The Lost City Trek – Part 10

We are at the end of the adventure, a few more kilometres and some hidden gems before returning to Santa Marta

I am on my way back from the Lost City to El Mamey, going slowly and always on my own. I take a lot of photos for future reference and for the joy of family and friends back home. I wish they were here, although now I know that none of them would never make it there.

Today it is hot and sticky and most of the route is exposed to the hot embrace of the Colombian sun. This is the main challenge of the day, along with a couple of very steep hills to climb and descend. I found a walking stick that some other hiker was left behind and supporting myself with it things are going much better. I’m really enjoying being all alone, away from people who make noise and smoke all the time. Now it is easier to absorb the sights and sounds of the nature around me. At some point, I reunited with my fellow travellers for a dip in the river Buritaca, that I do all dressed and with my shoes on, tossing myself from a rock. I wash my clothes and me in one splashing go.

Soon we arrive to our beloved cabanas and hammocks. We treat ourselves with an impromptu soup out and an afternoon siesta, then following a tip from Castro, we follow a 20 minute path to get to some majestic falls. These must be reached by slipping down a steep slope, clinging to a rope not to fall against the rocks that populate the bottom.

The waterfall flies through the air by a jump of 20 feet with a loud bang and a splash fierce, ending finally at peace in a beautiful swimming pool of cold, deep water, all surrounded by rocks that were placed there for the enjoyment of divers. A Colombian boy dives off a cliff 15 meters high and then challenge the gringos to do the same. Nobody is crazy enough to take up the challenge, but we do favor a little grebe from one of the plates to 4 meters in height, an ideal springboard for our actions more bourgeois.

When we return to camp we run a half-holiday. Medellin Añejo rum bottles and cans of beer Aguila seem like a dream from the large stock of the owner of the cabanas, beautifully bathed in their box of ice. People are divided into groups. Some are beginning to engage in loud and boisterous games of cards, while others challenge each other in endless games of chess and cumbersome in view of romantic candles. Castro driving carries a lot of sweets to all his boys travelers, a well-deserved reward for completing the trek, passing narcos, snakes and wild American.

The next morning we make it to get to El Mamey, and after having eaten a hot meal and be drained a pair of Aguilas, just let us be done with a lot of semiubriaca tejo, the Colombian version of the game of bowls that looks like a race shot put with a side of explosions of gunpowder. My performance is among the most wretched of the century with a throw almost super wrong can kill a dog step, 5 meters away from the target explosives Tagus, between the laughs out loud so that the trekkers of the villagers.

Finally it’s time for the last part of our incredible journey. Like a demented film series B, our final challenge is to try to bring into a small Isuzu Jeep as follows: 9 trekkers, Castro, the driver, his wife and daughter, plus backpacks, boxes of supplies and two chickens ! After several failed attempts at comedy, we begin our 12-mile ordeal to the main asphalt road to Santa Marta with the following line: driver / owner, wife and daughter safely accommodated in the front, 7 hikers perfectly adapted to the mosaic rear of the vehicle in the company of chickens and some ‘supplies, Castro out, hanging on the big spare tire on the tailgate of the Isuzu, two courageous British carrier on the roof of the jeep, sitting amid a sea of bags and boxes.

In this training pyramid-shaped face the treacherous dirt road down from the mountains to the sea, enjoying a box-like comfort and safety levels of sardine style Paris-Dakar rally, while the driver goes to zig-zag between holes as deep canyons, protruding rocks in the middle of the trail dirt roads end and tight spaces on the roadside. The valley and its jungle below now no longer seem so inviting and picturesque, and the engine struggles to keep up and the bottom dell’Isuzu rasp out repeatedly against the rocks.

Finally the jeep gives up and refuses to go further. The transmission is gone. We retreat in the shadow of a house nearby, some asleep, others play soccer with a ball of rags, I look at Castro and the driver all blacks become fat and sweat in an attempt to repair the damage. Another Colombian arrives with his bike and joins the team of mechanics after he ran home to get the toolbox. The jeep is gutted, repaired and turned over, then we are ready to resume the journey back to civilization and return to our separate paths, but not before there drained a freshly squeezed fruit juice, a generous tribute to the sweaty trekkers from Ms who lives on the road to the Lost City.

Simone Chierchini Copyright ©2010-2011

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The Lost City Trek 1

The Lost City Trek 2

The Lost City Trek 3

The Lost City Trek 4

The Lost City Trek 5

The Lost City Trek 6

The Lost City Trek 7

The Lost City Trek 8

The Lost City Trek 9

The Lost City Trek 10

“HEART’S PLACES” ARTICLES FOLDER

“BUDO GURU” ARTICLES FOLDER

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The Lost City Trek – Part 9

The Lost CityIt is our last day in the Lost City, it is time to start retracking towards ‘civilisation’

It has rained for most of the night, but for once I didn’t freeze in jungle night chill, I was out knackered with too much tiredness to notice. The cloud cover is still there, it doesn’t look like Jin will get her army helicopter ride above Ciudad Perdida and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as originally planned. Her foot has swollen even more, however she has had a decent night and is slowly getting back to normal.

This morning we are finally going to see the ruins of the Lost City. They are spread around the main hill and almost entirely engulfed by the vegetation. The various terraced sites are connected by an infinite network of steps. The whole place is a majestic mix of wood, stone, moss, flowers, sunshine and shade. The stones were mostly carried by hand from the river at the bottom of Buritaca 200, the official name of Ciudad Perdida, 500 metres in altitude and 1300 steps below. The process of building such a wonderful city took almost 600 years and at the climax of its power the Lost City housed almost 10000 Tayrona.

Today the site is guarded by a handful of Colombian soldiers, whose presence is a safeguard for the wellbeing of the tourists from possible kidnappings. Since 1987, when the Lost City Trek was officially opened, only one kidnapping took place at the hand of the Colombian guerrilla. This happened in 2003 and it was resolved without loss of life; one could argue that el camino de la ciudad perdida is a lot safer than most parts of western ‘civilised’ world.

Everyone says that the best part of the trek to the Lost City is actually the trek in itself, the sense of anticipation, the exhilaration of being in the wild, the always present inner consciousness of constantly going over one’s limits, the overpowering feeling of being one with nature… All this is supposed to be the real deal, no the actual visit to the site itself. Even though this might be true to some extent, the ruins are a wonderful and really romantic place to visit.

When one reaches Ciudad Perdida and walks where the old Tayrona walked, all the sacrifices, the struggle, both physical and psychological, to get there finally seem to have been worth it: this is an unbeatable cocktail of emotions. These are sights that will never leave my memory, no matter how may years will go by. Ciudad Perdida goes to the top of my “will love forever” list, in the good company of Tortuguero in Costarica, Pammukkale in Turkey, Dun Angus in Ireland, Pozzo del Diavolo in Italy, Iguazu Falls in Brasil.

It is time to track our steps backwards. First thing to do is to go down to the Buritaca river via the infamous killer steps. My knees hate them, so steep, so wet and slippery, so narrow to the point that one can only his foot on them sideways, so irregular and bumpy that all it’s needed to take the plunge is a second of inattention. Those 1300 steps down are a very tough way to start a hike, especially after having walked around the ruins of Ciudad Perdida the whole morning.

At the bottom of the hill, half hour later and with 4 hours of walking still to go, my knees feel like they don’t want to bend ever again, but somehow, a tiny little step after the other, I am able to retrack them all to Elio’s cabanas, after hiking for most of the day alone in the jungle, about one mile behind the others. They all push on like they are racing, I don’t know where to, while I have decided to walk at my own slow pace, taking in every detail of the forest as I go, because now I am in the jungle and I love it, and I don’t know if I will ever come back here again.

Simone Chierchini Copyright ©2010-2011

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The Lost City Trek 1

The Lost City Trek 2

The Lost City Trek 3

The Lost City Trek 4

The Lost City Trek 5

The Lost City Trek 6

The Lost City Trek 7

The Lost City Trek 8

The Lost City Trek 9

The Lost City Trek 10

“HEART’S PLACES” ARTICLES FOLDER

“BUDO GURU” ARTICLES FOLDER

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This article is property of Simone Chierchini. Anyone may reproduce it provided that:
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3. The following credit is included with the reprinted/reproduced article: “This article was written by and it is property of Simone Chierchini. Copyright by Simone Chierchini’s Network© email: schierchini@gmail.com”

The Lost City Trek – Part 8

Colombian SoldiersSnakes, Colombian soldiers and half miracle close the third day of the Lost City Trek

More retracking and more slow pacing on my own, taking lots of photos for future memory and for the enjoyment of family and friends back home. I wish they were here, even though now I know that none of them would have made it so far.

Today it’s hot and sticky and most of the path is exposed to the roasting embrace of the Colombian sun. This is the main challenge of the day, together with a couple of very steep hills to climb and go back down from. I have found a walking stick that some other hiker has left behind and things go much better with it. I am really enjoying being all on my own, away from people that smoke and make noise all the time. Now it is easier to absorb the sights and sounds of the nature around me. At one stage I rejoin my fellow travellers for a splash in the Buritaca River, that I take diving from a rock all dressed and with my shoes on, washing myself and my clothes in one go.

Soon enough we make it to the cabanas and our hammocks. We splash out with an afternoon soup and siesta, then we take a 20 minutes walk to some waterfalls. These have to be reached sliding down a sharp incline, while clinging to a rope not to precipitate against the rocks that populate the bottom.

The waterfall crashes down from a 20 metres jump with a loud bang and a wild splash, finally ending up pacified in a lovely deep pool of cold water, all surrounded by rocks that the gods put there for the divers’ pleasure.

A Colombian boy dives from a rock stand 15 metres high and then challenges the gringos to do the same. Nobody is insane enough to take it up, instead we favour a 4 metres high slabs that is a perfect trampoline for our more bourgeois gestures.

When we go back to the camp we get a party going. Bottles of Medellin Añejo rum and Aguila beer cans appear like in a dream from the cabanas’ owner ample supply, nestled in their proper ice box. People split in groups. Some start to play noisy and rowdy card games, while others challenge each other in brainy chess games light by romantic candles. Castro the guide brings a bunch of sweets for all his travelling kids, a well deserved reward for completing the Trek, overcoming narcos, snakes and wild Americans.

The next morning we make it to El Mamey and after devouring a spicy meal and downing a couple of Aguilas, we get busy right away with a drunken game of tejo, the weight throwing, gun powder exploding version of bowls conjured up by the Colombians. My performance is among the most disgraced of the century: with a super crooked launch I almost manage to kill a dog passing by, 5 metres away from the exploding targets, amid the raucous laughter of villagers and trekkers alike.

Then it is time for the last incredible part of our trip to start. Like in a demented B movie, our final challenge is going to be to fit the following in a small Isuzu jeep: 9 trekkers, Castro, the driver, his wife and daughter, plus backpacks, boxes of provisions and two chickens! After various comical failed attempts, we manage to begin our 12 mile drive towards the main paved road to Santa Marta with the following line up: driver/owner, wife and daughter safely tucked up in the front, 7 trekkers snugly fit into the back of the vehicle in the company of the chickens and some of the provisions, Castro outside, hanging from the big spare wheel on the back door of the Isuzu, 2 brave British chaps on the roof rack of the jeep, sitting among an ocean of bags and boxes.

In this pyramidal shaped formation we face the treacherous unpaved downward track, enjoying canned sardine-like comfort and Paris-Dakar rally levels of safety, while the driver zigzags between canyon deep potholes, rocks that stick out from the beaten track and narrow drivable spaces at the edge of the road. The valley and its jungle down below doesn’t seem inviting or picturesque at all now, as the engine struggles to keep up and the bottom of the Isuzu scratches the rocks several times.

Finally the jeep gives up and refuse to go any further. The transmission is gone. We retire under the shade of a nearby dwelling, some fall asleep, others play football with a ball of rags, I watch Castro and the driver get black all over with grease and sweat as they try to fix the damage. Another Colombian arrives in his motorbike and joins the mechanics team after running back home to fetch his tool box. The broken down jeep is quickly opened, turned around and fixed, so we are ready to resume the drive back to civilisation, not before having enjoyed a freshly squeezed fruit juice, however, generous homage to the sweaty trekkers from the lady who lives up the road.

Simone Chierchini Copyright ©2010-2011

__________________________________________________________________________

The Lost City Trek 1

The Lost City Trek 2

The Lost City Trek 3

The Lost City Trek 4

The Lost City Trek 5

The Lost City Trek 6

The Lost City Trek 7

The Lost City Trek 8

The Lost City Trek 9

The Lost City Trek 10

“HEART’S PLACES” ARTICLES FOLDER

“BUDO GURU” ARTICLES FOLDER

__________________________________________________________________________

This article is property of Simone Chierchini. Anyone may reproduce it provided that:
1. The article is reproduced in its entirety.
2. A link to the original article
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3. The following credit is included with the reprinted/reproduced article: “This article was written by and it is property of Simone Chierchini. Copyright by Simone Chierchini’s Network© email: schierchini@gmail.com”

The Lost City Trek – Part 7

Snake incidentA poisonous snake bites one of the trekkers and suddenly the approach to the Lost City in the Colombian jungle is turned into a deadly race against time

We walk further, deeper in the mountains, every moment more removed from the world as we are used to consider it in our thinking, every moment more conscious of how it actually is. Two hour at a good pace bring us again to the Rio Buritaca, that has accompanied us for most of the hiking with its happy flowing noise several hundred metres below, invisible to the eyes among the thick mass of trees.

The porters readily set a picnic on the shores of Rio Buritaca and the smell of food attract some wild jungle pigs to the banquet. Most travellers opt for a swim in the crystal clear cold water beforehand, to wash away sweat, dust and DEET. There is great diving from the big rocks that line the rio, so I can indulge in one of my oldest passions, down head first in a deep pool of shining liquid glass.

I am just out when I hear someone shouting and suddenly the temperature in my body drops: “Snake!! Snake!! I got bitten by a snake!!” A burst of shivers runs down along my spine as I ran towards Jin, the Chinese girl, who is sitting on a rock by the river, holding her foot up, crying and screaming. Joe is the fastest to reach her, while the snake quickly hides away in the vegetation. I arrive next and I see the damage right away, two red bite marks. It’s done, the worst has happened, abruptly, one second we were laughing out loud and having a whale of a time, the second after desperation spreads out like a virus, a venom. Nobody knows what to do. Castro the guide comes to me asking for medication, but I have none, poison antidote cannot be carried, as it needs to be kept refrigerated, so now we start to feel hopeless.

Jin cries her eyes out. She is both in shock and in pain, she cries “It hurts! It hurts!!” and everyone’s blood freezes in the veins. Castro manages to find himself again and ties a bit of stick to her calf, very tightly, to stop the poison going upward towards the heart. For the same reason her leg is now placed in a position that is lower than the rest of the body. Everyone is trying to understand what kind of reptile has bitten Jin. This is an important piece of information, in order to evaluate the gravity of her poisoning. She says it was half a metre long, two centimetres thick, brown, with orange spots. It was not a coral, at least this.

Time goes by. Jin shakes and sweats. She cries “I don’t want to die!! I want to see Ciudad Perdida!“, but we have nothing that can help her right away, no antidote, cell phones don’t work, the only thing to do is to carry her to the Lost City where the Colombian army has a small post. They will radio for help and a helicopter to carry urgently poison antidote to the ruins in the jungle.

In the meantime another small group of trekkers arrives to the Buritaca and their porters are turned into runners to make it back to the main road in the fastest possible time, as to alert the authorities of the events. The porters offer to try and get the antidote brought to the start of the path in El Mamey from Santa Marta’s Hospital and walk all the way back to Ciudad Perdida overnight. It took us two day to do it, this is an almost super human feat.

One thing is for sure: now, for all, it starts a deadly race against time. From this crossing of the Rio Buritaca to the Lost City there is two hours of really tough hike left. On the spur of the moment the Colombian porters become 100 metres sprinters, running through bushes, trees, uphill, downward, jumping thoughtlessly from stone to rock, crossing the Buritaca several more times. Castro and two other porters have the toughest task of all, as they must carry the girl on their back, swapping every 10-15 minutes, and carry her while running like hell. Jin is a medium size girl, she is by no means petite or light. The porters manage to achieve something that seems almost impossible, that is to carry someone of the same weight, on rough ground, racing faster than Olympic competitors.

The rest of us, poor normal human beings, feeling like Avatars on their first Pandora day, tries to do what we can, which turns out to be unbelievable. We cover what in the original schedule was meant to be a 2-hour hike in less than half the time. An adrenaline rush pervades everyone’s limbs, we are all possessed by fear, shock, even excitement and extreme adventure lust. We are about half way when new characters appear in this unfolding drama. It’s the Colombian Army soldiers with their shining Kalashnikov in one hand and a stretcher in the other. The first runner has already made it to Ciudad Perdida and the soldiers reached us back while we barely covered half of the remaining hike.

Jin is laid down, stretched, tied and raised by the soldiers above their head, so that the rush upward can now resume at a faster pace. All the previous running though is nothing in comparison to the climbing of the 1300 derelict stone steps that finally lead to the Los City. We take them three at the time, risking to lose our footing and precipitate 100 metres downward, but bad luck has already stroke once today, so we continue uphill towards the top safely. Yes, safely, but almost in inhuman state: someone carries two rucksacks, others carry boxes of provisions bigger than them, I run as close as possible to Castro and the others who carry Jin, as I want to record all of it with my camera.

Those 1300 steps bring us 500 metres upward in altitude, the porters with Jin on their back, and I keep wondering how they can do that, when I can barely manage to carry up myself, almost stepping on my own tongue. I scratch my shin badly twice, scraping it against the sharp rocks that line the path, while I risk what one should not to keep up with the pace of the porters. My bad knee and its bran new cruciate ligament hold, and I send a silent thank you to my surgeon back in Rome. Several times I think that I am going to die, not Jin, since my heart is threatening me to explode at any moment. I wish the Tayrona had built their capital at the bottom of this hill, beside the river but I know I have to keep up, as the soldiers do not speak a word of English and they keep asking me to communicate with the Chinese chica. They want to know how she feels, they want her awake, aware that she is being taken care of, that all is going to be right.

We finally make it to the top, a plateau covered in jungle with cleared terraces paved in stone. In these clearings once stood the wooden dwellings of the Tayrona; the wider one used to house the hut of the Chief. This is where the helicopter will land, but will it, really?

Luck has definitely abandoned us for the day, as you will learn soon.

Simone Chierchini Copyright ©2010-2011

__________________________________________________________________________

The Lost City Trek 1

The Lost City Trek 2

The Lost City Trek 3

The Lost City Trek 4

The Lost City Trek 5

The Lost City Trek 6

The Lost City Trek 7

The Lost City Trek 8

The Lost City Trek 9

The Lost City Trek 10

“HEART’S PLACES” ARTICLES FOLDER

“BUDO GURU” ARTICLES FOLDER

__________________________________________________________________________

This article is property of Simone Chierchini. Anyone may reproduce it provided that:
1. The article is reproduced in its entirety.
2. A link to the original article
https://simonechierchini.wordpress.com/2011/01/06/the-lost-city-trek-%E2%80%93-part-7/ is included at the bottom of the reproduced post.
3. The following credit is included with the reprinted/reproduced article: “This article was written by and it is property of Simone Chierchini. Copyright by Simone Chierchini’s Network© email: schierchini@gmail.com”

The Lost City Trek – Part 6

Village KogiIt’s the third day of our trek to the Lost City and we meet a Kogi settlement, where I play convincingly the role of  jungle doctor

Seven o’ clock and it’s up and go. Today we are going to make our final approach to Ciudad Perdida. We start our hike through the jungle in a fresh, pleasant temperature. One more time the absence of mosquitoes is a perfect gift for the traveller, and so are the wonderful views of the forested mountains. Everywhere one can turn his head there is total solitude and birds singing, while the colours and shapes of the jungle, ever changing, are deeply moving and tell many stories to the ones who know how to listen.

The track is initially gently rolling up and down, but after the first hour things suddenly change: for forty minutes we climb again and it is a steep ascent, like the first day, but our legs answer more willingly, either because the tough ascent of the first day took the rust off them or because it is earlier today and the path we walk under tree shelter. We sweat, silently swear and grind our teeth as we go up, but we get it done. When we stop, out of the huge backpack of one of the porters appear pineapples and bananas to reward us after the struggle. He is the youngest of the porters that accompany us, merely a boy, a tough heroic 12 years old who never stops, smiles, complains. I think of my own son of 12 and I realize how our civilization is totally gone soft.

 

We resume our hiking and soon enough we reach a small Kogi settlement. Castro says he will ask the Chief to show us how the Kogi brew a liquor from fermented sugar cane and then maybe we can taste this rare speciality. He goes to confer with the Chief but soon he is back, all apologetic: it is a no go, there is nothing he can do. The wife of the boss is sick with a strong fever, so no outsiders are to be allowed in the circular thatched hut where the couple resides with a considerable amount of children.

Then Castro asks: “Would anyone have medication for the Chief’s wife?”, so here I go, suddenly turned into a jungle doctor. I enter the Chief’s hut with my pack of meds, trying to look the part while a dozen Kogi stare at me wordless. I finally manage to fish out my Tachipirina drops, originally from mamma’s closet in Rome, and I put 20 drops in water for the sick woman to drink. She swallows, everybody stares, nobody says anything and I start to feel like those western missionaries in the wild men village of Hollywood memory. Then the Chief gets up, leaves and quickly re-enters the hut with a small plastic bag in his hands. He gives it to me, then, while everyone is still speechless, I am asked to leave.

When Castro sees the goods he says it is coca leaves; the gift, apparently, is a big one. I share the leaves with my fellow travellers while Castro explains how to chew them, as to release the alkaloid contained in them, and then to spit them out without swallowing as they could make you sick. So we resume our pace, at a faster pace now, like the native Americans of old, supported by the wave of adrenaline created by the alkaloid as it enters our system. Sure thing it’s a lot easier to overcome the steeper hills and bear the heat now fallen on the wonderful Colombian mountains all around.

When the conquistadores discovered the particular effect of coca leaves on people, they used them to work the local indigenous population to death. The best part of the 10000 Tayrona people that originally populated the area where exterminated through inhuman work conditions, starvation, diseases, war.

I remember this information from my pre-trek reading as I walk through an open patch where the forest has been cleared. Here the Kogi practice their sustenance farming. A small boy in his typical white Kogi dress, with the inevitable white brown-striped Kogi sack hanging from his side, approaches me. He signals towards my baseball cap, an orange NYPD hat made in Nicaragua that I bought on a previous trip. He then gives me a big inviting smile that says it all: leave me your hat gringo! I obviously fall for it and my head is now unprotected from the sun, while the little Kogi runs like hell to show the amazing gift he got from a white man passing by with his rucksack on.

Simone Chierchini Copyright ©2010-2011

__________________________________________________________________________

The Lost City Trek 1

The Lost City Trek 2

The Lost City Trek 3

The Lost City Trek 4

The Lost City Trek 5

The Lost City Trek 6

The Lost City Trek 7

The Lost City Trek 8

The Lost City Trek 9

The Lost City Trek 10

“HEART’S PLACES” ARTICLES FOLDER

“BUDO GURU” ARTICLES FOLDER

__________________________________________________________________________

This article is property of Simone Chierchini. Anyone may reproduce it provided that:
1. The article is reproduced in its entirety.
2. A link to the original article
https://simonechierchini.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/the-lost-city-trek-%E2%80%93-part-6/ is included at the bottom of the reproduced post.
3. The following credit is included with the reprinted/reproduced article: “This article was written by and it is property of Simone Chierchini. Copyright by Simone Chierchini’s Network© email: schierchini@gmail.com”

Stop Dreaming: Time To Go To Japan!

Shinjuku

Tokyo: the bustling are of Shinjuku

These days it has become almost common to travel to Japan. Every year there is a larger number of Aikido students heading for the country of the Rising Sun. If you are among the lucky ones ready to go to Tokyo or you are just starting to think about it, read along and pack your training uniforms! If you can’t make it now, keep dreaming and hope for future opportunities

di SIMONE CHIERCHINI

Before going
First of all we advise you to avoid travelling to Japan for training during the summer season, when the weather is extremely hot and humid – the rainy season goes from mid June to mid July. If you can freely plan your trip, take up springtime or autumn. Try to stay for at least 2-3 weeks to allow yourself to get used to the new environment and make the most of the experience. When packing your clothes, consider that the temperate climate in Japan generally corresponds to that in Southern Europe.
To access Japan, if you are planning to stay for less than three months, you will only need a valid passport. It is a good idea to shop around for good flight deals. Usually you will find “cheap” flights in the Travel supplement of the Sunday Times or on the web. The flight can be between 15 and 20 hours long, depending on the route.
Before you leave, we advise you to buy your Japan Rail Pass from your local travel agent. Of course they will look at you like you just landed from Mars, but I guarantee you it can be done! With your JRP in the pocket you will be able to travel the whole Japanese railway system with no limits (there is a 7, 14 or 21 days version) and save a lot of money. Public transport is a must when staying in Tokyo or visiting cultural centers such as Nara and Kyoto. Remember: transport is extremely expensive!

Your Japanese trip will hit your savings!

Money matters
The Japanese official currency is the yen. At the moment 1000 yen correspond to about 10€ or 13$. Change your currency in yen at home. If you are bringing cash or travelers cheques with you, they must be in dollars. With other currencies you are going to have difficulties. In Tokyo almost every shop and restaurant is credit card friendly. When going make sure you are financially solid: your Japanese trip will hit your savings like no other travel before! The cost of daily life in Japan is very high, nearly twice what you are used to at home. On the other hand the possibilities to enjoy are almost infinite… and this is why you will want to make sure that you have plenty to spend!

Your Narita to Tokyo travel map

Arriving in Tokyo
Don’t let your flight destination cheat you: it is not to Tokyo that you are flying to but to Narita, 70 km away from Tokyo. After collecting your luggage and going through the paper work with the custom officials, you will be presented with the problem of reaching the huge city. Don’t panic: almost every sign around you is bilingual, Japanese ideograms and English. Take a deep breath and head for the Tourist Information Office. Get a Tokyo map showing the Subway-JR network and ask for directions. They speak decent English! You can get a taxi (and spend half of your budget straight away!), or a bus (which is the handiest), or the Express Train Keisei Skyliner up to Ueno Station and then continue to your final destination with the Subway or JR (the cheapest way). I obviously decided for the last option and it worked out all right. By the way that’s how the locals travel from Narita to Tokyo: it could happen that you are the only Westerner in the entire train!

A Ryokan, the beautiful Japanese-style hotel

Accommodation
Together with transport, this is where most of your money will disappear: if compared to our standards, there is no cheap accommodation. Different categories of accommodation available include Hotels, Ryokan, Hostels and Gaijin houses. You can find a variety of hotels of different level. They are all out of your reach though, especially if you are going to stay for a long period (this does not apply to Lotto winners of course…).
A Ryokan is the beautiful Japanese-style hotel. The place is run in the traditional way: You will sleep on a comfortable futon, wear wide cotton yukata in your spare time, take a bath in the typical floor level bathtub (really hot, watch out!), taste Japanese cuisine, walk barefoot on rice straw tatami. Ryokan are dear but it’s worth it to stay a couple of nights to enjoy the traditional atmosphere they still retain.
Youth Hostels are definitely a cheaper option but if you are going for rock bottom cheap you should consider a Gaijin House, a place for foreigners, where you will meet with travellers from all over the world and possibly find company in your exploratory trips of Tokyo and elsewhere.
Lists of accommodation are available in the best Tokyo Guide Books (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, etc.), contacting the Japanese Embassy in your country, or surfing the Internet.

Special Tokyo Metro employees whose job is to push in the travelers

Moving around
The most convenient, fast and cheap way of moving around Tokyo is the Subway network and the JR railway. They cover every part of Tokyo and cross several times, allowing you to reach almost everywhere from 5.30am to 1.30am. All stops have bilingual signs. They are clean and safe even at night.
We recommend you avoid JR and Subway at peak time due to the unbelievable mass of people crowding the carriages on their way to or from work. Trains are so full that there are special employees whose job is to push in the travelers and so allow the doors to close… They do it the Japanese way, politely, in fact they wear white gloves!
You will have to buy your ticket from the vending machines. Above each of them there is a list of possible destinations with the corresponding fee. In case of doubt pay the minimum fee and add the difference when you reach your station. You can also get around by bus. Bus signs are in Japanese only – so make sure you know already where to get off or you will get lost.
It is possible to avail of one of the many taxis passing by. This is an expensive option but a necessary one after 1am when JR and Subway end their service. A free taxi is recognisable from a red light showing on the windscreen. Do not try to open the door of your taxi to get in, if you don’t want to look like a fool: the doors don’t open from outside, the driver lets you in and out, after having paid of course! It is rare to find an English speaking taxi-driver, so it is a good idea to get somebody to write down your destination in Japanese ideograms for you.
Something that will strike a foreigner in Japan is that the habitable area is very small in proportion with the population. You can see that dramatically at Shinjuku or Tokyo Stations. Over one million people per day pass through Shinjuku Station, the one nearest the Aikikai Hombu Dojo….
Tokyo is a huge metropolis filled with modern colours and lights. It is composed by stratification of roads, subway crossings and railway lines where super fast trains could speed up to 300 km/h among skyscrapers, separated from each other by streets sometimes not wider than a couple of meters. It is possible to find a new skyscraper, built with the most innovative technology, right beside an old two storey timber house and they even look well together. Very often in Japan you can notice this incredible but harmonious mix of traditional and modern. In Tokyo you can first visit a 60 storey shopping mall and then take a walk along a stream, with everybody around you cycling and the local house owners getting to their place over a small wooden bridge!

Japanese Food: don't be too fussy, give it a try

Food & drink
In Tokyo you will find every sort of restaurant and food for all tastes. Prices range from astronomical to cheap. It is not difficult to find unusual and tasty meals to kill your hunger. All you have to do is not to be too fussy and give it a try. Menus are in Japanese only, which make the overall experience funnier and more adventurous, but numbered plastic models of what is available are shown in the shop window!

The main mat area of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo

Aikido training in Tokyo
Aikido in Japan presents a very different picture from Aikido in Europe. There are more practitioners in Japan than in all European countries combined….
There are various Aikido organisation in Japan, the Aikikai the foremost among them, which appear to live in harmony. In 1968 with the co-operation and dedication of people from all over the world, Aikikai Hombu Dojo was rebuilt from its original wooden structure to a modern day concrete building. The dojo now stands five stories tall and includes three separate training areas totalling 250 tatami plus changing areas and offices.
Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba has his residence next door. About 15 instructors give regular lesson there, ranging from Doshu himself, Shihans like Endo, Arikawa, Kobayashi, to 4th and 5th Dans who are preparing to be full-time professional instructors.
Practice starts at 6.30 every morning with a class usually taught by Doshu. In the main dojo there are 5 classes daily, with each of the instructors scheduled to give particular classes. During my stay at the Hombu I saw a full range of styles. The variations are noticeable. I met many foreign students that practice at the Hombu Dojo. Some have come to Japan to learn Aikido and train at the Hombu, paying their way by teaching or interpreting their native languages.
The vast size of Hombu is rather daunting and some foreigners are put off by this, preferring the homelier atmosphere of smaller dojo up and down the country. Personally I sometimes felt hampered by being unable to communicate in Japanese and this was unfortunate. I recommend anyone who is considering going to Japan to practice, to learn a little Japanese conversation first.
Beside training at the Hombu, you cant miss the practice in Tada Sensei’s dojo, situated inside Gessoji Shrine.

Practical information
Aikikai HQ, 17-18 Wakamatsu-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162
You can get there with the JR, Yamamote Line (nr 13 from Shinjuku), Shin Okubo stop.
Fee for one day of training 1500 yen, for one month 12000 yen.

Gessoji Dojo, Kicchijoji Hon-cho 1-11-26, Musashinoshi, Tokyo
To reach Tada Sensei’s dojo get the JR line (nr. 19 from Shinjuku), Kicchijoji stop.
Training schedule at the Gessoji Dojo is the following: Tue-Wed-Fri 6.15 – 7.15 pm & 7.30 – 8.30 pm, Tue & Fri 8 – 9 am

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