Turkey Trip Report


Bryon Hays
11/1/06 -11/8/06

November 1
Sixteen hours on Lufthansa covering 9 time zones to Istanbul and I arrive the evening of November 2. I am met by Solar of the transportation company hired to transport me to the hotel. Solar ends up my driver. Traffic in Istanbul is a combination of NASCAR and Aikido, with some traffic lights thrown in for flavor. Stop, and then go very fast, weave and dive, darting in and out of lanes, which are painted on the road as suggestions but not really adhered to. It’s a vehicular dance. Although no doubt frightening to foreigners, they handle it as normal. Traffic can even stop trolley progress! It was a harrowing drive through back streets of old town Istanbul to get to the Centrum Hotel but we arrive safely.

The hotel is in the center of old town Istanbul, with narrow cobbled streets and rock walls, juxtaposed with electric wires, automobiles and trolleys. The old city adapted to modern life.

I get settled in my hotel room and just start to relax when I hear Homma Sensei in the lobby. He has arrived with Kyougaku Taiko. I head downstairs to say hello, move Sensei’s things into his room and meet everyone, including Ali Sensei. Originally I am to room with one of the male drummers but we end up with another room so I am by myself again. I end up moving from the first floor to the fifth where I have a great view of part of the city.

We say good night to Ali Sensei and his companions and get ready for dinner. I meet Megumi Machi, who is the Japanese-Turkish interpreter, and her boyfriend in the lobby. We then head out to the waterfront. We walk down to a bridge crossing the water where they have restaurants underneath. I note that as we walk I don’t have my camera! I’m very angry with myself as we walk past the terminus of the Orient Express, a mosque that is lit up spectacularly, and the bridge itself is full of beautiful scenes.

We eat at the Gavatli Café. We all have a beer and then Homma Sensei pours Raki (Rock-uh). This is a licorice flavored liquor like the Greek Ouzo or the Roman Sambuca. Its poured in special glasses and served with spring water and ice. Very delicious, but a strange blending of life. Turkey is a Muslim country and alcohol is forbidden by Muslim tenet, yet we just had a beer brewed in Turkey and are consuming the national drink!
We sit outside and eat mussels with rice and lemon juice for appetizers, then sandwiches with a filling of mackerel. Very good. We have some very good cheese and fruit plates for dessert. I note that some of the cheeses are very salty!

As we sit there the temperature starts going down so we end up inside the restaurant to warm up and drink “Chay” which is a very strong tea served in a beautiful tulip glass with two sugar cubes. It turns out this is another national drink, consumed with every form of transaction being conducted; from business meeting to family get-together, everyone drinks tea.

We walk back to the hotel and say good night to most of the drummers. A couple of the men, along with Megumi and her boyfriend, Homma Sensei and I go down the street from the hotel to a Chinese restaurant. We eat more food and drink more beer, along with a Chinese liquor that is a version of Sake, but very potent. 56% alcohol! As the evening progresses, I escort the two drummers back to their rooms to turn in for the night, and then I bring a box that I carried back to the restaurant which contains gifts for Megumi-san. Megumi is Japanese who has lived in Turkey for the last few years so as part of a thank you for her services I have carried a bunch of Japanese foodstuffs for her. She is thrilled to have a taste of home.

We stay out until about 1 a.m. when I escort Sensei to his room. I am to come get him at 7:30 in the morning. I set my alarm for 6:30 and go to bed.

November 3
I wake up at 7:45… I am very late. I bolt from bed, throw on the same clothes I was wearing the prior evening and run down the street in the rain to where Sensei had arranged to have breakfast. I find the drummers there all eating, but Homma Sensei is not there. I ask the drummers in my broken English-Japanese hybrid if they have seen Sensei and they all say no. As I turn to head back to the hotel, Sensei walks into the restaurant with a big smile on his face. He “yells” at me for not coming to get him, and then blames the jet lag and teases me all through breakfast. (He tells me to be sure to not forget again, which I don’t the rest of the trip.)

Breakfast is wonderful. A delicious chicken soup, eggplant stew, bread, more tea, and ayran, which is a salty yogurt drink. Very delicious! I note in my head how in the U.S. people would think this was a very poor breakfast because it doesn’t consist of what Americans are used to, but I get very full. It’s very hearty.

We head back to the hotel to get umbrellas and then we walk up the street to the Sultanhamet or Blue Mosque. This mosque was built over 500 years ago and is still in use. After viewing this, we went across the street to Aya Sofia. This was originally a church that was built by the Roman emperor Constantius in the 6th century, turned into a mosque when the city was conquered in 1453, and then became a museum when modern Turkey was formed in 1923. It’s in a constant state of restoration. What a magnificent building. It has a domed roof which has no column supports. What fascinating architecture considering when it was built! There’s a lot of crusade history here as well, including a soldier that was buried inside the building. The mosaics are magnificent.

We then walk to the Grand Bazaar. This place is enormous! There are so many shops selling so many things. It’s a giant shopping mall, with all the corridors labeled like streets. It’s massive, and very easy to get lost in there. It would take a bit of exploring for me to get comfortable in there.

The rain is getting stronger so we take a trolley back to the hotel. We get a little rest before we load the bus to prepare for the evening concert. We all eat a lunch of local breads and tea and get ready to go. We are to meet Ali sense and his people but they are late. They finally arrive and we load the van and bus. We take another fascinating trip through the city streets to get to the Istanbul Technical University where they will perform. The traffic continues to amaze me.

It takes a while to figure out where we are going to get into the concert hall but we finally figure it out and get unloaded. The drummers go into their well-oiled routine of preparation. Homma Sensei tells me he wants me to document everything so I take a lot of pictures. I find a place to plug in my battery charger so that I’ll always have power for my camera. I assist where I can but just document everything.

Some of Ali Sensei’s students do a demonstration for the audience in the lobby before the concert. They put on interesting display, very much in the Aikikai style. It was good to see a little of what we are getting into when we do our seminar tomorrow.

The concert was delayed starting to get as many people in as they can, and then started with introductions by Homma Sensei, providing thanks to everyone that helped prepare the concert. The drummers then took off. The concert was amazing. The ticket sales weren’t as good as had been hoped for, but those that attended received them well. What a fantastic standing ovation that was given to them at the end! The concert was to benefit the Turkish Kidney Foundation so they wanted to give everyone an award thanking them for their efforts. However, this was not coordinated or organized so it was kind of a mess to get through. Finally Homma Sensei just told them that the drummers are tired and need to go. They left the stage, but ran around to the lobby where they formed a receiving line to shake the hands of everyone that had attended! Everyone was truly gracious and giving, pouring out their last bits of energy to the audience that had cheered for them.

The last of the audience left and we all went back to the stage for a group photo. The drummers then went to putting away their equipment while Homma Sensei had a conversation with Ali Sensei through interpretation. Some feelings and pride were definitely hurt as the first two concerts, I’m told, were standing room only where this one in Istanbul was just over half full.

We get back on the bus to head for the hotel but get stuck in a traffic jam due to an accident. It takes us about an hour to be freed of this, and then we raced back to the hotel to unload. We go across the street for dinner at 1 a.m. This time a shish restaurant, another spectacular meal was served to us. The food was delicious, the presentation was beautiful, and the atmosphere was pleasant. As Ali Sensei’s pride was still hurting from the conversation after the concert, it takes Homma Sensei to convince him to come to dinner. Once he joins us, Homma Sensei thanks him for all the hard work and effort he put into the concert. He then settled in and we had a good evening.

In this restaurant is where I ran into a couple of unique culture clashes. First of all, same sex touching is very much accepted. Men can and will hold other men’s hands as they walk along the street, meaning nothing more than brotherly affection for each other. Ali Sensei spent part of the night with his arm around me and patting my shoulder and just being friendly. This was a bit hard to get used to but I accepted it.

The second was what was playing on the TV. Here we are in a Muslim country where women are, by tradition, supposed to cover up and not be seen and not parade around, yet on the TV were music videos with nearly naked men and women dancing more suggestively than anything that is shown on American TV. It was quite a shock.

At 2:30 everyone was falling asleep so we head back to the hotel, but Ali Sensei, the male drummers and myself are all invited back to Homma Sensei’s room for noodles. More food! Hot water and forks are brought to the room and we eat and talk. Megumi, the interpreter, went home so we were a bit concerned about understanding each other but the two Sensei’s have figured out a way to communicate with each other. We confirm that we’re okay to do the seminars tomorrow and the next day with Ali Sensei saying “no problem.” Hugs around and a picture, then I escort him to the lobby to say goodnight. I go back to Homma Sensei’s room where we stay up with them talking and me eating for another hour. At 3:45 a.m. I escort the drummers back to their room and turn in. Before I leave I promise that I will be on time in getting Sensei at 8 a.m. I check my alarm (I had set it for p.m. instead of a.m.) for a couple hours rest.

November 4
The phone in my room rings at 7:25 a.m. It is Sensei giving me a wake up call. My alarm rings 5 minutes later. As I get ready for my shower I hear thunder. I had left the window to my room open last night so it was very loud. I look outside and it’s snowing! I had no idea it snowed in Turkey. I dress a little warmer than I had originally planned and fetch Sensei precisely at 8 a.m. He thanks me for the wake up and dismisses me. I go to the lobby to wait and see what the day brings.

We all gather to prepare the drums for shipping and then we head out for a late breakfast.
Such delicious food! We are off to the Grand Bazaar again, this time by trolley. It’s snowing harder and starting to build on the awnings of buildings.

Homma Sensei and I wander away in the Bazaar to leave the girls shopping. We stay together to keep each other from getting lost. I have a good sense of direction but since I’m indoors it still takes work to pay attention to where I’m at. We had a great tour and Sensei gave me a history lesson on some of the items for sale there. We stop for some more tea and then I’m told to “go have an adventure” so I’m off on my own. Other than the pushy carpet salesmen, the experience is fascinating. There are so many things to see. From antique silver to the latest fashions to jewelry to spices to tourist traps are all contained here. And mannequins of all forms of assembly display various forms of clothing. Some are missing arms, some are chipped or painted, and some are in pristine condition. Very interesting.

We meet up on time at the gate and take the trolley back to the hotel.

Once we return it’s time to prepare the drummers for their trip to the airport. We load the van and then Sensei tells them that I’m staying at the hotel. Every single one of them told me goodbye, shook my hand, and thanked me; some in English, some in Japanese. I did the same. I had spent less than 48 hours with them but I felt very close to them.
I went outside as they boarded the bus and we all waved goodbye. It took them three tries to get up the street as various vehicles kept blocking the road. The bus driver at one point had to go find somebody to move their car so they could get up the hill and out. They did finally make it, and I watched until they were out of sight.

Sensei returns a few hours later and Ali Sensei and Ceha meet us to discuss dinner plans. We sit in the lobby, drink more tea and discuss. We agree on 7 p.m. and Ali Sensei makes plans to bring several people along. I get Homma Sensei at 7 p.m. and we meet the others in the lobby. We take taxi’s back down to the bridge to a different restaurant. Wonderful “mezze” or Turkish appetizers, like Tapas. All kinds of vegetables prepared all kinds of ways, with delicious salads, too. We drink more Raki, this time with şalgam, which is a turnip juice. Salty, but very flavorful. The main course is all kinds of fish that have been fried whole. There are large ones where you just scrape the meat off the bones. They are very tender tasty. Other fish are small and you just eat them whole, bones and all.

There is a three-piece band that wanders in and out of the restaurant playing traditional music; a violin, drum and a type of zither. They sing and play, wandering around the tables. They leave for a while and come back again, each time inspiring various tables to get up and dance. Men love to dance and have no problem standing up and expressing themselves. Sometimes they dance in place, sometimes they move around their table, and other times they form a line and take off around the restaurant. At one such point, our table is tapped and we’re all drug into the dancing. I do my best to follow the steps and as some people start dropping out I end up leading the line around our table! What an experience.

Tired from dancing, we sit and eat dessert. Fruits such as quinces, bread soaked in sour cherry juice, and other items. The presentation is so pretty I take pictures, and the flavors are outstanding. Very delicious!

We take a cab back to the hotel and we end up walking part way as it’s easier than fighting traffic to get to the hotel. We say goodnight to our friends and retire to prepare for tomorrow’s seminar. With visions of dancing and wonderful food still in my head, I fall asleep quickly.

November 5
This morning I wake up to clear blue skies! The weather reminds me of Colorado. I knock on Sensei’s door at 8 a.m. and he lets me go for the morning. He gives me directions to various places so I walk and take more pictures. I head down to the harbor and watch people, then back up the hill to the Blue Mosque. The building was spectacular in the rain, but even more stunning with the sun shining through the stained glass windows. As the weather is good there are a lot more tourists about, but I work my way through the crowd easily. I get back to the hotel to meet Sensei to go to the seminar but our ride has not arrived. We order tea and wait. As per normal, tea and our ride show up at the same time.

After tea, we head for our seminar. There are two marathons happening in the city so the traffic is bad again. We manage to get to the gymnasium just 15 minutes late. We change quickly and start the seminar. Sensei does three hours on bokken and jo. Many of them have never handled a weapon and they appear confused. Some of the young college students are less than attentive, and do not appear really interested in learning. It was disappointing to me as I learned a lot!

Afterward we went to the canteen for tea and a sandwich and then back to the hotel. The highways were jam-packed again but the sunset we got to watch was very pretty. Upon arrival at the hotel we quickly changed and caught a cab to Tacşim, which is the new city center. We go to the Yutaka Japanese Restaurant across from the Ceylan International Hotel. The driver is unsure of where we want to go so Sensei has us dropped off at the city center and we walk the block or so to get to it. I would never have guessed that in my lifetime I would end up eating Japanese food in Turkey. It was good, but pricy, and certainly not as good as Domo.

We then walked down the main street of Tacşim. What a very busy place! More open markets, with all kinds of fish displayed. Restaurants serving all kinds of food are there and people are everywhere. We walk past a demonstration getting ready to happen, and the police were also there in riot gear and weaponry to prevent it getting out of hand. Police riding tandem on motorcycles weave their way through the crowds to get to problems. What an interesting amalgamation with the old city center where we are staying.

As we come back up the street to the city center, we stop in the Bambi Café and have a burger and some tea. Yet more interesting food! We then catch a cab back to our hotel. This driver knows all the back streets and it appears to me that we’re getting horribly lost but suddenly we pop out on a road that I recognize and we speed back to the hotel. We then head back down to the Chinese restaurant for more “market research” as Sensei calls it. Delicious hot and sour soup and a very good dish of eggplant with rice. We then turn in to prepare for our trip to Izmir.

November 6
I meet Sensei and we go for breakfast down the street. We are to fly to Izmir today for a seminar there. Sensei keeps his room so I bring my stuff there. We then have some time before we go to the airport so Sensei gives me directions to the Egyptian Spice Market. I had walked close to it several times in my explorations but never knew it was there! I only have a short time so I walk quickly to try to cover all of it. The smells are incredible! I want more time to explore this place.

I return to the hotel and we head to the airport where Ali Sensei meets us. It’s a one hour flight to Izmir, and it goes very smooth. We are met here by two men named Mert and Tolga, both of which have dojos in town. As they drive us to our hotel, they ask Sensei if he wants to go to the hamam, the Turkish bath. Sensei tells me it’s a very good bath, and the place is over 600 years old. Sensei kept trying to get them to just drop us off so we could go to the bazaar but they insisted on taking care of us.

We finally agree to go to lunch so they take us across town where there’s a tram, like a ski lift. We ride to the top of the mountain to a government-run picnic facility. Up here it’s not allowed to bring food as you can buy anything you want up there. Meats are already prepared, vegetables are abundant, and anything you want to drink is there, too. They order a bunch of food and we pick a table. This facility is “cook your own” so they bring a charcoal fire right to our table! The Turks call it “mangal”. We cook chicken wings, lamb chops, mutton shish kebabs, and a sausage called “sojuk”. It’s all very tasty. Ali Sensei prepares a salad of tomatoes, onions, peppers and a kind of cucumber, with a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice. Very delicious, and so much food! It was incredible. The view from the top of the mountain of the Aegean Sea is spectacular, too! I took a lot of pictures.

At last we head down the mountain and back to our hotel. Two men meet us in the lobby to interview Sensei about Aikido. I had fun listening to the questions and answers being translated back and forth.

We dressed for the seminar and drove to the seminar in the gymnasium of the university. This was just around the corner, but it was starting to rain so I was glad for the ride. We arrived in time for the seminar to find the gym was still being used for a basketball game. They put us in an office where we watched TV until the mats could be put down.

This seminar was very well received, much different than the one in Istanbul. It was all taijutsu hibikidori, no weapons for the students, but Sensei and I demonstrated the relations. It was a good time, and Sensei had fun, too. We did a short demonstration and he did a jo demonstration, something I hadn’t seen in years. It was a joy to be there. Homma Sensei told Ali Sensei that he would like to come back to Izmir and hold a three-day seminar. This place would be great for that.

We went back to the hotel to change and back out for dinner. We tried to find a fish restaurant since we’d eaten so much meat for lunch but we were unsuccessful. We ended up eating another Turkish dish called “tundur” which is mutton smothered in a cheese sauce. It was beautiful to look at and very tasty, but very rich. The mezze we had with the meal were very light and delicious, along with more Raki. We then returned to the hotel.

November 7
I had breakfast with Sensei in the hotel, and then we waited in the lobby for Ali Sensei and Tolga. It took them a very long time to finally meet us so when they showed up we took a cab bound for the bazaar. This bazaar is open air, with all kinds of storefront shops. More streets that wander this way and that and I found it easier to get lost in here than in Istanbul. I think there were more offerings than what we saw before. You can buy anything, including firearms with silencers! I had to take a picture.

We wander, but quickly, and then took a cab back to the hotel to fly back. Tolga is driving us back to the hotel when he gets a call. Mert meets us halfway there so we stop to pick him up to take him with us. We all say goodbye at the airport and have another very nice flight back to Istanbul.

After we collect our bags, we say goodbye to Ali Sensei at the airport and catch a cab to the hotel. Sensei talks with me about packing and getting ready to go home tomorrow. Once we return he asked to look at my suitcase so we can plan to get everything packed. We are going to be carrying a bunch of stuff that Kyougaku could not as they were pushing their airline weight limits. Sensei will be going back to Japan within a month so he will return it to them at that time. He examines my suitcase and he decides to buy a smaller unit for my clothes so we can pack mine with more of the drummers’ equipment. He says he will have that this evening. Once we get all that settled, Sensei gives me a couple hours for one more chance to explore. I walk up to the Basilica Cistern. It’s an old water storage facility built by the Romans in the 6th century. It had been lost for a time and then rediscovered and refurbished to be opened to the public. It’s a fascinating piece of construction, and it’s kind of eerie under there. Water still drips from the ceiling as you cruise around the place on raised walks. Fish swim silently in the nearly dark water as the whole place is lit atmospherically. It’s beautiful.

When I left there I wandered around more outside. I watched the sunset shine gorgeous colors on the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia and took a bunch of pictures. I found some obelisks that had been placed that were thousands of years old. I walked back to the Grand Bazaar for one more look around, and then headed back to the hotel.

I return to find Sensei meeting with Megumi and Ceha in the hotel lobby to finish the details of the trip; getting the bills paid and everything settled. Everything got completed and we went to dinner. Then Sensei and I met up again to pack. He gave me the suitcase he’d purchased and I mash all my clothes with the compression bags I’d brought and empty my own suitcase. Then we pack mine with the equipment. We go through all the bags and weigh them, trying to balance the load at 50 lbs apiece. One of the bags we are certain is overweight, but Sensei is okay with that. We turned in early as we had to be at the airport at 6 a.m.

I’m up early and when I get to Sensei’s room he’s already up and almost ready. We move all the stuff to the lobby, call a cab, and checkout. The cab is a small car so we have to get creative to fit everything in it. The large stand we’re carrying is placed across Sensei from the front seat into the back seat! As there is no traffic this early we cruise quickly to the airport.

When we get up to the check-in counter, we find out that more than one of our bags is overweight, plus our carry-on bag that I have weighs too much as well. They agree to check it but not charge us for it. They person behind the counter was very helpful and I thanked him for it.

We are free of bags other than our personal ones which I carry and we go find something to eat. Nothing is open this early except Burger King. After all the wonderful food, our last meal in Turkey is from an American fast food chain. Oh well.
Our flight from Istanbul is delayed for 45 minutes but they don’t say why. We finally depart and have a very smooth ride to Frankfurt. Upon landing we learn why our flight was delayed. Frankfurt is buried in fog! They have been metering incoming and outgoing flights to avoid problems.

Stepping off the plane we are met just inside the concourse by German police. They are checking everyone’s passport and ticket. Some they scrutinize heavily, others they just wave through. We make it through and find the concourse and gate where we are to depart, and then Sensei decides it’s time for more “market research.” We find a restaurant and eat four meals between the two of us, consuming a liter of beer with it. It was very good food for airport fare. The service was different, though. It’s not as friendly as what we’d just been experiencing. We have a great talk about the trip, the dojo, various subject of history, and Sensei’s upcoming travels. To kill more time we then wander through the various shops.

We finally go down to the gate and wait for our departure time. We are delayed again by the weather, departing an hour late. Another nice flight home, but I don’t sleep much. I’m too busy thinking about everything I just experienced. What an incredible trip.

We arrive in Denver, get through customs pretty easily, gather our bags and meet J.S. for Sensei’s ride. I transfer all the equipment I’d been carrying and bid goodbye to Sensei, and then head to my car for the ride home.

What an amazing trip. The things I got to see and experience was phenomenal, and the people I got to meet were so nice and friendly. To see such a juxtaposition of cultures just within a small country was fascinating. I definitely plan on going back to Turkey again with my family, and if Sensei does hold seminars there in the future I will do my best to attend. Thank you, Sensei, for the wonderful opportunity to experience such an amazing country.