Posts tagged ‘Japan’

An ode to Asia – our top ten experiences

In ways it feels like only yesterday that Gary and I said tearful goodbyes to our Mums and Dads and set off with our names sewn on to our shiny new backpacks, hardly able to breath for all the excitement/nerves/sadness/happiness and general overwhelming flow of emotions vying for our attention. Yet somehow, we have found ourselves a few days short of halfway and, even more alarmingly, out of Asia. Somehow we have become semi-seasoned travellers. Gone is the lettering on our bags – the victims of a hundred careless baggage handlers – and the brand new look. Now everything we own smells like Asia; all our clothes have bobbles around the waist from chaffing backpacks; we don’t bounce out of bed at 7am every morning; we barter for everything even when it’s inappropriate; and we start sentences with the ever-infuriating “Well when I was in Laos/Cambodia/China/East Timor…” We could be gone for years or it could have just been days.

Leaving Asia, after having such a fantastic time, was more bitter than sweet. Granted Oz could offer us all the comforts of home – chocolate, television, air conditioning, home cooking, cleanliness and the ability to communicate – but would it surprise us with impromptu religious processions in the street? Would we have the fun of blind ordering creamed yams because we couldn’t read the menu? Would there be the same backpacker solidarity that we found in rural China or Vietnam? Would we be able to buy and sell motorbikes without a drivers license? Would we be able to afford even the  most basic of things? Hardly.

As a tribute to our favourite continent we decided to compile a bit of a nostalgic top ten list. After much squabbling and a few punches we came up with a list that surprised even us. Whenever asked we always say that we loved Japan and Thailand most yet China seems to have housed most of our best memories. The main difficulty lay in choosing just ten – how could we leave out watching the Hong Kong skyline come into focus from the Star Ferry or the Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan or having our teeth rattled out of our heads in Timor Leste? It was hard but here it is – our ode to Asia. It’s been emotional.

10.Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
Choose getting wet. Choose taking off all your clothes in front of strangers. Choose sunburn. Choose throwing yourself into a fast-flowing river. Choose drinking from a bucket. Choose falling out of a tractor tyre. Choose dropping your camera in the water. Choose dancing on tables. Choose 100 new friends, Choose killing your liver. Choose falling asleep at 5pm. Choose writing on your face in permanent marker. Choose risking your life for the best matinee party ever. Choose tubing in Vang Vieng.

9.The onsen experience, Japan
For most people being naked with a big group of people is about getting dirty. In Japan it’s about getting clean and let’s face it, there are very few times in life where you will have the opportunity to perch between two naked Asian women in an outdoor thermal mudbath high in the mist-shrouded mountains. The Japanese onsen experience, be it in the dedicated town of Beppu or a public facility in Tokyo, will change the way you feel about bath-time forever.

8.Food, just about everywhere
Slurrping down bowls of ramen at noodle bars; discovering mango and sticky rice at a roadside stall; bagging 20 Indonesian fried bananas for 40 cent; eating an entire fish on a stick; figuring out where M&S steal their recipes from over a bowl of fish amok; and the endless search for the best Thai curry. Who said eating in Asia just meant pad thai and fried rice? Yes there was enthusiastic vomitting and 100 odd boxes of immodium but it was worth it to be able to say – “Can you make that Thai spicy, not farang (foreigner) spicy?” And thanks to fantastic cooking classes in China and Thailand we may never have to eat western food again…

7.Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan
The phrase ‘fresh sushi’ never rang as true as it does in Tsukiji Fish Market where fishermen and chefs meet to haggle over a 70 tonne tuna fish or a handful of live prawns. While the rest of Tokyo is still sleeping, skilled tradesmen gut fish with one hand while texting with the other and demonstrate just how easy it is to turn an eel inside out.

6.Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat was one of those extremely rare, heart-stopping moments. We’ve seen our fair share of religious sites from simple wooden structures in Kyoto to the ancient stupa of Borobudor and even the gold-plated royal temple in Bangkok but nothing has come even close to seeing the light change Angkor Wat from a vague black shadow to a spectacular glowing pink, orange and yellow marvel. Never has getting up at 4am been so worthwhile.

5.Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
There are very few places in China where you can find peace and quiet but over three days in Tiger Leaping Gorge our only human interaction was around a camp fire on our last night when we finally met the eight other hikers doing the trail. During the day we edged across cliffside waterfalls, dragged ourselves  by the fingernails up the last of the infamous 28 bends (more like 128 bends), clung onto fraying rope ladders for dear life and sat and stared in awe at the mighty Yangtze as it roared past Middle Tiger Leaping Rock.

4.Diving in Thailand
“Two thirds of the world’s surface is covered by water. How can you call yourself a traveller if you’re happy to settle for less than a third?” reads a sign in Ko Phi Phi. Diving in Thailand opened our eyes to an entirely different, entirely superior world full of vibrant colours, swaying reef and curious fish. Away from the blaring music, honking horns and obnoxious tauts we perfected our backflips and were adopted by schools of Sergent Major Fish.

3.Biking in Vietnam
Yes there were near death experiences, crashes, break-downs on mountain peaks, monsoons, burst tires, broken engines, dodgy chains, hit and runs, guilty pay-offs, police bribes and painful sunburns but as the saying goes – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Biking around Vietnam we managed to get off the very sticky tourist trail and see a whole other side to a very beautiful country. Of course it didn’t hurt that we got to know some great Aussies on the way too.

2.Halong Bay, Vietnam
Once listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam is a spectacular blanket of silky water broken by hundreds of dark shadows – giants hunched over as if in sleep. Add to that a traditional oriental junk, some fantastic food, a handful of great new friends and a liberal serving of alcohol and you have a New Year’s Eve to remember (or not remember). And as we all know, the only cure for a hangover is to run out of bed and leap straight from the deck of a boat into freezing cold water. Heaven.

1.The Great Wall of China
We had been on the Great Wall of China for around an hour and a half before we saw it. It’s hard to miss something that big (some say you can see it from the moon) but in the blanket of fog that had fallen over Beijing that cold winter’s morning we were more concerned about getting off the damn thing alive than we were about visibility. Subzero temperatures had left the wall coated in black ice, making an already precariously delapidated wall even more impassable. As we shuffled along, using our hands and bums to keep us from falling off the edge and into the abyss, the strangest thing happened. We turned a corner and all of a sudden the fog cleared and the sun came out. Stretched out before us was an endless stretch of sandy brickwork zig-zagging its way up and down the hilly landscape. We stopped dead, totally speechless. Bloody hell, we were on THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!

All our pictures from Asia are available in the gallery


April 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm 1 comment

Trekking Magome to Tsumago

November 20th

Although six hours of travel, a three hour wait in Nagoya station and an early morning may seem like a big ask in return for a two and a half hour hike, our amble from Magome to Tsumago (in the Kiso Valley region) was exactly what our trip had been missing thus far.

After hearing about all these “small towns” we were supposed to be seeing, yet never seeing anything that didn’t involve several sky-scrapers, a dense mass of concrete blocks and endless video, audio and billboard advertising, we were ecstatic to find that Magome is actually a small rural town, according to the Irish standards of what that should be.

Suspended in time, Magome is forbidden to erect telephone wires, build pinball arcades or install advertising that screams at you as you walk past. Instead, it is a gathering of several small wooden building set on the top of a mountain complete with water-wheels, natural springs, mountain vistas and more carp than they could humanely fit in so few ponds.

The hike from there to Tsumago was pretty hilly and quite steep at times but, it being a glorious day, we were pretty happy to slog it out. We passed terraced rice fields, farms, waterfalls, forests, rivers and one beautiful little restaurant plonked in the middle of nowhere served by a man in traditional dress and a conical hat.

In a word, it was perfect but I’ll just let Gary’s beautiful pictures say the rest.

More photos of Magome and Tsumago are available in the gallery.

November 22, 2009 at 2:22 am 1 comment

“Bambi? You can’t eat Bambi!” (Nara)

November 18th

When you tell a traveller in Kyoto that you spent your day at the temples they look at you sympathetically, as if you have just said that you recently had your tonsils out. Much like having your tonsils out, temple-hopping in Japan’s cultural capital is good for you, and you know it’s good for you but its exhausting and painful and by the end of the day you just need a big bowl of ice cream.

There are 13 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto, all but one of which are either a temple or a shrine. They have a temple with a bell it takes 17 monks to ring, a temple covered in gold foil, a temple with 5km of torii and a temple with the biggest gate you have ever seen in your life. They are the biggest temples, the most sacred temples, the best temples but at the end of the day, they are all just temples.

You know what it will look like before you arrive – it will be big and wooden and impressive. There will be a sheltered iron pot out front with incense burning and people will be gathered around grabbing at whisps of smoke and rubbing it into their hair and clothes. There will be the sound of coins bouncing off of wood as worshippers throw their money into a box, ring a bell and clap twice to get Buddha’s attention. You will have to take your shoes off and put them in a plastic bag. So you go, knowing what is in store and wearing shoes with no laces and you ‘oooh’ over this Buddha statue and ‘ah’ that beautiful carving. Then you put back on your shoes, trek 100m up a ferociously steep hill and express amazement over this beautiful carving and that Buddha statue.

It wasn’t surprising then that Giles and Anne (our fearless new travel buddies) gave us that ‘Oh no, you have to have your tonsils removed’ look when we told them that we were heading to Nara to see, you got it, more temples. And it was with heavy, slip-on-shoe-clad feet that we dragged ourselves out there at ridiculous o’clock in the morning, expecting to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and wish we had stayed in bed.

What we didn’t know however, and what made the whole trip worthwhile, scratch that, a highlight of Japan, was that Nara is not only a UNESCO-holding, temple-filled tourist mecca, but also a deer park. The park is home to thousands of tame deer who wander around footpaths, chase children with ice cream and lounge on top of sacred Buddha. It made for a lot of fun.

The streets of the park are lined with stalls selling deer crackers and, after realizing that the deer want nothing to do with you unless you have a little something to give back, we bought a pack from the first vendor with thoughts to carrying them with us for the day in case we ran into any super cute fawns. Big mistake. The deer were on to us immediately and, the second the vendor handed them over, they rushed me, nudging my hip, licking my bag and sucking on my coat buttons until I handed over the goods. Terrified, I dropped them and ran (before Gary could even get a picture, much to his dismay.)

Eventually we worked out our own crafty plan and Gary distracted them while I quickly threw correct change at the little old man at the stall and dropped the crackers into my bag before hightailing it. We got away safely but as we made our way through the park, we got a little bored and started to leave trails of cracker crumbs behind us, collecting our very own assembly line of deer.

Oh yeah, and we saw some big temples and pretty stone lanterns. Who knew temple-hopping could be so much fun? Nara – highly recommended for the temple weary.

More pictures of Nara are available in the gallery

November 22, 2009 at 1:58 am 1 comment

Fabulous fat men in Fukuoka

November 16th

When we got to Japan we were devastated to hear that sumo season was over. Between that and only spotting one geisha, our to do list was looking pretty meager. Luckily Giles and Anne , in their infinite wisdom, informed us that the sumo tournament was only just beginning in Fukuoka so, ignoring Lonely Planet’s advice that people start queueing at dawn for the special (and cheap) ‘on the day’ tickets, we picked up our Japanese Rail passes and massive backpacks and headed straight for Japan’s second city.

We managed to blag the cheap seats for that day for 2,100 yen (around 16 euro) but it being only 11am, the stadium was pretty empty so we had someone else’s ringside (sweat splatter) seats until around 2.30pm. The tournament runs from 8.30am until 6pm every day for the duration of the festival, starting with the lower level sumos and moving onto the world’s best in the afternoon. Surprisingly, there are only around 800 sumo wrestlers currently competing, as Japanese boys move towards the country’s latest craze – baseball.

I had always imagined sumo to be an epic battle between two massive forces of nature so when the first few competitors came into the ring, weighing little over 14 stone, I was a bit disappointed. Fortunately as the day progressed, they got bigger, until they weight around 1 kilo less than a fully grown sperm whale. I was also surprised by the amount of ceremony involved (apparently sumo was originally part of a religious ritual).

The first person to enter the stage is a man in traditional dress (looking a little like a medieval squire) who sings/chants the competitor’s name. The sumo then hauls himself into the ring, a circle with a diameter of around 15ft on a sand platform. They stretch, lifting one swollen foot over their head before stomping it down on the ground and repeating with the other foot. Then they square up, squatting down, before standing up and walking out of the ring. The referee (also in traditional dress) dances about a bit and the sumos return, squat and sometimes, leave again.

After around 10 minutes of this the fat (or sometimes not so fat) men finally get to it. The referee starts yelping like an injured seal (apparently shouting encouragement) and they rush at each other, colliding and sending all their rolls of fat (and in one sumos case four boobs) quivering towards their rear in fear.

Oftentimes this is all it takes. One puts his shoulder down lower and the other, defying the law of gravity, soars over his back, suspended gracefully mid-air in a backflip for one terrifying moment, before he hits the floor/judge/closest audience member. And that’s it. After all the ceremony, chanting and prancing, they hobble back to the stage, bow and exit the room demurely. Sumo wrestlers, unlike Irish football fans, are not permitted to show emotion after winning or losing a bout.

The best fights are the ones where the wrestlers weigh about the same and have similar strength. When their shoulders meet, neither gives way and they wrap their free arm around each other. This leads to a standoff which, after a few minutes, starts to look a bit more like the world’s fleshiest cuddle.

You would think that seven and a half hours of watching a foreign sport in an unintelligible language with a seemingly endless routine of unrecognizable religious rituals, would be too much of a good thing. But its not. As the day went on it got more and more exciting and, as the more successful sumos arrived, the crowd got more and more excited. A queue of people waiting to greet the world champions formed outside the stadium and with all the screaming teenagers and swooning women, you would have been excused for thinking that you were at a Take That concert.

We left feeling like kids who had spent the day at Disney, practicing our squats and splits and stamping on the bus, just daring people twice our size to take us on. And why not? Sumo has it all – morbidly obese men, thongs, long flowing locks, bear hugs, elaborate costumes, injured sea creatures, gravity defying belly flops and the ever present fear that the next time they fall, it could be on you. What more could you want from a sport?

More photos of sumo in Fukuoka are available in the gallery.

November 21, 2009 at 6:15 pm 1 comment

Hiroshima, city of peace

15th November 2009

Following a lovely first evening in Hiroshima, featuring our first taste of delicious okonomiyaki and a trip to the ‘Dreamination’ light sculpture festival on Peace Boulevard, we were still gushing about what a delight Hiroshima is as we walked through Peace Memorial Park – all fountains, polished granite and forgiveness – and up to the A-Bomb Dome. The Dome was one of the only buildings left standing by the Atomic Bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima at 8.15am on August 6, 1945. Although it was gutted by the bomb and subsequent fires, most of the structure still stands and is preserved by the city of Hiroshima and UNESCO as it looked immediately after the blast, including the debris collected around the base of the building. As upsetting as this sight is, the music wafting over from some flautists performing across the river did something to take the edge off.

While we were at the Dome we were approached by a woman (we later learned that her name was Machiko Yamaoka) who wanted to give us a free tour. Her mother, she explained, was a hibakusha (A-bomb survivor) and had recently gotten sick. As she was no longer well enough to tell her own story, Michiko felt that it was now her responsibility to make people aware of Hiroshima’s past and the importance of the city’s quest to eliminate all of the world’s nuclear weapons.  And so our tour of the other, less peaceful, less happy-smiley Hiroshima began.


Michiko’s mother had been outside the city when the bomb exploded but her sister was not so lucky so she rushed into the city to find her. It took her a week to track her down and take her home, where she soon died. While she was combing the streets, she saw exactly what hell looks like and Michiko’s bedtime stories seem to have been anything but the norm as a result. As painful as it was, her mother felt the importance of teaching her children about the horrors of war.

She told her about people wandering the streets, their skin literally melting off as they walked. Other people, burned beyond recognition and parched with thirst, went in search of water – jumping into the river and water tanks, only to send their bodies into immediate and fatal shock, leaving every source of water strewn with decaying bodies. One woman was walking around with her baby still strapped to her back. She had not yet noticed that her child, black with soot, had already perished.

On our tour of the city, Michiko showed us the hospital that was at the epicenter of the blast and the shop where one lucky man had wandered down to the basement for papers and, protected by a wall of steel and water, had emerged to find every building for blocks completely flattened. She also showed us the graveyard nearby which had survived although the marble headstones had little holes punched in them – in three seconds the immense heat of the blast (6,000 degrees Celsius) had done what takes 20 seconds with a blowtorch in a workshop.

Dazed and more than a little grateful to our obliging tour guide, we headed for the Peace Memorial Museum, wondering how the picture could get any bleaker. But it did. After a strange entrance building outlining, in ridiculous detail, Japan’s entire military history, we got to the main exhibition space. Here there were various items on display, from baby clothes to bits of skin and warped roof tiles, each of which was attached to a placard outlining its origin. Walking from one to one it was pretty difficult not to give up all hope for the future of humanity and sit on the floor crying. This tricycle was one particularly upsetting example:

The placard said:

Shinuchi Tetsuntani (then 3 years 11 months old) loved to ride his tricycle. That morning, he was riding in front of his house when, in a sudden flash, he and his tricycle were badly burned. He died that night. His father felt that he was too young to be buried in a lonely grave away from home and, thinking that he could still play with the tricycle, he buried Shinichi with the tricycle in the backyard.

Children’s Peace Memorial

The most upsetting element of the Peace Memorial Park for many however, is the one memorial with a face – the Children’s Peace Memorial.

This memorial was built for Sadako Sasaki who was 2 years old when Hiroshima was bombed. Although she was in Hiroshima at the time of the blast, it seemed that Sadako had escaped with only surface wounds and so she lived a normal childhood, excelling at athletics and gathering a big gang of friends in elementary school. Ten years later however, Sadako became ill and was diagnosed with leukemia as a result of her exposure to such massive quantities of radiation.

She was hospitalized and while there she saw all the origami paper cranes that were sent to patients as omens of good luck. She heard somewhere that folding 1,000 paper cranes could make a wish come true and became convinced that this was the answer to her plight.

Although she managed to reach, and far surpass, her target, Sadako soon after. At her funerals her family handed out a lot of the cranes she had folded to guests – some of them were large and some were so small that she had used a needle point to fold them. Every one, however, had been folded with care and imbued with her fervent wish to live.

News of Sadako’s tragic death and her cranes spread around Japan and touched something in the public consciousness. Schools petitioned for a monument honouring her and all the children killed by the bomb. Eventually, with the help of people across the world, they raised enough money to build their own. Meanwhile, in a more personal tribute, kids started folding their own paper cranes and sending them to Hiroshima, a practice that still exists today. Millions of these cranes, pasted into pictures and hung in long strings, now make up the Children’s Peace Memorial in Peace Memorial Park.

More pictures of Hiroshima are available in the gallery.

November 21, 2009 at 4:28 pm 2 comments

Bath-time Fun(uoka)

13th November 2009

*Warning: contains scenes of nudity that may offend/horrify some readers.

At 6.49pm Kyoto time today, I somehow found myself sitting on an upside-down bucket, being scrubbed down by a very small, very old, very naked Japanese woman. She was trying valiantly to teach me Japanese but, being that she didn’t speak any english and that my entire grounding in her language consists of exactly three words, that panned out to be a much more arduous task than removing all those layers of dead skin from my back.

Are you confused? Vaguely aroused? I had better start from the start then. Today we had our first onsen, a Japanese public bath that is traditionally located in a natural hot spring but is reproduced artificially in cities across the country. Much like the Hungarian equivalent, this means a combination of various baths – from hot to cold and everything in between. and much like all other Japanese traditions, attending an onsen is an event with a lot of very specific rituals around it.

Before today I had a lot of preconceived notions about what it was to take a bath. For one, I thought that the purpose of a bath was to clean oneself. Wrong. Bathing is apparently what you do after you are clean.

The ritual begins when you walk through the door. Like everywhere else in Japan your shoes come off at the door. After paying and, if you are not properly equipped, buying a wash cloth and soap, you head for the changing room where men and women are separated and the rate of undressing accelerates. Here you leave all your clothes and walk naked with your washcloth and soap (trying desperately to cover yourself with 5 square inches of cloth) into the onsen, collecting a basin as you go.


Now comes phase one. Sitting on an upside-down bucket you scrub every inch of your body until you are red raw, trying desperately to keep your bare bum on the bucket as you get slippier and slippier. If you are a westerner, a quick glance around you at this point will make two things clear – 1. You are the only person who is having difficulty staying on their bucket and 2. You have a captive audience who are, at this stage, supressing their giggles. Plant your two feet firmly on the floor and get on with it. Two bruised bum cheeks and several bars of soap later, you are now permitted to choose a bath and dive in.

For us, the choice was endless in Funaoka Onsen, with simple cold and hot pools, a jacuzzi, a sauna and, best of all, an outdoor pool – a sheltered, heated bath made of the softest, smoothest wood with a bamboo trunk for a tap. It was utter bliss until it got crowded with naked octogenarians and I was forced to dash inside for the sauna, followed by a dunk in the ice cold pool – strangely enough, that one was empty.


Now pretty confident with my new fleshy look, I plucked up the courage to swagger over to the more adventurous pools. First off was the herbal pool which was a vivid shade of orange and approximately half a degree below boiling point. Gary says that this bit made him feel a little stoned but I just got bored and started to worry about coming out looking like a Cheesy Wotsit.

Finally I tried the electrical pool – distinguishable by the presence of a series of plug sockets at around knee height. I’m not certain how that was supposed to feel but I had the sensation that all of my joints were dislocating themselves. Let’s just say that I won’t be hopping into my tub with a hairdryer any time soon.

Just in case the seven pools, sauna and various hosing downs don’t leave you squeaky clean, the last step to onsen-fresh skin is another vigorous scrub down using liberal amounts of soap and a rough cloth. Apparently I wasn’t quite up to scratch on my vigorous scrubbing skills however, as the aforementioned old woman was forced to take over with her scrubbing brush and organic soap (without a word of warning, might I add).

As clean as a whistle, I floated outside to meet Gary who, after an hour and a half with dozens of naked Asian men, had a new found confidence and a swagger in his step.

As we were unable to take a camera into the Onsen (for obvious reasons) the pictures used in this post are courtesy of Google Images.

November 16, 2009 at 4:01 pm 2 comments

Torii and Arashiyama

Take One
12 November 2009

Have you ever felt like you have stepped onto the set of an indescribably beautiful film and that any second the lights will come up and someone will usher you off the premises? Well we had one of those days today in Kyoto.

Our first Hollywood moment took place at Fushimi Inari Shrine when, predictably, we stumbled onto a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha. Luckily they let us hang around for a while.

Although the shrine includes the usual temples and incense, what everyone really goes for is the torii – those beautiful deep orange gates that you see on every Japanese postcard. While we had seen the odd one or two lying around since we arrived, we had been a little underwhelmed – until now.


With 4km of torii climbing up a steep mountain, Fushimi Inarii is the mother lode for anyone who likes gates. Or the colour orange. The most memorable section, and the one from Memoirs of a Geisha, is a pretty short stretch (maybe 100m long) of back-to-back vivid orange torii with black engraved Japanese letters on them. Of course, as is always the case, running the route was easier for the Geisha than it was for us. Two hours, several bottles of over-priced water and one sunburn later, our white make-up was was all over our kimono and our heavily ornamented hair was a darn sight.


Take two
12 November 2009

Our second brush with fame happened outside the north gate of Tenryuji Temple. As it was coming into early evening (and it being winter it was starting to get dark), this one was fortunately less crowded with tourists than our first stop.


After a few wrong turns we managed to locate the Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama that looks exactly like a scene out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The fading light gave it a great eretheral air, even if there was a gang of Japanese schoolgirls holding up peace signs while their friends took photos on their 25th century phones. The soundtrack of screaming monkeys and the wind blowing through the trees also added to the magic. Since bamboos are so tall and hollow, they make a really unique, faraway sound – the usual whoosh of leaves blowing combined with the hollow thwack of trunks banging against each other. Strangely enough it sounds exactly like rain beating against glass on a windy day.

More pictures from Kyoto are available on the gallery

November 14, 2009 at 4:09 pm 3 comments

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