Friday, March 30, 2012

Viking Ship Cruise: Stockholm to Helsinki

When it comes to traveling, there are two types of people: those who cruise, and those who do not. The people who go on cruises are distinct for a number of reasons. Primarily, they don’t seem to find anything embarrassing about being a tourist. They have no shame in proudly dawning their fanny packs, sun hats, maps, cameras, and souvenir T-shirts. It even amazes me that they will wear a souvenir T-shirt from one trip, while they are vacationing on another trip. They are the type of people that want to go abroad, but don’t want any of the mess and stress that typically accompany foreign travel. They don’t want to worry about how to get around on the local transportation, what sights they will see, and where or what they will eat. A cruise provides them with all of the planned and packaged excitement, with none of the headache. 

I, on the other hand, find myself in the latter group: the non-cruisers. Among me are people who hate looking like tourists; we don’t linger around the hotel, we don’t go into souvenir shops, we memorize the subway map in our rooms before heading out, so as not to have to look at it at the station. No matter where we are, we always walk in briskly in a straight path, with that have that “I know exactly where I am going” look on our faces.

So why did I end up on a cruise? Me, of all people. Goddam Rick Steves is why. I hadn’t originally planned to go to Helsinki, but his guide to Scandinavia was full of praise for this tiny town, and after reading about it I wanted to go soooooo bad. I mean, when else am I going to be anywhere near Finland? Who knows. And out of all the options to get there, the cruise looked by far the coolest. The more I read about the ship, the more it sounded like a great interjection between trains and luggage-totting in the rest of Scandinavia. Casino, nightclub, duty-free shop, a handful of restaurants including a Smörgåsbord, and my own private hotel room on board the ship. Yep, no sleeping on the deck bench for me.

So I ended up on a two night cruise from Stockholm to Helsinki, and back. I booked with Viking, after comparing them to Sijia and finding that they were slightly cheaper and had a better dock location in Stockholm.

As the time drew nearer to cruise-city, I got more and more excited. This is going to be so romantic! Like that hand-on-the-steamy window scene from Titanic. Oh, if only I knew. 

Upon first impression our room was quite nice. I booked  an extra-large room in the center of the ship, because I didn't care to spend the extra money on a window cabin (nor was it even worth it, because it was pitch black outside for most of the time). However, finding that we were located on the 11th floor of the ship (the highest floor) was somewhat of a surprise. My thinking: at least if the ship sinks we’ll have the longest time above water, and thus the best chance of surviving. I know it sounds morbid, but I can’t help myself.

Then we head to the main deck for some drinks while watching the ship embark. Those were by far the cheapest cocktails in Scandinavia, and everyone knew it. The place was packed. I had never been so glad to spend $8 on a cocktail in my life. After $15-25 for a single drink in most bars around Scandinavia, you would be glad to spend $8 too.  Apparently the duty free policy extended beyond the souvenir shop, and included duty free cocktails in every bar.

drinks on the deck

strawberry daquiris 
complimentary champaign

After the deck party we washed up in the room and it was Smoreorg time! I booked the 7:30 seating because 5:30 seemed to damn early. As I piled five different kinds of caviar onto my plate, I thought, so this is must be the origin of the great and wonderful thing we know as all-you-can-eat dining. This is where it all began…ahhh…food coma. This is also where and how we met our spiritual guide to all things Scandinavia, the wonderful and mysterious John from  San Francisco. John sat across from us at our buffet table. Of course, it was assigned seating, so perhaps it was a carefully planned move by the host to group the only three Americans on this ship at one table….And speaking of being one of the only Americans, Rick Steves was right: it was about 40% Swedish, 50% Finnish, and 10% everyone else, mostly Chinese (in fact, Helsinki was loaded with Chinese…more on that later…)

round 1

round 2

cheese place

Everything was going well, until we got up to our rooms, by that point the boat was well into the Baltic Sea, and the sea was doing what it does best: rocking the shit out of our boat. 

From the 11th floor it was hard to stand without swaying violently from one side to the other. If the police had come up to the 11th floor and made me walk in straight line to test for alcohol intoxication, I would have surely failed due to the damn Baltic Sea. 

We tried to sit on the bed and watch some bad British made-for-TV movie, but the TV, which was bolted to the wall, began to sway back and forth so much that I felt like I was being hypnotized. That’s when we decided to just lay down and try to sleep. About twenty minutes later my partner starts puking like it’s someone's 21st birthday. So much for the hand-on-the-steamy-window scene from Titanic.

Well, we made up for the last night’s Titanic-fail with SWEDISH MEATBALLS! By that time at least both of us had regained our appetites. 

We also tried the beef stew...mmmm...

The next morning we had the breakfast buffet, which was pleasant, but no where near as extravagant as dinner. 

My advice to all future travelers. Do the cruise. It’s wonderful. You’ll love it. But for the love of god, get a room on the lower level.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Journey to Izumo: Aboard the Sunrise Izumo

The man at the ticket counter does not want  to sell me this ticket. 

“You do realize that you’re going to be sleeping on the floor?” he says. 

Yes, I know exactly what I am getting into, I assure him. I am reserving a ticket on the overnight train from Tokyo to Izumo city. It’s called the Sunrise Izumo. The train departs promtpy at 10:00 pm from Tokyo station, and twelve hours later you find yourself on the southwest coast of Japan, just before 10:00 am.

 With a Japan Rail Pass, this wonderful journey is completely free…if you sleep on the floor. The alternative is not much better: pay almost $120 for a private room with a twin-sized bed. That’s more than most budget hotels in Tokyo. 

I’m going to suck it up and become one with the floor for twelve hours, but the man at the ticket counter doesn’t believe me. Listen buddy, I’ve slept in far worse places than the floor of a train, but I won’t get into those stories here.

“No bed,” he says, “twelve hours with no bed.”

Maybe they’ve had problems with foreigners before. Like, the ticket man tells them that they will be sleeping on the floor, and then they board the train and are shocked to find that they will be sleeping on the floor. 

Somehow, after five minutes of bilingual negotiation, he hands over two tickets for two spaces on the floor of the Sunrise Izumo. What a relief. I had to fight hard to get these tickets, not just with the ticket man, but the whole reservation system. When taking overnight trains in Japan, you absolutely must have a reservation. However, it is impossible to make this reservation outside of Japan, especially if you are using a rail pass. The night trains are also popular, and almost always get full. Therefore, if you plan to take an overnight train the day after you arrive in Japan, it means you better hope and pray that there are still spaces available, but very likely there are not. We got lucky, my friend and I. We booked the last two spaces two days before we planned to leave.

Back in Tokyo, we’re waiting on the platform for the Sunrise Izumo to appear. There is a group of very cute twenty-somethings next too us, and for a brief moment we hope to share a space on the floor next to them, but alas, they continue on to the next platform, and are replaced with a group of old, drunk businessmen. Then I remember the final, foreshadowing words of a Japanese friend, just before we departed.

“Watch out for those old perves on the train. The men like to get really drunk before taking the night train.”

Don’t want this to turn into an all-night touch fest. I motion to Danny that he better be on his guard. At this point, I’m getting kind of nervous. I mean, I know we’re sleeping on the floor, but how bad can it be? Before we left I tried relentlessly to look up pictures of the Sunrise Izumo, so I could get a good idea of the interior, but I couldn't find much at all. I was about to board terra incognita.


The train pulls in, and it is immediately obvious that this is one old piece of machinery. I guess after taking some many Shinkansen, your expectation is that everything in Japan must be shiny, new, and extremely fast. This tin box is probably older than me.
The doors open, and we board.

Finally, the interior of the  Sunrise Izumo is revealed!

The train car is divided into two levels, like giant bunk beds. The floor is partitioned into individual-sized sections, with very little privacy. At least the touching perameters have been established.

Danny and I thought this ominous black lens was a (not-so-hidden) hidden camera, put in place to monitor any unauthorized touching. But it turned out to be a reading light. God we are so paranoid. 

The partitions are  wide enough to say, “this is my space, jerk,” but not wide enough to allow for any amount of privacy. The only way to escape from being within inches of a total stranger in the small window in each cubicle, which allows for a private view of the outside.

As soon as the train departs, it becomes obvious yet again that this is no Shinkansen. The train vibrates heavily and sways from side-to-side like a sinister baby cradle. Its going to be a long night.

Thank god I'm a light packer. Any more luggage and I wouldn't be able to fit my body in here....

My fellow floor-mates were quite the disciplined bunch. They went to sleep effortlessly as soon as our tickets were checked, and they made no noise or fuss about anything. When I  awoke around 8:00 am they were all dressed and staring out their little windows, which made me feel like a teenager waking up on the couch of a friend’s house....
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