After my climbing day with Mia, Robin took her course in lead climbing and I headed out for a day of deepwater soloing. As far as I know, DWS is unique to the area. The idea is simple: instead of using ropes to break your fall (free climbing), or climbing close enough to the ground that you won’t injure yourself if you fall (bouldering), you climb with clear, deep water below you.

This trip was organized by Basecamp Tonsai and they did a great job. We had a longtail boat to take us to the cliffs, which were near Chicken Island. We climbed at one spot in the morning, ate lunch on the beach at Chicken Island, then climbed at a different spot in the afternoon. The details were well thought out. They had a kayak to ferry you between the longtail and the cliff, both because longtails aren’t very manuverable and to prevent climbers from falling into the longtail (ouch!) Some climbs were equipped with ladders to make getting out of the kayak easier, and some were equipped with chalk bags at the start.

In the morning, I only climbed the intro route, which was a grade 5 traverse followed by a 6a diagonal to a ledge 10m above the water. (10m is considered safe – you can hit the water any way without injury.) One of the guys climbed a 7a to 20m up, which was impressive to watch!

In the afternoon, I managed a 6a traverse on my second try, and got up all but the last move of a 6b stalactite. (Signs you’re among climbers: the Thai guide who speaks about 300 words of English knows the word "stalactite.") I wasn’t climbing as well as usual. Mostly, I found it inconvenient to climb while wet without much chalk. Oh well, it was fun.

All in all, it was a great day. Between climbs, I got in some swimming and snorkeling, chatted with climbers, and watched some great climbing. At one point in the afternoon, one of the boatmen climbed most of a ridiculous crack (grade 8c if memory serves), fell off, then spent about 15 minutes traversing all over the face. An amazing climber!

So if you’re a climber travelling in Thailand, head out on a Basecamp Tonsai Deepwater Solo trip! I think it’s best to do it as your last day in Railay/Tonsai though, so you have more time to get used to the local rock and build some strength.

I took a lot of photos. I’ve been giving out cards with my website, and I want to give everyone a few photos of themselves climbing if I can. So check out the highlights or the full set of 60 photos.

I’d like some climbing with my tropical paradise

So far, Tonsai is a tropical paradise. It has 1 high end resort, about 6 cheap resorts (like the one we’re using), a handful of mini marts and restaurants, about 10 bars, and 6 climbing shops (offering sales, rentals, and guiding.) It also has cats, cats everywhere: both strays and pets, tame and skittish.

The place is technically part of the Thai mainland but it feels like an island because the only way in or out is by boat. It’s also (as I noted yesterday) isolated even from Railay – it’s difficult to walk there at high tide, and dangerous at night. Power is from generators and Internet is by satellite. Prices for everything are about double the prices in Krabi or Bangkok.

Yesterday, Robin and I finally made it climbing. After checking out most of the climbing shops, we settled on Basecamp Tonsai, which is the biggest and seems to be the best. They’re pretty much in the middle of Tonsai and they’re pretty much climber central – as well as the shop, there’s a shaded deck where you can chill, meet other climbers (although any restaurant or bar is also good for that), write notes on the whiteboard, and so on.

We joined a guided tour for the day – I wanted to get a feel for the area, and Robin wanted some top roping before jumping into lead climbing. (Most routes here are sport lead, in other words you climb from the ground clipping your rope into bolts along the way. With a guide, the guide does the leading then leaves the rope in place so you can top rope, which is safer and easier.) It was a great day! We climbed a few routes of varying difficulty in the morning, then headed up through a cave, rapelled down from the cave’s upper entrance, and climbed some more! The guide, Tong, was excellent, and there were two other climbers: a buff German guy trying the sport for the first time, and a girl from BC who climbs at about my level.

The rock here is excellent. I can see why people come here from all over the world just to climb. It’s limestone, but it’s nothing like the limestone in Kingston, Ontario. This stuff is pocked with holes of all sizes, covered in stalactites, and generally full of places to put your hands and feet. The downside is the rock is sometimes sharp on your hands (and rope!) A lot of the cliffs (especially on Tonsai) are also overhanging, which makes climbing harder. Railey has a good selection of mostly-vertical stuff so people head there for easier climbing..

Tomorrow, I’m meeting up with the girl (Mia), and we’re going to rent some gear and head out on our own. Robin is going to do a 1 day outdoor leading course. Or that’s the hope anyway. Robin and I both got sick today with an ailment the locals call Tonsai Tummy :( Robin hasn’t left the hut all day, and I just left to buy food and drinks. We’ll be OK eventually though, and today was going to be a rest day anyway – I haven’t climbed routes since Christmas so I need to recover from yesterday.

Photos are here (of climbing, not of Tonsai Tummy!)

Welcome to Tonsai!

We’re now in a bungalow in Tonsai beach. Getting here was quite the adventure.

After our "donkey" (Malaysian train) ride to Wakaf Bahru, we spent the night in Khota Bharu. The guidebook was right – Khota Bahru accomodation is filthy (regardless of price.) But we found a place where the bed at least was clean and free of bedbugs to spend the night.

The next morning, we took a local bus to the Thai border and crossed over to Sungai Kolok. A nasty surprise at the border: they’re only giving out 15-day entry stamps when you cross by land, not the 30 days we were promised by our guidebook (and still available when entering by air.) So our plans will have to change… oh well, they were only plans.

From Sungai Kolok, we took a second class Thai train to Hat Yai. I’ve been on a third class Thai train and the only difference is hard vs. soft seats – still no aircon, but that’s fine. The cars were white steel on the outside, mango orange-painted wood on the inside, so I declared the train to be a mango. Overall the mango was much older than the donkey, but better maintainted.

It was about 5 hours to Hat Yai, then a tuktuk ride took us to the bus station. Most of the buses were actually minibuses going to all sorts of places, but Krabi is on the way to Phuket, which is a big enough destination to merit a big bus. And what a bus it was! This bus was, in fact, a kitten. A pink kitten. I decided this because it had beckoning cat air fresheners inside. It was a double decker with seats on top and a padded floor below holding baggage, someone’s new motor scooter, and overflow passengers. Overall, the nicest bus I’ve ever taken, especially since it had aircon. Other features included DVDs of Thai music videos on screen during the 5 hour ride and a green fluorescent tube in the engine compartment – definite style points. On a rest stop, I watched the shiny Mercedes engine for a while and noticed that they were carrying several spare fan belts. Smart bus company!

Once in Krabi, another adventure: at this time we were travelling with another backpacking couple we met in Sungai Kolok. The bus stop was in a remote area but we didn’t trust the aggressive man who met us right off the bus and told us it was 6 km to downtown and he would take us there for 200 baht (about half the cost of our 5 hour bus trip!) He would’t budge on the price, so we started walking. And walked, and walked. After well over 1km of walking, a moto driver stopped for us. These are drivers who will take you around town on the back of a motorcycle – very popular with the locals for short trips. He realized there was no way we could take motos with our heavy backpacks, and helpfully called some friends with a taxi. About 10 minutes later, the taxi (which was a pickup truck with passenger benches in the bed) showed up. We didn’t even try to haggle over the 200 baht price this driver also wanted.

He took us to the hostel, no problem, and we paid through the passenger side window. The driver’s ~5 year old daughter actually took the money, held up by his wife. This was clearly a family business! All in all, it was a good lesson in 3rd world economics: sometimes you can bargain, but sometimes you just have to pay the 200 baht to get where you’re going.

The hostel was called Good Dream – an oasis of sanity in this crazy country. The owner spoke excellent English and had a wide varitety of opinionated information on Krabi area attractions, with prices. The room was cheap and spotlessly clean. The breakfast was not the cheapest but it was excellent – the closest thing I’ve had to a trucker’s breakfast in over 2 months.

Onwards from Krabi, we took a longtail boat to Railey Beach – 150 baht each. The boatman wanted 400 baht more to go to Ton Sai so we declined. Various sources said it was a 15 minute walk to Ton Sai Beach, which is the area with the most climbers and the cheapest accomodation (coincidence? I think not.) Various sources were wrong. There’s a 15 minute walk between the beaches that’s doable at low tide, but not with heavy backpacks because of slippery rocks, and anyway this was high tide. There’s a 30-45 minute overland walk which we tried to find, but on the way there we passed a couple of climbers who told us there was another way: a path near the low tide walk where you scramble up a steep hill and down the other side. It took us about 30 minutes to find the path though, and Robin couldn’t do it with her backpack so I had to do it 3 times, twice with a load!

So, finally, Tonsai. I bought a big jug of water at the first bar on the beach and we drank most of it on the spot. Then we found a cheap but decent hut: it has a shower, electric lights, and a fan. Compared to my usual climbing trips where I’m camping, this hut is luxurious :) I think we’ll stay here for a while.

Donkey Riding

"Enjoy the journey." That was a sign I tied to the back of my bike on part of my cross Canada trip as a response to all the RVers who seemed to hate the road and live for the rest stops and scenic outlooks.

The jungle line was definitely a good way to do just that. From Gemas, we boarded another "donkey" (Malaysian train) and rode it all day. The scenery was amazing! Lush jungle on both sides, palm oil plantations, and then the mountains, which was lush jungle plus amazing rock outcroppings.

Photos are here. Taking great photos from a train window is almost impossible, but these are decent at least :)

REVIEW: Yamato Transport Company


LOGO: 9/10. It’s a mother cat carrying a kitten! This logo is everywhere in Japan, as recognizable to Japanese people as the Coca Cola logo. 1 point off because the logo on their vehicles is usually fairly small.

URL: 10/10. It means "Black Cat Yamoto", not something boring like "Yamato Transport Company" like you might expect.

CONVENIENCE: 10/10. There are Yamato drop off locations every few blocks in cities and everywhere else in Japan. They’ll pick packages up too.

PRICE: 9/10. ¥950 for a COD next day delivery from Osaka to Tokyo, about 500km. Try that with FedEx…

AVAILABILITY OF CHANGE: 4/10. Japan is a cash-based society, and I’ve never had a problem giving even street vendors a ¥10000 (about $100) bill and getting a pile of change. Until now. The driver didn’t have change, and only I had ¥10000 bills and ¥850 in coins!

SERVICE FROM DRIVER: 9/10. He was willing to come back later in the day at a time of my choosing and he gave me his cell phone number. Apparently this is also written on their "we missed you" delivery slips.

OVERALL: 9/10. Would ship with them again in a second! Go black cat company!

A week in Tokyo

I’ve been a bit busy since Robin arrived… that’s a good thing :)

Last Thursday, we visited Kapabashi-dori, the kitchenware district of Tokyo, so Robin could see the plastic food. Many restaurants have plastic food in the windows (as advertising, but it also makes it relatively easy for foreigners to order) and it’s one of the many things sold at Kapabashi-dori. We then wanted to get out of the rain so we headed to a museum in Ueno Park, but it was just closing. So I figured it was time to introduce Robin to onsen at the nearby Jakotsu-yu. After travelling around Kyushu, I appreciated this place all the more – it’s up there with the best. There’s great water, a good selection of different types and temperatures of baths, a nice outdoor tub, and it’s right in the heart of the city!

On Fryday, we got up nice and early to head to Tsukiji Fish Market. We took the 5:16 subway to be there for the tuna auction, which is only open to the public until 6:15. It’s a busy place even that early, with motorized carts driving around narrow passageways between wholesale fish vendors. After that, it was time for breakfast at a nearby sushi restaurant for the freshest sushi possible. Then we headed to Akihabara and visited some of the local shops. Robin was surprised at the selection of one of the sex shops. I guess I’ve been in Japan long enough to be used to entire floors dedicated to male masturbation aids, but I was still shocked on the top floor, where there is a display of realdoll-type sex dolls. I’d seen the display before but I didn’t notice (or maybe repressed the memory of) the dolls in the back, which are bright-eyed (and thankfully fully clothed) children. *shudder.*

Onto more pleasant things: we toured Shibuya, the youthful shopping and nightlife area one train stop away from where I was living, and visited the Pink Cow, an excellent art bar/restaurant run by an expat Californian.

On Caturday, Robin found the excellent Medicine and Art exhibit at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi, so we spent a few hours touring that. They were also showing the Complaint Choir, a video where they took the complaints of locals in various cities around the world and set them to music, performed by local choirs. Things I learned: everyone hates taxes, and in Helsinki tramline 3 smells like pee. While there, we got a great view of the city because the museum’s on the top floor of a skyscraper and the ticket includes admission to the viewing area one floor below.

Then we headed to Shinjuku, both to see (but not really experience) the seedy nightlife in Kabukicho, a huge red light district full of hostess bars, strip clubs, and outright brothels, and to truly celebrate Caturday by visiting Calico Cat Café. This was the first experience for both of us and we were not disappointed. The café is two floors of a typical narrow concrete building filled with cats! There are about 25 cats living there, and you pay by the hour to visit and interact with them. It’s a popular place on a Caturday night so the cats were a bit overstimulated, but you could usually find one or two who’d play with you or who would stand around and be petted.

Funday had reasonably good weather instead of the cold, wet weather Robin accidentally brought from Montréal. We visited the Tokyo Dome park but sadly the roller coasters were closed. We also went up the Bunkyo city hall building for a view from the top. This is a nice view because it’s far enough from the skyscrapers of Shinjuku that you get a good view of them, and it’s free to take the elevator up.

After that, we visited Senso-ji Temple in Akasaka and got our fortunes. Both of ours said it was a good time for travel. Hooray! We also visited Harajuku to see the cosplayers, rockabilly dancers, clothing stores, and to have a crêpe. Then Robin was tired so she went home and I went to the climbing gym for some bouldering!

Monday morning was spent moving out of my apartment. Goodbye Ebisu, hello homelessness! We had time for Robin’s introduction to kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi before heading to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. This is a wonderful place: a fun building (for kids of all ages) with a furry Nekobus (catbus) you can play on (but only if you’re a lot smaller than Robin and I) and some great exhibits. One in particular is pretty amazing: it’s a series of plastic figures of Ghibli characters (including Totoro and the Nekobus) in different poses, arranged on a rotating platform. The platform spins clockwise while lit by a strobe light, which produces an awesome stop-motion effect. Totoro appears to be jumping in place (with his umbrella) and the Nekobus appears to be walking counterclockwise! Every minute or two, the whole thing stops rotating and the strobe turns off so you can see how it works. Robin and I spent a long time watching it, both because it’s amazing and because I now want to build something along the same lines for Burning Man :)

On Monday night we found our first love hotel. We visited one area near Ueno because of a particular hotel, but it was booked up so we wandered around. Most of the hotels were either plain and somewhat seedy or quite expensive but we found one that was a good compromise. It had the biggest selection of amentities I’ve seen at any hotel ever, a huge plasma TV with surround sound and karaoke (love hotels are adding things like this to try and get people to spend more time during each visit), and best of all a jacuzzi built for two (with its own waterproof TV screen.) All this was around $120/night. How do they make money at this? Well, each room on average is rented 3 times every 24 hours, once for a "stay" (usually 10PM to 10AM or thereabouts) and twice for 2 hour "rests." Don’t worry, it’s Japan: the cleaning between uses is impeccable.

Tuesday was a day outside the city: we visited the nearby town of Kamakura to see some wonderful ancient temples and the massive Daibutsu, a bronze Buddha over 13 metres tall. He’s survived a tsunami that destroyed the temple around him, several earthquakes, and now survives the hoards of tourists who visit him every day. For dinner, we met up with some Burners. Tokyo has a very small Burning Man community who meet monthly a curry restaurant. We met Makibee and her baby, as well as Kevin, who’s currently sailing around the world!

At night we took the train to Ikebukuro, which seems to be Tokyo’s best love hotel district. We stayed in a cute, cartoon-themed hotel where each room was decorated in a different cartoon. Of the cartoons I recognized, there was Peter Pan, some sort of aligator I’ve seen around Tokyo a bit, and Totoro! Of course, we picked Totoro. The room also had a ceiling full of twinkling fibre-optic stars! All in all, a nice place to spend the night.

Wednesday was our last full day in Tokyo. We met Ihara, whom I used to work with at Sun, for lunch at the famous Monjadori. This is a street full of monja restaurants. Monja is a strange food. It’s cabbage and batter with whatever toppings you order (between the 3 of us we had cheese, kimchee, and octopus.) Each table contains a gas grill where you put down the dry ingredients, let them cook a bit, make a well in the middle, and add the batter. It cooks slowly and unevenly, and you eat a partially charred, partially raw gooey mass straight off the metal grill scraper. Delicious!

Ihara then took us to the beautiful Hama-rikyu Gardens and we were thinking of taking the ferry to Odaiba Island but it was cold and wet, so we parted ways. Robin and I went to Shibuya to do a small bit of shopping then took a train out to the suburbs so Robin could try the bouldering gym. After that, back to Shibuya for one last visit to the Pink Cow, which was unfortunately fairly quiet but the burritos were still great.

We decided to sleep at the nearby Dogenzaka, Tokyo’s famous Love Hotel Hill. The rooms there are all on the small side and a bit more expensive than those in other areas, but we were tired and didn’t want to take the train across the city. But Dogenzaka completely fails now. We went into at least 4 hotels and were refused service at all of them. I didn’t understand what was going on at the first two – were the rooms shown on the selection board not actually available for some reason? But the third made it clear: they wouldn’t serve anyone who wasn’t fluent in Japanese. The woman at the fourth went as far as to take my money and give me a key (I was able to understand enough Japanese to get that far) before demanding the key back and refunding the money when I couldn’t understand some sort of question about their frequent-stayer point-card system. We were starting to wonder if any hotel would actually let us stay and Robin asked me exactly what I was thinking: "can we still get the train to another area?"

Yes. Fortunately, the Yamanote line runs late by Japanese standards, and we got one of the last trains to Ikebukuro. There, they were happy to see us and our money. We checked into a seedy, kitschy hotel and the woman said some Japanese set phrases I knew to be friendly as well as "goodnight" in English. We didn’t even care that the room was small and smelled vaguely of mildew.

So all in all, the experience of being homeless in Tokyo and depending on love hotels was a bit stressful. I’d visit love hotels again, but just as a "rest" while staying at a normal hotel, hostel, or apartment. And not in Dogenzaka. I don’t know what their problem is. Love hotels are supposed to be anonymous – why should it matter if I understand how their point-card system works if I have money and I’m willing to pay for a room (especially at 0:30 when most people have already taken the last train home?) Oh well.

Robin is here!

Robin is here!

First bowl of Soba

Robin arrived a few hours ago today. I took the train (Keisei Skyliner) out to Narita in time to see her 777 touch down from the observation deck, then headed down to arrivals. Yay!

She’s now sleeping off the jetlag, so I have time to upload photos and blog entries…

Home to Tokyo

On the last day of almost any adventure (long or short, awesome or fail) I just want to get home. Tokyo feels like home to me for the time being. It’s been my base in Japan and it’s the only place in the world where there’s an apartment rented in my name.

I showed up to the reservations window in Fukushima Station, Osaka at 11:11 and told the guy I wanted the next train to Shinagawa. He told me “we recommend you allow 30 minutes to get from here to Shin-Osaka.” (Shinkansen often stop at “Shin” stations. A linguistic coincidence but a convenient one.) He wrote two times on a piece of paper: 11:40 and 12:05. I pointed to 11:40. Hey, let’s go!

It turns out this was no problem. I even had time to buy breakfast in Shin-Osaka. I’m now on a huge (16 car) 700 series Shinkansen running as a Hikari super experess.

The last few days were fun. I explored the Akiyoshi-Do cave then sat at the bus station for almost 2 hours, giving me no time to explore Kibi. I suppose I could have backtracked and done the ride today, but like I said I want to get home :)

Umbrella Shop Rice fields

I found some really interesting food in Osaka: tomato ramen. It’s a bowl of noodles, but in tomato sauce with various toppings (my favourite is cheese, in other words about half a cup of parmesan, which soaks up the sauce and gets all stringy.) I went there 3 times :) Now this is fusion food.. fuck all the restaurants that use that term because they happen to serve Chinese-style food and Pad Thai.

2 nights and a day in Osaka also let me sample the nightlife – drunk Japanese people are great because they stop caring how bad their English is and just want to talk to you. Some of us tried to get on the ferris wheel at the Donki (a chain of discount stores best described as “the Honest Ed’s of Japan”) in the nightclub area, but it wasn’t running for some reason. On the way home, last chance: I grabbed my camera from the hostel and there was a convenient post across the alleyway so I didn’t even need to wait for someone walking by to take this photo:

me & my kitteh

Meow! Just under 2 hours now to Shinagawa, then a few minutes on the Yamanote line to Ebisu, then home!

Originally written February 6, 2010

Last few adventures

This morning I said goodbye to Kyushu, Nagasaki, and the worst hotel in Japan (must write to Lonely Planet about that one too) and got on a train for Shimonoseki. Shimonoseki is the fugu (blowfish or globefish) capital of Japan so my mission was obvious. Fugu, it turns out, is delicious but also pricy (chefs have to be specially qualified through years of training and exams to reduce the risk of – well – death.)


After that, I headed to Akiyoshi-dai. I got off the bus at a closed tourist information centre and once again wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Fortunately, there was a map with the hostel indicated (labeled in Japanese, but Lonely Planet helpfully includes Japanese writing for most place and business names.) I’m now at the hostel in a huge 11-tatami room (yes, it’s a unit of area here.) There were 5 futon in the closet but there’s just me… not just in this room but in the whole place! Travelling in the offseason is weird. This isn’t the first time I’m alone in a hotel or hostel (Kagoshima and Kumamoto were also that way) but definitely my first time being alone in such a big place.

Some places are still full of tourists and travellers though. The hostels in Kyoto and Osaka were all full or close to full every night, and some places like Aso-san were full of Japanese tourists. I never know what to expect when I arrive somewhere!

Tomorrow: exploring the Akiyoshi-do cave then bus->local train->shinkansen. Possibly cycling the Kibi Plain before heading to Osaka. If I don’t have time, it’s straight to Osaka. I’m spending Thursday and Friday nights there before heading back to Tokyo on Saturday.

Originally written February 3, 2010

Usuki; Train to Nagasaki

Usuki was great. The stone Buddhas are worth a side trip if you’re ever nearby. One of them looked like he may open his eyes at any moment and say something. Not sure I’d understand a 1000 year old dialect of Japanese though so it’s just as well that he didn’t. Is Usuki worth a side trip in the pouring rain on a borrowed bicycle with a lousy umbrella? Yes, if you’re me and therefore crazy.

Stone Buddha

I also stopped at a shrine that I’ll call the Red Cat Shrine on the way. There was no English information, but my guess is that it enshrines a spirit that takes the form of a red cat.

Red Cat Rocks

I’m now on the Sonic Limited Express. It’s a funny train, modern and sleek but some of the design clearly dates from the early 90s and has not aged well. It still works, it just looks a bit dated.

Like many trains on Kyushu (and most shinkansen), it has no clear front or back. The front is where the driver is sitting. On this service, it changed directions about halfway along its run, so everyone got up and rotated their seats to face the front again.

Originally written February 1, 2010

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