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!

The Clock is Ticking

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In front of Osaka Castle

June and July are a difficult time to be in Japan. In part that’s because both for students and for working people there are few national holidays in sight, and the weeks kind of drag on. But mostly it’s because of the weather: we’re mid-rainy season, which means that it’s either pouring and storming, or, if the sun peeks out, it’s unbearably hot. Even though it’s yet to be hotter than +30 C, humidity has been as high as 90%, and that’s much more uncomfortable than the heat. It’s unbearable to be anywhere without air conditioning, and yet sitting under one for hours is a surefire way to get a cold. The worst time of the day is when you’re trying to sleep, when the air is heavy and you get unbearably sweaty. Today I heard that in the past some young children and elderly people have died from trying to deal with the heat, especially as the temperature in Japan has been rising in the past few years.

Not to say I’m not having fun from time to time, of course. I’m hyper-aware that the clock is ticking and that I have 5 weeks left of classes.

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The dog mobile!!

The other weekend we met up with a friend of mine who just finished his year abroad in China. We went to look around Osaka castle, and had a funny run-in with a man driving around 10 puppies in one pram, or as Hannah dubbed it, the dog mobile. The highlight of the day, though, was talking to my Sinologist friend, and realising how much has happened during this year abroad, and how much we’ve all learned. Living in China seems to be quite different from living in Japan, with its own good and bad sides. But the core experience of moving to the other side of the world, adapting to a new culture you don’t always understand, building lasting friendships – that’s something we all now get, and it’s easier to appreciate how much we’ve learned from another person’s point of view.

The year is finishing whether we like it or not, making me both frantically try to enjoy what’s left of it, but also intensely look forward to coming home. Last week we said goodbye to Elena: a wonderful friend I’ve made this year, who had to leave a bit earlier than the rest of us. A large group of foreign students came together to send her off; though most of us are also leaving soon. Some are going to be graduating, others will continue university life, like me. It’s strange to build up a life and a bit of a family in a foreign country, only to leave it all behind as soon as you get used to it. Still, it’s a useful exercise, and I’m sure I will meet many of these friends again.

It’s not all melancholic around here. Yesterday we had dinner with some representatives of the Mitsubishi company to answer our questions about what it’s like to work at a Japanese company. It seems Mitsubishi has links with Oxford and some of our senpai, so they contacted John to set up a dinner date, and treated us to lots of corporate wisdom and tasty food. Life is full of new experiences even right at the end of my time in Japan!

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!

Universal Studios Japan

 

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Hogwarts – home sweet home

I’ve recently had a revelation: theme park tickets in the UK are so much cheaper than in the rest of the world!

I used to think that paying £20-30 for entrance to Thorpe Park or Alton Towers was expensive, which I used to do at least every year through my teens. Then I came to Japan, and heard many recommendations about the Universal Studios Japan in Osaka – only 1,5 hours away by train from where I live. The Americans here are amazed at how cheap it seems to them, because the average theme park ticket price over there is around £100. A USJ ticket costs around £50, which to me still seemed too much, so I prioritised other travel instead. Until now…

It’s actually been a couple of years since I’ve been to a theme park. It was going to be a fabulous day, so my roller-coaster buddy Alberto and I did some serious research, and made sure to buy our tickets in advance. USJ is famous for always being busy and offering so many cool things to see and do, that one day is simply not enough to fully appreciate it. So, we took the day off from classes on a Thursday, and went as early in the morning as we could wake up – 7:30 am, my normal weekday alarm. Even as we arrived there at around 10 am, just 30 minutes after the park opened, the place was already packed and some rides had queues over an hour long. In case you go on a weekend or holiday, people recommend arriving before the gates open, and rushing towards the ride you desire the most – going to a theme park is apparently serious business!

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Japan is going through a Cookie Monster obsession

A drizzly Thursday morning was an ideal time to be at USJ. The crowd was not as bad as those at UK theme parks, and the extremely popular Harry Potter area was not limited in terms of attendance like it normally is at USJ. We probably only queued 30-40 minutes for one of the most popular rides – the Forbidden Journey. Of course, the park filled up as the day went by, and in the afternoon we queued for about an hour for the Flying Dinosaur (one of the best rides I’ve ever been on), which was the longest wait of the day. Considering I’ve spent 3 hours in a Thorpe Park queue, this felt luxurious. Of course, if it was a weekend, we would have had to wait much longer.

There’s also a funny thing about Japanese theme parks – it turns out people don’t like riding alone, to the extent that they would rather queue for double or triple the time of a Single Rider queue just to sit with their friends. This must have saved Alberto and I at least an hour of waiting.

I think we managed about 9 different rides in total. That’s a crazy number for me, as I’m used to being happy with 4 rides at a UK theme park. It’s probably mostly because we went on a weekday. There was a wide variety of rides, from classic roller-coasters, to 4D experiences, to even a bit of LARPing!

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Some horrific minions – another of Japan’s strange obsessions

Another thing about the USJ, though, is that there are very few thrill rides, and most of the park is all about the decorations. I’ve never been to a Universal Studios theme park before, and I think I prefer the thrill-oriented Thorpe Park, but at least it meant that queues for the roller-coasters were smaller. I did enjoy the decorations a lot, and the Harry Potter section was especially stunning. I’ve been to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour in London 3 times – that’s the one based around the making of the Harry Potter movies, with some real costumes and sets. And, in the end, the USJ version was much more fun, though obviously less informative.

We must have spent at least 8 hours in the park, and were shattered by the time we got home. Class on the next day was compulsory, of course. The day was so worth it, though, and I feel like the £50 were well-spent. I love roller-coasters, I love movies, I love wacky decorations, so it was a very satisfying day out.

Returning to Hiroshima and Tokyo

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The Great Buddha in Kamakura

It’s been almost a week since my partner, Theo, returned home to England. We spent 4 intense weeks travelling around Japan, and it’s taking me some time to sort out all of the happy memories in my head. In the mean time, the new semester started at Kobe university, with new students and teachers, and… extra work. At least the fluffy sakura blossoms are helping me feel positive about coming back to my studies.

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Deer whisperer

Hiroshima is a bit far from Kobe and quite expensive to get to, but I knew I had to take Theo there, both for the history of the place and the beauty of Miyajima. It was harder to figure out the logistics without guidance this time, but I managed to get a decent deal, and so we took a bus there, which goes 4 hours one way, and costs about 8000 yen overall. Again – absolutely worth it. I picked a lovely flat to rent through AirBnb, so we had lots of space and comfort for a low price, which I learned really matters on a trip. I described how much I love Hiroshima in an earlier post, and my opinion hasn’t changed: it’s still a cosy town with tragic but inspiring history, and Miyajima was stunning even though we went before the sakura began blooming. I’ve been looking forward to cuddling some more deer and so has Theo, who turned out to be a real deer whisperer: they spent a good half an hour cuddling a particular deer who even put its head on Theo’s chest a few times. In addition to covering the things I saw last time I came, we went to the Hiroshima castle, which offers a great view of the city, and a small exhibition about the older history of Hiroshima.

It was a good call to do a lot of travelling at the beginning of our holiday, because we started getting tired about halfway through, and I caught a mean cold just before we left for Tokyo. Well, despite being surrounded by a fascinating new country, Theo and I agreed that there’s nothing better than lazy days spent together watching TV and cooking tasty food! 🙂

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Good old Tokyo skyline… with the infamous “golden turd”

Tokyo was just as big and confusing as I remembered. It remains a great place to visit and (I assume) terrible to actually live in. We started in a rather strange place: Kabukicho, which I did not visit on my last trip. It certainly made for a funny first impression on Theo: the crowd was younger and rowdier than anywhere else, quite unusually for Japan. Kabukicho is known for being a bit “seedy”, which was our impression too – the “girl bars” (where men go to be attended by young women) alone are an uncomfortable sight. We had a great time though. After gobbling up a vegan burger each, we headed for karaoke, which was so much better to do with Theo, as we know and love the same songs – with my other friends who listen to different music I just ended up falling asleep!

After that I got to do something I’ve been excited to explore for a long time now: looking for the infamous “love hotels”. They get funny media coverage in the West, which turned out to be completely exaggerated. These days love hotels look just like normal ones, and offer the same services; nothing like the outrageous theme park-like rooms you see in Western articles. The only difference is that they offer visit times of 3 hours, 5 hours, and a full night. Most Japanese couples use love hotels as a way to get some privacy, because they can’t afford to move away from the tiny flats they live in with their parents, though that is changing nowadays, so love hotels are on the decline. It was a fun and fairly normal experience, where we paid an average normal hotel price for a luxurious, huge room with a Jacuzzi! I think that it’s much cheaper than mainstream luxury hotels because many tourists feel shy about the label of a love hotel and so do not choose to stay in one. Well, I enjoyed the cheap-ish comfort, and I’m glad we explored the infamous Japanese phenomenon.

In contrast to the day before, we spent our second day in Tokyo in the Tokyo-Edo museum, which was as fun as last time. That day we discovered that the accommodation I booked through AirBnb was absolutely terrible, unfortunately. It was cheaper than a hostel and offered private rooms with locks, but was dirty and felt like a prison. Next time I will know to pay a bit more for a better stay. Even if it was just a place to sleep in, it did bring the mood of the trip down. It is noteworthy that this was the cheapest private room I could find in Tokyo, for only £18 per night, so we could afford the whole week.

It rained quite a lot while we were in Tokyo, which was annoying as we wanted to see temples and parks, and the sakura was beginning to bloom. We did manage one great rainy day though: shopping in Akihabara and its outrageous Don Quixote; a few turns at the games in the arcades and a cute purikura session; bowling in Tokyo Dome and dinner at a vegetarian Indian restaurant.

And we certainly made up for the rainy days: visiting Sensoji, walking around Ueno park, exploring my beloved Tokyo National museum, contrasting Meiji shrine with Harajuku, checking out the hipster vegan cafes around the city.

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One of the magical tiny temples

The best day might have been the one when we went to Kamakura, which is just over an hour by train from Tokyo, and is the ancient warrior capital of Japan. I’ve not been there before, so it was extra exciting. We spent a couple of hours hiking through the neatly laid out trails and cute tiny temples, finally getting to the giant Great Buddha statue. The best part was that you could go inside it – I’ve never seen a statue from the inside before! We finished the day with people watching on the windy beach. I’d say Kamakura is a must do on a trip to Tokyo.

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The view

I noticed that Tokyo was very foggy in the spring, in contrast to the crystal-clear views it offered in December. We decided not to bother with the Sky Tree this time, and took the free entry to the Metropolitan Building instead, which still offered a decent view of Tokyo. Definitely a thing to keep in mind – Japan offers the best views during the winter.

And that was about it for Tokyo. It was lots of fun, but also chaotic and tiring. We managed to miss our plane on the day of returning to Kobe, which was horrific as I’m the kind of person who is never late to anything, but I sorted it out and we even managed to make the most of hanging out in the airport waiting for our new flight. See, it’s all about who you’re travelling with: Theo and I balance each other out so that we’re organised but not stressed, and can make each other laugh in any situation. I definitely enjoyed travelling in Japan with my partner more than alone or with other people.

I’ll be back with a few more exciting stories from Theo’s visit to Japan. For now, I’ve got to get a start on those daily kanji tests that are just around the corner…

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We saw a tradition wedding at the Meiji shrine

A glimpse of Shanghai

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Classic view of the famous Bund

China is a huge contrast to Japan, and made me appreciate the country I’m currently living in, while enjoying a holiday in an exotic place.

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The delicious tea

We started off with spending a couple of days at Diana’s place, which is on the eastern outskirts of Shanghai, near a huge lake, and is a bit of a resort. Diana took us to a nearby ancient town called Zhujiajiao, otherwise known as the Water Town. It features a large area filled with thousand-year-old houses, currently used for a bustling market. Immediately I was submerged in foreign scents, and amazed at all the fruits and vegetables I’ve never seen before. We rested in a tea house that served chrysanthemum tea with actual flowers floating inside, and it was probably the best I’ve ever had.

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Just another mind-blowing view

Central Shanghai was nothing like Diana’s serene childhood home. People often think of Tokyo as a futuristic city, but they’ve clearly never seen Shanghai! Never before have I been surrounded by such a crazy range of shapes and heights of buildings. It’s breathtaking just walking around the centre. English colonialism also left a mark, so walking near the river takes you past a building that makes you feel like you’re in Liverpool. There is some Soviet architecture scattered here and there as well. Somehow it all works together as an amazing city with a truly unique feeling about it.

The city centre is pretty small and you could cover it on foot, though we greatly benefited from the cheap tour bus that takes you to all the key places. You know the one: the red double-decker you can see in most cities around the world. It was absolutely useless as a source of information, because the recording was boring and glitchy; however, we got to ride around for free for 48 hours which was convenient. Alternatively, the underground is one of the cheapest I’ve ever been to, and easy to navigate.

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One of the tea houses in the area

One of the highlights was definitely the Chenghuang Miao Temple and Yuyuan Garden. Both are wonderful landmarks based in the same touristic area. The temple was big and impressive, full of people who came to pray to the various gods. The garden was simply stunning: artificially designed half a millennium ago, it is still full of natural features, and feels like a romantic, fairy-tale maze. Definitely the place I would recommend visiting the most in Shanghai.

We spent lots of time simply eating, which is what most people recommend to do in China anyway. They’re not wrong. The food is often delicious and very varied, making you appreciate the differences between the cuisine of the many regions of China. I did rather suffer as a vegetarian though. Practically every time I ordered a dish that was supposed to not have meat in it, I would still get bits of meat. Also, every restaurant in China seems to have an official statement about the place’s cleanliness, on a scale of “happy face”, “frowny face”, and “angry face”, and only very few places had a “happy face” rating, which was worrying. I’m pretty sure several of our boys got a slight food poisoning and were uncomfortable for days. People also talk about how cheap it is to eat in China, which is true for some places, but others have the same prices as London’s mid-range restaurants, which is way more expensive than the food you can get in Japan and South Korea.

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The Water Town

One thing I’ve learned from my trips to South Korea and China: think twice about going on a group trip. I’ve travelled on my own to many European countries and felt lonely, so I thought it would be ideal to travel in a group in South East Asia. It certainly was safer. However, different people have different holiday habits, and we all ended up disagreeing about our agendas, which turned out unproductive. I still had a great time and only grew to love my friends more, but I also regret not being able to do the thing I usually prioritise when going to a new city: seeing as many cultural sites as I can. It is actually possible to have a perfect travel buddy, and I’ve met mine: it’s my partner Theo, and it works because we know each other very well and have the same holiday preferences. But unless you have a person like that, it might be worth the personal challenge to make your own way through a new place.

Still, China was wonderful, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The closest comparison I can make is maybe Russia. South Korea and Japan are both very different from China, and I’m very keen to learn more history about how that happened.

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Inside the Yuyuan Garden

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.