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!

Indonesia is a vast and diverse archipelago that continues to impress and surprise longtime expats and even locals. To think that because you've seen Jakarta and done Bali then you "know" Indonesia is to be sorely mistaken. As one expat told me: "Just when you think you're starting to understand Indonesia, that's when you realize you don't understand it at all."

From amazing cultures and regional customs to a seemingly neverending variety of local cuisines, Indonesia is home to more diversity in some of it's larger islands than other nations have in their entirety. Especially when it comes to langauges and dialects, of which the country has over 700 -- and don't think that Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is even remotely similar to Javanese (Bahasa Jawa) or Balinese (Bahasa Bali) because its not. After all the slogan of the country is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which is Javanese for "Unity In Diversity."

Mount Rinjani, Lombok
Mount Rinjani, Lombok

What To Know Before Traveling Indonesia

Indonesia is home to some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I have even met. During six months motorcycling around the country and making local friends, even doing a tourism film on Sumatra, I had nothing but good experiences with the best of people. All except for while I was in Bali -- but I'll get to that in a second. For now the most important things to know are:

The Street Food Is Better Than Restaurant Food

Both in terms of taste and authenticity, street food kicks all other food's ass. Oh yeah and of course price. Depending where you are in the country you can get a decent meal for around 11,000IDR ($1USD), a little more if you want to splurge and really fill up. Don't worry about getting sick, just go with the street vendor or warung has the most local customers. After all they must be doing something right!

Street food in Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street food in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Bakso on the street in Suarabya, Indonesia
Bakso on the street with friends in Suarabya, Indonesia

Expect a lot of variety in dishes and sweetness/spiciness depending upon where in the country you travel. However no matter where you visit there will be lots of fried dishes, such as nasi goreng, mie goreng and ayam goreng (rice, noodles, and chicken respectively -- and of course as you probably guessed goreng is Indonesian for fried). Beyond that the variety begins. For every city you visit make sure to ask the locals what their speciality is.

Learn more before your trip: First Impressions: Indonesia and Basic Indonesian Food Cheat Sheet.

For Every Good Tourist Site There Is An Even Better "Hidden" One

Indonesia has no shortage of spectular views, virgin beaches, challenging mountains, and off the beaten path exploring. When I first arrived there I thought one or two months would be enough. Six months later and I still didn't want to leave. Yet during my travels I had met so many other backpackers, all of which were visiting Yogyakarta, Mount Bromo, and Bali. "Oh plus Gili T and Komodo if we have time" I heard more often than I can count. Hardly any stopped by Sumatra. And none had even thought about Kalimantan or Sulawesi, let alone Papua.

Pantai Sundak, Gunungkidal, Indonesia
Pantai Sundak, Gunungkidal, Indonesia. My ten local friends and I had it all to ourselves!

Trust the locals. Ask them where to visit, what to eat, how to have fun. The friends I've made along my journeys through Indonesia have shown me a world of things not covered in any tourist guide book, from traditional pastimes and 5am fishing trips to lesser-known things like panjat pinang and stick-fighting. And of course more virgin beaches than I can keep track of!

  My friend Trinity is author of the famous Indonesian book series The Naked Traveler. Last week her newest book went on sale, Across The Indonesian Archipelago. If you are looking for ideas on where to travel in Indonesia then this is both a great resource and an enjoyable read. (And yes, it is in English.)

Local Transportation Is Easier Than You Might Expect

Especially on the main island of Java, which has a reliable train network and plenty of regular routes. Outside of Java you will have to rely on buses and ferries, the latter of which can have a bit more of an irregular schedule depending on how remote your intended destination may be. However in places like Sulawesi short flights might be a better, albeit more expensive, option.

Street food in Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Taken while traveling by train across Java

Renting a motorcycle is also another option. Of course I would only recommend this option for experienced riders, preferably ones already used to driving in the chaotic streets of southeast Asia. For 50,000IDR/day ($5USD) or 650,000-1,000,000IDR/month ($60-90USD) a scooter or motorcycle can be rented, allowing you to go where you want when you want. This has fantastic way to visit small villages and other off the beaten path destinations. It is the only way I ever made it to places like Banyusumurup, the traditional village that makes all of the kris, small Indonesian daggers with mystical powers. Plus despite horror stories of bus thieves and midnight muggings in Sumatra I have yet to encounter any difficulties along the road.

  For more read my newest blog post: How To Travel Indonesia By Motorcycle

Don't Rush Off To Bali -- Explore Elsewhere First

If you only have one month or less in the country then I would say skip Bali entirely. It is an over-priced, Westernized version of Indonesia where the bulk of the individuals working in the tourism industry are not even Balinese but rather Sudanese or Javanese and have come solely to take your foreign money. As a caucasin here you essentially have dollar signs tattooed across your pale forehead. Plus as with any place that attracts massive notoriety as a tourist hotspot so too come the touts, beggars, scam artists, foreign food (so you can "feel at home") and of course the inflated prices. At the risk of upsetting some of my Balinese friends I'll say it: if you get pickpocketed or robbed anywhere in the country, it most likely will happen here. It is a predators' paradise because the prey keep flying in 365 days a year.

Don't get me wrong, Bali is not all bad -- just the southern part is. Kuta, Denpasar, Sanur, Uluwatu, etc. In fact Googling "kuta is hell on earth" or some near varient will produce several interesting articles by other bloggers on why Bali is only for couples or families looking for all-inclusive four- and five-star resorts and not for backpackers. The eastern and northern parts, most specifically Padangbai and Ubud, weren't nearly as bad as the Kuta area but neither were they that good.

Talon of 1Dad1Kid.com and I crossed paths in real life one day in Sanur. Turns out he and I had the same feelings about this island. If you are unsure about visiting Bali then his post will help you decide if the island is right for you.

I basically can’t encourage people to come to the island. Indonesia has some truly amazing areas, and I think a person’s time and money are better spent exploring other parts of the country.

Not A Good Destination For Former Cigarette Smokers

Cigarette ads are everywhere in Indonesia

Indonesia ranks third in the world for total number of cigarette smokers according to the WHO. Almost all of the men smoke, far too many kids, and yes, even the orangutans. The tobacco industry is big business here and as the Western world keeps placing more restrictions on cigarette advertising and marketing the tobacco giants keep pumping more money into southeast Asia. Despite 'No Smoking' signs in places like malls you can often find someone less than a meter away, using the floor as an ashtray.

To make matters worse cigarettes are around 10-14,000IDR ($1-1.25USD) and sold at every family-owned market, corner store and restaurant. Although I quit smoking after moving out of Tokyo in 2009 I have found myself occasionally smoking a kretek cigarette when drinking. Although this is entirely social, if you tried hard to quit cigarettes and do not want to see and smell the temptation everywhere you go, you might best avoid Indonesia. Even as I type this I am sitting in a smoke-filled office in Jakarta.

  House Of Sampoerna, Cigarette Factory And Museum

All in all Indonesia is one country that does not disappoint. There is a reason why so many travelers over the years have come here and then never left. Between the warm, inviting culture, vastness of the country and extensive list of places worthy of exporing, beautiful scenery and delicious food, Indonesia truly has something for everyone. You just have to know what you are looking for.

  Have any Indonesia travel questions? Ask away!

  The Ultimate Unique & Off The Beaten Path Indonesia Travel Guide     Indonesia Archives

Indonesia is an amazingly vast and impressive country. When I first arrived here I thought one month would be enough. HA! How wrong I was. Six months later and I am still exploring this diverse country. Doing almost all of it by motorcycle, as well.

Many Westerns are scared or worried about navigating the wild and unpredictable streets of Indonesia -- or any nation in Southeast Asia for that matter. Audrey of That Backpacker wrote a post about it several months back that further reinforced peoples' fears. However I'm here to tell you it's not as bad as you might think.

For starters there are many upsides to renting a motorcycle while abroad. It is really inexpensive. Ridiculously cheap, in fact. Throughout most of Indonesia prices are $5/day, $20-25/week, or $60-100/month. That's an absolute bargain. Fuel costs even less than that.

For example, I traveled 400km from Jogja to Surabaya in 7hrs using less than $5 worth of fuel. By contrast a train ticket would have cost me $20 and taken only a mere two hours less -- but then I wouldn't have met any cool locals along the way.

Indonesia By Motorcycle: Karanganya
Karanganya, home to several temples that foreigners never visit.

Beyond the financial issue there is also the added bonus of being able to set your own schedule and go where you want, when you want. Renting a motorcycle allows you to avoid a multitude of things such as tour groups, waiting on buses/trains, and being stuck with crowds of foreign tourists. This is especially beneficial when your hotel or hostel tries to get you to join a group to see those stereotypical tourist attractions, like Borobudur or Mount Ijen. "Tidak perlu, saya punya motor." ("No need, I have a motorcycle.") But hey, if you want to travel halfway around the world just to hang out with foreigners, that's your choice. However I must at least try and encourage you to interact with locals more, to live the local way of life. It's much more educational and rewarding. Plus when (or if) you ever return home then you will have a lot more to be thankful for.

  Accident Liability
In Indonesia the larger vehicle is always responsible and must pay damages (e.g. if a car hits a motorcyclist, its the car's fault; if a motorcyclist hits a pedestrian, it is the motorcyclist's fault). As such, you'll find that vehicles on the road here usually tend to be very careful to avoid hitting anyone on two wheels. I've done dangerous and some might even argue stupid stuff on the roads here but because of this I always scrap through unscathed.

That having been said, there are a few downsides to traveling by motorcycle in Indonesia. First there is obviously the traffic in the big cities and of course the condition of some of the roads, which are not quite the smooth and orderly roads we find in North America and Europe. Potholes, sinkholes and unexpected bumps in the pavement do occur, especially in places like Sumatra where the roads are notoriously dangerous for those very reasons.

Traffic In Jakarta
Jakarta one evening. Please pardon the rough quality of the photo. It was taken by phone while driving my motorcycle one-handed through -- yes, you guessed it -- traffic!

There is also a general state of madness on the roads in southeast Asia, at least from a Western standpoint. As one of my local Indonesian friends put it: "I thought roads here are normal. But after two years at university in UK, wow, can see why bule [caucasians] are shocked." However they are not as bad as other countries like the Philippines where: "Here everyone drives crazy. So you just have to drive crazier!"

From cars suddenly stopping in the middle of highways to people crossing the street to motorcycles zigging and zagging around seemingly everywhere at once, the roads in this corner of the world are far from what Westerns would call "organized." There is however an organized chaos to it all and if you go into it with an open mind -- and a few heads-up pointers -- then you'll see that you really have nothing to be afraid of. Well, almost nothing. Here are a few pointers to help reduce your learning curve:

Indonesia By Motorcycle: Just a normal road in Jogja
Just an ordinary day on the road in Jogja

International Drivers License is NOT required

This may be a bad piece of advice to start with but its the truth. Anyone can rent a bike in Indonesia, even those who have never driven one before. Of course this is both a good thing and a bad thing. One of the things I mentioned frequently on the road was "I'm not afraid of the locals -- I'm afraid of the tourist who just learned how to drive five minutes ago in the parking lot."

What about the police, you may ask. Not a problem. During my first extended two month road-trip I hit everywhere in Java, circled Bali, and circled Lombok. Not once was I ever pulled over or questioned by the police. However, when taking a motorcycle onto a ferry you do have to show your proof of insurance, which comes with all rental bikes. In Padangbai, a city in east Bali, the police officer at the port also asked to see my International Drivers License. "Oops, I forgot it." The officer rolled his eyes at me, stuck out his hand and said "Limapuluh ribu," which means 50,000 IDR. That's less than $5USD. And simple as that I was on the ferry.

Drive with your lights on 24/hrs a day and ALWAYS use your turn signals

Often times at night you'll see locals driving around without their lights. I've done the same thing myself several times after having a few beers. The easiest way to avoid this is -- no, not to skip the beer with dinner -- is rather to turn your headlights on when you first get the bike and never turn them off. They shut off automatically when the motorcycle is off so don't worry about draining the battery.

Always remember to use your turn signals as well. When bikes are weaving in and out of each other and people are driving every which way, that turn signal is the only way people around you know what you are thinking and where you plan on going. Proper driving etiquette here in SEA is to pay attention to everyone around you. The locals will assume that you are also doing the same to them.

Don't be afraid to use your horn

In other parts of the world honking your horn at another driver is disrespectful. Not here in Indonesia. It is actually quite the opposite. It's considered courteous and respective to do so, especially if you think the other driver might not see you. Use it when passing cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, becaks, even people walking alongside the road. Just as a warning, so they know you are coming. You also want to do it when approaching any free-for-all intersections or running red lights. That brings me to my next item...

Drive as the locals do

This includes running red lights, driving down sidewalks or the wrong way down a one-way street, even making illegal u-turns. All of this is standard driving practice in Indonesia and will make it look like you have been in the country a lot longer than you have. With the exception of the southern part of Bali (Kuta, Sanur, Uluwatu) the police do not care the slightest about any of these tactics. In Indonesia it is first come, first serve. Even at convenience stores, where locals frequently skip the queue and just cut in front of others, especially foreigners.

Indonesia by motorcycle. Get used to traffic.
Just an ordinary day on two wheels in Indonesia

Also, if you start to notice that many other motorcyclists around you have their raincovers on already despite the fact that it has yet to start raining, you might want to pull over and put yours on real fast. Chances are that the rain is only a few minutes away.

Slow down before bridges and railroad crossings

Most of these are bumpy, especially the railroad tracks. Large gaps several centimeters across in between the pavement and the rail are commonplace. Combine that with the lumps in the pavement and it's easy to go flying. One time I hit a railroad crossing at 100km/h and I literally flew out of my seat, completely lifted up into the air. Luckily my front tire was pointed straight forward and I had a tight grip on the handlebars.

Indonesia By Motorcycle: Lots of railroad crossings on the island of Java
This railroad crossing isn't bad but some of the others are more holes than pavement

Bridges are not as bad. Some of these are quite smooth actually. But many have a rough bump and the beginning and ending, where the bridge meets the roadway. Just to be on the safe side you want to slow down for these as well, especially if you see the other drivers around you doing the same thing.

Be aware of potholes, sinkholes, and gaps in the pavement

These occasionally occur in the big cities but are more frequent on the long stretches of road in between cities. For the most part Java is not that bad. Other islands like Sumatra are a completely different story. Just keep your eyes focused ahead and you'll be fine. If you're really worried then just drive a little bit slower.

Be observant when others flash their brights at you

This occurs both during the daytime and the nighttime. At night fast-moving cars will often flash their brights as they are coming up from behind to inform you that they are about to pass. However as cars frequently drive on the wrong side of the road when passing slow-moving trucks or buses, you will also see oncoming cars do this as well. In this case you want to move as far to the left as possible, to give them room to pass.

During the daytime it's a little different. If you see an oncoming car flashing their brights at you it usually means "you'd better get out of the way because I cannot!" In this situation it is wise to slow down as well as scoot as far to the left shoulder as possible.

There are no official speed limits in Indonesia, only "suggested" speed limits

Being pulled over for going to fast or too slow in this corner of the world is a fear you do not need have. I regularly hit triple digits in quiet neighborhoods and places where the signs say 30 or 40 but the police don't even bat an eye at me. However, if you are going to drive really fast, be sure to keep an eye out for people trying to cross the street and cars or motorcycles entering the roadway.

  In Indonesia the idea of stopping when you reach an intersection and looking before you turn just doesn't exist. People just pull out and hug the shoulder, rather than swinging out into the center of the lane, but they never look. They count on the ones already driving down the road to be on the lookout for them. Remember that. This is also one reason I advocate driving on the right side of the road, nearer to the center lane -- except when traffic is trying to pass, of course.

Indonesia By Motorcycle: Another traffic jam
Why are there no official speed limits in Indonesia? Because of traffic.

Learn basic directions in bahasa

These will become priceless whether driving in city or through the countryside. After all GPS in SEA is not quite as reliable -- or up to date -- as it is in the Western world. Knowing a few words like kiri (left), kanan (right), and terus (straight / keep going) will become invaluable. Other good words to know are dimana (where) and bensin (gasoline). "Dimana bensin?"

Indonesia By Motorcycle: No Helmet Needed!
Took and tweeted this selfie
while driving at 80km/hr

Get a helmet with a tinted visor

These are very helpful when driving into the rising or setting sun as even closing your eyes for a few seconds can be disastrous. They also help keep you from being blinded by oncoming lights when driving at night. Some of the vehicles here in Indonesia have crazy bright lights. In additional many of the trucks and buses have colored lights hanging on the edges, so that others drivers (particularly motorcyclists) can avoid them...often by mere centimeters.

Helmets are only necessary in the big cities

If you are like me and have been riding motorcycles for years then you know there is nothing more enjoyable then feeling the breeze through your hair. But if the police see anyone without a helmet in the big cities, even locals, they will pull them over and issue them a ticket. This is very true for tourists, especially in Bali. However once you get outside of the city and are driving through countryside and small villages feel free to take your helmet off and enjoy the wind.

Long Distance Motorcycle Travel Tips

Pay attention to the green road signs

You don't need GPS or smart phone maps to travel long distances in Indonesia -- I spent my first two months essentially driving blind, only following the green road signs. They will list the upcoming cities and point you left right or straight. Just keep driving straight until you see the next one and have no fear.

Don't be afraid to drive at night

Many locals initially cautioned me against driving at night, warning that I might be stopped and robbed by some unscrupulous individuals. However in six months that has yet to happen. In fact I found night driving to be more enjoyable for a variety of reasons. Not only is there less traffic on the road but also less surprises, such as people crossing the street or unexpectedly slamming on their brakes.

I would suggest however that you not drive over 100km/hr at night. That way you still have enough time to see and avoid any potholes in the road.

Keep your gas tank full

The national gasoline chain in Indonesia is Pertamina. They are located everywhere in the big metropolises and at key locations in between smaller cities. Even in the middle of nowhere there is usually a Pertamina every 75-100/km, at least on Java; However they are less sporadic on Sumatra and Sulawesi. Once your gas tank gets down to 1/4 full I recommend stopping at the next Pertamina you see and topping up.

Not all Pertaminas are open 24 hours a day, especially in the more remote areas. If driving long distances at night then I recommend filling up your tank whenever it gets down to the halfway mark.

Purchasing roadside gasoline

Throughout Indonesia there are small family-owned shops that sell bensin. You will recognize these places because they always have the gasoline stored in glass bottles and displayed near the roadside in wooden shelves. They charge a tiny bit more than Pertamina (7-8,000IDR/liter versus 6,000IDR) but come in handy when your fuel is running low and there is not a Pertamina in sight.

Indonesia By Motorcycle: Roadside gasoline vendors
Pertamina can often have long lines, especially in the evenings. As such sometimes its worth paying 1,000IDR ($0.10USD) extra a litre just for the sheer convenience of roadside gasoline.

In Bali, especially the southern, more touristy parts of the island like Kuta and Sanur, do not trust these vendors. They water down their gasoline so much that you can literally watch your gas gauge dropping as you drive. They also charge 10,000IDR a liter, nearly twice the normal price. Do not purchase gasoline from them unless you have already run out and are pushing your bike.

Follow the person in front of you

When traveling long distances through unfamiliar areas it is a good idea to follow the person in front of you. The locals know where the bumps and dips in the road are and they tend to follow the smoothest path. Follow behind them and you will have an easier ride.

Trust Indomaret, not Alfamart

Indomaret and Alfamart are the two competing convenience store chains in the country. Although most of their prices are the same, anytime they weren't it was always Indomaret that was less expensive. They also will let you use the restroom if you need it. The few times I asked the Alfamart staff to use their bathroom I was always denied.

Well, that about sums it up. These are the most important tips and tricks I've learned from my time on the road here. Hopefully they help make your motorcycle experience in Indonesia a smooth and enjoyable one!

Have Any Questions Or Additional Suggestions?

Or did this information scare you into not wanting to motorcycle while in Indonesia?

  This article was originally published on the HoliDaze blog titled How To Motorcycle Indonesia: What, Where, How, Why + Tips

  The Ultimate Unique & Off The Beaten Path Indonesia Travel Guide     Indonesia Archives

Street art (sometimes called graffiti art) is a very unique and interesting form of modern artistic expression. The vivid colors and neverending creativity of their artists have a tendency to impress both locals and tourists alike.

Like most major metropolises Toronto boasts its own collection of street art, including the aptly named "Graffiti Alley," which runs parallel to Queen street on the southern side.

  To check out the wall art for yourself, start at Queen and Spadina and head west, walking down every alley you pass. There is also a healthy amount of street art scattered a few blocks north of there, throughout the Kensington Market.

Which one is your favorite? Share your comments below!

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti artist hard at work in Kensington Market, Toronto, Canada
Graffiti artist hard at work in Kensington Market, Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada
Street art found in Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Wow. That was definitely the most photos I have ever posted in one article. Hope y'all enjoyed them!

What is your favorite street art city?

When it comes to finding a great holiday destination, you've got the world at your feet. There's enough choice to suit virtually every different taste and budget imaginable, from cheap package holidays in Tunisia and romantic weekends in Venice, to ski holidays in the French Alps and walking breaks across the Spanish Pyrenees.

One destination that serves up a fascinating array of holidays all on one island is Tenerife. With incredible volcanic geology that has left a legacy of dark sandy beaches, craggy mountainous terrain and bizarre volcanic landscapes, there's never a dull moment in this sun-drenched Canary Island.

Thanks to its location just off the west African coast, Tenerife enjoys year-round sunshine that makes this a cracking holiday destination in summer as well as winter, with scorching temperatures throughout July and August and lovely t-shirt weather during our winter months. The Teide National Park is the island's stunning centrepiece, which features alpine-like scenery and is crowned by the soaring, snow-topped summit of Mount Teide - Tenerife's dormant volcano and Spain's tallest peak. You can whizz to the top by cable car to enjoy incredible views across the island and over the Atlantic Ocean.

Elsewhere, the northern shores makes a refreshing change from the beach-centric resorts of the south. The north coast is sprinkled with towns and villages offering a more traditional way of life, while Puerto de la Cruz is a bustling resort with plenty going on both night and day. And don't miss the chance to spend a day shopping and sightseeing in Santa Cruz, the island's cosmopolitan capital city.

If you've got Tenerife holidays 2013 on the agenda, you'll find a cracking array of holidays available with plenty of late deals and special offers. So get searching and book your trip to tantalising Tenerife this summer for a holiday to remember...

When traveling I get a kick out of stopping in any random museums that I may come across. Some are educational, others are laughable, but most all are enjoyable for their own reasons. In fact the next time you pass by a museum, I encourage you to stop in and have a look around. Here are some of the museums I have visited over the last six or so months (however long since I returned to the USA from Mexico).

Have you been to any unique or amazing museums? Feel free to brag below ;)

 

Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum

  Logan, Ohio

The Pencil Sharpener Museum is definitely worth poking your head in, if you should be passing by -- and I do mean "poke your head in." With a total size of about 60 square feet, this is by far the smallest museum I have ever visited. However, it was not my "quickest museum trip" ever (that one is further down on the list).

Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio

Paul Johnson started his collection when he retired in 1988 and eventually amassed over 3,300 different pencil sharpeners in all shapes and sizes. After he passed away in 2010, his widow generously agreed to donate the collection to the Logan visitor's center. Volunteers went out to her house, took numerous photos to record exactly how each pencil sharpener was arranged, and then used those photos after transporting to precisely re-assemble the pencil sharpeners just as Paul had intended.

Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio

As you can see, many look like traditional pencil sharpeners but others are rather unique and much more impressive. Had I been thinking I would have taken better photos of the animal section of sharpeners -- many had pencil insertion points at rather questionable places ;)

  View more fun activities in Hocking Hills

Museum of Questionable Medical Devices

  St Paul, Minnesota

Technically this collection is now merely one exhibit among many at the Science Museum Of Minnesota, although it still retains the same name. Like the pencil sharpener museum, this donated collection was originally the brainchild of one man, Bob McCoy, who also happened to pass away in 2010.

Museum of Questionable Medical Devices

Spend a few minutes looking at some of the bizarre contraptions and methodology of late 18th and early 19th century will make you really happy to live in such a modern era. But when I started to see items like a breast enlargement machine from the 1950s, well then it began to sink in that "modern" medicine is only as advanced as the day. Just as now we often think how technology was lacking a few years or decades ago, so too we will soon think that about 2013.

Otherwise the rest of the museum is decidedly family oriented and rather run of the mill for a capital city.

What is the wildest museum you've ever been to?

 

Kansas Barbed Wire Museum

  Lacrosse, Kansas

After stopping to get gas at some random town in Kansas last summer I noticed a sign for the barbed wire museum and figured I would check it out. Turns out that barb wire is as un-spectacular as you might think. However I did learn two things: 1) there are more types of barbed wire than current years A.D. and 2) barb wire collecting is actually a valid hobby -- but only for residents of Kansas.

Kansas Barbed Wire Museum
Barb wire collecting is actually a valid hobby -- but only for residents of Kansas

I spent more time oogling the crazy pencil sharpeners in the first museum than I did passing through here. However if you have a fascination with ranches or the wild west, this place could be right up your alley.

 

Graceland

  Memphis, Tennessee

The Home of the King Of Rock 'n' Roll turns out to only be popular amongst senior citizens and kids under ten. Although entertaining, I was left with only one question: what will happen to this place in a decade, as the current baby-boomin' Elvis-lovin' generation passes on?

Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee

Regardless, the whole experience shed lots of new light on just how awesome Presely was. But as far as museums are concerned, it is definitely can be a pricey one -- they offer different tours based on sights, length, and well, let's be honest, love of Elvis. If you really love him you'll buy the most expensive package ;)

After this trip I now truly appreciate the Paul Simon song Graceland....oh yeah, and Elvis too. Just watch out for those peanut butter and banana sandwiches -- which of course is a specialty in the Graceland cafe ;)

Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium @ Times Square

  New York City, New York

Definitely more offbeat than obscure, this "museum" will leave you amazed, intrigued, confused, and most likely 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 toured a Ripley's museum before, well then you might as well start with what is arguably one of their best.

Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium at Times Square

  View more offbeat activities to do in NYC

 

While these are by no means the strangest museums in the world, they are some of my most recent explorations.

  What's the wildest, scariest, or most obscure museum that you've ever visited?

Visiting Bangkok at any time of year is a great choice. Visitors from around the world will enjoy the fascinating culture, incredible attractions and friendly residents regardless. However, planning a trip to Bangkok during the annual Songkran Festival is one of the best possible decisions you could make. Songkran Festival is the traditional New Year celebration in Thailand, and being in Bangkok during this time is a way to get an inside look at the incredible culture and traditions in this country. Whether you are interested in the spiritual and religious aspects of the holiday or you just can't wait for the exciting nightlife that accompanies the festival, you won't be disappointed.

Here is a visitor's guide to enjoying Songkran Festival

What is Songkran Festival?

Songkran Festival is an annual celebration that takes place during the beginning of April. It signifies the beginning of the Thai New Year, and it is usually at the hottest time of year. Since the festival is during the dry season and warm weather is typical, water is used as a way to cool off. For this reason, Songkran Festival is often called the festival of water. Water is traditionally blessed by being poured over statues of Buddha, and then the blessed water is used to pay respect to older family members. Songkran Festival is usually only officially a two or three day event, but locals typically have the entire week off from work and school. It has transformed in recent years into a time of celebration, family gatherings and fun.

Where Can I See Traditional Celebrations?

If you are most interested in the spiritual and historical roots of this incredible festival, be sure to visit Sanam Luang. This large field is located just next to the Grand Palace, and it serves as a gathering place during the day for locals who want to celebrate the festival in a traditional way. It is here that the impressive Phra Phuttha Sihing image is put on display, and there are long lines for people to bathe the image in water and then collect the now holy water for themselves. Many of the temples in Bangkok, such as Wat Arun and Wat Pho, are also busy during the Songkran Festival.

What Parts of Bangkok are Ideal for Celebrating?

Along with the more spiritual sides of the Songkran Festival are plenty of fun ways to celebrate this exciting time. Saranrom Park is typically busy with revelers of all ages, but don't expect to stay dry. Locals delight in getting tourists wet, and they carry around water balloons, buckets of fragrant water and even water pistols to shock friends and strangers alike. In Wisut Kasat, there is a big pageant each year in order to pick the woman who will be Miss Songkran for the year. Travelers and expatriates are often found along Khao San Road, where plenty of alcohol and a fun atmosphere leads to water fights right in the middle of the street.

Are There Any Tips for Travelers During This Time?

Songkran Festival can be an exciting time in Bangkok, but there are a few things you should be aware of. Remember that for many people, this is a religious event. Enjoy the fun, but keep in mind that not all residents will appreciate being blasted by a hose. Of course, prepare to get wet yourself. Store your money or important items in a plastic zippered bag to stay dry. Don't take a taxi during this festival, as traffic will be terrible and rates are often much higher than normal.

Have an incredible time during Songkran!

  Written by Ross who writes at Netflights who sells cheap flights to Bangkok

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?

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