5 Days In Paradise

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As soon as I came to Japan, I heard about Okinawa: apparently a tropical, Hawaii-like island in southern Japan.

That’s certainly one way to describe it.

Okinawa is many things. For one, it’s not exactly Japan: the island was annexed by Japanese forces in 1879, disregarding its unique language and culture. Another important factor is that the US military has been stationed in Okinawa since World War II, and even now Okinawa contains 96% of the forces stationed in Japan.

The influence of both of these factors was easy to spot as soon as we got to Okinawa: the taxi driver’s dialect was hard to understand; as we were driven to our AirBnb, many military planes flew over us low in the sky. The taxi driver told us that there have been plane crashes every year since World War II.

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Our first sunset

Despite this slightly ominous beginning, Okinawa really felt like a tropical resort. We stayed in the most Americanised area, full of “American food” restaurants (mostly offering steak), and even prices in dollars here and there. There is also an “American Village”, which is basically an amusement park. The village was the closest spot to explore on the first day, so we window shopped, and finally dipped into the warm sea. The time during which we visited Okinawa is one of the busiest in the year, celebrating Obon, but the beach was hardly busy compared to European ones, or even the one near Kobe. I was surprised to find out that there is a strict time frame in which you are allowed to swim: around 8 am until 7 pm. There is also a clear, fairly small boundary within which you have to stay, because the net keeps away the jellyfish and all sorts of other sea creatures.

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We actually managed to go to a new beach every day of our five-day trip. On the second day we went to check out a beach a little further away, to get to which we had to take a taxi. Unfortunately, as we got there in the afternoon, the tide was very low, as it always is at that time of day. The boundaries and swimming times were the same. None of this prevented us from having lots of fun, of course! The sun in Okinawa is very hot, and most people prefer to swim in t-shirts or full-body swimsuits. As I found out from my own experience, that’s a very wise idea…

On the third day we found a beach that was very different from the first two. It didn’t have much sand, and was mostly composed of stones and pieces of dead coral – a bit morbid, yes.  Hannah, Thomas, and I were determined to trek over these stones through the water, even though it was very painful without flip-flops. We just kept getting distracted by the beautiful fish, and this strange sea cucumber called “namako”, which it turns out the Japanese sometimes eat raw. Thomas took it out of the water and let us touch it. It was indescribably gross! Certainly not a thing you find on your average European beach though. As we went further, the water got deeper, and finally we swam to a formation of rocks. Here lots of people with transparent pots were wondering around, exploring the numerous sea creatures, such as crabs and sea urchins. On the way back Hannah spotted a very poisonous sea snake, which luckily doesn’t tend to attack humans. As the boys headed off in search of food, Hannah and I exhaustedly collapsed on the rocks, and managed to fall asleep. Aaand that’s how I got the painful sunburn on my back. Lesson learned: don’t sleep in the Okinawan sun! On top of the sunburn, when the boys woke me up, it turned out that the pretty conical shell I picked up and put near my shoes walked off as I dozed. Oops. Sorry for disturbing you, shy little crab.

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The panorama is wonky from excitement

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The beach on the fourth day was hands down the best beach any of us have ever been to. To get to it we had to wake up really early, and take a ferry from Okinawa’s capital city Naha. It was quite expensive and took 2 hours one way to get to Zamami island. Absolutely worth it, of course. As Hannah put it later: it felt like swimming in a travel brochure! The water was crystal clear, and as soon as you step in you can spot cute fish swimming right by your feet. We all came prepared with goggles and spent hours doing improvised snorkelling: the sea gets really deep really fast, and you can swim over big coral formations, and watch dozens of types of fish and other sea creatures go about their lives. It felt like flying. That evening, exhausted from the mind-blowing experience, we stumbled into an Okinawan restaurant in Naha, and completed the awesomeness of the day by trying unusual food.

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Okinawan food. The green stuff is sea grapes!

On the last day we were all rather tired and a bit down about having to leave soon. It was Frank who found the enthusiasm to get us to go further north in search of another nice beach. It seems he found wrong directions on the internet and we ended up crashing a fancy hotel’s private beach instead, which was surprisingly small and dirty (clearly, we got spoiled by Zamami’s water). But with a great group of friends any place can turn into endless fun, and that’s what happened that day. We befriended a crab, drank wine on the beach, and stargazed. A sweet end to an amazing holiday.

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Now, two days after getting back, I’m sitting practically on top of my suitcases, writing my last blog post from Japan. Over 16 hours of travel time loom ahead; my alarm is set for 5:30 am. In the last 48 hours I’ve said goodbye to many dear people, ate a farewell ramen, and stuffed all of my remaining possessions into two suitcases. I’ve been looking forward to coming home, but suddenly it feels like I’m losing something important – this life and routine I’ve built up in one year in Japan. Browsing through some of my pictures, I realised how intense and magical it’s all been. There are many questions on my mind: have I changed during this year? Will I feel at home when I step back into England, or will I feel lost? Is hummus gonna be as good as I’ve been nostalgically fantasising all year?

So, here it is – my last post from Japan. But not the last one on this blog!

Kabuki

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At the theatre entrance

When I was offered the chance to see a kabuki play, I was initially reluctant. I don’t know that much about kabuki, the ticket was 6000 yen (around £50), and the play lasts 4 hours (though it has breaks). But I thought: hey, this might be a cool experience, so I should try it out.

And thank god I did!

Kabuki was an absolutely sublime experience. It is theatre, but in a different way from stuff you see in the West. It is normally based on medieval plays, and lines are spoken in exaggerated voices, making the language hard to understand at times. There was live music, including instruments such as the shamisen (a stringed, plucked instrument) and the shinobue (a wooden flute). The costumes were incredibly detailed, and the dance at the end included some impressive kimono changes right on stage.

What really amazed me, though, were the movements. The entirety of the play looked like a dance, where every movement of every character was precise and filled with meaning. I was mesmerised by the scene where samurai Danshichi from the play “Natsumatsuri Naniwa Kagami” was forced by circumstance to kill his father-in-law, which was a terrible crime in Edo Japan. I only read a short explanation before seeing the play, but even with limited knowledge of the significance of the scene, the costume, the movements and facial expressions, I was very touched by the acting.

Another interesting thing about kabuki is that it is still only performed by men. But it’s not the same concept as the men who performed female roles in medieval England, and a Western viewer would be wrong to judge the male-only casting in kabuki as outdated. The men of kabuki have made acting as a woman, or being onnagata, a real form of art: the only thing that gave them away on stage was their voice, but other than that, the costume, the movements – they were extremely convincing. I think onnagata can actually be used as commentary on society-imposed gender roles: gender is more than one’s genitals, it is also the way you move, the way you speak, and so on. I only actually knew about kabuki because I’m a big fan of David Bowie, who used kabuki as inspiration for his famous androgynous style and stage performances. I’m fascinated by the fact that such a liminal take on gender has been born in an otherwise ever-conservative Japan.

So, yeah, I’m thrilled I took the time to see a kabuki play. Even Hannah’s friend who is visiting at the moment and doesn’t speak Japanese enjoyed the play for its aesthetics. Definitely a recommended experience for people interested in Japanese culture.

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Inside the hall

Sapporo Getaway

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View from the chocolate factory

I was kind of anxious about disappearing off on a trip mid-semester to go to Sapporo. I went for 5 days, and 3 of those were class days, so it felt a bit bad.

It was awesome though, and I did get noticeably happier and more energetic when I got home.

I flew to Sapporo with Jet Star, which was comfortable and cheaper than Peach. It took 2 hours to get there from Osaka. The whole first day was basically taken up by getting to the town and then to my AirBnb.

This time I ended up staying with a really lovely office lady in her late twenties, who lives alone in central Sapporo in a one-bedroom flat. She was adorable and very helpful. Futchi (that’s her name) is one of those people who are able to get up at 5 am and be energetic even in the evening, which is something I’ve always wanted to be able to do. Futchi sleeps on the sofa even when guests are not around, and she was hardly ever home because she was working or hanging out with friends. We had a funny thing going where I would leave the house by 11 am while Futchi was still sleeping soundly, and I’d be out until early evening and go to bed by midnight, before Futchi got home. We did also have some nice chats though. She was maybe my favourite AirBnb host I’ve had so far.

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Juice in light bulb-shaped bottles

I had 3 full days to explore Sapporo, and I packed in a lot of sightseeing. I started the first day by going to the Hokkaido Shrine Festival that was going on, which was spread out around the town. One of the central parks had a large area covered in food stalls and ghost houses and a motorcycle trick arena. After having a look at that I headed over to see the shrine that organises the festival, which was beautiful and quite different in style from the ones I see in Kansai. At this point I was hungry and looked up vegan restaurants in the area. I was really impressed with how many there were. The one I had lunch in is called Itadakizen, and it turns out it has a chain in Tokyo and London, which I’m excited to visit. Vegan cafes are not that rare in Japan, but most of them serve Western food, so I was happy to eat traditional Japanese food without worrying about animal products.

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One of the processions

After getting lunch I headed to the town centre. As I got out of the metro station near the main shopping street, I stumbled upon several festival processions with lots of music and chanting going on. People were taking beautiful palanquins all around the place, and there were large crowds despite it being a weekday. Oh, and the weather was better than it was in Kansai: just warm enough to be comfortable in a t-shirt, and not humid. Being back in Kobe now I do really miss the Sapporo weather.

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The clock tower

There is a lot to see around the city centre. It’s picturesque and full of parks, which distract you from the blocky concrete buildings that look like they’re stuck in the 80’s. Hokkaido is very proud of its history, which is wonderful as it had a culture very different from Japan’s before it was invaded. However, Sapporo was not really a town until the 1870’s, when it was artificially designed and populated. There is a lot of American influence to be seen around the city, and Sapporo does not shy away from that. One of the main sightseeing spots is a clock tower that looks like it came straight out of the American West. There are maps and photographs available of how Sapporo looked like just after its conception. I also saw the former government office building, which again looked rather American, and had many historical artefacts on display. I was interested to see that the exhibitions there focus on different topics from Osaka or Tokyo museums: it’s all about ancient Hokkaido culture, its invasion, and its relations with both Japan and Russia. I ended the first day by going on a ferris wheel on top of a shopping centre, and getting a great view of the city in the setting sun.

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A tatami room

On the next day I headed straight to the Historical Village of Hokkaido, which had one of the most unusual ways of preserving history that I’ve seen. Old buildings from around Sapporo have been moved to this village on the outskirts of Sapporo, and it is organised in such a way that you do really feel like you’ve stepped into the late 19th century. You can go inside all of the buildings; and as well as government offices or shops there are also private houses filled with real people’s belongings, the way they used to be arranged. I loved the Japanese-style rooms the most. I must have spent 3 or 4 hours there, just wondering around, chatting to the staff and imagining what life must have been like. The village is situated near a large natural park, and I enjoyed walking through it to the Hokkaido Museum which was also nearby.

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When I got back to the city centre I stopped at another vegan cafe, which also served Japanese food. The whole holiday was a culinary paradise, really. The staff in all of the cafes were also really friendly and chatty, eager to compare Kobe and Sapporo. After getting dinner I headed towards the ropeway to Mount Moiwa – the best observational spot around. As usual, it was very expensive to go up, and I didn’t have enough cash to go all the way to the top, but even just halfway up the mountain the view was breathtaking.

My last day in Sapporo was just as busy as the rest. The first thing on my list was… a chocolate factory! Hokkaido is famous for the Shiroi Koibito biscuits that are produced there, and the factory in Sapporo was turned into a small theme park. It was mostly kid-oriented with lots of colourful interactive activities, but also had some interesting information on how the chocolate is made. I passed on making my own biscuits, but could not resist having cake at the cafe with an amazing view of the city. Bringing omiyage (souvenirs) back from a trip is a common practice in Japan so I made sure to get some biscuits for my friends and teachers.

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The sushi music boxes

Then I went to a bus stop, and… got on the bus in the opposite direction of where I intended to go. The next thing I knew I was on an expressway with no stops between Sapporo and the next nearby town – a port town called Otaru. After some frantic googling I just shrugged and settled in for the ride. This kind of thing actually happens to me a lot, since I’m rather absent-minded. Otaru is recommended for visiting anyway, and it was rather cute. I visited its Music Box Museum, which was overwhelmingly adorable, shiny, and expensive, and a couple of other shops. The funniest thing I’ve seen was definitely the sushi-shaped music boxes with Ghibli theme tunes. Then I just headed back to the hour-long bus journey to Sapporo.

I managed to get back in time to explore the Hokkaido University campus. It’s the 6th best university in Japan and generally a beautiful area. I enjoyed visiting its little museum that showcases the university’s research. After that I ended the day by going to yet another vegan cafe in Sapporo, and chatting to Futchi.

Aaand back to reality. The backlog of things to catch up on has been tough, but the trip was totally worth it. Definitely gave me a perspective on academic and health matters. Now only 7 weeks of uni to go!

Awajishima Farmstay

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Proud posing with trophy carrots

How did you spend your last weekend? I personally found myself harvesting carrots!

Well, it was much more than that, of course. Kobe University organised a fun hybrid of an experience for us: visiting a farm and then having a homestay with a local family. It all took place on Awaji island, which is about an hour’s drive from Kobe.

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The days are getting seriously hot over here, but not uncomfortable yet. Naturally, being the Brit that I am, I got sunburnt within the first couple of hours of being outside. Nevertheless, I had a great time visiting the local farm and helping them with their harvest. I didn’t realise pulling carrots out of the ground could be so fascinating, or that they come in white and purple as well as orange. Eating a home-made bento in the sun with my Oxford classmates and the farmers who hosted us is definitely one of my favourite recent memories.

We stuck to the north-eastern area of Awaji island, which is, in fact, pretty big. There was an onsen nearby that gets treated with incense, and the boys got to have a quick dip while us girls browsed the shops and ate lavender-flavoured ice cream (surprisingly yummy!).

Then it was on to meeting our host family. I get super anxious about staying in a stranger’s house, so I got to go together with Hannah, which worked really well. The family was very sweet and enthusiastic about getting to know us; I loved their house – it’s in the countryside, with a tiny bamboo forest just outside of the back garden. The family consisted of a married couple, their 4 year old daughter, and the mother’s parents.

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Adorable girl in adorable boat

Now, I’m normally pretty terrible with children, and tend to avoid them if possible. However, I was absolutely taken with this girl, called Mei-chan: she was like a little princess, demure and polite, but also extremely sweet, and making her laugh made Hannah and I feel really proud. I loved being called “onee-chan”, which is a cute way of saying “big sister”. Thanks to Mei-chan I had the most intensely cute weekend ever.

After a walk in a local flower park, the family took us home and started preparing for the evening: the neighbours were coming around for a barbecue. For once being vegetarian wasn’t an issue as the family got creative with grilling all sorts of veggies, especially corn, to the delight of the neighbours’ 13-year-old daughter. We had fun conversations with the children, though I kept slipping back into the polite form of Japanese, which must have been hilarious for the girls.

After a few rounds of Wii U karaoke, the dad brought out lots of sparklers and fireworks. Yet another upside of living in the countryside: no disgruntled neighbours when you feel like having a party!

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Hannah and I slept over in a gorgeous tatami room, full of scrolls and jade figurines. I’m still amazed at how comfy futon can be, considering it’s a thin mattress spread on the ground. I love this Japanese tradition, though another one made me a bit shy: Japanese families tend to conserve water by using the same bath water, after rinsing themselves with a shower. Guests get to go first, but I still passed on that one, mostly because I was exhausted and not that big a fan of baths. Hannah swears by evening baths though, so it’s on my to-do list.

The day after the family took us to a kids’ amusement park and bought us unlimited ride tickets. Poor Mei-chan got terrified of the animatronic elephant, but opened up quickly, and loved the little boat ride so much that she asked to go on it twice.

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According to Japanese mythology, Awaji island was actually the first island to be created. Today it also hosts Japan’s oldest shrine: Izanagi Jingu. We visited it on the way back, and although it’s not as pretty as some of the Kyoto shrines I’ve been to, it certainly felt special to walk where the very first settlements might have been.

Goodbyes went in a very Japanese way: many “thank yous”, many bows, and then Hannah and I were rushing off to catch our bus. I actually kind of dreaded this homestay, but it turned out to be one of the best experiences of Japan that I’ve had.

Pottery, Ninja, and Ishiyama-dera

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Our tour group in front of the gate to Ishiyama-dera

This Monday Kobe University was celebrating its foundation anniversary. If I’m not mistaken, it makes the university 68 years old. It may be “young” by British standards, but it is apparently one of the oldest and largest national universities in Japan.

Not much actually happens on the university’s “birthday”. Undergraduates get a day off, but most professors and postgraduates turn up as usual. However, the university runs an annual trip to various places around Japan, and this year we were taken to a town called Shigaraki.

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Tanuki… creepy or cute?

As soon as we got off the bus, we got a surreal view of dozens of statues of various-sized tanuki. Now, in real life, tanuki is an animal described as “Japanese raccoon dog”. They do indeed look like raccoons, even though genetically the two animals are not related. The statues we saw in Shigaraki… looked nothing like real tanuki! They had their own charm, though. The legend goes that Shigaraki was a successful pottery town due to the clay they got from the bottom of Lake Biwa, which could resist high temperatures. One day a 20th century pottery artist called Fujiwara created the first ceramic tanuki, and the idea caught on. In 1951 the Showa Emperor visited Shigaraki, and alongside the artists he was greeted by dozens of statues of tanuki. So there is some history behind them, as well as meaning, which amounts to a symbol of wealth and success. We got a diagram describing different parts of the tanuki, and its testicles were labelled as “money bags”. Adorable.

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Some serious concentration here

In some shops around Shigaraki you can make your own pottery, as my friend Matt did. The session we had provided us with ready-made cups that we got to paint however we fancied. Unsurprisingly, my design ended up featuring lots of cute animals. See below for a small video of it. The cups will be glazed and sent to us in a month – a wonderful souvenir.

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Are we ninja now?

Then we were taken to a real “Ninja house”. It is a building with a thatched roof, and countless nooks and crannies. There were secret locks on the windows, doors in unexpected places, and even a deep well to catch out unwanted visitors. We got to crawl around the upper floors of the house, which were half the size of a normal corridor. Oh, and I got to throw a real shuriken! My inner 8-year-old Naruto fanatic was delighted.

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A new friend with great manicure

The trip ended at Ishiyama temple. It’s a gorgeous place up on a mountain, where Murasaki Shikibu apparently wrote “The Tale of Genji” in the 11th century – arguably the first novel in the world! I hold a special affection for the novel, since I made an effort to get through it in preparation for my Oxford interview. It’s slow in places and a bit raunchy, but also is a real masterpiece of poetic language. So, naturally, I enjoyed the exhibition based around “The Tale of Genji” that’s taking place at Ishiyama-dera.

Once we got back to good old Kobe, my friends and I celebrated having a great day by going to our beloved Saizeriya – an Italian food knock-off with 100 yen glasses of wine. A day well-spent indeed.

Pottery painting in tanukimura (I lov whales ok) 🐋🌊

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3 days in Seoul (and the DMZ)

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Gyeongbokgung palace

I started out my spring holidays with a bang – by travelling to South Korea for a few days.

All these months I’ve been hearing a lot about a cheap airline many people living in Japan use. It’s called Peach and it’s a bit of a sham. Their normal prices are actually quite expensive, and the only way you can get a good deal is by subscribing to the website and waiting for sales. But even with the sale prices I recently found cheaper tickets from other airlines. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise this back in December when I booked my tickets to Seoul – oh well. The plane was averagely comfortable at least (unlike the dreadful Air China).

The area of Seoul we stayed in is called Hongdae and is famous as the place for young people to hang out, full of hostels, bars, and quirky shops. I’m glad we chose it, as well as the comfy hostel we stayed in – Able Guesthouse. In the evening, especially on weekends, you can walk down the main road and watch a dozen different wannabe Korean idols sing to groups of squealing girls. It’s surreal and hilarious.

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Creepy view of North Korea

The absolute highlight of the trip for me was also the first proper touristic thing we did: an organised trip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) just north of Seoul, which was a 45 minute bus ride. It is the space between North and South Korea, a rather large piece of land, containing over 2 million landmines and more than 20 secret North Korean war tunnels, only 4 of which have been found so far. To this day, South Korean soldiers work in the area to keep looking for the tunnels and be prepared in case of attack. There are several tour companies you can go with; all of them are associated with the military. We used a half-day tour from a company called Koridoor, which was very helpful and cost us 36$ each.

The tour started at 8 am in central Seoul, from where they took us to the DMZ. We got some background information on the decades of war and tension between North and South Korea, and then we got to go down into the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which left us only about 100 m from North Korea. It was a claustrophobic and sobering experience. From there we went to the Dora Observatory, to see a panoramic view of the border of North Korea. You can spot the fake villages, abandoned factories, and even some skyscrapers of the nearest city. At certain times of day both Koreas play music of their choice, and we got to hear a haunting melody emanating from behind the wall. After that we went to Dorasan station, which is a symbol of the hope of unification, because it would be the last South Korean station before a train would enter North Korea. We also got lunch which we paid a bit extra for: the traditional, delicious bibimbap (see below for me gushing about food). The tour concluded with a visit to the Imjingak Park, another symbol for peace, built on the place war prisoners were released after the Korean War. This was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life, and I’m now a little bit obsessed with gathering information about North Korea, especially as the threat it poses grows with every day.

On a lighter note, the food in Seoul was incredible. It was very cheap compared to Japan, delicious, and most importantly for me – there were many vegetarian options! The only challenge was the spiciness, and on the very first day the three of us managed to thoroughly burn our mouths, but by the next day we were enjoying the food with a renewed enthusiasm. I’m a picky eater, but to my own surprise I ended up liking kimchi a lot! It’s a great snack while you wait for your main meal. My favourite dish is definitely bibimbap, which contains a pot of rice with fried vegetables, with a fried egg on top. Healthy and filling!

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In Bukchon

In terms of cultural tourism, we managed to go to Gyeongbokgung palace, where we got a free tour from an extremely smart 14-year-old Korean boy, which lasted a whole hour, as the place is huge and bursting with history. We also visited Jongmyo Shrine, which is a World Heritage site, that to this day performs ancient imperial rituals. My favourite was the Bukchon village – it’s an area between two palaces, full of ancient houses that people live in to this day, and is simply stunning. Also many Koreans wander around the centre in the traditional clothing called hanbok, which grants them free access to palaces and shrines, and adds a special ambience to the city.

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Myeongdong

In contrast to historical sightseeing, we also did plenty of shopping. Seoul is famous both for cheap and bustling markets, as well as for high streets lined with fashionable shops. The market we popped into is called Insadong, where I got hold of many affordable souvenirs. Then we kind of went crazy about all the Korean beauty shops – which there are more of than any other kind of shop in the main shopping area called Myeongdong. My friend Nick had to buy an extra suitcase to carry all of his new possessions home… Again, stuff in Korea is cheap and great.

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Us, looking so happy and oblivious…

I also have a kind of embarrassing anecdote about the very first day there. In Korea barely anyone speaks English, much fewer people than even in Japan, so sometimes it was a challenge to get by. When Elena and I kept trying to catch a taxi to go to the Gyeongbokgung, the drivers just kept making an “x” hand gesture, but eventually one took us in… and ran into a wall of policemen. There was a protest! I love protests! So of course we joined, without any idea of what it was about. I figured something was suspicious when we only met fairly old Korean people… but they were so delighted to see us, random white girls, there, that they gave us blinding smiles and free flags and wanted to take pictures together. Once I got to the hostel and found wifi, I checked the news and… of course. I, the very liberal, politically engaged Maria, managed to stumble into a protest organised by the Korean Conservative party, in attempt to keep the corrupt President from impeachment. I’m still mortified. I really care about politics, ok? Moral of the story: don’t join random protests. It’s probably about something dodgy.

I mentioned before that we took the taxi around town, and that was another amazing thing about Seoul. The taxis are extremely cheap! Sometimes cheaper than taking the underground,especially if you split between a few people. The underground is also not bad, has station names in Latin letters, pretty easy to navigate. Both Gimpo and Incheon airports have a dedicated underground line which makes it quick and easy to get there.

Well, this more or less sums up the frenzy that my 3 days in Seoul were. I was glad to go back to Japan by the end, it does feel like home after all these months.

Greeting the New Year in Tokyo (Part 3)

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Ueno

It’s almost the end of January, but I’m back with some more anecdotes from my trip to Tokyo.

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Meiji Jingu

On the third day of the trip I managed to pop into another famous Tokyo shrine: the Meiji Jingu. It’s quite a contrast to Senso-ji, because it was founded as recently as 1920. It is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who died in 1912. Unfortunately, the temple was partially destroyed in the Tokyo air raids during World War II, but it has been rebuilt in 1958. Meiji Jingu is the go-to shrine for famous foreign visitors, such as George Bush, Hillary Clinton, and many others. I loved that the shrine was surrounded by woods, so that you feel separate from the bustling city, and can find a bit of peace and quiet for a change. Well, aside from when it’s January 2nd and hundreds of people are visiting the shrine, creating a crowd akin to those at a pop concert… still, it was a very pleasant visit.

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Takeshita Street

Leaving Meiji Jingu, it takes about a 10 minute walk to get to the polar opposite of the shrine: Harajuku, and especially Takeshita Street. It’s Camden Market multiplied by ten and injected with a heavy dose of crazy Japanese fashion! Think ‘kawaii’ cuteness, gothic lolita, and cyberpunk shops side-by-side. Again, the crowd was crazy, but I loved seeing some of the trippy stuff in Harajuku, and got to try the famous pancakes (I got the chocolate and banana ones and definitely recommend it).

In the same day we managed to pop into an area of Tokyo similar to London’s Brick Lane: Shimo-kitazawa. It’s full of trendy second-hand shops and hipster cafes. We got there after sunset, so shops were already closing, but still spent some quality time browsing around. I wouldn’t prioritise this place as a thing to see in Tokyo, but if you have the time it’s definitely worth a visit.

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Koto demonstration

On the 3rd of January I popped into the Edo-Tokyo museum and got lucky because it was open for free that day. Most Japanese museums charge a small entry fee, though some prices, like that of the Samurai museum, are quite steep. The museum itself is charming and full of explanations in English and reconstructions of all sorts of things like a kabuki house. There was also a koto music demonstration! I was really impressed because most visitors were Japanese, which is not something you see in European museums: those are normally full of tourists, whereas here in Japan the locals seem to be more active in going to galleries and museums.

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Pokemon Paradise

By this point I caught a mean cold, courtesy of my friend who brought it all the way from England, but still managed to walk around Tokyo and enjoy the city itself. I spent some time in the two famous ‘otaku’ (pop culture fan) areas: Akihabara and Ikebukuro. I mentioned in a previous post that Akihabara is more male-oriented, with maid cafes and adverts featuring anime girls in suggestive poses. Ikebukuro did indeed seem to have more host clubs (mostly female-oriented establishments where you pay for chatting and drinking with an attractive male), and anime goods from more girly shows. I also had a quick look at the Pokemon mega-centre in the Sunshine City shopping centre, which was lots of fun.

John’s aunt was kind enough to take us out to a shabu-shabu restaurant at some point, which turned out to be a fantastic time. Shabu-shabu is a partially self-serving dish, where you get a hotpot and some broth, and then you mix and match meat and vegetables that you want to cook. Finally, as a vegetarian, I got to eat a delicious meal without any trouble! I had my separate veggie broth and revelled in lots of tofu, mushrooms, and greens. Certainly a recommended experience.

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Ueno Park

I also visited the Tokyo National Museum. You can find it in Ueno Park, which is a giant area full of various museums and galleries, as well as a zoo. It’s the perfect place for family-oriented fun. As for the museum I went to, my nerdy self had a fantastic time, as some of the exhibits are directly relevant to the historical topics I learned about last year at Oxford. For example, they had a beautiful copy of the poetry collection Kokin Wakashu from the 12th century, which is a particular interest of mine. There was even some pottery all the way from the pre-Japan time, the Jomon era, which took place around 10,500-300 BC!

On my way from Ueno I popped into Ameya Yokocho, a shopping area that was recommended to me many times. Maybe it was the setting sun, or my persistent cold, but I didn’t really get why Ame Yoko is included in every tourist guide. It’s a place full of somewhat suspicious little stores selling cheap goods; there was also a food market. I guess it might feel more authentic than the polished feel of most of central Tokyo, but I’d rather spend time in the ‘false’, futuristic and pretty Tokyo. After all, if I want dodgy little Japanese shops, there are plenty of those in Kobe!

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Busy-busy Shibuya

My final stop before going home was Shibuya. If you picture Tokyo in your mind, you probably think of that famous giant crossing, surrounded by LED screens with endless adverts. That’s the one in Shibuya. Shibuya is An Experience. It is indeed full of people madly dashing across the road, which was interesting to be part of. There are lots of Western shops there, but I was more curious about Japanese fashion. I went to the famous Shibuya 109 shopping centre, full of female-oriented stores (it has a male-oriented counterpart next door). It was terrifying. Whenever you go into a Japanese store you get accosted with repeated shouts of ‘Irasshaimase’ (welcome); but it was multiplied by the fact that early January is the time of mega-sales here. The more they yelled at me, the faster I backed away from the shops… There are around 12 floors in Shibuya 109, full of clothes, shoes, and make-up. Prices range from affordable to ridiculous. Unfortunately, I’m still disappointed in Japanese fashion: you either get exactly the same kind of sweater and blouse across all the different shops, or you stumble into an overly frilly-and-lacy store glorifying the image of a young girl. Yes, oriented at middle-aged women. I don’t really get the hype around this stuff. Shopping in Japan still feels like a hellish experience, even though back in London it’s an activity I do with gusto. Oh well.

And that was about it for my time in Tokyo. It was an intense week full of fun and happy moments. Tokyo is huge and there is so much more to see, but I think I got a good feel of the city. It is and isn’t what I dreamed of for all those years. Tokyo has many quirks and is a vibrant place to live in. It’s also a typical city, and those who live in it complain that it’s too large and too expensive. The same thing can be said about London, I guess. A capital city is often fun to visit but hard to live in. I’m looking forward to coming back to Tokyo for some more sightseeing, but also I’m really glad that I actually live in Kobe – a much less stressful place surrounded by nature!