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Post-quake life in Tokyo: 6 weeks after

One of the absurdities of the modern media cycle is that news stories seems to drop off the radar well before they reach a conclusion. While there are still occasional mentions of the situation here in Japan, for the most part the media has moved on to Libya, Osama Bin Laden, Governor Schwarzenegger and the scandals at the IMF.

Six weeks after the fact, the situation in Japan has most definitely not reached a neat and tidy conclusion. This past week saw the decommissioning of the Hamaoka nuclear plant, the release of pictures from Fukushima capturing the moment that the tsunami waves first hit and the anticipated resignation of TEPCO's disgraced CEO.

Clean-up efforts are still underway up north, and it is going to be months if not years before all the debris is removed. The longer-lasting questions will be to what extent Japan can expect a future public health crisis, and whether or not agricultural capacity can resume to previous levels. Japan's commercial production will also continue to suffer from disrupted supply chains and lack of consumer demand.

Here in Tokyo, the economic gears continue to churn and life goes on as best it can. In fact, to the casual visitor it can appear as if nothing catastrophic really ever happened at all. With that said, please indulge me for a few hundred words as I give a quick update on post-quake life here in Tokyo.

Walking the streets of Tirana

Everyone has their own intimate reasons for traveling, be they discovering new places or simply leaving behind old ones. For me however, it's about finding yourself somewhere that you previously couldn't have imagined. The clichéd word for this type of travel is "off-the-beaten path," though the experiences it yields are anything but cliché.

Several years ago, I landed in Athens intent on traveling overland through the Balkans en route to Vienna. While this was never a major tourist route to begin with, I did manage to visit some of the better-known sites: the hilltop monasteries in Meteora, the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia and the up-and-coming Montenegrin Riviera. Along the way, I took a slight detour into a country that I knew next to nothing about: Albania.

What little information I could remember from history class was the following bizarre account. During the Cold War, the Communist leader of Albania was a deranged paranoid by the name of Enver Hoxha. Fearing annihilation from above by Western powers, he charged his military engineers with the task of building almost one million concrete bunkers across the whole of Albania.

The Iron Curtain has long since fallen, but I confess that my image of Albania hadn't changed with the times. As such, you can imagine my surprise upon arriving in the whimsically-colorful capital city of Tirana. Take a look at the gallery below, and then continue reading to learn how this once grey and gloomy city earned its multi-hued stripes.

  • Painted Buildings, Tirana
  • Painted Buildings, Tirana
  • Painted Buildings, Tirana
  • Painted Buildings, Tirana
  • Painted Buildings, Tirana
  • Painted Buildings, Tirana

Prague in pictures

Today's featured summer travel destination has undergone a massive transformation in recent decades. Once regarded as an isolated capital on the red side of the Iron Curtain, it is now the sixth most visited European city behind London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Berlin. Having escaped the destructive aerial bombing campaigns of World War II, it is also one of the most immaculately preserved European cities.

We're talking of course about Prague (Praha), the capital of the Czech Republic.

The former preserve of shoestringing backpackers in search of cheap lodging and copious amounts of beer, Prague has undergone a miraculous transformation from an industrial center to a full-fledged service economy. The city is now home to most major global travel brands, in addition to the first ever Michelin-starred restaurant in post-Communist Europe (Allegro).

For architecture fans, Prague is akin to a living museum. The medieval city center, home to one of the largest castles in the world, is nothing less than picture perfect at every angle. On that note, take a quick look at some of the gallery images below, and then keep reading to learn more about one of our favorite cities in Europe.

Summer Travel: Athens to Meteora

You don't have to be an accountant to know that Greece's spreadsheets are in need of some serious financial overhaul. Some would argue that the country is essentially bankrupt, and that nothing short of a European bailout and/or a return to the drachma can save it from total economic ruin.

The silver lining on the ominous storm cloud is that Greece has the potential to be one of the world's top tourism destinations. The cradle of Western civilization, Greece is an ancient land replete with ruined cities of yore. It also has stunning natural spaces, from rugged highlands and fertile vineyards to sandy beaches and turquoise seas.

The Greek islands already attract their fair share of backpackers, cruise shippers and package holiday travelers alike. But the government's vision is to spread the profitable fruits of tourism into the Greek hinterlands. A tough order indeed, especially given the lack of funds needed to operate struggling museums, historic sites and national parks.

In the spirit of optimism however, we're going to use today's blog to highlight one of our favorite Greek itineraries, namely the northern road from Athens to Meteora.

  • Archaeological Park, Athens
  • Archaeological Park, Athens
  • The Parthenon, Athens
  • The Parthenon, Athens
  • Town of Kalampaka
  • Town of Kalampaka

Summer Travel: Turkey's Aegean coast

There must be something in the human brain that draws our species to the coast, be it a primitive desire to hunt and fish, or a hedonistic drive to worship the sun and sea. Either way, life always seems better near the water.

One of our favorite coastlines may not be as fashionable as the French Riviera, nor as romantic as Italy's Cinque Terra. But what it lacks in glitz and glam, it more than makes up for in cultural and historical relevance.

On that note, let me draw your attention to Turkey's Aegean coast, a strip of land in the southwest corner of ancient Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor. It borders the Aegean Sea, and was part of both the Hellenistic and Roman Empires.

With a pedigree stretching back more than two millennia, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Turkey's Aegean coast is home to some serious heavyweight attractions. We're talking specifically about the foundation stones of the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), the ruined Roman city of Ephesus, the Basilica of St. John and the House of the Virgin Mary.

  • Ruins of the Temple of Artemis
  • Ruins of the Temple of Artemis
  • Colonnaded Street, Ephesus
  • The Library, Ephesus
  • Pelicans at Ephesus
  • Colonnaded Street, Ephesus

Summer Travel: Exploring Cappadocia

Disclaimer: Today's summer travel destination isn't exactly the most widely recognizable corner of the world. In fact, some of you seasoned travel vets out there might be scratching your heads and searching for the nearest world map. But we're guessing that after a few hundred words or so, we'll have you dreaming about a trip to Cappadocia.

We're not talking about the small town of the same name in Central Italy, but rather an ancient region of eastern Anatolia, and part of modern Nevşehir Province in Turkey. Cappadocia, pronounced something akin to Kapadokya, is distinguished by its spectacular landscape of fairy chimneys, cave dwellings and expansive underground cities.

Accessible by either bus or plane from Istanbul, Cappadocia is one of the undeniable highlights of any Turkish grand tour. The centerpiece is Göreme National Park, which was designated in 1985 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and protects rock carvings dating back to the Roman era. Another major draw is the town of Ürgüp, where you can bed down in a Flintstone-esque hotel carved right out of the rock face.

Have we captured your full attention yet? If not, check out the gallery below.

  • Goreme National Park
  • Goreme National Park
  • Cappadocian Village
  • Troglodyte Dwellings
  • Troglodyte Fortress
  • Goreme National Park

Summer Travel: Spotlight on Istanbul

Ask most travelers to list their favorite European cities, and they'll most likely feedback with the classics: Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Munich and many others. But one destination that doesn't always make the list is not only the largest metropolitan city proper in Europe, but also the former capital of both the Roman and Ottoman empires.

Need a hint?

We're talking about ancient Byzantium, medieval Constantinople and modern Istanbul. Turkey's capital city, not to mention its financial hub and cultural center, is built on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait. As such, it is the world's only bi-continental city, located literally and figuratively at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Any time of year, Istanbul charms and enchants with its skyline of elegant minarets rising from the slopes of seven hills. But summertime heat awakens denizens from their winter slumber, imbuing the streets with vigorous life. Alfresco cafes brew cardamom-infused coffee, while waterside bistros serve up the fresh catch of the day.

With a material history dating back to the Byzantines, Istanbul is a veritable living museum of architectural stylings. You can easily spend a week exploring each of the city's distinct neighborhoods, and check-off several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the process. So, without further ado, let's shine a much deserved spotlight on Istanbul.

  • The Blue Mosque
  • Blue Mosque, Istanbul
  • Calligraphy, Istanbul
  • Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
  • Traveling Istanbul by Boat
  • The Waterways of Istanbul

Summer Travel: Planning a dive holiday

Summer travel typically evokes images of lying idly on a beach without a care in the world. But we at Gadling are always keen to buck the trend and focus on active and experiential travel. In keeping with this theme, today's column aims to get you out into the open water with a steel cylinder of compressed air strapped to your back.

If you want to catch a glimpse of the underwater world, then all you really need is a mask, fins and a snorkel. But to truly immerse yourself in what lies below, you will need to use SCUBA gear, not to mention first undergoing some structured training. Fortunately, planning a dive holiday is fairly easy regardless of your experience level.

Intrigued? Keep on reading.

If you're new to the sport, we'll first outline how you can easily get certified in just a few days. We'll also give you some suggestions on how to find a reputable dive operator, and how to go about choosing your locale. And if you're a seasoned vet - or you're aspiring to be - we'll finish by outlining ways of taking your passion to the next level.

What I learned about earthquake preparedness

When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11th, I was working from home here in Tokyo. Having grown accustomed over the years to frequent tremors, I foolishly proceeded to ignore the early warning signs. But when the low rumble grew into intense shaking, I quickly realized that it was time to enact my exit plan.

In 20/20 hindsight, it was not a very good exit plan.

I grabbed my wallet, keys and cell phone, slipped on a comfortable sweatshirt and managed to dig out my running shoes from the closet. Before leaving the apartment, I turned off all the gas, and filled a backpack with a flashlight, batteries and a few cans of tuna. Mind you that all of this took place in just under a minute.

Once outside, I followed the crowds of startled people to a nearby park where we would in theory be safe if buildings started to collapse. Fortunately - at least for those of us in Tokyo - we were spared from the worst. Regardless, the whole encounter made me realize that earthquake preparedness is not something to be taken likely.

This is what I learned...

Summer Travel: A week in the Holy Land

With the summer holidays rapidly approaching, it's safe to say that many of us are suffering from serious bouts of wanderlust. Fortunately we at Gadling have the cure, namely a heaping dose of pure, uncut travel advice. Side effects may include flight bookings, hotel reservations and the loss of a few clean passport pages.

Every year, travel experts (myself included...) seem to tout a *new* destination that somehow seemed to escape all prior notice. But today we're here to tell you that one of the hottest summer destinations has in fact been around for a long, long time. Rather than keeping you guessing, we'll just spill the fava beans and come right out and say it.

Geopolitics aside, Israel is an awe-inspiring place to visit.

In one tiny strip of land, you'll find ancient cities, a mélange of cultures, stunning natural environments, rich cuisine and decent value for your dollar. Israel's compact size also means that you can tick off a long-list of sights in a relatively short period of time. And, you'll find that English is widely spoken, which makes independent travel very feasible.

  • Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
  • Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
  • Old City Walls, Jerusalem
  • Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem
  • Western Wall, Jerusalem
  • Mount of Olives, Jerusalem

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