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!

After experiencing fresh, truly authentic Japanese food, you will never be able go back to eating the bastardized version of it at most restaurants outside of Japan.

I am really going to miss the food here more than anything. It does not even compare to the sushi back home, way different and so much better. The majority of the sushi you find in America is presented in customized into a variety of different sushi rolls, which of course are further garnished with Americanized additions like guacamole and cream cheese. In all actuality I was very surprised to not seen a single long sushi roll here like you would find at any sushi restaurant back stateside. 90% of sushi here in Tokyo is just a two-inch section of rich with a huge piece of raw fish on top, nothing else, that's it. You flip it upside down so that the rice is on top of the fish, dip the fish in soy sauce, and then enjoy.

  Proper soy sauce etiquette is key. Only a tiny bit is needed to enhance sushi. Excessive use, for example soaking, is very disrespectful to the chef as it implies that the original flavors were no good and had to be overpowered.

There are a couple individual rolls that I have found here, but they are always made one at a time and wrapped in seaweed. Inside you will find a little bit of rice and some raw fish — that's it, no other garnishment of any type. Very, very, very different from American sushi, which has all that mayonnaise and avocado and all sorts of other over-the-top additions and are rolled up into 10- and 12-slice rolls. But wow it is so much better! And better for you too.

Eating sushi in Tokyo

And then there are things you will never find in the States, like a giant bowl of squid soup. It is brought out and everyone at the table eats from it. Its just straight sliced squid and squid rings in a simmering brown sauce. But this sauce they boil it in is somehow even better than the squid itself! Mmmmm so amazing, I love it all! Well, except the octopus. The tentacles are no problem, we ate a bunch of squid with plenty of tentacles, but the suckers on the octopus are what get you. Just the texture of them... Wow I get chills just thinking about it. Once was enough. Never again.

  WASABI 101   Real wasabi only grows along stream beds in the mountain river valleys of Japan, no where else on Earth, is very difficult to cultivate and therefore also very expensive, up to $100/lb. As a result it can be an arduous task to locate real wasabi outside of Japan. In America your only hope would be to try the high-end specialty grocers. However, just because the package says it is real wasabi that does not mean a thing, so be smart!. Import companies as well as restaurants in the United States use a combination of horseradish, mustard, starch and green food coloring to create the "wanna-sabi" which you thought you had been eating all of these years. Although there is a slight taste similarity between the real and fake, it is remarkably easy to tell the difference. If you ever had real wasabi, you could spot the fake stuff immediately.

Delicious ramen noodles in Tokyo

Equally tantalizing was the ramen here; it is in a whole different league than what normal Americans would consider "ramen." That shit they call ramen in the grocery stores back home would not be fit for someone's dog here in Japan. Even the gas station ramen is light-years ahead Maruchan Ramen. Plus then they have all sorts of ramen houses, some where you can actually see the noodles being made and others where you pay a vending machine and have your bowl slide out a window. Mmmm fantastic, every single one of them! And as we found, going out for ramen is a common 4am after-club pastime.

Moving on, there is also something called yakisoba that I had never heard of before. Turns out it was originally a Chinese recipe but has since become highly integrated into Japanese culture. Yakisoba is kind of like ramen, a bowl of wheat-based noodles combined with li'l chunks of pork, carrots, cabbage, onions, salt, pepper, and — of course — yakisoba sauce. These Yakisoba shops are located all over.

Oh and don't even get me started on the miso soup, something seemingly that simple is on a-whole-nother level here in Japan than as that in America — it's superb! I am bringing back make-at-home ramen kits from this local grocery store that Mayu took me too. We got all sorts of stuff there, authentic sauces and spices, stuff I've never even seen or heard of coming here. Mmmmm...

  Bad News America: The Japanese Have Made A Better Cheeseburger Than Us

Freshness Burger
Hands-down the most amazing cheeseburger I have ever tasted! Seriously, better than any Stateside burger I've found, even $15 Kobe burgers and other expensive exotics.

I know this will sound bad but folks do you realize that one Japanese restaurant — chain restaurant, at that — has even managed to make a better burger than us? I was shocked myself, as were my tastebuds. I mean the burger is an American claim-to-fame, along with ribs and BBQ. I know, I know, what I am saying may be a little hard to swallow for some of you, but just ask Jared and he will back me up, he experienced it too.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love food. While I've worked up to a more refined pallet now, I have definitely eaten plenty of shit in the past (I won't even try and sugarcoat it). Along the way I have tried burgers from nearly every state in the US, whether fast food chain (gag), little mom-and-pop-type shops like Burger Tex or Dan's, full-fledged restaurants like Red Robin or Mighty Fine or Carls Jr, and even chef-acclaimed five-star restaurants such as Perry's Steakhouse. Yet regretfully none of them can hold a candle to Freshness Burger, which is actually not one local restaurant but a fairly popular chain here in Japan. Last count puts it at 189 locations in this country and 20 in South Korea. However I highly suspect that the business was started by an American, partially due to the décor and music but also because deep down inside part of me still believes that whoever created this magical burger absolutely has to be American. Regardless, this restaurant chains appears to be doing well and their burgers seem equally loved among the local Japanese people as well!

My custom double-patty double-cheese Freshness Burger
My custom double-patty double-cheese Freshness Burger...mmmmm

Let me tell you, they make a mean cheeseburger. For two or three hours after your meal the taste continues to linger ever so tantalizingly in your mouth and if you are lucky and manage to burp — hehehe — well it is absolutely fantastic, like eating a second burger without the calories! Jared and I accidentally stumbled upon a Freshness Burger one day in Shibuya and from then it was on. Although I mostly ate nothing but local Japanese cuisine, once every few weeks I would eat anything not fish and not Japanese. Most of the time it was Freshness Burger. Even when it was all said and done, on my very last afternoon in Tokyo with Mayu, she and I stopped by a Freshness Burger on the way to the express train to the airport.

Freshness Burger is so far the ONLY fast food establishments that I have ever had the pleasure of eating at where the food comes to you looking exactly as it does in the picture. Yes, amazing isn't it? It is almost too good to be true, both look-wise and taste-wise, and OH how it just melts in the mouth. Apparently from what I have found the hamburger patties at all the Freshness Burgers are made from Kobe beef. McDonald's, on the other hand, uses pork exported from the US* Thanks to all our hormones and genetic engineering, the rest of the world does not want our meat. Only US restaurant chains located on foreign soil import our meat.

USA Meat Exportation Statistics

* If you know anything about USA exports and/or USA meat, you should know that American meat is unpopular around the world, even straight-out renounced in Europe. Yes, the exact same "food" many Americans eat daily. Mexico imports more than anywhere else, and when combined with Canada, the number two importer, their combined total accounts for roughly 2/3rd's of all US meat exports worldwide. Hell, in Jan 2009 the US exported worldwide only $180,000 worth of meat. By comparison, that's the amount your local grocery store goes through in less than a month! All US meat imported to Japan is solely for use by McDonald's corp and other American chains. I suspect as much is true in most of these other countries on the list — except for Mexico and Canada obviously. It's due to our hormone-overloaded genetically modified food system currently in place that the rest of the world prefers meat from elsewhere...as do I.

Anyway, I am getting distracted. The point is this: anyone who knows me will tell you that I do not eat seafood, I can't even stand the smell of simple things like shrimp. But for some reason, Japanese seafood is different. I love it all! Even stuff you would never in a million years see me eat, like squid soup and several other things that I would actually prefer not to know what they were, well I did it all while in Japan. Any and all Japanese seafood in America has been Americanized, no matter how authentic they try to portray it, trust me. But regardless of what you like, you can find something appealing here in Japan.

  Have you experienced true Japanese cuisine? What about it surprised or impressed you the most? How did it differ from Japanese food back home? Share your thoughts below!

If you should find yourself near Arenal Volcano, be sure that you visit Venado Cave, which is located about a 45-min van-ride south of La Fortuna. Officially known in the cave registry under its original local Indian name, Caverna Gabinarraca (well, what has been explored so far) consists of over 2,700 meters and is believed to have been formed about 20 million years ago.

Although these caves were not discovered until 1945 it was almost 30 years later before any extensive exploration was done. Even to this day there are still unexplored portions, as you can see from the map below.

Map of Venado Cave in Costa Rica

Any of the local La Fortna hostels / hotels / resorts / excursion companies can arrange it for you once you are in town. Hell, they will all be fighting for your business, so don’t waste time and money and extra fees pre-booking ANY excursions online. We booked through our hostel Arenal Backpackers Resort and paid $50/person despite hearing online that others were being charged as much as $70 each. Another blogger managed to arrange transportation both ways via pirate taxi, acquire supplies and pay their tour guide all for a grand total of $30 for his entire group. However that enterprising young chap was unable to fully enjoy his part in the expedition, as he was forced to translate for the rest of his group.

Bats in the Venado Caves
Bats, lots and lots of bats. Click to enlarge.

The drive up there is only 15 miles or so but will probably take around 45 minutes or so given the road quality towards the end. The final segment is slow going but then the home stretch is a glorified dirt rut and thus super-slow going. It is a pleasent Alajuela drive though, up through farm country and then past a couple small villages, and provides you with an opportunity to see a variety small houses and farms.

After arrival — well, technically upon signing of the waiver — you are provided with rubber boots and a hardhat with attached light. Just a forewarning: those who have a shoe size above 12 (US mens) may have some difficulty here. I am a size 13/14 depending upon the brand and only with water to help lubricate and the assistance of an employee were we finally able to force my boots on one at a time. They were painfully uncomfortable the entire expedition too, but I survived. Once everyone was suited up it was a brief hike past a field of cows and down the trail on into the valley below, where the first cave entrance lies in wait. All the while we struggled to listen as our guide described the history of the cave system. I was the first person behind our guide and as such was the only one able to catch more than the occasional word, so for this expedition try to get the guide with the loud booming voice if possible!

Speaking with our tour guide before entering the Venado Caves of La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Upon reaching the entrance we paused to listen to the stereotypical introduction and warning spiel from our guide, as well as information on what type of creatures we could expect to see once inside. Basically this cave includes the usual spiders, bats, and bugs, but thanks to the water there is also an assortment of fish, crabs, frogs, and other small forms of aquatic life.

Walking through the Venado Caves of La Fortuna, Costa Rica

From the first few seconds in all the way until the end, this cave was basically non-stop amazement. I've explored a couple cave systems before but this one by far was the best! First off, they failed to mention just how much water you really see. From the start you are standing in 6-12 inches and the water level only goes up from there. Several times you are fully submerged and swimming to the next cavern. It was exciting and a lot of fun, to say the least. Definitely beat out traditional dry spelunking.

Stuck in the Venado Caves!
My buddy Jared got stuck, I laughed.

Guess who got stuck thirty seconds later?   Yup, me.

The whole thing took about an hour-and-a-half and included lots of waterfalls, stalactites, bats, and other interesting shit. Our guide showed us some interesting rocks that appear solid but are actually luminescent when hit with a flashlight, as well as others that sounded like metal when tapped (if only I could remember what they were called).

But there are also several crawl spaces that you need to make it through, so I will warn you with this: if you are taller than my 6'2" and/or weigh more than 250lbs, you probably should avoid this excursion. Even if you could make it through all the spaces, trust me, it will not be an enjoyable squeeze. I'm tall and relatively thin yet there was this one part in particular which I barely made it through.

Additionally, the caves do close periodically due to high water levels, primarily after heavy rainfalls during the wet season.

  Below are a few photos from our expedition. Been spelunking before? What is your favorite cave system?

Derek got stuck in the Venado Caves in Costa Rica

Inside the Venado Caves of La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Inside the Venado Caves of La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Kim holding a large spider at the Venado Cave in Costa Rica

Large sections of the Venado Caves are submerged and require swimming through

  Have you been to the Venado Caves before? Know of any other hidden sights worth visiting that are nearby? Share your thoughts with us!

Are you a fan of haunted places? Do you have nerves of steel? Well then, this place may be just for you -- if you also do not mind facing legal action in a foreign country. That's right, like with other haunted places this one has no shortage of myths and ghost stories, but unlike other places this one is so haunted the government of India has made it illegal to enter the grounds. I'm dead-serious. Apparently anyone who has been out past sunrise in the ruined town of Bhangarh, also known as Bhangarh Fort, has never returned alive.

The haunted Bhangarh Fort in India is not far from Jaipur

The Bhangarh Fort Warning Sign

Now there is a sign posted warning people away under threat of legal action. However the sign is not posted in front of Bhangarh as you might suspect but rather posted a safe distance away -- on the sacred grounds of a nearby temple.

Translated, The Sign Reads:

The Government of India
The Archeological Survey of India, Bhangarh


Important warning:
1. Entering the borders of Bhangarh before sunrise and after sunset is strictly prohibited.
2. Shepherds and woodcutters who enter Bhangarh area will face legal action.
3. The Kewda or Pandanus trees found in Bhangarh area belong to the Archaeology Survey of India. Is it forbidden to subject this tree to any kind of harm.
Note: Anyone flouting of the rules mentioned above will face legal action.

By order
Supervisor, Archaelogical Survey Board

Bhangarh was established in 1573 (Vikram Samvat calendar year 1631) and at its peak had a population of just over 10,000 inhabitants. But starting with the death of the ruler in 1630 (VS 1688), population began to decline and things just continued downhill from there. The last known inhabitants left in 1783 (VS 1840) supposedly vacated overnight.

As far as what exactly makes Bhangarh Fort so haunted, there are two prevailing myths.

The first legend states that the town of Bhangarh was cursed by the Guru Balu Nath, who only sanctioned its establishment under one condition: "The moment the shadows of your palaces touch me, the city shall be no more!" Years down the line, when a descendant raised the palace to a height that cast a shadow on Balu Nath's forbidden retreat, he cursed the town as prophesied. As a matter-of-fact, Balu Nath is said to lie buried there to this day, ensuring that the curse is never lifted.

The second story involves a former princess of Bhangarh, Princess Ratnavati, who was said to be the shining jewel of all Rajasthan. At that time lived a magician well versed in the occult named Singhia, who was in love with the princess but knew that it could never be as she was above his class. Then one day when Singhia saw the princess in the market, he had an idea. Using his black magic skills, he cursed the oil that Princess Ratnavati was purchasing so that upon touching it to her skin she would surrender herself and run to him. The princess, however, seeing that Singhia was enchanting the oil, foiled his plan by pouring it on the ground. As the oil struck the ground it turned into a giant boulder which crushed Singhia. Dying, the magician cursed the palace with the death of all who dwelt in it.

  Which do you think it is? Share you comments below!

Bhangarh Fort in India, so haunted the government has made it illegal to visit after nightfall!

According to the curse, whichever you may believe, it was also said that if Bhangarh was ever rediscovered, the township itself would not be found, only the temples would show up. True to the story, only the temples of the lost town of Bhangarh dot the landscape and even far up on the mountains only shrines can be seen.

Many locals and visitors alike claim that they have witnessed paranormal activities there, including eery sounds of music and dancing as well weird colored spots in photographs of some of the chambers.

Now I've come across a lot of haunted places, but I have never before seen one that even the government is afraid of. How wild is that! It's that morbid sense of intrigue that earned this place a spot on the ultimate Travel Blogger's Bucket List (TBBL for short).

  India Unexplored: 24 Incredible Offbeat Destinations

What I Want To Know Is:

Why haven't any ghost-investigation shows worked out a deal with the government?

  Other Haunted Sights In India

The Ramoji Film City, in Hyderabad, was built on war grounds of the Nizam sultans. Witnesses report the movie lights suspended up high kept falling down. Light-men who sit with the lights on top have been pushed countless times and many have had grievous injuries. But it doesn't stop there. The food left in cast rooms also gets scattered around the room and strange marks are left on the mirror in an unknown script resembling Urdu, the language spoken by the sultans. Girls are the ghosts' favorite to haunt. They tear at their clothes, knock on the bathroom doors while the outside doors are locked, and in general create mass havoc. Many preventive measures have been taken to prevent hauntings, but none have been of any use.

Sanjay Van, near the Qutab Institutional Area of New Delhi, is a huge forest spread over around 10 kilometers. There is a cremation ground also there, and many people have reported having seen a lady dressed in a white saree appearing and disappearing suddenly.

Vrindavan Society at Thane. It is said a man once committed suicide in one of the Buildings of the Vrindavan Society -- Bldg. No.66 B to be specific. Ever since the security guard's patrolling the area around have come across weird happenings. Once a guard was slapped so hard that he got up from his chair and hit the other guard who was near by him, thinking he was the one who hit him.

Dow-Hill in Kurseong, West Bengal, where the forests are damp and dark, and have an uncanny feeling. People up here tend to be depressed and countless murders have taken place. On the stretch between Dow-Hill road and the Forest Office, woodcutters returning in the evenings have repeatedly sighted a young boy walking head-less for several yards and then walk away from the road into the woods. Other than this, footsteps are heard in the corridors of the Victoria Boys School when the school is closed for long holidays from December to March.

  Visited any of these haunted locations? Know of any others? Share your thoughts!

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