May 2016 - Vikingess Voyages

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

[Hotel Review] Niigata: Shikinoyado Minoya Ryokan (Yahiko) - 四季の宿みのや

10:19:00 PM

The prefecture Niigata is among other things known for its hot springs (onsen), and one of the areas most famous for onsen is Yahiko, a village not too far from Tsubame City south in Niigata. I visited Yahiko with my family a little while ago, and we had the pleasure of spending a night at the traditional Japanese ryokan hotel there called Shikinoyado Minoya (四季の宿みのや) - the Inn of Four Seasons

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Norway: Fjord Sightseeing with Norway in a Nutshell

12:24:00 PM
Norway is often referred to as the country of the fjords, but what does this entail? While a normal inlet also can be categorized as a fjord in some cases, most people probably would associate fjords with narrow inlets surrounded by steep-sided mountains. This type of landscape can only be found in a handful of countries, with Norway's fjords frequently being ranked as the best in the world

If you find yourself in Norway and are longing to see the fjords you can find daily trips to the fjords from both Oslo and Bergen* during the whole summer season. We went for a day-trip with the tour "Norway in a Nutshell", which has become to be known as Norway's most popular fjord trip.

*or any of the stations on the Bergen Railway, including Flåm and Voss
Voss station
In our case we started out in Bergen, a city known as the "gateway to the fjords". We left by train from Bergen Station at 8:45 in the morning heading for the first destination of the trip; a small town called Voss. This place is known mainly for Voss water (believe it or not) and for extreme sports. In fact, this tiny place with a population of around 14,000 people receives more than 40,000 visitors for their annual festival "Ekstremsportveko" (the Extreme Sports Week) or just "veko" held late June.

For those who are interested in spending more than a day on the trip it is possible to stay a night in Voss and for instance try out rafting before heading towards the fjords. If not, you will only have a short break before the bus leaves so there won't be any chance to go sightseeing in the town if you follow the regular schedule of the tour.
The bus takes you to the Nærøydalen valley, which is the place where the fjord cruise starts, but even on the way there you can enjoy the sight of marvellous nature combined with the characteristic wooden houses often painted in red or white.
Another highlight from the bus trip is the descend down the winding path of one of Northern Europe's steepest roads, the Stalheimskleiva. The road has a one to five (20%) gradient at its steepest point, and you'll get the chance to take a good look at the fabulous scenery as the bus gets maneuvered through 13 sharp hairpin bends.
Rainbow over the Stalheimsfossen waterfall
On the way down you get to enjoy the sight of two beautiful waterfalls; the 140 meter high Sivlefossen waterfall, and the 126 meter high Stalheimsfossen waterfall. The picture above shows Stalheimsfossen waterfall where we had the pleasure of seeing a beautiful rainbow.
Once you reach the bottom of the Nærøydalen vally you'll find yourself in a small town called Gudvangen. Here you have the chance to stay the night if you'd like; right by the ferry terminal lies Gudvangen Fjordtell & Apartments, a charming hotel with a beautiful view of the Nærøyfjord (And yes, the name is a wordplay on fjord and hotel).
But even if you decide to continue on with the trip right away you'll have approximately 25 minutes to for instance check out the souvenir shop, take pictures of the viking ship by the shore or perhaps try out a local beer or a viking shot while you enjoy the view of the fjord from the restaurant.

Viking shots in the bar

A fireplace inside the main building

The main building of the Gudvangen Fjordtell seen from outside
After the brief stop in Gudvangen it is time for yet another highlight of the trip: the fjord cruise from Gudvangen to Flåm.  This cruise takes you through the stunning Nærøyfjord and into another fjord called Aurlandsfjord, both part of the West Norwegian Fjords inscribed into UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2006
Did you by the way know that the word "fjord" comes from the old norse word "fjörðr"? This word could mean to "travel over to the other side", and has the same roots as the word "fare" (as in "farewell"). While fjords in ancient times were vital trading routes for vikings connecting local villages, today the fjords serve as popular routes for tourists annually attracting millions of travellers from all over the world.
It looks idyllic when there's only one seagull in the picture. But believe me, we had way too many seagulls following our boat.
The stunning nature you can see in the fjords has led to them being described as "the best unspoiled travel destinations in the world" by the National Geographic Magazine. In addition to the beautiful surroundings you can also spot some wildlife during the cruise if you're lucky, as the fjords are home to a range of animals such as porpoises, seals and eagles. On the other hand, if you're unlucky all you'll get to see is seagulls. Loads of seagulls. You'll most definitely see seagulls whether you want to or not.
One of the characteristics of the Norwegian fjords are the surrounding steep-sided mountains, but there is a lot to the fjords that one cannot see from the surface. The fjords are said to have been formed over a span of millions of years by glacial erosion, and some fjords go down over a thousand meter below sea level. The difficult terrain has historically made it hard to reach the local settlements along the fjords, many of whom can be accessed only by boat. Until a road connection was established in1988 this was also the case for the village in the picture below called Undredal, which you'll pass along the way to Flåm. Undredal is the home to approximately 100 people and 500 goats, and is known for its traditional goat cheese called brunost (Norwegian brunost - brown cheese - is a must-try if you find yourself in Norway).
The tiny village of Undredal, nestled in between magnificent mountains
Arriving in Flåm you'll again have a break - this time approximately 40 minutes - to explore your surroundings. Flåm is really a beautiful little town, and if you have the time I would recommend staying the night before continuing your trip. Some of your options (if you decide to stay here) include going on a 3-hour kayak trip in the fjords or, if you visit during the winter, perhaps a snowshoe hiking trip. There is also a local museum dedicated to the Flåm Railway where you can learn more about its history, or you could simply climb up the nearest hill and enjoy the spectacular view of the fjord and the snow capped mountains.
You can probably spend hours just enjoying the view of the fjord in Flåm
The Flåm Railway Museum
After the break - which is the longest you get during the trip - it is time to leave the town, once again travelling by train. This time you get to ride the Flåm RailwayFlåmsbana, which was ranked as the most beautiful train ride in the world by Lonely Planet in 2014. The ride only takes about an hour, but in this short time you'll get to pass by majestic waterfalls, steep mountains and no less than 20 tunnels. The trip takes you on a steep ride from sea level up to 865 meter above sea level, and depending on the month you visit you'll even get to see loads of snow once you get close to the end stop in Myrdal. 
Tourists getting on the train by Kjosfossen
The train stops one time on the way to Myrdal by Kjosfossen, a waterfall with a total fall of around 225 meter

Here you'll see a short performance by a dancer dressed up as a huldra, which is a creature from Scandinavian folklore. The forest spirit huldra was believed to take the appearance of an incredibly beautiful young woman, and she would lure the men to follow her into the wild nature with her sweet song. However, the poor men who chose to follow her suspiciously often ended up loosing their lives, for instance by drowning in waterfalls.

Still snow in Myrdal mid-May
The last stop of the trip is Myrdal Station, a mountain railway station and junction with direct connections to both Oslo and Bergen through the Bergen Railway. From here you can either end your trip by taking the train back to your starting point or continue your way to the opposite side of where you came from. The train ride from Myrdal to Bergen is about 2 hours, and it takes approximately 4 1/2 hours to get to Oslo.

When to Travel: 
The "Norway in a Nutshell" trip is extremely popular, and during high season there are swarms of tourists visiting the Norwegian fjords. If you want to avoid the crowds I would recommend arranging a trip in mid-May, as the weather already has become warmer but the tourists season has yet to fully begin. On the 17th of May you can use the opportunity to participate in Norway's largest festival - the Constitution Day. This National Day is still a relatively unknown treasure that Norway has to offer tourists, and the best day of the year to experience traditional Norwegian culture up close.

Thanks for reading!
Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions or comments.

Basic Info
  • ・Name of Trip: Norway in a Nutshell by Fjord Tours AS
  • ・Route:Bergen - Voss - Gudvangen - Flåm - Myrdal - Bergen
    *you can also choose different routes when you make your booking
  • Prices: 
    • ・Rountrip from Bergen: NOK 1320
    • ・Rountrip from Oslo: NOK 2350
    • ・From Bergen to Oslo (or opposite) incl. the sightseeing: NOK 1770
  • ・Official Home Page:

Recommended Hotels in Bergen

Radisson Blu Royal Hotel Bergen

Thon Hotel Bristol Bergen

Det Hanseatiske


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Monday, May 23, 2016

Tokyo: Penguin Bar Ikebukuro (ペンギンのいるBar)

10:11:00 PM

Tokyo certainly has its collection of unique bars and cafes, and you can find anything from cat cafes, dog cafes and bunny cafes to reptile, owl and hedgehog cafes in this busy metropolitan if you feel the need to pet a furry friend. If you're however more in search of some rare options when it comes to nightlife you could always pay a visit to the penguin bar in Ikebukuro.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Sightseeing in Bergen: Lunch Concert at Edvard Grieg's Home at Troldhaugen

7:25:00 AM

The house of Edvard Grieg
Edvard Grieg is one of Norway's most famous composers of classical music, with some examples of his famous works including "In The Hall Of The Mountain King", "Morning Mood", "Solveig's Song" and "Anitra's Dance". Although he passed away more than a hundred years ago his idyllic home in Troldhaugen right outside the city center of Bergen is still open for visitors from all over the world, and during the summer time you even have the opportunity to listen to live concerts every day during the summer from mid-May till late September.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sightseeing in Niigata: The Ito Estate - Northern Culture Museum (北方文化博物館)

10:55:00 PM

The Northern Culture Museum (Hoppou Bunka Hakubutsukan / 北方文化博物館) is a part of the Ito Estate, the former home of one of Japan's largest landowners; the Ito family. The museum was established in 1946 as a donation in the same year as the Land Reform Act was officially proclaimed. Today the estate is open all year around for visitors from all over the world.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Sightseeing in Niigata: The Yahiko Shrine (弥彦神社)

12:59:00 AM

The Yahiko shrine (弥彦神社 or 彌彦神社) in Niigata is situated at the root of the sacred Mt. Yahiko, and surrounded by a forest of 400-500 year old cedar and zelkova trees it is known throughout Niigata as a "power spot". It is one of the most popular shrines in the prefecture, and has a history dating back to around 711 when according to ancient records the main shrine was built.

During my trip to Niigata for the Tsubame Sakura Matsuri festival we made a short visit to the Yahiko shrine, which I have written more about below.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Niigata: Wine and Hot Spring Haven at Cave d'Occi Vinespa Winery Resort

3:26:00 AM
Niigata is among other things known for its great hot springs (onsen), and throughout the prefecture you can find some really nice places to visit if you'd like to try out this typical Japanese bathing culture. If you’re up for a slightly different onsen experience you might want to try out the Cave d'Occi Vinespa Winery Resort, where you'll find that a hot spring experience that can be combined with a full winery tour.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Behind the Scene of the Tsubame Sakura Matsuri - The Oiran Dochu (つばめ桜まつりおいらん道中)

10:49:00 AM
Above: The oiran procession of the Tsubame Sakura Festival where I participated as an Oiran

On the 17th of April, it was finally time for the Tsubame Sakura Matsuri (つばめ桜まつり), a festival that is held annually in April in the southern part of Niigata (新潟). 
Earlier this year I had applied for a role as one of 3 oiran in what is thought of as the highlight of the festival, the Oiran Dochu (おいらん道中) procession, and as the first foreigner in the 74-year long history of the festival, I was selected for the role. As preparations for the festival we had been practicing to walk on 15-cm high geta-shoes in a style called sotohachi-monji (外八文字) and taken part in various PR-events for the festival, and were all extremely excited for the big day. 

Above: Me dressed up as the sakura taiyu Oiran

A video from the procession

In the morning we gathered at the Tsubame Bunsui Welfare Center where it was time to get dressed for the event. With more than 70 people participating in the procession in different roles you can imagine all the work that is necessary to prepare for the parade.
It took a couple of hours before we finally were ready to leave the building.

In advance of the festival I had been a bit nervous about the weight of the outfit; with a 20-kilo heavy kimono, a 10-kilo heavy wig and 15 cm high geta shows I had been slightly worried about my ability to finish the whole 2-hour long parade. However, it turned out that the weight of the outfit itself was no problem, it was the wig (katsura - 桂) that ended up being the biggest challenge for me. At one of the practices we had had two professional katsura-makers from Tokyo measuring our heads and shaping the inner metal frame of the katsura to fit our heads perfectly, but despite the detailed construction, the constant pressure on the head from the katsura was still harder to handle than expected. This experience certainly made me a lot more impressed with the oiran who had to wear these sorts of outfits on a regular basis! To me, the katsura felt more like a torture device than something to wear for beauty.. Haha..
Usually the festival is carried out in an area of Bunsui famous for its beautiful cherry trees, but unfortunately, we were unlucky with the weather, and the procession had to be carried out inside the local gymnasium. After arriving at the gymnasium we got our final pep talk before entering the area where the audience was waiting. People had been lining up to get tickets since early morning, and the gymnasium was packed with visitors. 
The procession itself wasn't that long, we walked around in a circle inside the gymnasium using both regular walk and sotohachi-monji. All in all we had 4 performances to make sure that all the visitors could see the procession. Below are some more photos from the Oiran Dochu:
shamizen-performers onstage
Although it was a bit disappointing that we weren't able to walk outside underneath the cherry trees it was still a fantastic day and without a doubt one of the highlights of my stay in Japan. Personally, I enjoyed just being a part of the preparations for the festival too, for instance, to be able to see part of the process of making the katsura or the huge transformation people go through when they get totally painted with the white makeup. As a foreigner, I felt very blessed to be a part of all this, as it is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If I get the chance I would love to visit Bunsui next year and hopefully see the Oiran Dochu procession outside with the blooming cherry trees in the backdrop.

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About Me

Adventures ofAnette

A modern day shield-maiden who loves to explore the unbeaten paths of the world. From her base in Tokyo, Anette takes on both rural and urban challenges, and goes by the motto "No challenge too big, no adventure too small"!
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