A colleague once told me that I could not, would not, should not travel in China without being part of a guided tour group. I wasn’t sure if this was correct or not, but he had been there, after all, so I was inclined to semi-believe him.
Well, I am happy to say that I laugh in the face of this advice now, as I have travelled in many countries where I cannot read the “A, B, C”, let alone speak.
We were excited to ride the famous bullet train. First impressions were that it looked hi-tec and almost other-worldly. Secondly, I loved the way that there were numbers marked on the platform to indicate where each carriage would stop. Then you queue up at your designated number and get on the train – no hassle. Although it’s a small thing, it impressed me. I am used to trains when you have no idea which carriage will be where until the train pulls in – cue inevitable mass stampede from one end of the platform to the other!
The trains were amazing inside – wood paneled floors, clean, functional. The best thing EVER about these trains was that you could flip the seats around to face the direction of travel. Continue reading →
Let me start by saying that when I went to Japan my expectation was that Japanese food would be like Wagamama (which is a gorgeous Japanese fusion restaurant) and sushi. It wasn’t. It was very different – sometimes bizarre, and always interesting!
Japanese restaurants display plastic food outside to indicate the dishes they are selling. I liked this idea as regardless of whether you speak the language you can see the portion sizes. Unfortunately you still don’t know what it is precisely! Our food vocabulary was limited and encompassed words like Chicken and Rice, but that will only get you so far!
If restaurants are catering for tourists they will include English translations, but we often tried to avoid these as we were on a strict budget. We tried to eat the places that locals do, which obviously means no English translations. Often we were guided by the price and the photo.
From Beppu we meandered our way back to Tokyo, stopping at Kyoto again along the way. By this stage we had found that the easiest way to find a hotel for the night was to call into the tourist information at the train station. We did this at Kyoto, Hiroshima and Kagoshima and Beppu. In all cases, tourist information was friendly and spoke English. They also had great links with local hotels and could phone through for you to check availability and the hotel would hold it for you. This system worked well in every city, so we thought we would try it in Tokyo. We expected to find the tourist information office in the station, like all the other cities…. Guess where we found it? That’s right … one train stop away from central station, in a building opposite the train station, on the 16th floor. Hmmmmm. I have no idea what the reasoning behind this is. Maybe their strategy is to focus on helping only the most determined tourists?… 😉
After that, we did struggle to find a hotel. I won’t tell you how many hours we spent walking around looking for one with availability that we could afford. I would definitely recommend booking ahead.We celebrated our last night in Tokyo (and our last night in Japan) in style, visiting a sushi bar and trying out kareoke in one of the private Kareoke booths – this was AMAZING! Continue reading →
Beppu is famous for its hot springs, and it is effectively a spa town – a centre of geothermal activity. This fact was reinforced when we were having a stroll along the sea front and discovered 10 people buried in sand up to their necks! It was an odd sight! They were having a sand bath. I later had one… and can confirm that the sand is warm and it was very relaxing, despite looking like a reverse ostrich.
It was after I had my sand bath, at one of the spa complexes, that a Dilemma arose; To be Naked or not to be Naked?
When we went to the spa complex we knew somehow that swimming costumes were frowned upon. Upon checking my guidebook now, it does not appear to mention this crucial fact, which I would think would be of interest to the British tourist. Continue reading →
Normally in a hotel you would find evacuation advice in the event of a fire. Here there was advice in the event of a volcanic eruption! I can’t say I wasn’t worried! But I took comfort in the fact that they have technology to monitor the volcano, and procedures in place for what to do if it erupts. Preparedness (or “oonagi”, as Friends would say!) is probably the key. There were also trenches down the side of the volcano to filter the magma away from houses and towards the sea. The biggest safety-net is probably that the volcano is located on an island, so the sea would presumably act as a buffer between the volcano and the town. Nevertheless, an ash cloud could easily cover a town – that’s right – I paid attention in Geography! 🙂
In fact, Geography was one of my favourite subjects at school, so I was fascinated by the volcano despite my fear of it! We took a boat from Kagoshima (the town) over to the island where the volcano (Mount Sakurajima) was located. Continue reading →
Our main reason for visiting Hiroshima was its infamous past. During the Second World War the USA dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, on 6 August 1945. We were interested to see the memorials and museums, and also to see the city today, 60-odd years since the bomb.
Amazingly, the building directly under where the bomb was dropped, the epicentre if you will, survived. It is obviously not perfectly intact, but it is still standing and has been left as a monument to the event. The rest of the city around that one building was flattened, and has since been rebuilt.
We visited the peace museum and learnt about what happened; the context of the bombing and the aftermath. There were artifacts of objects recovered, and stories of people killed that day in the most unimaginably horrific ways, or through cancers afterwards. It moved me to tears. Continue reading →
I have to be honest – I did not easily take to Kyoto. It rained, was freezing cold, and it took several hours of wandering around in the rain to find a hotel that could (or would) give us a bed for the night. In a bout of home sickness I ordered pasta with blue cheese… which turned out to be a plate of plain pasta with about 2 crumbs of blue cheese. Sadly, I am not exaggerating! I mean, fair enough you don’t go to Japan to eat pasta, but I was expecting something a bit more impressive than that! At least it was cooked…
Apart from traipsing around the many shopping arcades and seeing the sights that Kyoto had to offer (a lady carving fruit among the more memorable sights!), we saw several beautiful and ornate temples.
We went into the dark underbelly of one of the temples, and were given a card beforehand explaining that it would be dark and we would be going “into the womb of a goddess”. I was having a concentration lapse at that point so even though I ran my eyes over this twice I didn’t take in what it said. So my version of this enriching experience was to stumble around in the dark for 5 minutes while gripping the back on my BF’s T-shirt like a chimp. Needless to say, I would recommend you read the card! Continue reading →
We caught the bullet train north from Tokyo, to Nikko. We arrived in Nikko and saw signs for the World Heritage Bus Stop. “Blimey!”, we thought, “that must be a really fancy bus stop”. We headed towards it, our minds swirling with visions of gold leaf and maybe marble – there must be marble. Imagine our disappointment when we arrived to find that the bus stop is in fact a simple wooden hut, with the added bonus that a bus departs from there headed for the world heritage site… dammit!! 🙂
Once we had got over the disappointment, we headed into town. Nikko was a beautiful town, and reminded me of ski resort. Probably as it was freezing and there was snow on the ground in places. As we walked through the town I noticed the manhole covers were really artistic!
It was so cold in Nikko so we found a hotel as soon as we could. We had to remove our shoes at the front door and put on slippers. For the toilet, we had to remove the normal slippers and put on bathroom slippers. The toilets were AMAZING. The rest of the world is way behind in all things toilet-related, let me tell you! Continue reading →
One of the funniest things I have seen in my life was my (English) boyfriend trying to ask some Japanese shopkeepers about Sumo… in Japanese. Bless his heart. They didn’t understand. (Something about the pronunciation – in English we would say “Sumo” – pronounced “Soo-mo”. The Japanese pronunciation is more like “Soo-moh” I think…?) So to explain what he meant, he had to turn to our default communication system – Mime. Which meant acting out sumo in the middle of a Japanese shop. If only I had a video camera. Anyway, thanks to his perseverance, and visiting three different shops to buy tickets (cue a repeat performance of the Sumo act!) we got tickets for the Sumo!!
We arrived bright and early, and immensely excited. Well, I say “bright and early”… it was bright and early for us but we were running a tad late – as per usual. We were worried we would miss the start etc… and then we got there and found the entire place empty. We had purchased the second-to-cheapest seats, but we were able to walk right to the front and see it close-up. (As the day progressed, more people turned up and claimed their seats and by the evening every seat was full!)