princess. Custom models even have the ability to play bowel-relaxing music instead of the flushing water sound, to help you "loosen up" -- if you so desire. When it comes to Japanese toilets the only limitation is your imagination!

Flushing

This varies greatly between models. Often it is a button without an icon. Other times it is a push-button built into the basin itself. Sometimes it is even a traditional Western-style one-directional knob -- although the vast majority of the time the knob rotates both directions, one for small flushes (小) and another for larger passes (大).

Toilet Slippers

At the entrance of every residence there is a front landing that is used for removing shoes, as well as any outwear or umbrellas. However inside each bathroom there is a separate set of toilet slippers that never leaves the confines of that space. Bathroom visitors slip them on as they enter the room and remove them on their way out. These keep everyone's feet and socks clean.

The Bathroom Sink

When traveling around Japan you will notice that many of the washlets in flats and private residences have the sink built into the wash basin. The logic behind this is fairly simple: after each flush the washbin has to refill with water to prepare for the next flush, so why not first use that water to wash your hands. Besides the obvious water-saving factor, another upside is that you are filling up the washbin with water which has a slight soapy residue to it. This helps to keep the toilet clean.

The water runs for about twenty seconds, a perfect length of time for washing your hands. Plus there is no need for hot or cold knobs as the water is already the perfect temperature.

Toilets with built-in sinks found in apartments and restaurants throughout Tokyo

Back when I had a home (in my pre-nomad days) I tried so hard to have one of those fancy Japanese toilets installed. I don't care about the bidet functions but I really do like the built-in sinks. Of course that has not been an easy task. They just don't sell them in the States. The only current option is to buy a bidet toilet seat and swap out the seats on your Western toilet.

However not all Japanese toilets have this built-in sink. Many look like the one below and feature a separate, traditional sink. These are common in public, high traffic areas such as airports, restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs.


Hotel room toilet

 

Can't Forget The Squat Toilets!

No article on Japanese toilets would be complete without mentioning squat toilets. Although these are not a Japanese invention, they can be found throughout Japan. As such it is best to familiarize yourself with them.

The first experience can be a little strange but some people argue that this method is actually healthier and more efficient. To read more on that debate, I was recently surprised to find that Wikipedia even has a page on Human Defecation Postures.

 

  Have you seen any interesting Japanese bathrooms? Did I leave anything out?

Recently I had the pleasure of discovering a refreshing new side to Ohio, the hidden gem known as Hocking Hills. Nestled in the southeastern portion of the state, this area is known for its rolling hills and glacier-carved valleys. As a result of these iconic valleys the region is also home to a surprising amount of migratory fauna and even several types of flora that are usually only found in the cooler climates of .

In addition to offering a wealth of outdoor activities, the nearby towns provide several interesting sightseeing opportunities and tours that cover a variety of interests and hobbies which visitors of all ages will find appealing. Together they make Hocking Hills a fantastic and inexpensive family getaway that proves there is much more to the Buckeye State than simply the "3 C's." Ohio also has the geographic distinction of being located within a single days drive of 50% of the United States population, further strengthening the region as an ideal destination for a refreshing family vacation.

Get Outdoors And Stretch Those Legs!

Surpassed only by their love of football, Ohio residents are extremely proud of the 200,000 acres of state and national parks scattered across this diverse state. Hocking Hills State Park is one of the most prominent in the region and receives as many as four million visitors each year.

An overwhelming one million of those visitors arrive just during October, when the autumn color change transforms the entire area into a vivid and impressive landscape that attract non-stop hordes of "leaf-peepers."

Overnight the entire forest was stripped naked.

Unfortunately for me I arrived just a couple days after Hurricane Sandy had ravaged this colorful scenery. The storm was so powerful that its effects were felt even this far inland, where 60-70mph winds stripped the deciduous trees of every last leaf and covered the ground in countless shades of auburn. Luckily that in no way diminished the joy of exploring this area.

Hike Or Bike The Many Trails Of Hocking Hills State Park

There are a total of nine hiking trails in varying lengths and difficulties and two great biking trails located within Hocking Hills State Park that allow visitors to choose their route based upon whichever sights appeal to them. One of the most popular of these trails is the hike to Old Man's cave, which you can see pictured below.

Hiking to Old Man's Cave in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Hiking to Old Man's Cave in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Hiking to Old Man's Cave in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Hiking to Old Man's Cave in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Pat Quackenbush, the naturalist at Hocking Hills State Park
Pat Quackenbush

Although the largest crowds at Hocking Hills State Park occur during the autumn color change, this area happens to be blessed with spectacular wildlife and scenery regardless of the season. In fact each has its own appeal and distinct reasons for visiting. Whether witnessing the first new leaves of the spring awakening or trekking through this snow-covered winter wonderland, Hocking Hills State Park never disappoints!

But believe it or not all of thise natural beauty is trumped by resident naturalist Pat Quackenbush. Pat's all-encompassing knowledge of the local history and climate combined with his vivid storytelling and skills in mimicking the sound of local wildlife culminates in the perfect tour guide. I've traveled extensively through 46 US states, camping and exploring a wide range of both parks and climates, and without a doubt Pat is the all-around best naturalist I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. His love and dedication to the region are undeniable and certainly add that special spark when experiencing the local outdoors.

  A more extensive list of the outdoor adventures offered including upcoming events can be found on the Hocking Hills State Park official web page.

Shawnee story teller Wehyehpihehrsehnhwah
Listen and learn the circle of life as told by Shawnee story teller Wehyehpihehrsehnhwah

An Unforgettable Shawnee Storytelling Experience

For those who crave a more unique outdoor experience there is no better option than a guided tour through Saltpetre Cave State Nature Preserve. The highlight of this two-hour expedition up into the hills is an enthralling session with Wehyehpihehrsehnhwah (pronounced Way-u-per-shenwa), which takes place in the fourth and final cave along the trek. Approaching hikers will be able to hear his traditional Native American flute melodies rising through the hills long before being able to spot the source.

Wehyehpihehrsehnhwah, the Shawnee storyteller at Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio
Wehyehpihehrsehnhwah, the Shawnee storyteller at Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio

Otherwise known by the much easier to pronounce nickname "Shawnee Storyteller," Wehyehpihehrsehnhwah consistently captivates audiences from his first word to the very last. His stories offer a different perspective on the Hocking Hills region as well as thoughtful insights on our responsibility as the dominant species of this planet. They are comprised of a mixture of local history and knowledge of regional nature and wildlife, engaging Shawnee practices and stories of the past, personal childhood experiences, and even include thought-provoking cultural wisdom that has been passed down through the generations by tribe elders. Visitors are unanimously impressed by Wehyehpihehrsehnhwah and frequently find that leaving is hard to do.

  Here are a few of my photos from both the initial hike through the nature preserve and our subsequent session with the Shawnee Storyteller.  

Hiking to Old Man's Cave in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Hiking to Old Man's Cave in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Hiking to Old Man's Cave in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Hiking to Old Man's Cave in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Hiking to Old Man's Cave in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Shawnee storytelling session in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Shawnee storytelling session in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Shawnee storytelling session in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Shawnee storytelling session in Hocking Hills, Ohio

To learn more about Wehyehpihehrsehnhwah and his stories please consult Hocking Hills Adventure Trek. They also offer several more challenging trails intended only for experienced hikers.

 

Get Your Adrenaline Pumping!

Ohio's First World-Class Zipline Adventure

Canopy tours are the perfect excursion for those nature-lovers whom are also avid thrill-seekers and typically feature multiple ziplines and sky bridges. Just a few weeks before my visit a group from Discovery.com had popped in for a visit, after which they named the Hocking Hills ziplines as one of the top ten ziplines in the world! (View the article)

The canopy tour includes a total of ten ziplines but the prime attraction of this three-hour excursion is the SuperZip, Ohio's answer to the public demand for a "higher, longer, and faster" zipline. It covers more than a quarter mile and includes a breathtaking stretch directly over the Hocking River that makes the most of the zippers' "Superman-style" flying position.

Individuals are launched in pairs from an 85-foot tower perched atop the hillside and reach speeds of up to 50mph, making the SuperZip a fun race for anyone with a competitive nature.

Looking down on the massive SuperZip from the final zipline launch tower
This is the SuperZip as seen from the launch platform. Notice the Hocking River in the distance.

Although the SuperZip can be experienced either by itself or as part of the full canopy tour package, I strongly recommend the latter -- especially if you have never been ziplining or on a canopy tour before. You may be surprised at just how much fun you have been missing out on.

Ziplining in Hocking Hills, Ohio
Always a good day for ziplining. Was joined by my friend Jessie of

Derek Freal preparing to do the SuperZip in Hocking Hills, Ohio

  Canopy tour details and contact information available via Hocking Hills Canopy Tours.

Kayaking & Camping On The Hocking River

From April through October the Hocking River is popular among both kayakers and canoers, as visitors will notice when ziplining over the river. Two different lengths are offered, both filled with a variety of spots suitable for beaching your craft to rest along the shore or bask in the tranquil sounds of nature, allowing participates to extend this into a all-day event if the mood arises.

To get the best of both worlds, ziplining and kayaking, I suggest what is known as the "Float & Fly" special. This trip will take you down the longer of the two kayaking routes and passes directly underneath the SuperZip. Located there is a small landing area on the right side of the river for zippers to safely stow their kayak and make the short walk up to the SuperZip launch tower. After the group has completeled this exhilirating zip then its back into the kayaks for the remaining leg of the cruise.

  Check out a few of the photos from our kayaking adventure below. You may even recognize a couple of my fellow travel bloggers, including Kristen from Hopscotch The Globe and Will from Wake And Wander.  

Kayaking the Hocking River in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Kayaking the Hocking River in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Kayaking the Hocking River in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Kayaking the Hocking River in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Kayaking the Hocking River in Hocking Hills, Ohio

Overnight camping is also an option for anyone wishing to continue this experience past sunset. Visitors can either bring their own tents and set up camp in several designated campgrounds ($7/each) or rent one of the four-person cabins that are scattered along the river. Cabins include basic amenities such as heating/cooling, refrigerator, and microwave and cost $60/night during the week or $70/night on Fridays and Saturdays.

  Further details including specials and upcoming events can be found on the Hocking Hills Canoe Livery website.

Of course these activities are but a fraction of all the outdoor adventures awaiting visitors of Hocking Hills and the surrounding area. Depending on the season other great choices include a variety of haunted hikes and ghost stories, wildlife observation and education treks, fishing, hunting, and even occasional nighttime activities/events. Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself passing through Ohio or searching for an affordable family vacation. And as always, if you have any questions that are not answered by the links included then feel free to give me a shout.

Ever visited Hocking Hills? What were your favorite outdoor adventures?

Every Country Has Hotels And Hostels...

What Does Japan Do Different?

The best way to learn about a country is through firsthand experience with some of the things which make that location unique, whether food, festivals, transportation options, or even lodging. Japan, being a country that is simultaneously rich in history but also at the forefront of modern technology and innovation, certainly offers up a seemingly countless supply of unique facets that make visiting the country a must.

Just because Japan is constantly looking towards the future does not mean they have forgotten about the past. Quite the opposite, in fact. One of the things I love most about the country is how they have smoothly and perfectly blended the old with the new, seemingly with such ease. In the big cities it is quite common to see ancient temples and historic structures preserved amongst the modern highrises and transportation systems.

Speaking of history, what better place to start than with one well-known type of lodging that is exclusively associated with Japan -- the ryokan.

 

Ryokan in Takayama

Traditional Ryokan

These are probably the most iconic of all the Japanese structures. If you have ever seen a classic Samurai movie you will immediately recognize these structures, known for their paper walls and sliding doors. While the cost and demand of space has made them less common in many of the big metropolises, they are still a big hit in the countryside, especially in regions near hot springs. You can usually count on them to have spectacular views of the surrounding landscape as well.

Half the fun is in the lodging and room itself, but the other half is in the food. Do not pass up any of the meals offered at your ryokan. The food is always amazing and presented ever so elegantly!

In my opinion one of the best cities to stay in a ryokan is Takayama, long known for its skilled carpentry. Not only is the area gorgeous but also filled with traditional streets and shops that are a joy to stroll through, even if you are not planning on purchasing anything.

Ryokan in Takayama

 

Love Hotels

Another [in]famous type of lodging in Japan is the love hotels, sometimes referred to as fashion hotels, which can now also be found in other Asian countries. For those of you who have never heard of these, this will blow your mind. These hotels will be located only in areas with lots of late night clubs and offer luxurious intimate rooms available in "rest periods" of one to three hours or, for an increased price and provided it is after 10pm, the entire night.

The rooms all have widly different themes but are all done up exquisitely to make you forget where you are and give the happy couple a few hours in paradise. Think of it like a brief stay in a luxurious Vegas suite. However you tend not to spend much time absorbing your surroundings, except in the final few minutes before leaving.

A love hotel room in Tokyo

They are very discreet as well. Rather than booking a room like at a normal hotel, at the love hotels there is a screen with pictures of each of the themed rooms. If the room is available then its picture is illuminated; If not it will be dark.

No worries about having to make eye contact with a judgmental hotel clerk either -- the front desk is more like a movie theater ticket box. You pay through a small slit in a heavily-fogged glass window.

Believe it or not, these places are incredibly packed, at least when I was there back in 2008 and 2009. Especially on Fridays and Saturdays, if it is past midnight good luck finding an open room at one of the nice love hotels.

 

Capsule Hotels

For those on a budget

Many parts of the big cities offer what is referred to as capsule sleeping, and it is exactly as it sounds. The hotels are full of double-stacked pods and offer a very unique form of no-thrills lodging. You literally rent out a six-foot rectangular cube, crawl in and pull down the drape.

These are mostly geared towards over-worked or inebriated Capsule Hotelbusinessmen who missed the last train home, although a 2010 news article reports that due to the ongoing recession some capsule hotels are reporting that up to 30% of their guests are unemployed or underemployed and were renting capsules by the month. I know that sounds exciting, but don't count on renting one just yet; they are very uncomfortable and I did notice that some have a tendency to discriminate against gaijin, immediately saying they are fully booked or some similar excuse. Even towards the end when I went back with my Japanese girlfriend, she tried to get me in for a night but still without any luck.

Staying For A Longer Visit?

Furnished Apartments Are The Way To Go

While this may not be that different from any other country, I spent the bulk of my time in Japan in a flat I rented in Tokyo. There were many upsides to having a fully furnished apartment but probably the biggest was being in amongst the locals, right in the heart of the action. It is not like staying at the Hilton, which you can count on being full of traveling businessmen and tourists -- precisely the types of people I try to avoid during my adventures.

My flat in Ebisu, Shibuya Ward, Tokyo

With very distinct and diverse districts and wards in Tokyo, it took a considerable amount of research for me to determine where I wanted to call home during my leave of absence from the cubicle life. I chose Shibuya, a ward that is home to several noteable districts including Harajuku, the fashion capital of the world, Yoyogi, famous for Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Shrine, and Ebisu, proudly referred to as the area Tokyo locals love to live. And at the center of it all was the aptly named Shibuya district, a shopping hotspot during the day and party mecca come nightfall. That is why I was really there ;)

I had expected to interact with my neighbors more, but it turned out they all worked and were quite reserved, as is the Japanese way. Regardless, having the flat to bring new friends from the bar back to and otherwise slip into the same life as the local Tokyo residents, that made all the difference in the world. That and the fact the flat came pre-wired with super highspeed wifi, which was convienent even though I hardly made use of it. Oh and can't forget about the maid, which came by once a week.

To top it all off, my key was waiting inside of my mailbox, which was located on the main facade of the building next to the front door and accessible via a code I had been given prior via email. (No need to deal with any bothersome staff.) And when I checked out a couple months later? Simply returned my key to the mailbox.

My flat in Tokyo

Shame I don't have better pics. Browsing my remaining photos it was surprisingly hard to find pictures of it and not people...but back then I was just partying and living for the moment, not thinking about being a travel blogger.

  Have you experienced these or any other different/unique forms of lodging during your travels? Tell us about it!

Cancun has lovely golden beaches lapped by the beautiful turquoise Caribbean Sea and is the perfect climate for tourists wishing to have an amazing beach experience. What makes us reach for the brochures of nearer, less sunny, resorts is our belief that in this gloomy economy we cannot afford the great Cancun family getaway we really want. It does not have to be expensive though. As long as you are careful, a budget-friendly Cancun holiday is perfectly possible.

Your first step should be to choose a package in the right budget range. There are plenty of good but low budget holidays available.

Good timing is important. After Easter you will find most resorts reduce their prices quite considerably. It is a good idea, though, to avoid the jelly fish season, which is usually around the third week of April, if you plan to swim and do not wish to incur medical expenses!

Be aware that it is not usually necessary for a budget conscious family to spend their money on taxis. Cheap and safe public transport is usually readily available, as well as the often free services offered by the hotel or resort.

US dollars can be used in tourist areas throughout Mexico, but take pesos instead. This way, it would be easier for you to purchase souvenirs from the smaller stores who don’t accept foreign currencies. It would also be more convenient to pay the local instructors here if in case you’d want to rent surfboards.

When eating out of the resort you should avoid any restaurants that do not clearly show their prices on the menu, as such establishments may well over charge.

If you have considered going for a Cancun vacation in he past but been put off by the cost, perhaps now is the time to think again. With care you really can enjoy an exotic Mexican holiday for far less than you might imagine.

For more information, please visit our sponsor.

  flickr // fermert

Countries where antiques, honey, and goatskin are just as illegal as firearms and explosives.

As anyone who has done any foreign traveling will tell you, it is a learning experience like no other -- the world's greatest classroom. After all, how could it not be when this great planet supports an endless amount of cultures, each with their own unique food, languages, customs and beliefs. But occasionally it is not the local sights that make you stop and wonder, but their customs and immigration policies.

Below are some of the most intriguing ones that I've found, but I'm also eager to hear of any that you have noticed in your travels. Be sure to share your comments at the bottom

Water bottles are forbidden

Nigeria   Prohibited items include mineral water, soft drinks, "textile fabrics and mosquito netting."

Barbados & Seychelles   "All bags, clothing, and articles made from camouflage material are expressly forbidden."

Bhutan   "Antiques" are expressly prohibited along with explosives and narcotics.

Oman   Visitors are allowed to bring with them "8 tapes for personal use. However, Customs may confiscate tapes. Tapes will be sent to the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture for verification (takes about 1 week)."

Zimbabwe   Honey is prohibited along with other dangerous items like drugs, firearms, and "flick and lockable blade knives."

New Zealand   Visitors are allowed to bring with them musical instruments "provided that the goods are taken from New Zealand upon their departure."

Malaysia   Importation regulations include "max. 3 pieces of new wearing apparel" and "max. 100 matches." Official policy states that "customs duties of 30% of the value are due in case of exceeding the allowed quantities," although I'm uncertain exactly how they would properly enforce this.

Iceland   "Fishing equipment, including waders and rubber boots must be accompanied by a certificate of disinfection issued by an authorized veterinary officer."

South Korea   The final item on South Korea's list of prohibited items is: "products originating from communist countries."

Cuba   Expressly prohibits "Household appliances (freezers with a capacity exceeding seven cubic feet, air conditioners, any type or model of electric accumulators and heating/cooking plates, electric and microwave ovens, any type or size of electric frying pans, electric water heaters and showers, electric irons and toasters)."

Singapore   Since 1992 chewing gum has been banned in Singapore, although in recent years an addendum has been made to allow for an exception on dental hygiene gum.

Saudi Arabia   "Nothing can be imported free of duty as passenger's baggage, except clothes and strictly personal effects. Customs charges a fee on photographic cameras, typewriters, etc. Customs charges may be refunded if these articles are re-exported within 90 days."

Borat

Jamaica   Expressly prohibits "all articles made of goatskin (still bearing fur), e.g. drums, handbags and rugs."

Kazakhstan   Better leave your copy of Borat at home -- "printed matter directed against Kazakhstan" are completely prohibited.

Israel   The following items are permitted by visitors only if they're "for their personal use and provided re-exported: one video camera, one photo camera, one movie camera, one tape recorder and, up to a value of USD 250. These articles are subject to high deposits which can be paid in cash or by VISA credit card only." However some item categories are completely forbidden, such as all "fruits and vegetables from the African continent."

Hungary   Visitors are forbidden from exporting any "children and baby articles, underware, kitchen articles," among other less-humorous items.

Kenya   High on the banned list here is "imitation firearms, childrens' toy pistols, etc," but this is actually not that surprising if you think about it.

Fiji   "Pilgrims returning to Fiji with holy water should comply with the following requirements. The water must be: limited to one pint; and - carried in hermetically sealed containers from the country of origin; and - certified by a competent authority to be sterile and free from cholera, typhoid, and paratyphoid germs. The water is impounded for 21 days at Nadi airport if this certificate is not available." This actually raises more questions than it answers -- at least for me.

Indonesia   Visitors may only bring (video) cameras, portable radio cassette recorder, binoculars and sport equipment into the country as long as they are also exported upon their departure. However both "cordless telephones" and "Chinese medicines and printings" are expressly forbidden alonside such obvious items as narcotics and firearms.

Iran   "Holding alcoholic beverages and old books or magazines is prohibited."

Cote d'Ivoire   "For personal use only passengers are allowed to import a video camera. The camera must be declared on arrival and a deposit must be paid, which will be returned to the passenger upon departure. Video cassettes are subject to customs duties."

China   Visitors may freely import all vegetables except for egg plants, red peppers, and tomatoes.

Lativia   All "pieces of art older than 50 years must hold permission from Latvian authorities." I can understand limiting the exportation of art, but the importation...huh?

Mmmmm...pork and beer ;)

Lithuania   "Electric fishing equipment" is prohibited unless permits have been obtained from the government.

Maldives   "Alcoholic beverages, pork and pork products are restricted items and are only permitted to be imported with a prior obtained permit. Any such items imported without a permit will be confiscated and destroyed."

Afghanistan   "The import of film cameras is only possible with a licence."

Kuwait   Visitors are not allowed to bring with them any "mineral water."

Mauritius   Prohibited items include "chewing tobacco."

Angola   Visitors are not allowed to bring with them any postal stamps.

Pakistan   "Warning: import of alcoholic beverages is strictly prohibited for both residents and non-residents regardless of their nationality." Emphasis included on official site so this must be of great national concern.

  Quotations from the International Air Transport Association (IATA)

Have you encountered any strange customs or airport regulations? Maybe you've even gotten lucky sneaking something past? ;)

  Share you comments below, I'm eager to hear your thoughts and experiences with customs.

Located on the island of Oahu, Diamond Head is a young but extinct volcano that makes for a fantastic and inexpensive day trip. Entering into the crater through a large tunnel in one side of the volcano wall, immediately the place just opens up and the sky is revealed around you. One small corner of the interior is a former military base / current government broadcasting station and is therefore off-limits to the public, but all the rest is free reign.

  Random Trivia Fact   Several scenes from Lost were filmed both on Diamond Head and inside the military base. In fact the entire series was filmed on location all around Oahu. Although I never watched the show somehow still remember being told those factoids while I was there.

From the interior plains you can hike up the winding trail all the way up to a couple viewing stations located up top, giving you an impressive view of the coastline and ocean.

View looking down on the trail while hiking up Diamond Head volanco in Hawaii

The path is quite deceptive looking. Although it starts off fairly straight and at a very gradual slope, before long the pavement turns to a stone path and the path then eventually turns to all dirt. Meanwhile the slope increases and the winding back-and-forth begins. Definitely bring some water with you.

Once you get closer to the top you have several staircases to climb and even pass through a dark tunnel before climbing a metal circular staircase (a la lighthouse style) which is -- you guess it -- also dark.

The entire hike takes only about an hour each way and is well worth the visit. From up top you can see Waikiki and a nice portion of the rest of the island. Makes for an awesome spot to take panoramic photos of the island.

View from Diamond Head volanco in Hawaii, United States

However as Diamond Head is quite close to Waikiki beach and thus countless resorts, there is always a flood of tourists there. But it's not too bad... where in Hawaii is there not a flood of tourists?

  Have you hiked Diamond Head or any of the other Hawaiian volcanoes? Would you do it?

  flickr // thegirlsny alan-light

Cuba has been on my travel list for a few years now. When my buddy Jared and I were backpacking through Central America I tried to convince him we could fly into Cuba for a week, but he was too scared of getting in trouble. If you are American (yes, I'm guilty as charged), then the trick is to fly into Cuba from Central America. Do not try and fly directly into Cuba from the United States, Mexico, or Canada, as TSA officials are prevalent and customs officials will recognize that you should not be there. But if you fly into Havana from somewhere like Costa Rica, Guatemala, or Panama, then you are golden. Plenty of Americans have done it already. It is not the Cuban authorities you need to worry about, but rather the American ones. Cuba is happy just to receive our tourist money, they don't ask many questions.

Classic taxi in Havana
Click photo to enlarge

source: WikiMedia

Now be honest, doesn't Cuba interest you, at least a little? Think of those iconic Havana nights back in the 1920s and again during '50s, when Havana was the Paris of the Americas and one of Frank Sinatra's favorite hotspots... Think about the Havana Conference, one of the biggest ever mob family meetings in history, one that dictated mob policies for the ensuing decades... Think of all the 1950s cars used as taxis still to this day thanks to the US trade embargo...

Now can you honestly still say that you
don't have at least a little interest in Cuba?

As I already regret not seeing North Korea before Kim Jong-Il died, I vowed back then not to make that mistake twice; Without a doubt I had planned to visit Cuba during 2012, before Castro gets any older. Of course here is in 2013 now and I still haven't made it...but I will! The reason I wanted to visit both countries before their leaders died is not due to any form of support or approval towards the respective leaders of those two natiions, but because I worry that as those two countries both exist in such a delicate balance of communism and tourism, there is no telling what could happen once power shifts. Fidel Castro has been the figurehead of the island nation for almost 50 years, although he retired in 2008, I'm sure his continued existence is part of the glue that holds Cuba together.

Havana, Cuba
Havana, capital of Cuba

In the early 1960s, following America's ban on Cuba tourism and the systematic government shutdown of many popular nightclubs and gambling halls associated with illegal activities, Cuba's tourism industry came to a screeching halt. In was not until the early 1990s that the numbers began to improve. Even so, with 80% of pre-embargo tourists coming from the United States, it is hard to imagine Havana ever seeing such glory days ago without a change in American policy.

Nowadays over two million visitors a year grace the Cuban ground, most notably vacationers from Canada, Mexico, and all over Europe. As a matter-of-fact, tourism policies and general attitudes towards tourists have improved leaps and bounds, even more so in the last decade! Yes, truly Cuba is once again -- for the third time, actually -- officially become an up-and-coming tourist destination, with statistics improving every year.

The country even offers a variety of both budget and luxury accommodations. Plus, thanks to its countless museums Havana is home to many random and interesting pieces of history from all over the world. One of the more surprising is the Museo Napoliónico, which includes one of Napoleon’s teeth and the general’s death mask. And it should be no surprise that Ernest Hemingway's former house (and yes, even boat) are now a museum as well.

Varadero, Cuba
Off the coast of Varadero. Click photograph to enlarge.

Yes, Havana has a lot to offer, but there is more to Cuba than just that bustling metropolis. Just east of Havana is Varadero, an upper-class tourist town full of beaches that is home to many resorts, as well as the country's only golf course. The western side of Cuba is the center of the cigar industry, particularly the city of Pinar del Rio. There is Trinidad, a famous World Heritage Site, and Santa Clara, both located in central Cuba. And in the far east of Cuba you can find Baracoa and Santiago de Cuba, two other cities with huge historical importance.

If you find yourself in a small town as the day is drawing to a close, it should be no trouble at all to find a "casa particular" or private house for the night. Cuban people are known for being very friendly and what better way to get a firsthand experience in the culture and local life. Electricity can be spotty however, but as with everything else, there have been great improvements since 2008.

Cuba as it currently stands is a flower about to bloom, an ideal travel blogger's mecca that features just enough tourists to bring the country to life without spoiling or tarnishing it. And 2013 is the perfect year to visit there before the word gets out and the masses start flooding in. Besides, now is also a fantastic time to see the Cuba of the 21st century before it looses its 20th century appeal. After all, those taxis won't run forever! (The new wave has already started and trust me, they are not so iconic-looking ugghh.)

  So, to all you Americans reading this: would you attempt a trip to Cuba without telling the US government?

Check out the map below for some of the easiest cities to visit in Costa Rica if you only have a short time. Each of the markers is complete with information on what all that particular city offers.


View Places To Visit In Costa Rica in a larger map

  Which one of these Costa Rican cities was your favorite and why? Tell us below!

Login to The HoliDaze to submit articles and comments or register your blog.