Posts tagged ‘Tokyo’

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

Hida Takayama, the colour of Japan.

It’s 5pm and, in a rural town high in the Japanese Alps, the sun is setting over a scene that could only have been crafted by a hyperactive child in possession of some Magic Markers. Streaks of scarlet red stain the pathways and clash with pools of golden yellow and lime green, the vibrant ruins of an earlier sugar rush. A breeze whistles through the thinning branches, colouring the air with the last remnants of summer and prompting an old woman to clutch the sleeves of her kimono closer to her chest.

Hida Folk village - Paddy field pond

This is the Japan we have been looking for. Here Autumn is one of the most important times of the year and from our seat overlooking Hida Takayama, it’s not hard to see why. In early November the mornings are cold enough to call for the use of thermals during trips to the morning markets and electric blankets at night time. Cold enough to almost merit the fluffy jumpers that all the local poodles are wearing and the sailor costume on a passing terrier. But in the afternoon glow, the changing leaves are worth every hardship. As is Takayama.

Drinking Water

Hugged on every side by snow‐capped mountains, Takayama is the piece of rural Japan that most travelers come in search of. The focal point of the town is a wide river, thick with colourful carp, crossed by a startling red and white wooden bridge. At this time of year the length of the river is lined with maple trees at various stages of their seasonal colour cycle, ranging from the young and green to the more developed, burgundy maples which stretch all the way through the town and up to the top of the hill behind it.
Just off the river, traditional wooden buildings line the streets and the smell of fresh sake floats out from local distilleries. From 9am to 12pm the streets are alive for the morning markets and the sweet sake fumes mingle with that of delicious Hida beef skewers being cooked by local vendors and slices of juicy Japanese apples offered up by women in their food stalls. Even during its hectic hours though, there is a sense of peace in Takayama that only comes from knowing that the village is watched over by a ridiculous (and still growing) amount of temples and shrines.

Local man makes traditional Japanese candy 

Takayama is the perfect place to unwind after a hectic few days (and one particularly raucous night) in Tokyo – for added zen anyone visiting should consider staying in the reasonably priced Zenkoji Buddhist Temple.

More photos of Takayama are posted in the gallery.

November 13, 2009 at 3:20 am 2 comments

Better than bulimia

Have you ever wished that there was a no-fat diet that allowed you to eat whatever you want when you want it? Deep-fried  breaded shrimp, tempura noodles, egg fried rice, banana fritters – no problem!

Plastic food

With this new diet you can eat sushi until you burst because our products are, quite literally, made of air! Coming soon to a chip shop near you.

*Disclaimer: side effects may include indigestion, constipation, malnutrition, toxic shock, plasticitis and death. Programme should be undertaken as part of a balanced diet combined with regular excercise.

plastic food

In Dublin if you saw a photo menu and plastic food you would run a mile but, let’s face it, it it is difficult to capture the beauty of a 3-in-1 through either image or synthetic materials. Yet it is somehow  strangely appropriate and unquestionably ingenius in the Japanese context. Picture this; you arrive in a restaurant and, unable to read Japanese, you point randomly at an item on the menu. What you get back is a slice of raw fish coated in pungent wasabi paste and fried in what you can only presume to be some variation of cat urine. Or perhaps you get fugu – that poisonous fish dish made infamous by The Simpsons – an exciting delicacy when prepared by a trained chef but this is a stall on the side of the road and your chef-cum-host-cum-waiter seems to be using a piece of his shoe as a spatula. So what do you do? Thankfully, most restaurants in Japan display plastic versions of the meals they serve in a glass display out front so, when all those hash signs start assaulting you from your menu, you simply grap your waiter by the sleeve and drag him/her outside where you start banging on the glass screaming “That one, I want that one!

Luckily we happened across two shops that sold these displays on an outing in Asakusa – thanks to the lovely Hideo Noguchi for his advice!

November 6, 2009 at 3:48 pm 2 comments

Tokyo, Day 2. Tsukiji fish market.

It is 5.30am on a cold Tokyo morning and, in a wet warehouse, the head of a small man pops up above the crowd. A bell rings and the masses – exclusively men in their wellies – turn their heads to greet him. He waves his fist and starts to shout, easing into a rhythmic chant; “Nee-sen-nee-sen-nee-sen-nee-sen”. The crowd starts to buzz and then twinkle, flashlights blinking momentarily from one corner and then another to signal participation. The bell, still ringing, speeds up as the man on the platform strikes his best Superman pose once, twice, three times. As the bell reaches fever pitch and the man’s air-punching starts to resemble a popular 70s dance, the show stops as suddenly as it began and the crowd shuffles away.
Anywhere else this sight would be a curious, agriculture-based protest but in Tokyo, it’s just an average early morning auction in Tsukiji Fish Market. Here, the fishermen sell the best of their daily booty and the cream of the crop – tuna fish that often weighs upwards of 70lbs – is lined up along the concrete floor for vigorous examination before it falls under the hammer. The rest of the catch is sold individually or in bulk in the hundreds of stalls set up across the rest of the market. Fish so fresh that they wriggle in their carrier bags are perused by restauranteurs and sushi chefs while sword-yielding vendors slice, gut and behead their wares with the precision and skill of Samurai.
On the metro on the way in, while I was still picking the sleep out of my eyes, the thought of dodging motorised carts and squeltching through fish guts was not as appealing as you would imagine. All this changed though, when we stumbled into the fish market and a man with a hand cart sped by with a fat tuna fish that was longer than me and more closely related to a whale than that stuff you scoop out of a tin. In a front stall a man was casually whipping live fish out of a tank, chopping off their tales and slitting their necks with a heavy cleaver. As disgusting as it all should have been, the careless skill of the vendors along with the ferocious size of their stock (there were scallops as big as a fist and prawns that could take on a lobster) was completely absorbing and, as Gary hopped about with his camera, I had the greatest time wandering from stall to stall, totally invisible – fish guts or no fish guts.
Tokyp 022 edited
Inevitably the fish market was followed by some epic sushi and tea in Sushi Zanmai. Day 2 in Tokyo – so far so good!

More photos from today can be seen on the gallery page.

November 4, 2009 at 5:06 pm 9 comments


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