10 day hiatus because the Great Firewall of China is real… I’m so sorry!

Hi guys,

Tomorrow I’m flying from Daegu to Beijing which I’m really excited about! I have had the best time in South Korea but I am behind with blog post uploads because travel is so fast-paced right now. Expect upcoming posts to be linked to Kyoto, Osaka, Seoul, Jeju Island and Daegu. I planned to be writing and then uploading immediately (as I normally do) whilst in Beijing, Xi’an and Guilin.

BUT THERE’S ONE SMALL (ACTUALLY KIND OF BIG)¬†PROBLEM…

I can’t access WordPress from China. It’s blocked.

Alongside Facebook, Google, BBC News etc… okayyyy.

So what I plan to do is write as many blog entries (and save them onto my laptop) as possible and then when I touchdown in Hong Kong around the 10th November, upload said backlog of entries.

Sorry about this-I tend to prefer staggering what I write but please bare with me ūüôā

I am so incredibly touched and grateful for your support and readership.

See you in November!

Livi

The struggle is real: attempting to survive as a Vegetarian in Japan

Hi guys,

I’m writing this from Jeju Island where I’ve just arrived. Seoul has been manic so I haven’t had the chance to blog for a few days (apologies for that). This entry in itself was one I wrote a¬†while ago in Hakone but I was having massive doubts about whether to upload it or not. In the end, because of how difficult the Vegetarian situation was in Japan, I decided to upload this but please note that it is a personal view- I may have just been unlucky and Japan¬†in¬†itself is wonderful in so many other ways.¬† I found people to be amazingly polite, transport to be incredibly efficient, unbelievable cleanliness¬†in most places¬†and fascinating culture. But here is what I found to be Japan’s biggest flaw…

When you travel, you need fuel. You are running around like crazy and, for me, food is a form of comfort. I don’t want to be running around with those awful, aching hunger pangs or feeling weak from a lack of calories. In Japan, for the first time ever, I find myself really flagging. In a country where Buddhism is a main religion (and granted, there are some temples you can eat at, though these are few and far between and costly), this lacto-ovo vegetarian (who eats both dairy and eggs) cannot find “safe” food in a vast majority of places.

And I guess this highlighted to me a huge cultural difference- you go to a restaurant in the UK, any restaurant, and there’s at least one vegetarian option. Even in a fish and chip shop or steakhouse (not standard places for a vegetarian to visit) often you’ll see veggie safe cheesy chips or a veggie kebab, or a grilled pepper, halloumi burger or risotto as vegetarian options in a steakhouse. Not so¬†in Japan.

Vegans would not cope out here unless they never ate out (this is in the Ikebukuro region of Tokyo, a commercialised area with every other shop front being a restaurant). Vegans would also struggle in Osaka. And perhaps if they ventured to other regions of Tokyo, they’d cope on raw, microbiotic food marketed to the masses as healthy. Not tasty food. Just calorie-orientated. Just safe.

And for Vegetarians, food-wise it is close to a personal hell. Why should I have to plan my schedule around being able to obtain something vegetarian?

What if my religious beliefs forbade me from eating pork or seafood or milk and meat together? (they don’t, but hypothetically speaking).

And what if I was gluten-free or allergic to nuts or lactose intolerant?

It feels like, unless you eat everything (and by everything, I mean a lot of meat and fish), Japan punishes you for choosing a different diet. And I’ve chosen and maintained vegetarianism for 17 years (none of my family are vegetarian- just me- just a personal choice).

I wouldn’t dream of telling people that they should become vegetarian and will happily watch friends tuck into roast lamb and goose-fat cooked potatoes without feeling anything (except maybe amusement if they really love their food or have little quirks when they eat).

The crux of the matter is that food is¬†a form of happiness for many. And the struggle to find safe noodles, any form of potato or pasta (that doesn’t have meat or seafood in it), a legitimately “safe” form of bread (hotdogs are common, or ham in bread, or chicken…) leaves you feeling so despondent. You’re not meant to tip in Japan, but one day in¬†Tokyo I was so grateful a restaurant removed all their animal product from one dish on their vast menu (the only one that actually looked vegetarian), that I had to leave extra and insist the lovely waitress take my money.

There was also a piece of chicken in what was meant to be a mixed vegetable dish (only one piece, and my friend who is not vegetarian confirmed my suspicions and thought it fell into my dish by accident) but this was after we were assured that my meal was vegetarian (and we used a Japanese phrasebook for this). This still left me paying for a meal I then refused to eat (thanks watami).

Where I stayed one night in Hakone¬†had six restaurants in the¬†reception/ground floor¬†area. Six. Yet no vegetarian options bar a steamed tofu side and seaweed soup at the Japanese restaurant (this with sticky rice was an incredibly¬†insubstantial amount of food and very overpriced). And the irony is that vegetarian food is not hard to make. You don’t have to add meat to everything- a restaurant could offer vegetarian food by using a vegetarian stock base and then separating half the mixture into one bowl¬†and adding whatever meat or seafood they wish to the other half of the mixture. And this would incur no extra cost but still allow for a vegetarian option to exist.

Japan: I love your people, vibrancy, politeness and efficiency and the huge amount to do in Tokyo. Also, some credit needs to be given to Kyoto for having a couple more vegan restaurants than Tokyo or Osaka (though to be fair, that was really not difficult considering the lack of veggie-friendly places in both of the latter cities). But Vegetarians be warned- the struggle to find things to eat has caused me a lot of undue stress and genuine frustration and disappointment.

If you want to see Japan (it has a lot to offer), Veggies or Vegans check out Happy Cow, an excellent vegetarian app which is applicable worldwide, and maybe Trip Advisor as well.

But don’t expect too much.

And don’t expect it to accommodate for you in the same way that Hong Kong can and China (I’ve been told by many people) will.

Because there’s only so much gorging on sugary “safe” baked goods in Starbucks a girl can take. And incidentally, I still lost weight in Japan because of the food situation- despite eating unhealthily as a form of sustenance.

Amongst a lot of the bad, Japan does have a few hidden gems to eat at (especially in Kyoto) should your diet vary from the Japanese¬†norm. If you want me to do a post about them, please comment or give this post a like. Otherwise my next entry will be about my favourite part of Japan- Kyoto- and it’s subsequent attractions.

Thank you very much for reading!

Spontaneous sightseeing in Odawara and watching Japanese football in an Irish pub

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If you told me that during one of my days travelling, I’d stumble across a strange place in between Hakone and Tokyo and, this being¬†totally unplanned,¬†would lead to one¬†of the best days I’ve had in Japan so far, the¬†organiser in me would have snorted. But alas, my friend and I found ourselves in this strange place called Odawara on a “travel” day (getting back from Hakone to Tokyo), decided to have a roam around¬†and subsequently¬†gatecrashed¬†a festival filled with locals, saw a castle, and got drawn into a Japanese football game¬†whilst eating some of the best pub food I have ever eaten. This is the story of the day that makes me smile the most out of all my “Tokyo days” (next posts will be on Kyoto). This was the day we discovered Odawara.

The morning started off really well- we were checking out of the Hokane Kowakien hotel and had some breakfast/brunch (a lot of days we’ve skipped this meal due to an early start or sheer tiredness).¬†And this might sound really melodramatic, but being able to have toast with butter and strawberry jam was a total luxury for me (especially due to the struggle to find vegetarian food). And I caved into temptation and got an √©clair. After my friend indulged in an overly cheesy pizza and we were both feeling nicely stuffed (again a contrast to the hunger pangs I’ve had at times in Japan), we walked to the local train station and hoped onto a train to Odawara, with the intention of heading straight back to Tokyo.

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We found Starbucks in Odawara with the intention of getting some wi-fi and looking up what we could do in this completely novel place. And we failed- there was no wi-fi in this branch.¬†However, we soon stumbled across¬†a map at Odawara station which¬†listed some local attractions and my friend mentioned how the Soshu Odawara Castle rang a bell and maybe we should check it out? So we left the station and my initial first impression was… meh.

But then we walked on, and we found a brilliant bright orange building, an irish pub called Celts (my friend joked “we’re going there” and I laughed at the time),¬†a caf√© in a department store which served “safe” veggie food and finally, best of all, a gorgeous lake with a bridge leading across it and the sounds of people and music drifting from the archway on the other side of the bridge.

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A street in Odawara                                          The orange building brightening up our day

 

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The pub. More about that later ūüôā

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Standing in front of the bridge leading to the people and noise…

Upon entering the archway, the dulcet sounds of a Japanese rock band met our ears. Heaps of local people were milling around-watching the band, eating, shopping and chatting to each other. Although we were obviously tourists, the people and ambience were incredibly friendly.

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Entering the festival                                           The Japanese rock band at the festival

My friend and I picked up a soda we had found at one of the festival stalls (the same kind of soda we had in Asakusa- see Tokyo Time Part 1 blog entry if interested) and meandered around the stalls which displayed an array of items including glass bottles (like cola bottles) shaped as vases and a number of kitchen items. Such items in particular were coveted by my friend, who said he would have brought them were he heading straight back to Hong Kong (our next country is instead South Korea).

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A gate belonging to Soshu Odawara castle in their garden/back entrance

It materialised that we had arrived at the Soshu Odawara castle through the back entrance. As we walked through the gardens, we came across these little fellas:

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Makes a¬†change from Carp ūüôā¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†

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 The pathway towards the main castle

We eventually came across the castle itself: a huge, cream coloured, Japanese style building.

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Soshu Odawara Castle- the first views you get

We paid 450 yen each for tickets around the castle and walked through a number of the levels. Exhibits were very interesting but photography was unfortunately prohibited in some places. We climbed the stairs right to the top of the castle and managed to get some pretty decent views of the Odawara area.

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Odawara from the top of Soshu Odawara Castle

By this point, we’d got hungry and because of how difficult finding vegetarian anything is in Japan, my friend suggested we head to the Irish pub. So, with expectations low (because I guess the patriot in me could not see how a Japanese Irish pub would be any better than a British or Irish¬†pub) we headed to Celts.

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And yes, I was impressed. Very. I enjoyed the Japanese football in the background (although there were times where it was painful watching the teams play- very few goal attacks), I enjoyed my Gin & Tonic (there gets to a point where you don’t fancy Kirin beer) and most of all, we both loved our food. Who’d have thought chips covered in herb with a¬†basil mayonnaise dipping¬†sauce on the side¬†would be such a comfort? Add to that some onion rings (for me) and deep fried mushrooms (my friend) and we both left the pub feeling very happy. The only slight downside is that you can smoke in pubs in Japan so, for me anyway, the passive smoking was not¬†great. But it was a small price to pay for the friendliness and comfort food.

We headed back to Odawara station where were due to get the bullet train back to Tokyo (and yes, that impressed me too- less so my friend who had seen it before). Like the name suggests, watching the train travel past the station created a visual blur and the journey itself was rapid and pleasant.

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The bullet train in action

Having re-checked into where we were staying in Ikebukuro, we decided to go to Senjo Homemade Gyoza Shop (veggie safe but with meat options according to Vegetarian app¬†Happy Cow). This small restaurant (like a narrow shoebox) had two small tables squeezed into it, a kitchen and posters of glorious looking Taiwanese food. Also, the lady who owned it was amazing: super maternal and understanding. Anyone in Japan who beams upon hearing I’m vegetarian, checks whether I eat egg (I do)¬†and comments on my smile¬† (bonus)¬†is someone I become instantly grateful towards and fond of.

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The food board                                                                                My fixed meal

She brought out lovely Jasmine tea, made me a vegetarian fixed meal (650 yen) and my friend a standard fixed meal and we ate sticky rice, soy plum sauce, a red pepper, spring onion and egg dish and these amazing multi-coloured gyozas (filled with meat for my friend and vegetables for me). She refused to accept a tip and asked us to come back (which we did- the next day). It’s so lovely to meet people who genuinely take pride in seeing others enjoy their food (my travel companion- who is an excellent chef- also does this) and the meal itself provided the cherry on top of what was a really lovely day.

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Happiness ūüôā

A visual walkthrough: Nezu Museum and Happo-en Gardens

Nezu Museum gardens and inside Nezu Museum (this image is the final picture of this section)

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Happo-en Gardens

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Below is a Happo-en bonsai (aged over 500 years old)

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NOTE: please do not use the following images without explicit permission from me. I know I have minimal control over this, but I chose to do a visual blog to share the sights that met my eyes in both gardens and therefore did not want to watermark since I worried this would take some authenticity away from my photos.

Getting Naked in a Japanese Hot Spring. Twice.

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The front entrance of the Oedo Onsen Monogatari

After our morning at Mount Fuji and afternoon at Owakudani sulphur pools and the Hakone ropeway (see my previous blog post if interested), we headed on to Hakone itself to try an onsen. In Japan, hot springs (or to use the Japanese term: onsen) are both prevalent and popular, and can include indoor or outdoor baths. There are also often sauna or steam room facilities located nearby and the hot springs themselves traditionally link to sulphur vents in the Hakone area.

Initially, the procedure of bathing in a hot spring sounds fairly akin to bathing in a Jacuzzi in the UK (at least it did to me at first). But in spite of some similarities, there are a few rules enforced in a Japanese Hot Spring which set the two apart; for one thing, if you have a tattoo (no matter how big or small), you are prohibited from entering a hot spring (or at least one which upholds traditional values, and most of them do). This is because tattoos are associated with gang culture (yakuza) in Japan. In addition, concerns over swimwear are irrevelant because bathing in a Japanese Hot Spring requires you to go completely naked. It is important to note also that the onsen are split by gender (an onsen for females to access, and a different hot spring for men to use).

The first onsen to visit was an onsen inside the Hakone Kowakien, the hotel which provided our post-Mount Fuji tour accommodation. On the two beds in our room, fetching yukatas (blue and patterned) were provided, and people wear these around the communal areas of the hot springs.

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The hotel yukata. High fashion ūüôā

Near entry, a sign specifies how you are forbidden to enter if tattooed, drunk or pregnant. For the most part, when I swim at my local public swimming pool at home, it is natural to change in a cubicle and for people to have a generally more conservative attitude regarding getting changed. Though swimming and bathing in an onsen are two very different entities, the Japanese women in the changing room¬†had no reservations about being naked¬†and there were no cubicles to change in. In spite of the sign outside saying that you should bathe “au naturale”, an Australian women I had met on the tour earlier in the day refused to take her white bikini off and seemed surprised when I complied with the onsen rules. But to be honest, you‚Äôre going to draw more attention to yourself in an onsen if you wear swimwear than if you don‚Äôt. And in the second onsen we visited (more about that later), you were explicitly forbidden to enter the hot springs wearing swimwear. I know this because another lady tried to take large towel into the bathing room instead of a small one (to cover up) and was told she was only allowed the small towel in the onsen. So I dread to think how the onsen attendant would have reacted if the same lady tried to enter the bathing room in a swimsuit.

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The “not allowed” sign in the second onsen, Oedo Onsen Monogatari

At Hakone Kowakien (the first onsen visited), the hot spring itself is a medium-sized rectangular pool, with glass windows on one side overlooking lots of plants. The pool itself was heated to 41.9 degrees Celsius and before entering the pool, you wash yourself using metal bowls dipped into warm water (in a kind of wooden washing station). The mood at this hot spring was much more quiet and relaxed, and there were only three other women bathing when I entered the onsen room. After twenty minutes, I was looking a bit lobster like (my skin reacts fairly quickly to heat) and I decided to get out of the pool. The washing station at both onsens involves sitting on a stall (in a line of women also sitting on stalls) and washing your hair and body using a shower head whilst seated. Each station has mirrors, and shampoo and body wash are visible in large cylinder containers. After that, you can either change back into clothes or back into your yukata to head back to your room.

My first hot spring experience, though not overly traditional due to being an artificial hot spring in a hotel, gave me an idea of what the onsen process was like. But the second hot spring we visited (back in Tokyo) was very different as well. This onsen was called the Oedo Onsen Monogatari and is the Thorpe Park of the onsen world (in my opinion). Though it appears to be catered more towards tourists with an arcade, food court, foot bath, relaxation rooms, complimentary green tea and photo booths (this is in the communal part of the onsen, where both males and females allowed), it actually had a large number of locals as well. Here, children can also bathe and entertainers put on shows for the children in the central communal area. The process begins with choosing your yukata (I went with for white with a pink and red pattern on) and selecting a coloured sash to tie around your waist (red was my favourite). Both girls and guys can choose between a range of colours and patterns. Next, you separate into female and male changing areas to put on your yukata (instructions are explicitly given on welcome leaflets regarding how this should be tied). I met up with my friend in the communal area and we went out to the foot bath (also communal) to chat and relax. We also had some green tea. Since pictures are allowed in the communal area of the hot springs, so below are some photos I took at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari:

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The communal area                                           The arcade just off of the communal area

We then separated into our respective hot spring changing rooms. The female changing room was far busier than the one at the hotel, with attendants here being very strict on onsen rules but also being very helpful towards the singular Western girl in the room (hi) who had no idea where she was going in this brand new hot spring facility. Similar to the onsen inside the Hakone Kowakien, this one had a wooden stand full of warm water to pour over yourself before entering one of about eight potential hot spring pools inside a large hall. These ranged in temperature from 28 degrees Celsius to 42 degrees Celsius and also ranged in size- some are more like a Jacuzzi, others are the size of a small children’s swimming pool. The norm is to wrap the small towel you are given around your head when you are in the onsen (so it stays dry) and then to use it (I guess) to maintain some form of modesty when walking around (but it really isn’t a large enough towel for that to work- think the size of those face or tiny hand towels you can buy from Primark and you’re not far off).

The outdoor hot springs were my preference. Here, instead of simply being wooden pools, the bathing areas are surrounded by rocks and (again) plants, and the cooler air provides a nice contrast to the warmth of the water. Bathing outside was also far less busy, though this hot springs was generally less peaceful since many visitors were bathing in groups and therefore chatting whilst relaxing. Should you wish, you can also use a steam room but I‚Äôm not a fan so chose not to do this. After bathing for a while, I met up with my friend in the communal area. By this time, it was early evening so after a snack, we decided to head out to the foot bath again. Brief pause for something my friend noticed- you are not meant to enter hot springs drunk but the Oedo Onsen Monogatari facility serves alcohol in the communal area so technically that doesn’t really make much sense. But it’s good if you fancy a beer.

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The bridge leading to the foot bath stream         The foot bath stream

And the brief period of time we were outside that evening was a good moment within the Tokyo part of our travels. I had no camera with me and, without sounding lazy, didn‚Äôt want one (it lay locked in the changing room). I love taking photos (hopefully you can see it from my blog posts) but sometimes it‚Äôs better to just hold an image in your mind from memory. So I thought maybe I could describe the scene to you instead. The sky had transitioned from an inky blue nearer to black, and a wooden hut adorned with fairy lights held visitors who wanted Garra rufa (a.k.a. doctor fish or nibble fish) to eat away the dead skin on their feet (I know, not sounding that pleasant so far but bear with me please ūüôā ). Behind this cute little hut, a high rise building provided a reminder of Tokyo‚Äôs primary identity as an urban city yet in the foreground (which dominated most of the line of vision) lay vegetation and a stream of clear water. The path to walk along (or the foot bath) was adorned with different shapes and sizes of rocks, rooted into the ground and providing different levels of comfort and tension as you follow the bends of the footbath. Swirling above the rocks is water at a range of temperatures-from lukewarm to very hot- with the steam dancing under the small but strong specks of outdoor lighting. Wooden benches lined some parts of the foot bath stream and gentle rain drops cooled our faces as our feet and ankles were submerged in the water, hands gently holding our Yukatas at knee level. This was the literal calm before the storm, the beauty before the fury of the typhoon that we knew would hit Tokyo that night, and we sat under large clear plastic umbrellas (courtesy of the onsen) drinking in the ambience.

For 10 minutes, we sat in silence. It was gloriously peaceful. And even when more onsen visitors threatened to burst the bubble and joined us outside, talking and laughing in their groups, all was fine. Because this was just a little burst of energy adding to the oasis.

I could have stayed for hours but it was the more sensible thing to do to head back to Ikebukuro before the typhoon hit.

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The view from Oedo Onsen Monogatari (having left the onsen) pre-typhoon

Did I enjoy my two hot spring experiences? Yes. But were they a favourite for me? Probably not, although I know that the Oedo Onsen Monogatari was a favourite for my friend. It’s something to experience which is very typically Japanese and is rewarding for anyone who wishes to submerge themselves more into Japanese culture (and some very relaxing water).

Seeing Mount Fuji and our first (and only) organised tour day in Japan.

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When researching Japan, seeing Mount Fuji was something that seemed very appealing; though not experienced enough (nor, to be honest, within the budget) to do any of the actual climbing, we decided the best way to be able to get to the volcano was by coach tour. This is because getting there alone would have incurred much higher room and transportation costs.

This in and amongst itself was a new experience for me; waking up at 6:30am to make our way to the Hotel Metropolitan- the tour meeting place (as lovely as it is, staying there would have been ridiculously over-budget, especially considering how expensive Japan is), we clambered onto the coach. We faced an early disruption in the form of the couple sitting behind us, of which the women was coughing frantically¬†on automation every 30 seconds to a minute. Neither of us had any cough syrup on us and¬†needless to say after 5 minutes, we had uprooted to the empty back seats of the coach ūüôā

Arrival at the coach station was manic, with people jostling in different directions to find the coach they were actually meant to be on. We had to hunt down the Mount Fuji/Hakone bus, but another guy on our initial transfer coach, for example, was off to have a sushi making session. Upon reaching the coach, we were greeted by a larger than life tour guide called Makoto. He was knowledgeable enough, but made (what I found to be) some pretty unsavoury jokes (suicide forest and perils of climbing Mount Fuji). The initial part of the journey, though long, was actually fine upon discovery that the coach had wi-fi connectivity, but also being able to gaze out at different parts of Tokyo and then (after some more roads) look out at the Mount Fuji area.

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The road on the way to Mount Fuji                      The view from the service station (on the way)

Timing was crucial that day… too foggy and we would not be able to see the views from around Mount Fuji. Rainy, and the large amount of grey and blue in the landscape would have been lost behind a veil of drizzle. Thankfully we got lucky. The sun was shining upon upheaval from the coach, the air fresh, and the views- a beautiful azure coloured sky providing a backdrop to the mountain/volcanic range- were wonderful.

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Mount Fuji (the peak from a distance)                At M. Fuji- the view

We walked around the souvenir and on-site shops, whereby items as diverse as Fuji canned air (which my friend wanted to buy) to walking sticks and cajoles were being sold. Each of us was given a lucky bell charm, which apparently links to Mount Fuji (I‚Äôm ashamed to say I just can‚Äôt remember how). We climbed up towards a shrine, whereby you can write a wish plaque and attach it to the shrine, with the hopes that a goddess will grant said wishes. My friend had already done a similar thing in Hong Kong on a Wishing Tree but since I had never done this before, I wrote my wish in chunky black permanent marker and dated it. So if I‚Äôm ever fortunate to have¬†my bullet pointed dreams become reality, I guess I know who to thank ūüôā

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Holding my wish plaque

We also enjoyed mucking around in some random tunnels (because essentially, travelling aged 21 is an excuse to be big kids- my friend being the pun-loving little brother, and me- the bossy older sister).

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¬†¬†Someone is happy to be at Mount Fuji…¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Tunnel time!!!

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The view that lay beyond the tunnels

We moved on from Mount Fuji just as a murky grey fog was starting to completely obscure the scenic views. Lunch was at a café type place whereby I was accompanied in my vegetarian meal choice by my friend, who was sweet enough to go for the same dish so that there would be no confusion on the part of the tour company. It wasn’t for me, the eight green grapes were okay and if the tempura wasn’t cold, it would have been nice but I think it’s fair to say that we were both very hungry when we moved on. Next was meant to be a boat trip (the Lake Ashi Cruise), but a timing mix up meant we went on the Hakone ropeway (a cable car system) and then arrived at Owakudani sulphur pools first.

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From inside the cable car at Hakone ropeway

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A view of Hakone ropeway from Owakudani sulphur pools

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The Owakudani sulphur pools from the viewing deck

It was pretty impressive but after a few photos there wasn’t loads to do. The cable cars and Lake Ashi cruise were also nice, but not especially unique to Japan. All in all, it was good to be able to see Mount Fuji, but the rest of the tour was just not as memorable (although some of the people we met were).

Tokyo time part 1: Senso-ji Temple and Tokyo Skytree.

My second day in¬†Tokyo (after a very pleasant flight from Hong Kong but a stressful first day of settling) allowed me to have my first insight into ancient Japanese spiritualism and religion via a temple visit¬†(which I hope to experience more of in Kyoto) and gave me the chance to see 360 degree views of Tokyo, lit up and twinkling at night from an almost bird’s eye viewpoint (350m high).

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My friend and I awoke on day 2 in Tokyo with the intention of having an early start but in reality, we didn’t venture out into Ikebukuro (where we are staying) until late morning.

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Ikebukuro at night- this commercial area of Tokyo encompasses the “work hard, play hard” philosophy.

Here you can see it lit up at night.

Our primary form of transport that day would be the train network; we had brought a JR pass in advance (for up to 7 days, standard price of £165.50, free trains on the JR network and some buses). This was also an important purchase for us since we knew it would cover the cost of our train travel to Kyoto (our second destination in Japan). The first port of call was Asakusa, and to get here, we took the Yamanote line to Ueno station and then had to buy tickets to travel on the Ginza line (since this is part of the subway system, not the JR network).

*note, if you do have a JR pass, you can get a shuttle bus to and from Tokyo Skytree in Asakusa to Ueno station, which eliminates the cost of buying a metro ticket- we discovered this whilst in Asakusa*.

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Ikebukuro JR station                                                                                  Asakusa Metro Station

But enough on trains, we had a short straight walk from the station to get to the Senso-ji temple. The temple itself is Tokyo’s oldest temple, known to the people of Japan as the Asakusa Kannon and¬†attracting over¬†30 million visitors per year.

Walking through the arch, you experience a riot of colour and noise as market stalls selling items as diverse as rice-crackers wrapped in seaweed, toys pertaining to superheroes and childhood and traditional Japanese-style fans and tea sets line the streets.

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The top of the arch which you walk through        At first sight: the shopping area leading up to the temple

The shopping area forms a kind of crossroads, whereby taking the north fork (if you are coming from around Asakusa station way), leads you directly to the temple. The weather that day was fairly warm, and my friend spotted a street vendor selling Japanese soda. To get the taste, the vendor drops a ball of flavour through a closed bottle top, which then lodges itself into the bottle as a result of the bottle shape and, according to my friend, it then “effervesces… or something”. He also asked me to write that, in his in own words, “he is not a scientist” ūüôā

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Japanese soda pop!

Upon approach to the temple; shop stalls become slightly more tourist-focused. If you look up, you can see decorations which seem to resemble tree or tree branches (maybe they are real, I’m not too sure), resplendent in shades of peach, fuchsia, lemon and crimson. Prior¬† to entering the temple, you walk through another arch (red and gold) and soon come across an urn, with incense smoke rising urgently and weirdly, almost elegantly, and the opportunity to buy incense sticks from a stall to the right.

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The burning of the incense in the urn                                      The temple from afar

The purpose of the incense (reputedly) is to be a method of purifying the surroundings, bringing forth an assembly of buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, demons, and the like. Entering the temple, you can throw money into a ridged box and say a prayer. It is also possible to light a candle. Since photos are allowed, below is a snapshot from inside of the temple.

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The shrine at which people throw money (into the box below) and then pray

The temple gardens were also beautiful, and my friend developed a new obsession (see below).

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The temple gardens¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† The obsession- a¬†loved fish ¬†nicknamed “Diem”.

After the senso-ji shrine, we decided to try and get back to Ueno, where a number of museums are. However, by the time we arrived at quarter to five, everyone was shutting up shop (so to speak). We made the impulsive decision to hop on a shuttle bus which had just arrived outside where were standing in Ueno (near Ueno zoo and the shuttle was free as a result of our JR pass). The final stop- Tokyo Skytree

By the time we reached the attraction, the city had crept towards darkness and my hunger levels were at an all time high (being vegetarian in Japan is not all that easy- a blog post about that might be coming soon amongst other things). So we decided to have a look around to find a place that I was able to eat at. Eventually, we found a fusion café in Tokyo Skytree town (my friend had eaten fried chicken in Asakusa earlier) and since the staff were so polite and obliging (this seems ingrained in Japanese culture), I was able to eat spaghetti with soy sauce and seaweed. Skytree itself exists within a shopping village, and shops there are either cute, quirky and full of anime references or high-end/high street clothing and accessories brands. There are also food courts and restaurants. It spans over roughly 8 floors, with an east and west wing and a centre point.

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An anime shop¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† What caught my eye ūüôā

Post-food, we went to the fourth floor to access the Skytree tower. The lift elevated to us to 350m high ridiculously quick, so much so that my friend (who’s not crazy about sudden changes in height) did not experience any inertia.

The views from behind the glass windows were like nothing I’ve ever seen before; Tokyo became a toy city, with flashes of gold light from buildings and darkness only arising from rivers, fields or the sky itself. Below are a couple of my favourite pictures¬†from the observation deck:

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I’m also seriously proud of my friend (who suffers from vertigo) for standing on a sheer glass floor (with the drop from that height visible beneath it).

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The glass floor in question                                                       Having a little sit down in the most comfortable place

In the end, he may have left Skytree feeling tired, and I may have felt energized, but both of us thought Skytree was an incredibly worthwhile thing to do. At 2060 yen, it may have been more expensive than Tokyo tower (which is where we initially planned to go and is located in Minato, Tokyo) but in my mind, it is well worth the cost. The views are mesmerising, staff are so sweet and cheerful and it was a lovely way to end a really good day in Tokyo.

Cheung Chau: sunshine, seafood and street stalls

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Today I woke up to bright sunshine in Hong Kong, which was fortunate since my friend decided it would be nice to visit Cheung Chau. Cheung Chau is a small Island 10 km southwest of Hong Kong Island and is a very popular destination for tourism, as well as being renowned for its street food stalls.

In order to get there, we got the train (MTR) from Tin Hau to Central, picking up some breakfast from a bakery on the way to Tin Hau station. I’m ashamed to say that I caved into temptation and got a coffee cake for breakfast, but I still feel that this was a better shout than the spam, cheese and tomato ketchup bun my friend decided to have!

Upon arriving at Central, we headed to the ferry terminal (terminal 5) and just before we got there, were greeted by some stunning views of the harbour.

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The view from Central, near the ferry terminal

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This made me smile

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Arrival at the Ferry terminal

I was somewhat apprehensive about the 35-minute¬†ferry journey, having been prone to occasional bouts of motion sickness in the past. However, the water was very smooth and the journey to Cheung Chau seemed to fly by (no travel-related¬†pun intended). The only slightly annoying point was that¬†in the downstairs deck where we sat, the windows were quite murky so photos didn‚Äôt come out quite so well. Fortunately though, this was not the case on the ferry journey back ūüôā

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My attempt at taking a photo from next to the window on the way to Cheung Chau

Upon approaching Cheung Chau, you witness beautiful sparkling water, with boats and fishing boats dotted across the harbour and a backdrop of stalls selling everything from jewellery and clothing to food stuff and bubble tea.

I think my favourite view, however, was when we were able to observe the boats from dry land:

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Walking along the harbour front was probably my first prolonged experience of the humid heat that my friend told me I would experience in Hong Kong. Whilst this occurs on the main island, many buildings, shops and restaurants have incredibly efficient air conditioning, meaning that sometimes you even find yourself reaching for your jacket! Nonetheless, the heat went hand in hand with the sun, which made all the colours of the harbour brighter and led me to make the urgent purchase of a pair of sunglasses (my original pair somehow broke in my backpack during my London to Hong Kong flight).

Alongside sunglasses, I found some over really nice gifts and was particularly impressed by a shop whereby you could select your own pearl from an oyster in a bucket of water. You then got to pick a pendant and watch the jeweller as she polished the pearl, drilled a hole into it (if necessary) and set it into the silver pendant (within whichever shape was picked). This is actually a gift for a friend I’ll be visiting soon, and I was also allowed to take a video of the pearl selection so have that to show her. But it does mean that I’ll have to block her from seeing this particular post on Facebook!

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Although the island has plenty of street food, and although my friend was desperate to try a twisty fried potato that was being sold on a street stall as well as mango filled buns, he decided to take me to the Rainbow Café along the harbour front for lunch. This was a good place to go because although Hong Kong caters very well for Vegetarians, fish is a fairly big deal on Cheung Chau and many restaurants serving Hong Kong food on the waterfront were using fish or fish sauce in their dishes. The Rainbow Café, however, was a contrast to this since it serves some Western dishes too (one of the rare occasions where I didn’t have some form of delicious Asian food). However, I couldn’t complain too much because part of me enjoyed returning to the home comfort of potato wedges and garlic bread (I’m not going to lie though, Dim Sum still wins). What was particularly lovely was being able to sit in an air conditioned café, which was light and cosy with little bear cushions and lots of written messages from past visitors, and sipping on an ice cold Lime Soda. Total bliss when wanting to take a brief break from the glorious sun.

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What‚Äôs more, the Rainbow Caf√© has a service whereby you can pick however many postcards, write them and then pay for them to be delivered (including international delivery)- all whilst eating your food or enjoying your drink. So mum, dad and sis- postcards for you and the rest of the family should be there in a week ūüôā

After lunch, we went back to roaming around the harbour front. As previously mentioned, there are lots of street food stalls (see the first picture below) and fresh or dried fish stalls (see picture two).

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 A street food stall                                                 One of many dried fish stalls

And just because this really impressed me:

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See the fruit in the white crotchet coats? That is to maintain quality and ensure that the fruit does not bruise.

Much of the rest of the time was spent chatting and enjoying the sun or taking pictures. Oh, but we did find these really cool steps by the ferry terminal on Cheung Chau:

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We only had to wait around fifteen minutes for the next ferry back to Hong Kong Island and the journey once again was relaxed and pleasant (cooler too since the windows were open this time). All in all, I’m very glad I got the chance to visit Cheung Chau- it was a beautiful place with a really friendly ambience.

I hope you’re enjoying these blogs so far! On Wednesday (or tomorrow since this is probably when I’ll post), I’m heading over to Tokyo so I hope to keep you informed. I am very excited for Japan, so if anyone has a heads up on what I should see there, let me know in the comments below.

Will blog again soon!

Hong Kong: Breathtaking in every light

Today was the day where I got to go to my first real tourist-y attraction in Hong Kong. The Peak is over 396 metres above sea level and from this area, you can see Victoria Harbour, the International Finance Centre, and Mong Kok (on the Western side of Kowloon) alongside many other buildings and regions of HK. Over the past few days, protesting in certain parts of HK meant that my friend steered me away from these areas and subsequently, what activities we had planned during my first stint here were susceptible to change. However, because the Peak is not too close to Central, I got the chance to go up there today. And it was this that made me really appreciate Hong Kong’s beauty. Because from a natural scenic perspective, this may not be the first place that comes to mind (or indeed, a place that comes to mind at all). But from an urbanization viewpoint, the Hong Kong skyline does for the eyes what any form of chocolate does for the soul. It is an absolute visual treat!

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Getting to see HK from above!

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Hong Kong skyscrapers during the day

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A different viewpoint from Sky Terrace 428 (as was the photo above)

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Hong Kong at night (from Café Deco terrace) 

Note that the Sky Terrace 428 is at the top part of the Peak. You have to pay an extra 45 HK dollars but it is well worth it for 360 degree views above Hong Kong.

Upon arriving at the Peak by taxi (because the queue for the tram was unbelievably long and today has been hot and humid), we walked around the shopping centre which lies at the bottom of the free viewing platform and the higher Sky Terrace 428. Normally there are different displays on- my friend told me that a month ago the display was Mr Men and Little Miss (which, truthfully, I would have quite enjoyed). Today however, in preparation for Halloween, a number of attraction employees were roaming around dressed as clowns, headless individuals, zombie girls (with zombie teddy bears) etc and Halloween decorations were dotted around the shopping centre. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it could be fun, but on a warm, bright day when you want to take scenic photos, having to watch out for Halloween characters creeping up on you or jumping behind you is a little bit of an inconvenience. And ironically, later in the evening when such characters would have created more of a stir, we were unable to see any of them roaming around (although this may have just been coincidence).

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My new best friends!!!

Another thing I‚Äôll say about the Peak shopping centre is that a¬†couple (though not all) shops have policies on individuals not being able to take photos or touch items. And as someone who has been to other shops in Hong Kong whereby these rules are not applicable, this does irritate me a little.¬† Also, if you are not obviously local or bilingual, watch out for shop owners negotiating a smaller¬†price drop downwards, especially since some items are costly. My friend speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese, and shop owners were more keen to drop prices for him. However, this is just a minor point, because the shops (though obviously geared towards tourism) had some really quirky and cheap¬†items in them (such as a Dim Sum compact mirror- I had to get it, it was only a pound!). Plus I found my sister part of a present but I won’t say what it is in case she reads this ūüôā

We decided to queue for the tram upon leaving the Peak that evening. Although the queue looked long, we were pleasantly surprised at how quickly the line moved.

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A to-scale model of the tram at the Peak

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The back wall of the tram station turns a rainbow spectrum of colours. It’s very pretty!

The ride home was quick, only 7 or 8 minutes, and is very beautiful but here’s something to bear in mind; when the tram arrives¬†(if you are taking it at a busy time), you won’t get a seat waiting patiently to get onto the transportation. We experienced a situation on the tram whereby one women purposely prevented a whole bunch of people from sitting on a free bench next to her in order to make room for her female companion who had drifted behind in the rush that was boarding the tram. And if that happens and you stand, your calf muscles will get a fairly intense workout as the tram is downhill and quite fast. I would suggest that if¬†it looks too busy, get the next one (they run every fifteen minutes) and make sure you look out for the yellow markings on the platform to stand at since this is where the tram doors will open.

¬†Overall, the abundance of shops and restaurants, alongside some gorgeous viewing points, made the Peak a lovely way to spend the afternoon and part of the evening. Not only was the Sky Terrace 428 particularly spectacular, but having paid entry you get free audio-guides in whichever language, allowing you to learn more about the history of the Peak and the buildings and regions of Hong Kong identifiable from the viewing platform. Note that the Mandarin and English version contains slightly different facts and sound effects (the English version had few sound effects, the Mandarin version apparently had¬†more). This is not a bad thing, just something to be aware of ūüôā

A huge¬†positive of¬†the Peak and it’s surrounding amenities is that¬†a number of restaurants have similar spectacular¬†views over Hong Kong (and these don‚Äôt necessarily have to be pricey, such restaurants include Burger King and McDonalds and also include many non-fast food restaurants). These views can make for an enhanced dining, dessert or drinks experience.

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My really nice dessert and drink (watermelon cocktail) experience at the Café Deco terrace.

I hope you enjoyed reading this blog!

*Note that the opinions regarding the Peak in this blog post are purely my own, and in the interests of being honest, I wanted to include both the favourable and not so favourable aspects (in my opinion) of the attraction.*

A day documented in snapshots: Hong Kong, day 2

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Bakeries and patisseries are rife in Hong Kong. Note to self: try an egg tart (bottom middle cake).

To be honest, I’d eat any of them!!!!

 

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A street in Fortress Hill.

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Advertising Halloween, Hong Kong Style, Laforet Shopping Centre (a less than conventional approach to advertising a scary holiday).

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My travel companion pandering to the awkward vegetarian

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Sichuan style noodle soup (dam dam mein), steamed vegetable dumplings, dipping sauce and at the front of the photo…

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Pan fried spinach buns (san jin bao). Despite initial scepticism (I thought nothing could beat noodles), these are unbelievably delicious and just a bit addictive!

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From Central to Causeway, politics permeating.

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Most efficient metro system? My travel companion wanted me to say “simplicity and efficiency absent¬†from London underground”. Which might be true, but nothing beats the Metropolitan line (childhood bias).

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Hong Kong mini-bus

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First scenic (ish) shot of Hong Kong. The harbour in the background, skyscrapers in the foreground.

Thanks to “no name travel companion” for making the cheesiest caption suggestions ever (and since I lack that level of wit, I had to reject them or my envy would overwhelm me).

Hope you enjoyed this slightly different (to my usual essays) blog post!