Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Oslo — Part 2

Oslo Botanical Garden.On our forth day in Oslo we decided to go to a botanical garden of Oslo. This was actually the only place that was a little bit too far to walk to.

On a tram to garden.We bought four round trip tram tickets at a gift shop inside the hotel.

Straw sculptures at the garden.We spent a good portion of the day exploring different parts of the garden. Kids ran around, climbed the hills, ran down the grass and on and on.

Viking ship.Also there was a nice Viking exhibition at one part of the park — a ship-like sculpture with a throne-like chair and a bunch of notes and little guides on how Vikings used to do certain things.

Botanical Garden.We decided to walk back to the hotel with a stop by Oslo Opera House building. I spoke with my dad earlier and he told me that one could walk up to the roof of the Opera House for some really nice views.

Throne.So our total walk back to the hotel was around two and a half miles. Not too bad at all.

Garden.So we did make it to the Opera House. And there actually was a real wide road really going around the building and ending up on the roof. And as expected there were great panoramic views from the top.

Garden.At this point we were getting kind of hungry, but in a typical European fashion majority of the food places were closed in the middle of the day. It took us a while before we found an open place called Celsius Cafe. Alena went for some big bowl of Norwegian soup of some kind and kids and I had regular burgers. It was pretty decent.

From the roof of Opera House.When we got to the hotel we did some swimming at the pool. And then everyone was hungry again by dinner time. We went into a small bar across the street from the hotel and ordered some beers, burger and some French fries.

Opera House.We always ask for hot sauce to go with the fries and this place had Sriracha. The combination turned out to be really great.

Opera House.In fact we went there to repeat the same deal a couple of times more. During our first visit to this place we ran into a lonely Russian-speaking guy who was drinking beer by himself. We offered him to join our table. Turned out that he lives in Norway and does some construction work, but overall the conversation ended up being quite boring.

Opera House.We started our fifth day with a visit to a History Museum that was yet again across the street from our hotel. The hotel had a really great location if you didn’t notice a pattern on your own yet. Anyhow — the tickets from the Viking Ship museum that I wrote about early also included admission to this museum.

Viking Museum.Lots of Viking stuff inside. And a bunch of other exhibits. Definitely was worth a visit, especially for “free”.

City Hall.After that we went to city hall again and actually explored it inside this time. A bunch of different stuff to see.

City Hall.And then we went to Aker Brygge — which I wrote about earlier as well. We looked through a bunch of menus and settled on an Asian restaurant with some really good curry. Everyone enjoyed their lunch.

Lunch at Asia restaurant.After the lunch we went onto the opposite side of the bay to explore Akershus Fortress — a really short walk. The fortress was quite big and we had a lot of ground to cover. We walked upon some pond that kids ended up playing at for a good while.

Pond.While they were playing Chinese tourists started photographing them and pushing them to pose for them.

View of Aker Brygge from Akershus Fortress.I walked over and told them to stop. And they couldn’t care less — like I wasn’t even there. I started getting quite angry and that’s when they finally got a “hint”.

Inside Akershus Fortress.Our kids are very blond and I get that is’s a non-existent thing in China, but come on! On the same note — a lot of Norwegian kids are actually just as blonde. Even in Brooklyn this is kind of rare, in Norway — it is not.

By Resistance Museum at Akershus Fortress.We also visited Resistance Museum on the fortress grounds dedicated to Norwegian resistance of a Third Reich. Arosha knows a bit of history about WW2 so he found the museum quite interesting.

At Akershus Fortress.He is still a bit too little to fully grasp the horrors of that war, but I think he starts to understand it all more and we are trying to do our part of educating him.

Inside Akershus Fortress.When we got back to our hotel we decided to eat dinner at the same restaurant as we did on our first day — Den Glade Gris. This time we decided to try something more authentic. We ordered smoked whale and reindeer sausage.

On our way back to hotel.Eating whale was really mentally hard. Especially whale being pretty much raw. We didn’t enjoy that in the least. Had no problems with the deer though.

Ferry to Bygdoy. Akershus Fortress in the background.On our final full day in Oslo we decided to go back to Bygdoy. There was a large open-sky Norwegian Folk Museum there that we didn’t go to during our first visit. What a good thing the decision to go back was. Probably one of the most interesting things to visit.

Norwegian Folk Museum.First of all it really is quite huge. It has whole wooden villages from different parts of Norway reconstructed. Most of the wooden homes you could actually walk into.

Wooden church at Norwegian Folk Museum.They also had a huge wooden Church that is a thousand years old — pretty much all the rest of such buildings burned down long ago.

Norwegian Folk Museum.At one of the houses they had girls dressed into traditional Norwegian closing backing bread on a stone stove on an open fire. The bread was quite tasty.

Animals to pet at Norwegian Folk Museum.There were different live animals for kids to look at and pet. We also took a carriage ride along the park that our kids talked us into.

Inside one of the houses at Norwegian Folk Museum.Also there were Sami exhibits and actual Sami representative visiting. Sami are the people that live on far north in Norway.

Horse ride.We talked to one of the natives and she told us a little bit about the history of Sami people and even sang us some songs in the native language.

Norwegian Folk Museum.We spent a whole day at that place. Really worth a visit, as I said. And after the museum we took a bus back to city hall via our unused tram tickets that we had left over from our botanical garden visit.

Dinner at Rorbua.We went to Aker Brygge for a dinner again. This time we found a truly Norwegian place via TripAdvisor with very high ratings — Rorbua.

By City Hall.I had shish-kebab-like selection of meat — whale, deer, reindeer, beef and something else. Alena had moose stew. And some great beer to go along.

City Hall.Grilled whale meet tasted a lot like beef actually. But there is not going to be any more whale meat for me. I tried it, but I’m happy to live with my mental block of thinking that eating whale is just wrong — for me.

Streets of Oslo.But overall this was probably my favorite restaurant that we ate at during our stay in Norway.

Streets of Oslo.And that is it. The next day we went to airport via a special bus that runs right from our hotel and off to Iceland we went.

Kids at Botanical Garden.A couple of side notes: Alena bought a ton of Norwegian hats, 1 USD was around 8 NOK, everything was quite expensive — Oslo is rated as one of the most expensive cities in the world — which seems true even after New York.

Streets of Oslo.Kids were amazing — walking 5-6 miles daily turned out to not be a problem for them at all. And all in all this trip turned out to be pretty grate. Six days — plenty of things to do.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Oslo, Norway — Part 1

The Vigeland Park.It’s been a good two months since we came back from our unusual for us European vacation and I have yet to write a word about our first stop. The unusual part is two-fold — it was the first time that our kids visited Europe and it was somewhat off the beaten path. Although the second part is debatable considering how popular Iceland has become in the recent years.

Getting ready to fly.Now from the start — the flight. I remember our previous trip to Europe and how tough getting to Paris was. Both Alena and I were completely wiped out by the time we got there. And our flight this time was similar — plane change in Iceland.

Oslofjord.The difference this time was that instead of booking a redeye we booked a flight departing at 2:30pm. And by our math by the time we arrive to Oslo it would be around midnight by New York time which should be manageable for all of us. None of us are good sleepers while on the plane. Quite the opposite actually.

Radisson Blu Scandinavia.Our kids handled it all superbly. They were tired, but they were still up and about, both in good mood, by the time we got to our hotel — Radisson Blu Scandinavia — in the center of Oslo.

Slottsparken -- Palace Park.A small aside to our actual destination — Norway didn’t really happen as a whole. We decide to settle on Oslo because we weren’t sure how our kids would handle too much hotel changes. Full six nights in Oslo. We were wondering if it was going to be boring or not, but more on that later.

Streets of Oslo.We arrived to our hotel at 6 or 7am. That was the second point of our worry. Usually we have little problems with Hiltons with super-early check-in, but this was Radisson. Oslo has no Hilton properties.

Playing at Palace Park.We did manage to get our Radisson status to Gold level which should give us a room upgrade among other things, but we had no idea what we were going to do if we were made to wait until 2 or even 4pm to actually check-in.

Making jewelry out of grass.At the reception we were told that there are no rooms available. Bummer. Gold status speech didn’t help. Having no options I asked the clerk if it would be OK for our kids to sleep on the sofas in the lobby. She told us to hold and went inside the office behind the counter.

Dinner at Den Glade Gris.Five minutes later she came back and told us that they had to take a room away from somebody else — I’m not really clear on the mechanics of this one — but we were getting a room right away. She told us that this wasn’t really proper and that we really need to book a room for the night ahead, but I really can’t complain. No upgrade, a little bit of grumpiness, but we got our 7am check-in. Thank you!

Waiting casually for parents to finish dinner.We got up to our room and got into our beds for a much needed energy restoration sleep. One problem that we ran into was the fact that even though we could completely darken the windows out a good amount of light was still getting into the room from the curtain edges. And interestingly enough that was the case not only with our day sleep, but all the nights as well. North and the middle of summer will do that. White nights.

Palace Park.We slept for a good number of hours — 5 or 6. We got up well rested and quite hungry. We turned to our trusty TripAdvisor for options and discovered a very highly rated restaurant right on the same block as our hotel — Den Glade Gris. I had a pork knuckle, Alena had Norwegian style salmon and kids had a steak. Everything was good.

Streets of Oslo.Another thing that was really close to the hotel — practically across the street — was a huge park with Royal Palace in the center of it. That’s were we spent the rest of the day. Kids ran around and played, we walked down to a metro station with a large fountain by the National Theater and then back to park and more running. Alena and I just laid on the grass along with many sunbathing Norwegians. The vacation has started.

Vigeland Park.Now before I start with our first full day in Norway a couple of things on the topic of “boring”. Oslo turned out to be amazing. Every single day we had a different plan be it a museum, a park, some special destination or other — we had no time to be bored. There is a ton of stuff to do and see without ever leaving the city.

Vigeland Park. Monolith.On our first day of Oslo exploration we decided to take it easy and picked an easy-to-walk-to destination of The Vigeland Park. The walk was about 2 miles in each direction. We walked through some small parks, a rather big flea market and just regular streets — taking in the sights of an unfamiliar city.

Vigeland Park.The Vineland Park itself is know for a huge abundance of various statutes created by Gustav Vigeland. And when I say huge I really mean it. Probably hundreds of them. The park also had large patches of flowers and grass. It took a while to explore.

Vigeland Park.On the far side of the park there was a large obelisk which was carved out in a way to make it look like it’s built out of human bodies. This one was also surrounded by various statues.

Zodiac installment.And yet another thing that stood out was a zodiac signs structure. Our kids weren’t really familiar with those yet, so we talked about all the signs we were born under — actually four in a row — Leo, Virgo, Libra and Scorpio. We also have all four elements in our family — fire, earth, air and water.

Kids at Vigeland Park.That was the big part of our day. We decided to eat dinner right by our hotel again — just across the street from it. This time we picked a Spanish restaurant with a high rating. We ordered a large dish of seafood paella — something that we actually failed with epically during our Spanish trip — no offline TripAdvisor back then.

Dinner at Spanish restaurant.We also ordered a bunch of tapas and a pitcher of Sangria. Our kids weren’t all that impressed with paella, even though they typically like rice, especially Arosha. But they did enjoy some of the tapas.

City Hall in the background.And we concluded our day with a trip to a hotel pool and sauna. That was a conclusion of most of our days while in Oslo. At first Arosha didn’t like the sauna, but after I told him some stories about our previous visits with parents and with Alena and all the good memories he insisted on going every day.

Streets of Oslo. Bygdoy Peninsula.For our third day we had big plans — something we actually planned and researched beforehand — a trip to Bygdoy Peninsula. We started with a walk to Radhuset — city hall — which was only half a mile away from our hotel.

On the ferry to Bygdoy Peninsula.Radhuset it located right next to a pier from which ferries depart to Bygdoy. Also it was close to a neighborhood called Aker Brugge — lots of restaurants of all kinds — a foodie paradise.

Viking Ship Museum.The reason why Bygdoy Peninsula is a great place to visit is the fact that it has 5 or 6 museums in close proximity to each other. For our first stop we decided to pick Viking Ship museum and disembarked our ferry accordingly.

Viking Ship. This one is approximately 1,200 years old.Viking ship museum wasn’t very large, but it did have a nice collection of a thousand year old large “boats” or whatever those vessels are called. The boats were located on the lower level and each one had an observation deck nearby that people could walk up to to look inside.

Viking Ship Museum.There was also a good collection of ancient weapons and tools. We told our kids as much as we know about the Vikings and our kids were quite interested in all those things. Though Alena and I kept thinking — Ragnar, Ragnar!

At Vigeland Park.Then we stocked up on some very warm Norwegian hats at a gift store and had a fast-food type of lunch at nearby food stand — we actually had crab and shrimp sandwiches from what I remember.

Kon-Tiki raft.Our next stop was Kon-Tiki museum. I didn’t know much about it beforehand and we only found out about it during our pre-trip research. Alena actually read a book and then her, Arosha and I watched a movie.

At Vigeland Park.Kon-Tiki is a story about a Norwegian scientist from the mid 20th century who had a theory that Polynesia was actually populated by people from South America and not Asia. But the scientific community dismissed it as complete nonsense.

Ferry.The only thing he could do at that point is prove it. So he built a raft and after a 100 year journey with a small group of people they actually reached the island as he had theorized. So that actual Kon-Tiki raft that was used for the expedition is exhibited in the museum. It was interesting to look at the real thing when you know its story. And it turned out to be quite a lot bigger in person than I thought it was.

Fram -- polar exploration ship.And for our third and final museum of the day we decided to go to Fram Museum. Fram is a polar exploration ship from the end of 19th century. It’s actually the only ship that was used to explore both poles of our planet. This turned out be Arosha’s favorite stop.

On the top deck of Fram.The ship is quite large and the museum had it installed in a such a way that you could see it from top to bottom. There were ramp all around the ship and people can actually get to the very top of it and walked on to the deck. And from the deck you could go inside the ship itself and explore its innards.

Fram explorers.We probably spent the most time at Fram. And by the time we were done with that we were feeling quite tired. Although kids still had plenty of energy and they ran around and played around some small tower near the shore while we were waiting for the ferry back.

Fram Museum.We walked back to the hotel again and were going to go to a highly rated Indian restaurant a block away from our hotel. But it turned out to be closed on that particular day and we ended up eating our dinner at an Italian place that was yet again right next to our hotel. Even though it wasn’t very highly rated our kids really loved the pizza at this place and kept asking to go back there afterwards.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Japan: Transportation

Tokyo from one of the government building's observatory.What a vacation we just had. Tons of positive emotions and amazing memories. Everything went great. We saw a ton of things, experienced a lot of new tastes, visited a lot of destinations. We visited Tokyo, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Miyajima Island.

Now we just have to write it down to preserve the little details and after 3 days of contemplating I’m still not sure how to go about it — chronologically or in categories. I guess it will be a little bit of both and maybe the end result will end up being a kind of a guide for someone who is planning to make a similar trip.


We did a lot of research before our trip. A great resource for researching a trip to Japan is We knew the cities that we will visit, but we knew very little about what exactly we want to see in those cities. We picked out the places and read up on transportation and getting around.

We put together a 17 page document1 with maps, schedules and our step by step plan. This was instrumental in us not getting lost a single time. We didn’t take a single wrong turn, didn’t get on the wrong train and never missed our stop.

We also made sure to pre-order a pair of JR Passes that can only be done outside of Japan, which was a right decision. With respect to learning some basic Japanese — we made no progress whatsoever and hoped that we can rely on English to get us through.

Getting There And Around

The first part was easy — get on a plane in JFK and wait for 14 hours. We did just that on early Friday morning and landed somewhere mid-day on Saturday. Upon arrival to Narita International Airport (one of Tokyo’s airports) we went through passport control, customs and everything else within 20 minutes or so — everything was fast and efficient.

Shinjuku Station.We made sure to go and exchange our JR Pass exchange orders for actual passes right in the airport, so we wouldn’t have to look for an exchange agency somewhere else later on. We decided to activate our passes from our 1st full day in Japan (Sunday). This way our JR Passes were active for all of our trip and expired on the last Saturday. On Sunday we were flying back out home.

Tokyo taxi.In order to get to our hotel we decided to use a limo bus service. Taxi cost ran somewhere around $300, so that was not an option and we didn’t want to experiment with trains while we were loaded with luggage. The bus picked us up right at the airport and dropped us off right in front of our hotel. It cost us ¥3,0002 per person and got us to our hotel in about an hour and a half or so. No problems.

Women Only car in Osaka.In Tokyo itself we were originally planning to get a one-day unlimited subway pass, but since we ended up activating the JR Pass one day earlier than we originally planned it turned out that we didn’t need the subway pass at all. JR has a good number of lines in Tokyo and one of the lines (Yamanote Line) runs in a loop through all the central areas of Tokyo that we wanted to visit. The only place that we took subway to was Roppongi Hills Tower, since it had no convenient JR access.

Shin-Osaka Station.As we have learned getting around Japan’s train system is extremely easy, especially after living in New York. Each station has signs in English, without an exception. The are signs specifying the name of the station, the next station in each direction and signs pointing to the lines and the list of station names that trains stop on on each line.

Osaka Station.Inside the trains there are also electronic signs that switch from Japanese to English all the time in almost all the cases. And to top it off in most cases there are announcements in English as well.

Small station somewhere along the way.Also I had all the maps I could find in PDF format loaded into my iPad and I had a Google-like maps in my iPhone that didn’t need the internet connection. All this was very helpful too.

Rapid Train to Nara.JR Pass, even though expensive, is very valuable. Just all the time that we saved by simply showing the pass and going through instead of fiddling with ticket machines, figuring out the rate fare every time makes it worth it.

On the train to Nara.Of course you have to do the math and see if the money part makes sense to you. Most cost comes with Shinkansen (bullet train) rides. We knew that we will go from Tokyo to Osaka, but if we wouldn’t also make a day trip to Hiroshima it wouldn’t have paid for itself.

Bullet Train N700 (newest) Series at Shin-Osaka Station.The pass costs $370 right now. The ride from Tokyo to Osaka costs $174 with a seat reservation and $250 for a trip from Osaka to Hiroshima and back. Reservations are another added value of JR Pass — the are free with the pass. So we made sure to have our seats reserved when we were taking Shinkansen anywhere.

700 Series Shinkansen.We used the pass everyday and everywhere. We used it to get around Tokyo, we used it to get to Osaka, we used it to go to Nara and Kyoto, we took a round trip on a bullet train to Hiroshima and we used it to get to Miyajima Island from Hiroshima — the train ride and then a JR ferry which is also covered by the pass.

Older 100 Series Shinkansen.Trains are always on time, and are minute to the minute exactly on schedule. Before boarding the train people make two lines on the platform near the markings where the door will open. Sometimes there can be several lines at a time — one near a circle and one near a triangle on the platform. Each train on the schedule board is also marked with a circle or a triangle, so you know where to line up.

Platform markings.When the train stops and doors open the line splits into two and allows the people on the train to exit in order. After everyone has exited people go in from both sides of the door. Everything happens quickly and orderly. People also mostly do not talk on the train to each other or on the phone. The trains are surprisingly quite inside because of this. I think Alena and I were the only ones who kept talking to each other — we were just too full of all the new impressions of things around us that we had to share.

Electronic sign at Osaka Station.Riding a bullet train is an experience in its own. First of all, the trains are gorgeous with their sharp noses. Inside they feel like a business class inside a plane and that’s in a regular car, not a green (luxury) car. Each chair has a lot of legroom, reclines, has a table and an electrical plug.

Bullet trains from Tokyo.Even thought the trains go at high speeds you don’t really feel it all that much. You’re generally looking at a distant mountains or towns and they move by at a normal pace. You only notice how fast the train is when you go by another train. You can’t even make out another train — just a big blur.

Inside Kyoto subway train.As I said before we took a Hikari express to Osaka from Tokyo on Monday and we took Hikari to and Sakura train from Hiroshima on the 25th of November (Friday). Sakura train appeared to be even more luxurious than Hikari was. There is a LED display at the end of each car with text scrolling in Japanese and English — “This is HIKARI superexpress bound for Shin-Osaka” and it lists the stops that the train will make and what the next one is.

Kyoto subway station.In Kyoto we bought a two-day unlimited subway and bus passes. It might not have made things cheaper, but it sure made things easier. A lot of locations are on the outskirts of the city and there is no convenient JR access in the city. But as in every other place everything was easy to figure out. Even the buses. That’s what makes the unlimited pass valuable — the pricing depends on the distance that you’re traveling in a lot of cases and with the unlimited pass you don’t have to worry about it.

Kyoto bus.We also took a tram in Hiroshima to reach the memorial park from the Hiroshima JR station. But again, reading about it beforehand and knowing what tram to take made it easy. Also there are maps available everywhere again. The tram costs ¥150 for a ride per person and all stations also have signs with English names, so we didn’t get lost here either.

Local train to Miyajimaguchi Station.On the last day we took a bus shuttle to Osaka Itami Airport, since there was no JR access to it — that’s why we ended up activating our JR Passes one day earlier than we originally planned. The ride to the airport cost us ¥620 per person and the bus stop turned out to be right at our hotel’s back exit — very convenient. The whole ride to the airport took only 25 minutes.

Miyajimaguchi Station.We decided to err on the side of caution so we left the hotel at 11am. We ended up near our gate in the airport somewhere before 12 — everything is just too efficient inside the airport as well. Our flight was at 2:40pm, so we ended up having to wait for almost 3 hours for our plane.

Hiroshima trams.We were flying from Osaka to Tokyo on Japan Airlines plane and they start boarding 15 minutes before take-off. And everything goes smoothly. From Tokyo we were flying AA non-stop to JFK and they started the boarding almost an hour before the take-off and everything was a complete mess.

Inside Hiroshima tram.The flight back itself was uneventful. The only thing that I wanted to mention about our flight from JFK to Tokyo was the fact that it took a really weird way to get there. The plane has flown all the way up to the frozen lakes over Canada, proceeded to fly over the north coast of Alaska (I could see all the frozen water below), then flew over the north coast of Russia and cut across Russia down to Japan passing by the western coast of Kamchatka. The flight back was much more along the lines that one would expect.

So as you can see our general day would start with us taking a train to a destination of our choice, then walking for 8 hours or so and then catching a train back to our hotel. Japanese public transportation system is very well developed. You can easily get anywhere you wish without ever needing a car or having to catch a taxi. And that’s pretty much all I have to say about transportation.

P.S. Every single subway or JR station and each bullet train has a super clean restroom available for general public.

P.P.S. Another very useful resource is Hyperdia. You can look up all the schedules for all the JR trains for any date and time, along with the pricing. The search itself is flexible enough for one to select only the trains that the JR pass will work on.

  1. The plan itself is specific to our itinerary and our hotel locations, but should be a good starting point for anyone. []
  2. Exchange rate at the time of our trip was at about ¥74 per $1. []

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