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!

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 Toilet Paper Holder

The amazing Japanese toilet paper roll 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 Canada.

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."

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.

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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!


Pat Quackenbush

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.

 


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

An Unforgettable Shawnee Storytelling

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.

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.

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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.


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.

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

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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.

Have you experienced the region? What were your favorite outdoor adventures?

Share your comments below!

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 the 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.

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.

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.

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?

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!

Now this is truly a unique sight like no other! Everyone has seen algae, that icky often green stuff that grows in water all over the world — but have you ever seen rainbow-colored algae? That is what happens for a brief period every year at a remote river in Colombia, South America.

The Caño Cristales River located high in the Serrania de la Macarena Mountains is one that most travelers have never even heard of. It’s location is so remote that the river does not even have any fish and you can only get there after a long trek via foot or donkey! But that is not all, it gets trickier...

This multicolored algae occurs only during the brief period in between the wet and dry seasons, usually in September or October. At that time, for only a week or two at the absolute tops, all the algae on the rocks of the rivers turns a rainbow of colors — and thanks to the clear river water visitors can get a perfect view!

Rainbow colored algae at Caño Cristales River in a remote part of the Colombian mountains
Show up at the wrong time though and all you see is boring old green...

I tentatively plan on joining friends in Peru in September, but I told him I would only come visit him on one condition: if we can travel to neighboring Colombia and spend a few days camping and relaxing at the Caño Cristales River. This is something I absolutely have to see with my own eyes, even if it means staying up in the mountains for two or three weeks, and that is why Caño Cristales River is #40 on the HoliDaze Ultimate Travel Blogger's Bucket List (TBBL for short).

  What do you think, pretty wild huh? Would you trek up the mountain to check it out? Let's hear your comments!

Alcohol consumption is a popular social activity in a variety countries all over this world, however few cities take it to the level that the residents of Tokyo do. From hard liquor sold around-the-clock in corner stores to clubs whose closing time is not until "the last person leaves," this mega-metropolis has a decidedly care-free attitude toward drinking. Just as the local citizens love their cigarettes, it should come as no surprise that they also love their fermented beverages -- more so than any other country I have seen in this corner of the world. Take China, for example: drinking is not immensely popular among the locals, and their big holiday, Chinese New Year, is a time most often spent with the family, not an excuse to go out drinking.

Gigantic, Multiple-Floor Clubs Lure In The Young Local Crowds

The Tokyo club scene rocks!
No, this isn't the party...just the pre-party.

The same cannot be said about Japan. They love their spirits be it holiday, weekday, or weekend! Beer, sake, wine, liquor, all are enjoyed in ample quantities. That fact is further re-inforced by the single biggest difference between drinking in Tokyo and drinking Stateside... Are you ready for this one? There is no official closing time! Forget that 2am cutoff we have in the States, that is usually just when things are getting good but then ol' Johnny Q Bartender just has to go slap on the ugly lights as he gives you the ol' "You don't have to go home but you can't stay here" line.

Sail past the 4am alcohol-cutoff that NYC residents love to brag about as well, none of those early nights here in Tokyo. As the bulk of large Tokyo clubs do not open their doors until 11pm or midnight, it will often be 2 or maybe 3am before the place really gets packed. Add in the fact that the majority of these venues stay open as long as there is a profit to be made and that frequently results in it being 5-6-7am before you stumble out into the morning sun, momentarily confused as to why it is so damn bright in the middle of the night. It is only the sobering sight of hordes of businessmen dressed in identical black suits scurrying along every which direction that makes you realize that you are now a part of the Tokyo morning rush-hour. Trains are running again and packed full of individuals en route to work alongside others desperate to crawl into bed before the hangover hits. But the night does not always stop here...

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Another key difference regarding alcohol laws was not initially apparent until you find yourself leaving one of these clubs at sunrise with no desire to end the party. This is what I dubbed the memory-maker — or for some it was usually more of a memory-eraser.

Yes, believe it or not in Tokyo you can purchase alcohol 24/7 — that's right, beer, wine, even hard liquor! The easiest place to purchase it is from Lawson corner stores that are located on nearly every block. Walk fifty paces, grab a little tray of fresh sushi, maybe some ramen too, oh and what else did I need..? Ahhh yes a liter of 12yr Yamazaki, Japan's premiere whisky. (Japanese whisky is most similar to Scotch whisky and therefore contains no 'e')

Cheers in Tokyo

Although it may sound as though Tokyo and its' nightlife is a sort of alcohol-heaven, make sure that your wallet can take the hit as nothing in or around the city is cheap. Since Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world to call home, it should be no surprise that everything else in the city is expensive, including the clubs. As with most things you get what you pay for and none of these clubs disappoint, just do not be surprised to see the club cover charges are ¥3000-4000 (roughly $35-45 USD) just to step foot in the door. Drinks cost an average of ¥800-1000 ($10-12 USD). Most venues include a token for one free drink upon paying the cover but I quickly learned one important thing: when redeeming the free drink token, do not wave it around when placing your drink order or you may end up with a weak drink. Instead wait until the bartender places the drink in front of you to reveal the token.
  Curiosity piqued yet? It should be. Read more~   the dazzling Tokyo club scene

I Do Believe There Is A Bar Every 40 Metres Or Less!

Beer, wine, and mixed drinks at the bars are generally slightly less expensive than inside the clubs, not to mention there is no hefty cover charge. Another financial upside is the fact that since tipping in Japan is actually considered very offensive, need to worry about adding in a ¥200 tip with each drink. It is almost like saying that you are above the person being tipped and thus implying that they are inferior and need your assistance. Besides, as the cost of living in the city is anything but cheap, employees in Tokyo are already paid well-enough to free them from any reliance on tips. This proud self-reliance and unwillingness to accept hand-outs is deeply entwined with their culture and I believe helps explain the almost complete lack of homeless people. It is also pretty damn admirable, if I do say so myself.

Good friends and good drinks in Tokyo, Japan

There is only one place which I can recall that may have had a tip jar on the bar was ShibuyaNUTS — and because I know you are curious, 'NUTS' stands from the Next Underground Techno Scene. Every few weeks I would pop in for a couple hours during NUTS' weekly Sunday night ReggaeFest and it wasn't long before I had made friends with one of the young bartenders. Realizing that I prefered my whisky half-and-half with 7Up (never Coke), he made sure to start pouring my drinks with a wicked heavy hand. In return I never bothered to take my change. Whether it made it into his pocket or the tip jar that may not have even existed, I haven't the faintest idea and nor do I care. All I know is that being a young cat (or whatever the reason may have been) he certainly not offended in the slightest about accepting extra cash from me.

The Classic Charlie Brown Football Gag
Replace poor Charlie Brown's body with mine and
swap Lucy out for the lower portion of that staircase

Yup, that's exactly how it happened!

(And a good reason why I need a cameraman to follow me around)

But this much I do remember: one night that bartender got me so damn drunk that I took not one, not two, but three nasty falls during my drunken stumble back to my flat. On the positive side two of these falls were quite hilarious, if I do say so myself. Luckily this was while Jared was in town, so he was able to get a couple pictures of my injuries.

  Remember the classic Charlie Brown football gag where Lucy lifts the ball up precisely as Charlie goes to kick it and his momentum causes him to fly up into the air, feet up over head before slamming back down to the ground?

Well that my friends is exactly what happened to me. That night after leaving ShibuyaNUTS I was descending rain-covered steps on the far side of a pedestrian walkway over a busy intersection when one of my feet slipped due to my rapid multiple-steps-at-once pace combined with — c'mon, let's face it — my high level of inebriation. As that foot flew past its anticipated step my forward momentum carried me out off the stairs and forward thru the air, both feet rising up nearly level with my head as I continued to sail past the last remaining eight or so steps. My spine hit the sidewalk first followed a split-second later by a resounding thud as the back of my head bounced against the concrete a mere couple inches from the lowest step on the staircase.

  Jared took photos of my injuries after we returned to the flat. I still have those scars to this very day, too.

Derek Freal got injured while drunk in Tokyo

Thankfully I was considerably drunk and did not initially feel much pain. After struggling to my feet I managed to follow that spectacular show up with two more subsequent self-induced falls in as many minutes. One was chest-first (resulting in cuts to my right hand, wrist, and arm) and the other a second blow to the back of my skull yet again. As you can see in the pictures, rather than clean my wounds I decided to pass out bleeding. Not my brightest idea, especially considering the wound on the back of my head. I had to throw away that pillow the next morning.

Whisky from the depression era!

Personally, I had never before in all my life and certainly never since done so much daily drinking over not just a week or two but multiple months. The month that Jared was here visiting me was the worst, out in the clubs all night and then grabbing a bottle afterwards to continue the party with local friends. But even once he left and I hooked up with Mayu, my Japanese cougar, we started to frequent the more sophisticated and upscale places which she was used to. Despite the prices increasing dramatically that did little if anything deter our alcohol consumption. She and I From fancy restaurants owned by Japanese celebrities and random upscale bars, many of these were places I would never have found or never been able to gain access as a lone gaijin wandering aimlessly. One of the upscale whisky bars we visited in Hiroo even had a bottle of whisky from the Prohibition-era. That is me with said bottle on the right.

I firmly believe that anyone who enjoys a good night out on the town should consider visiting Tokyo while they are still young and able enough to survive an entire night of drinking. Go for the full experience and trust me, you will have a memorable time.

Ready For Another
Unexpected Surprise?

Despite the relentless drinking that many locals engage in, never once in my three months did I observe a single fight or even any minor disagreements between friends or lovers. Nothing even remotely close. Not like back Stateside, where disputes or fights occur with an all-too-common frequency at the slightest provocation. Of course a couple friends have recently pointed out the fact that my Japanese is limited at best, so how can I accurately judge what I heard? Regardless of the language, words themselves are but a mere 10% of the actual act of communication. The real message lies not exactly with the wording but in the body language, pitch, tone, and general context of the speaker, and to a lesser extent in the reaction of the listener. In all my people-watching never once was there anything resembling animosity. Talk about refreshing! Even random strangers are friendly and respectful, albeit sometimes a little shy. What an amazing culture! I love everything about you Japan.

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan
Drunkards' Alley is actually two parallel alleys jam-packed with
dozens of miniature bars, the biggest only about 10'x10'

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

No matter where you may be in Tokyo the ambiance is always pleasant. Streets are clean and every public trash can is divided into sections for recycling and compost. Even the tiniest bars are clean and well-maintained, another stark contrast to the US. And believe me, I did plenty of drinking in these hole-in-the-wall bars. I even found a full neighborhood of nothing but miniature bars! It was so amazing that I would end up at least popping my head in for a few minutes on an almost nightly basis as a sort of warmup before our nightly loop along the drinking circuit. The neighborhood is called Nonbeiyokocho and is also known as Drunkards' Alley or the Alley of the Drunkards (pictured on the left).

  If you are eager to enjoy a beer in one of the world's smallest bars or looking to meet some great people and make new friends, well then this is the spot! I cannot stress that enough.

I have been informed by several individuals over the years — although I have yet to confirm this one personally — that if you get too drunk and happen to pass out on a street corner during a cold night, someone walking by will take off their jacket to cover you before continuing on their way, sans jacket. Now c'mon, is that not incredible!?! Where else in the world would someone, especially a stranger, demonstrate such compassion for an unknown individual? Not just a stranger but a passed out drunk person that could well be a vagrant. Nowhere but Japan! That is but a small part of what makes this such a unique and unparallel country. (Kind of wish I had tested it during my injury night and just passed out laying there on the sidewalk, bleeding)

Drinking with friends at a darts bar in the Ebisu ward of Tokyo, Japan

Included below are some random pictures from an assortment of my many drunken nights in Tokyo. Photography is strictly forbidden inside all the clubs, so all my photos come from various bars. However, just below this paragraph you will notice a large photofrom inside of random Shibuya club. Towards the end of my trip I met this fantastic local "businessman" at Non. Despite the fact he would never elaborate any more about his work, he was still a very worldly person to spoke with and we had a lot of great conversations. We also went to a lot of fun clubs and parties together on a variety of different nights. Not only did this mysterious gentleman always get us into the clubs via the back door — no cover charge, no security search — but the staff also kindly looked the other way whenever Shige would break any of the rules, such as taking flash photos inside.

Shibuya friends
Oh man this picture tells a thousand stories...if you know how to read it ;)

Our mysterious friend is at the forefront alongside the Japanese wrapper whose private, closed-club birthday party we were currently attending (I cannot believe I have forgotten his name!). On the far right is one of the dudes from the rapper's posse, in the back middle is my drunk ass, and on the far left is my sometimes traveling buddy Jared.

Even more impressive than backdoor access to everywhere when with him was the fact that regardless of where we went, steady streams of people were slowly yet continuously approaching Shige and bow to show respect. Unfortunately because any exchanges would be spoken quickly, quietly, and in Japanese, I was never able to pinpoint why everyone respected him. The plot thickens... One evening Jared and I had accompanied Shige to one of his flats in a dark corner of Shibuya, where among other things he showed us a collection of enlarged photographs featuring him with Hugh Hefner and three bunnies. Others photos were with a variety of American and European celebrities, mostly actors. There was even one photograph with him and the old man from Orange County Choppers, so I would be willing to wager a bet that stashed somewhere in this great city Shige also has a custom NY chopper.

Lots of beer on tap in Tokyo, Japan

After returning to Tokyo from the Philippines was when Jared flew back home and I began dating Mayu. One evening I brought her along for dinner with Shige. Big mistake. Mayu behaved strangely and was quite hesitant to join in our conversation. Despite the limited time I had known her I could tell she was being uncharacteristically silent. Only later that night did I find out the reason why: she squeeked out something about him being Yakuza and then would never speak another peep about it or even join me if she knew that my "Japanese father" would be there. Uncertain of Shige's reaction, I never asked him myself — although that certainly would have explained a whole helluva lot!

And That My Friends Is Tokyo — A City Where Anything Is Possible!

  Been to Japan? What did you think about the culture, the nightlife? Share your thoughts below!
  Maybe you even recognize the rapper from my photo or possibly know his name? I feel like that could even possibly be it on his hand...?? If you know, please let me know. Thanks!

Even Once The Party Is Over, Tokyo Still Leaves You Impressed

Besides Booze, The World's Most Successful Metropolis Is Also Host To An Abundance
Of Other Surprising And Often-Unexpected Features, Especially For First-Time Visitors

Given that Tokyo is home to a staggering 36.9 million residents, it should be downright shocking that the world's most populated metropolis does not suffer from those key issues plaguing nearly every other metropolis with a multi-million population: crime, pollution, trash, traffic, a homeless population, sections of deteriorating infrastructure, even a public disdain for strangers or the inability of the local government to properly streamline important functions such as emergency medical services or public transportation. However I am proud to say that amazingly Tokyo has all of those items well under control. The only one that could even remotely be considered to have room for improvement is the traffic, and that is debatable.

Drunk Derek Freal always knows how to wow the ladies, even in Tokyo, Japan when he doesn't speak the language

Due to the efficiency and reliability of the Tokyo metro system, combined with the high prices and taxes for personal vehicles, only the wealthiest of businessmen drive. As such often the only cars on the roads alongside the taxis and delivery drivers are sparkling new Audis and Mercedes that appear to have just rolled off the showroom floor only minutes before. The miniscule proportion of private commuters in local traffic is just not a serious issue -- I've sat through worse in dozens of cities, including my hometown of Austin, Texas — and the population of that entire greater metropolis region is not even a paltry 4% of Tokyo's. Further illustrating the significance of these amazing achievements is evidenced by the fact that Tokyo has a harmonious, realitvely efficient, and overall smooth-running city despite the fact that the region is not only located in an earthquake hotspot and plagued year-round but also boasts a population that is a whopping 75% greater than even its closest competition, Delhi. That is an extra 15 million people more or the entire population of Beijing!

Drinking in Tokyo, Japan

Toss in some of the best cuisine anywhere, a one-of-a-kind fashion industry, amazing shopping, diverse districts that are home to never-ending sights, and a vibrant, respectful, and deeply historic culture...

Well now that my friends that is my beloved Tokyo! You would be hard-pressed to find a better all-around combination of technology and efficiency anywhere. On the depressing day three years ago that I said goodbye to my flat in Ebisu and moved back Stateside I swore to return once I had traveled the globe to the point of exhaustion and start a family there.

  I made this map while in Ebisu to help familiarize myself with my new home and the local neighborhood. Includes are mostly clubs and bars in the Shibuya/Ebisu area, making it a perfect fit with this article. Plus there are also a few extra shopping locations, the closest 24/7 ATM that accepts all foreign cards, and maybe even a hidden restaurant or two. Oh yes, and the ex's flat. Don't go there.

{jumi [*5][shibuya]}

  So let's hear it! What are your thoughts on Tokyo? Could you keep up with the local rate of alcohol consumption without getting cirrhosis of the liver? Share your thoughts below!

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