It’s been a long time (a few years actually) since I’ve written anything substantial in a blog post, so please forgive me as I get my ‘blog legs’ back in order. Oddly enough, this will start off with a case of deja vu from early 2008. Back then we were traveling around Laos and Vietnam and were trying to do some forward planing for the next few months. Singapore, the Philippines, Japan, and China were on our wayward list, but what about after that? How about Central Asia or “the ‘stans” as they are colloquially known? Thoughts of Mongol hordes, glorious Persian architecture, and towering mountains filled my head and invoked some serious wanderlust. We could travel by land across China and fly out from somewhere in the region (Tashkent perhaps?). A great way to spend late Spring/early Summer. Easy, right?
A few days of detailed Internet searching put that notion of ease quickly to rest. Central Asia is definitely not high on the tourist/backpacker roadshow and gathering information on a general route through the region was few and far between. Tales of “Letters of Invite”, mandated tours, and Soviet style bureaucracy left a distinctly dry feeling in ones mouth. We would either have to get visas as we went (less than ideal given visa constraints) or would have to get them all at once in Beijing (the only place in East Asia with all five consulates). Given that we were coming into China on a 30 day non-extendable visa, logistics among the embassies would be tight. This was right before the Olympic games and the Chinese authorities were starting to clamp down on giving out/renewing visas. Ultimately, however, our hopes were dashed when we arrived in Beijing in early April. The March 2008 events in Tibet resulted in the closing off of western China to foreigners (i.e. anything past Chengdu). We decided at that point to move on to North Africa and would revisit the plan for Central Asia at a later date. The one upside was that we started following the Uncornered Market folks, as they were one of the few blogs out there with information about the region.
Fast forward to 2012 and we’re in East Asia again. After spending three months last year dealing with visa/tour fun for our September trip to Iran, acquiring visas for Central Asia is easy by comparison. It took us a total of 10 calendar days (i.e. Monday to the following Wednesday) to get four visas for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakstan in Tokyo. This can be done a few days earlier (say 7 or 8) if you’re prepared and quick enough on the metro.
Keep the following tips in mind when getting visas here:
Plan, Plan, Plan. Specifically the order that you will be traveling to these countries, the number of entries desired, etc. Central Asian visas are date specific (i.e. 1-Sept-2012 to 31-Oct-2012 for 1 entry with a maximum time in country of 30 days).
Visas for these consulates normally take a week to process (up to two in the case of Uzbekistan), which would mean a month or so for all four. However, you can call ahead and explain that you’re getting all four and kindly ask if you can leave a copy of your passport instead of the original with the embassy. This way you can apply for all of them in parallel, cutting it down to a week. The consulates of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan were happy to do this for us, but Kazakstan said they would have to keep our original passports.
If you apply in parallel you should do it in the following order: Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (which are a few blocks from each other in Nakameguro) and Tajikistan and Kazakstan (which are a few blocks from each other in Roppongi).
Pick them up in the opposite order. When we picked up our passport from the Kazak embassy, we dropped off our passports at the Tajik embassy. The next day we went back and picked them up from there and then went to the Kyrgyz and Uzbek embassies (who put the visas in on the spot).
When speaking to the the person from the embassy and using English, please be very polite. Most of the staff speak Japanese as their second language, so you might be getting the ambassador (him|her)self!
Most of the embassies expect ‘bank transfers’ for payment. This is quite common in Japan and can be done at any bank ATM machine (you can pay in cash and it is directly deposited into the consulate’s account). The catch here, however, is that the transfer option is only available in the Japanese language ATM menu. If you don’t read Japanese kindly ask someone there (the guard, etc) to help you or bring someone who does with you. Keep the transaction receipt as this is what you will present to the consulate for proof of payment.
Some consulates expect the payment receipt at time of application and some expect it at pickup time.
Emails to any of these consulates routinely go unanswered; call instead.
The GBAO permit (to see the eastern half of the country and Pamirs) cost is included in the base visa cost, but you MUST ask for it separately (in person and in your processing cover letter). If you don’t have a cover letter they will give you one to copy for the request at the consulate. Make sure you come with TWO copies of your visa paperwork (and associated photos). When picking up the visa they will make you sign that the visa is correct. NOTE: the actual dates, etc are handwritten so be sure to triple check!
Cost for Americans: ¥9000 JPY (8000 for the visa + 1000 processing fee) for a 30 day single entry visa. This is paid via wire transfer (ATM) with receipt DUE AT APPLICATION TIME.
A Kyrgyzstan visa is very straight forward and simple to get in Tokyo.
Cost for Americans: ¥8000 JPY for a 30 day single entry tourist visa, payable by wire transfer (ATM) with receipt due at pickup time. NOTE: The consul will tell you that you don’t need a Kyrgyz visa if you have a multi-entry Kazak visa. Getting a M-E Kazak visa is a bit of a pain and as this is a new policy as of July 2012 (which means that border enforcement might be iffy), we just got a straight visa from Kyrgyzstan (costs more, but potentially less hassle).
The Uzbek consulate in Tokyo unfortunately does not have a usable website (in Japanese, let alone English). You have to fill out your information at the website below, print it out, and give it to the consulate. Make sure that you mark Tokyo as the place of visa issuance. Under Occupation ‘Representatives of business groups and persons, engaging in individual enterprise’ is what most folks put (I’m an engineer damn it!)
Cost for Americans: ¥16000 JPY for a 30 day tourist visa (maximum) is super pricey, so make every day count. You can ask for as many entries as you wish without a LOI (but be specific (i.e. 2, 4, 7, etc); putting ‘multiple’ will mean a LOI will be required). Note that this is paid in cash at the time of visa pickup!
The consulate will keep the original passport for entire length of time (drop off Monday and pick up the following Monday afternoon at 15:00).
Cost for Americans: $30 USD for 1 month single entry, $60 for 2 month double entry (30 days per entry max). Payable at time of pickup via wire transfer (ATM) receipt in JPY (get them to write down what they expect the cost to be at drop off time, their conversion rate might be lower than the days rate).
The island nation of Japan takes its food very seriously or at least tries to justify the large price tag for a very polished melon and other things most people find for much less back home or on the other side of the South China Sea. The same melon here in Japan would only set me back $4-5 USD depending on the season and if I decided to go organic and get from Whole Foods no less.
Food prices are a tricky thing because most nations of the world have experienced a huge rise in them for the past few years. Japan is an island nation that has always had high standards when it comes to food. There is some food grown and raised here in the island nation but much of it needs to be imported. The cost of production and simple economics causes the simple melon here to make international headlines.
The only fruit I’m consuming is the watermelon and an occasional bowl of fresh pineapple to break up the fruit monotony. I’m not visiting Japan for the fruit. My experiences usually go beyond the meals that usually are meat free which is hard do in a country where the prevailing belief that a meal without vitamin “meat” is just wrong. There’s not much food adventure for someone like myself who doesn’t eat a whole lot of meat.
We will be moving on to China next week and the exchange will be more in favor of the USD. I’ll be able to go back to my one dragon fruit a day diet without breaking the bank. I think my first meal will be just a big bowl of dragon fruit and a side of pineapple. I’ll skip the Champdak.
The beautiful landscape shaped by volcanoes and the art of bathing in a onsen attracts many visitors to Japan and beautiful mountain towns like Aso. This small town is the prefect place to experience Japanese culture and see one of the countries largest active volcanoes even in the rainy season. If it is sunny – then it’s a day for hiking. If it’s raining then there’s always the option of taking a short bus ride to the spa town of Kurokawa.
The hikes here begin after passing through a small village, followed by a mountain shrine which then leads into a thick evergreen forest. The road wines its way up to an area of green rolling hills where horses and cattle graze just below the mountain peak. The serpentine trail continually ascends up until it ends at the observation point next to the open crater. The hiking trails travel through fields of red rock sand and boulders. The volcanic expanses receive a fresh coat of ash each time the active crater erupts which happens daily. The last large eruption took place in May 2011.
Mt. Naka-Dake or just Mt. Naka is the only remaining active crater in this area. The northerly wind, its’ speed and sulphur levels are high enough to warrant the closing of the highest viewing point. The sulfur from the volcano is pungent and sometimes overwhelming this morning causing some with sensitive noses to seek cover under protective scarves and surgical masks. The sulphuric gas can get to dangerous levels and warning signs are everywhere. We can either wait for the wind to change or just hike up a different direction. Today, the lower viewing point is still open, so we were able to get look at the open neon green crater and hike up to the other side of the mountain. Some areas being off-limits because of the current wind conditions but there is more enough to see for first timers.
Why hasn’t Aso been on my list?
It’s easy to miss because Japan has always been a pricey destination for budget travelers. Most travel the country by using the JR rail pass which needs to be purchased before arriving to Japan. Until now, it’s has been the most popular and convenient way to travel to most towns and cities inside Japan. The JR pass is expensive since the price is in Japanese Yen and goes up and down as it’s value against the USD fluctuates. This is one factor that deters perspective tourists until recently.
Japan now has a couple of budget airlines that offer domestic flights from Tokyo many cities giving the JR Rail some much-needed competition. Peach Airline offers flights from many including departures from Osaka to a few cities in Kyushu and AirAsia will soon be offering flights inside Japan as well. Visitors now have more options and can now see more of Japan in less time including towns like Aso.
Enough with castles for now and the cramped living style of the business hotel. Many parts of Kumamoto City are attractive enough for a short visit. The beauty and the history of the city can be seen in a few hours. Most of the major attractions are located in the center of the city and within the boundaries of the castle complex.
The Kumamoto castle depicted in lights
Views of rice fields and windmills along the way to Aso
It’s time to move on. We are both ready to get out of the crowded city and ready for some open air. The next stop is Mount Aso where we plan to hike up an active volcano and I will have my first visit to an outdoor public onsen. I have spent some time studying the property rules of conduct while bathing. I just hope I don’t unknowingly offend anyone.
The Aso Boy Train we passed along the way
We will grab a local train to Aso from the JR station in Kumamoto instead of riding the slightly cheaper and faster highway bus. As I mentioned before, we have had enough with the business hotel, so I booked a room at a hostel called Aso Backpacker Base Hostel. The hostel was built in 2009 by a gentleman named Yoshi and his wife Miyong. Yoshi’s hostel continuously receives positive reviews on the major travel sites and is located a few hundred meters from the train station…sold.
Room with a great view of Mount Aso and surrounding area
The ride on the fire engine red local limited express to Aso takes a little over an hour. From the views of young rice seedlings growing in stacked rice fields separated only by a few homes, some prized beef cattle and the grassy hills they feed on, it’s pretty obvious that this part of Kyushu is the agricultural heartland of Japan. I already knew that it’s going to be a place I will be sad to leave but happy to have visited.
The local treasure of Aso in front of the train station
I’m hoping that the weather holds so we are able to get at least one hike up to see the crater. It is the beginning of monsoon season and the viewing area of the crater does close literally ever time the wind shifts due to the dangerous sulfuric acid the volcano continuously pushes out. If it the authorities roped off the entrance due to the high levels of sulphuric acid then there’s always the alternative day in the Onsen.
At first, Kumamoto was just a place on map where the bus from Kagoshima stopped and we could transfer to the near by train station and move on to Mount Aso. It didn’t take long to find out that it is home to one of the finest castles in Japan next to Himeji outside of Osaka and the Nagoya Castle just north of Nara. The feudal lord and highly trained warrior Kiyomasa designed and constructed the Kumamoto Castle over 400 years ago. And yes, Kato Kiyomasa is the same samurai warrior featured in Koei’s PS2 Way of the Warrior video game.
The castle is the site were the final battle between the samurai and the Meiji empire. The Satsuma Battle ended with the defeat of the samurai and a partially destroyed castle. The battle has been romanticized and even inspired the film The Last Samurai starring Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise. The restoration of the castle to was completed in 1970. Its well worth a visit. I’m sure its amazing in the spring when there are 800 Sakura trees are in bloom.
Statue of Kato Kiyamasa
Tom and Ken figures in front of the castle
None the less, Kumamoto is a great place to stop by and spend a little time visiting. Especially if you want to check out an area of Japan that has a significant place in Japan’s recent history. For us, the next stop is Mount Aso where we will spend some time hiking in the area, viewing my first active volcano and bath in many of the hot springs in onsen town Kumagawa.
One of the many Ginkgo Tree planted by General Kato when the Castle was built in 1600
Honmaru Goten Palace where the Emperor presided inside the Kumamoto Castle
Secure walls surrounding the buildings inside the Kumamoto Castle