The Circle Of Life

Once again, I’ve found myself back in Japan – I just can’t seem to stay away! A couple of months ago, I managed to find cheap tickets on Jetstar – only $300 for the Cairns to Tokyo flight. But… wait for it… this was for business class. Done! Flight was booked, I just had to survive exams and find a return flight! Exams were survived, finding a rerun flight was not so easy -the limiting factor was that I had to return for the family Christmas, pushing flights up to over $1500 one way from Japan. And so a plan was born – Melbourne – Cairns – Tokyo – Fukuoka – Osaka – Taipei – Singapore (bus) KL – Melbourne!

The short amount of time that I spent at a Cairns hostel reminded me why I love backpacking in other countries, but not so much in Australia. It certainly was very bare bones, but couldn’t be bet for the location. I had a wonderful short stay in Cairns regardless, spending all my time on the reef – cruise out there, a play at scuba diving, snorkeling and then a helicopter flight back to Cairns. Highly recommended.

Over the years, I’ve been to Tokyo twice – the first time although I had a great night out on the town, I spent the rest of my time hung over, and the second time the airlines had lost my luggage and I was stuck in Tokyo with just the clothes on my back in the middle of a humid, hot summer. Not great memories.

This time, I had a trump card – The Lion King was playing, and I was going. I rocked up to my hostel late at night to find my pre-order SIM card had already arrived. After a few teething issues, I managed to get it going, and the next morning I borrowed a bike and set out for theatre. And went completely the wrong way, ending up near the Emporers Palace and in amongst the embassy’s. What should have taken 1 hour managed to take me closer to 4 hours!  And having not ridden a bike for over 3 years, I’m really feeling it now!  The Lion King was just as good as it was in Melbourne – truly amazing.  The costumes, the set, the singing, all of it was すばらしい.  I managed to sit next to a small girl, who was quite impressed with (or at least not upset by) my humming and the small amount of Japanese songs I was able to partially sing!

Over 10 years ago, Asako came to Australia as an exchange student and stayed with us for some time.  One of my aims on this visit to Japan was to catch up with her – not only has she gotten married, she’s also had a baby!  So we planned to do a day of sightseeing around Tokyo with her husband Hirosuke and baby Seigo.  First stop was the newly restored Tokyo Station.  I arrived before Asako, and was suprised by the amount of Japanese people milling around taking photos of the admittedly beautiful station.  It wasn’t until Asako & Hirosuke arrived and explained that it had only recently been completed that it made sense!

After Tokyo station we headed to Asakusa Sensouji (Asakusa Temple – often referred to as “jinja”, but this isn’t right!).  Hirosuke explained to me that even amongst Japanese people, it can be difficult to differentiate between shrine (Shinto – Jinja) and temple (Buddhist – Otera).  One way of telling is the presence of a smoking barrel (temple) or purifying water (shrine).  He also explained thati red “tori” (gates) are found at shrines, but pagodas are found at temples.  And at shrines you often clap before praying, whilst prayers are silent in temples.  All so confusing!  Basically, when in Japan (or any other country!) I look to see what the locals are doing, and follow their lead!

The road to the temple is lined with lots of little shops selling a wide range of souvineers.  We stopped for some fresh zaiten manju – red been paste inside a small cake, yum!  Seigo is still not sure of me!

After our temple visit, it was time to take a glance at the skyline.  Here is Asako, Hirosuke and Seigo in front of the Asahi beer buildings.  Notice the golden coloured building in the background, with the grey “frothy head” on top?  We so need one of the buildings in Melbourne!  Also pictured is the Asahi flame, said to represent the “burning heart of Asahi beer”, but colloquially referred to as “the golden turd” by many locals.  Hmmm.

Lunch was the famous Asakusa tendons for us, and udon noodles for Seigo – who really got into it!

As it started raining, we jumped in a taxi and headed to the Tokyo Edo Museum.  Perfect for a rainy day (or even for a super hot day I would imagine), the museum is well laid out and quiet.  Plenty to see and learn – so much information about the history of the people and samurai of Japan.  Here are Hirosuke and Seigo doing their best to carry me in the traditional viewing box.

Next stop was a Tokyo cruise, on the Himiko ship.  Designed by Leiji Matsumoto, one of the best renowned Japanese cartoonists (think anime), it’s futuristic and a bit out of this world.  From here we were able to see much of Tokyo from the waterways, including the Tsukiji Fish markets and Rainbow Bridge.  We also saw the theatre that I rode my bike to the day before.  I  also managed to wear Seigo down, and get a bit of a cuddle!

After getting off the boat, we ended up at a shopping centre created mainly for “yummy mummies” and young people.  This is the front of ANA’s “kidzania” – a kids play centre (think Crocs or Lollypops).  It’s a little different however, kids that enter this world will be enrolled into “careers” – they will become firefighters, nurses, shop keepers and more.  It’s basically role play for kids, where kids will even earn a salary that can in turn be used to buy small presents for mum.  Can’t wait till Seigo is old enough to go here and I can tag along!

And finally it was time for yakiniku (Japanese style Korean barbeque) for dinner.  We had a wide range of meats and vegetables, all grilled on the table in front of us.  Poor Asako didn’t get much at all – she was too busy keeping Seigo fed.

After saying goodbye to Asako, Hirosuke and Seigo, I realised that I was only a few stops from “Gyoza World” – a mysterious and magical place said to contain thousands of styles of gyoza (dumplings).  So even though I was absolutely full from our delicious yakiniku dinner, I stopped by to see what it was about.  And I wasn’t disappointed – dumpling shop upon dumpling shop for as far as you can see.  I managed to nibble on some cheese dumplings (yum!) – next time I need to head back with a few people and an empty stomach!!

And that’s the end of my time in Tokyo.  I’m currently sitting in the airport, awaiting my flight to Fukuoka, to visit with my host families from when I was a high school exchange student (12 years ago!!)

NY Hot Dog-style tofu sticks

I woke up with an odd feeling – I have never been overseas and not had that nights accommodation booked. It was kinda scary and truly exhilarating. After heading to the train station and organizing a train to Kaohsiung (pronounced “gaoshiung”) I sat down to ring around hostels. The actual process of booking a train ticket was extremely simple – the staff at the station spoke English, and even told me which platform to board the train from. I found a hostel that sounded good, and booked it with the girl over the phone.

Patiently waiting for the train in Taipei

Patiently waiting for the train in Taipei

Train travel in Taiwan is another mix between china and Japan. Not quite as “high class” as Japan, but certainly up there. Trains are very clean and comfortable with stacks of legroom, and a stewardess roams around with a food trolley. There are shelves overhead for smaller luggage and spots about the carriage for larger items Seating is assigned, but it’s common to find someone in your seat – passengers who haven’t booked an assigned seat will sit in any free one, but will move quickly if you’re standing there looking at your ticket and the seat. Announcements are made in Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka (local dialect) and English, although the ticket also says the time the train will stop, so you have an idea of when you’ll be arriving. You can book tickets at the window, or at larger stations there are bilingual computer terminals that also let you search, book and pay for tickets.

At Kaohsiung I found an interesting shop called “carton king” – the entire shop was full of packs of DIY cardboard models, including an almost-life size train! I transferred to the MRT to head to my hostel, stopping at Formosa Boulevard. I had scribbled a note in my diary saying that I wanted to stop there, but completely forgot about it until I exited the MRT. Walking into the “dome of light”, you are confronted with an amazing stained lass ceiling showing off beautiful colours and patterns. Worth checking out if you’re in the area.

Amazing roof at Khaosiung's Formosa Metro Station - known as the "Dome of Light"

Amazing roof at Khaosiung's Formosa Metro Station - known as the "Dome of Light"

My hostel was simple to get to, and I was warmly greeted by the manager. It has only been open a few months, and they are still setting up some of the rooms. Great location, cute “rooftop bar” and a lovely big table to sit around and chat with other travelers. The manager and another guest pointed out some things for me to do the following day, and told me which night markets to head to in Khaosiung.

The first night market was the Liouhe Tourist Market, literally around the corner from the hostel. Definetly a tourist attraction, there were lots of “yellow hat” mainland tourist groups getting around. Regardless, the food was fantastic and cheap too (TWD $4 per Shanghai dumpling). There was a stand that had a line a mile long every time I went past – I eventually hung around to figure it out. It was a famous juice stand, there were newspaper clippings and photos of the owner standing with famous locals and international artists. I lined up, and was at a loss what to ask for, as there wasn’t an English menu to be found. I just asked for “whatever is number one” and was rewarded with a local favourite: papaya milk. Yum!

One of Khaosiung's night markets - this one is considered the "locals" night market, with plenty to see and eat.

One of Khaosiung's night markets - this one is considered the "locals" night market, with plenty to see and eat.

The second night market was the Rueifeng Night Market, accessed from exit 1 of the Kaohsiung Arena MRT station. This market still had plenty of tourists, but more locals as well. Food was abundant, cheap and delicious (New York Hot Dog style tofu stick anyone? – I’ve now discovered that this was the infamous “stinky tofu”, not. Ad!) and there was a selection of fashion shopping as well as amusement games and massages. Taiwan is an interesting country – it is illegal to smoke in public in most areas, littering is a crime, and there certainly isn’t a lot of rubbish kicking around. Eating in public (ie walking along and eating) is a no-no, but night markets are a different story – it’s all about the food!

"NY-hot-dog-style tofu" aka stinky tofu... yum

"NY-hot-dog-style tofu" aka stinky tofu... yum

When I started looking a little closer, I noticed that little dogs are everywhere. If you’re ever in Taiwan, assume that every women carrying a large handbag (and indeed men too) are harboring a small pup – there’s a fair chance they are! In fact, I’ve been sitting next a girl on a train for the past two hours, and have just noticed she has a small dog in her handbag!

Puppies all over the place in Taiwan - this is at one of the many night markets, his girlfriend had a pink poodle

Puppies all over the place in Taiwan - this is at one of the many night markets, his girlfriend had a pink poodle

Eating Korean Barbeque… IN KOREA!

Asia ~ South Korea ~ Busan

Last week I decided to swing by my travel agent in downtown Fukuoka to see if they had any deals for travel to South Korea, as it is so close to Fukuoka, and I’ve never been. When I found a deal that included the return trip on a boat, and a night in a hotel that was cheaper than just the boat trip, I decided to grab it. As a result, 24 hours later I was speeding across the Korea Straight towards Busan on the JR Kyushu ‘Beetle ‘ hydrofoil…

As per normal, I had the normal issues travelling… Got to my local bus stop to see the bus leaving, even though I was 5 minutes early… Raced to get the bus, but it wasn’t until halfway to town I realised I had left my alien registration card (my Japanese ID card) at my apartment. They made a big fuss of it when I left Japan last time, but I decided I didn’t have time to go back and get it… Then the bus, which was supposed to go to the bus terminal (so I could change to a bus headed for the port) stopped at the station, and said it was going no further! Turns out when I raced for the bus earlier, I had jumped on the earlier bus, not the right one that went all of the way, so I had to try and find the bus terminal on foot. Everyone I asked didn’t know where it was, cos I was ages away from it… Finally found the correct bus stop and got to the port terminal, where I went through emigration with no issues – the girl asked for my ID card, but when I said I’d left it behind, she was fine with it. I suspect that if I hadn’t of spoken Japanese, there would of been problems.

The JR Kyushu ‘Beetle’ hydrofoil is a very small ferry that takes 3 hours to make the crossing between Hakata (Fukuoka, Japan) and Busan (South Korea). We were warned to keep our seatbelts on because they often “have to swerve quickly to avoid whales and dolphins”. I kept my eyes peeled, but didn’t see any. Did see a very interesting lighthouse as we were leaving Japan that was bright red and decked out as Santa for Christmas (complete with white beard and all).

Beetle Ferry

See the boat at the back (it says BEETLE)? That's the ferry that we crossed international waters in, only 3 hours, but still, it's tiny! The ferry at the front is the international overnight one from Shimonoseki (only 1 hour from Fukuoka).

When I mentioned to my Japanese friends that I would be heading to South Korea for a night, I asked them what there was to do in Korea – everyones response was “Shopping and food”, so I headed to Busan with a list of markets to find and foods to try. On arrival, I headed for the main train station, where I jumped on a double decker tour bus, which proceeded to take me around the city for only ₩10,000 (approx $10 AUD). I jumped off at Haeundae Beach to get some lunch (time to start crossing of the “food list”!). Surprise, surprise, at one of the most touristy spots in town I ended up munching down on good ol’ Aussie burgers, not a Bimbimbap restaurant in sight. Wandered around the area for a while (saw the Fish Car – a small car near the aquarium that has been turned into a fish tank, with large colourful fish swimming through the steering wheel and gearstick).

Fish Car at Haeundae Beach

Fish Car at Haeundae Beach

Checkin to my hotel was quick and easy – upon discovering I spoke Japanese, communication went from haltering English to fluent Japanese. Helps of course that I was staying in the Japanese part of town, in a Japanese hotel, but still much better than attempting to communicate in my non existent Korean (but perhaps my next language to learn?). My day finished up with a Korean barbeque for dinner, recommended by my hotel as “cheap and delicious”. And they weren’t joking, at only ₩12,000 (approx $12 AUD) for a huge amount of quality beef, kimchi and beer. They didn’t bat an eyelid when I came in on my own (despite Korean barbeque being a shared dish), and the owners mum helped me sort out the barbeque. I have never had real Korean barbeque before, it is eaten quite different in Korea compared to Japan – a long piece of beef on the barbeque was cut up into pieces (by the amused owners mum when she realised I had no idea what I was doing), and then dipped into sauce. Kimchi is added (all of the various bowls around the table are kimchi) on top, and then eaten. And, if you’re like me, and the owners mum is amused by you, she will put all of this together for you and basically spoon-feed (chopstick-feed) you!

Korean Barbeque

Korean Barbeque

On my second/last day in Busan, I headed out to fulfill my shopping component of my list. Busan is famous for it’s Jagalchi Fish Market, but having been to the world’s largest fish market in Tokyo, I wasn’t particularly interested in seeking out this one. Despite my intentions, I ended up at the fish market whilst trying to find another market. The fish market was surprisingly clean and not too smelly, and I saw plenty of interesting sights, including tanks upon tanks of sea snakes, and octopus’s making a run for it in the street. I eventually found the Gukje market, but didn’t buy anything, as I’m going to China soon, and much of the stuff at the market was similar to the things I usually see in China. Had bimbimbap for lunch (another tick on the “food list”) at ₩4,000 (approx $4 AUD), which was much spicier and tastier than other versions I have eaten in Japan and Australia. My day ended with me wandering back to the ferry terminal, where I caught my speedy boat back “home” to Japan.

I’ve just begun to start thinking about my Christmas shopping, how’s everyone else going?!

Tetsunabe Gyoza Restaurant (Fukuoka, Japan)

Well known in Fukuoka as the best gyoza restaurant in the area, this family owned and run restaurant serves the best dumplings I’ve ever eaten. Walk in, and you will be asked “How many people”. Indicate with your fingers how many people you have in your party and you’ll be lead to a table. Not much English is spoken here, but the staff knew to point to the picture of gyoza on the menu, there are plenty of other dining options too. If you order gyoza, you will be provided with a small dish to mix your own gyoza sauce – there is a squirty bottle of standard dumpling sauce, a small bottle of chili oil, a small dish of yuzu paste and a small dish of chili paste. Mix up your desired sauce, tasting as you go. I highly recomend the yuzu (an Asian sour citrus fruit) sauce, it adds an extra omph! to the meal.

The menu here is all in Japanese, but the staff here know what you’ve come for, so it’s not too difficult. The number one dish here is the gyoza (a small moon shaped fried Chinese dumpling), but there are plenty of other options too. The following are some of the dishes I remember.
  • ぎょうざ (Gyoza) – these small fried dumplings are amazing. Come as a serve of 8, the staff recommend two serves per person if you’re not getting anything else, 470 JPY per serve.
  • ポテトサラダ (Potato Salad) – one of the other main dishes, 520 JPY
  • 手羽先の煮 (Chicken Wings) – another popular dish, 310 JPY per piece
  • 令やしトマト (Cold Tomato) – a delicious dish of cold, slightly salted tomato and cabbage
  • おきゅうと
  • もろきゅう

Fukiya Okonomiyaki Restaurant (Fukuoka, Japan)

This cute restaurant is tucked in the corner of the restaurant floor of the Fukuoka Bus Centre. Walk in, and you will be asked “How many people”. Indicate with your fingers how many people you have in your party and you’ll be lead to a table. The waitress will then place a “menu” on your table – a receipt type piece of paper that lists everything in Japanese. Look below for translations (but be aware that the copy in the restaurant is purely Japanese!). Point to what you want, and they’ll start cooking it. You can watch your dinner being cooked over at the grill. If you order okonomiyaki, it will be bought to your table already cut into squares. Top with your preferred amount of okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise, and dig in!

No English is spoken here, but everyone is really friendly, the food is fabulous and cheap, and you can get a drink with your meal, perfect.

These are my translations, the menu at the restaurant is purely Japanese. Take note of what you’d like – I’ve set it out the same as the restaurant copy, so you should be able to point to what you want. All of the items on the left hand side are okonomiyaki – the Japanese “as-you-like-it” pancake, a thick savory pancake made of predominately of battered cabbage. My favourite is the corn/egg version, but they’re all great!

Name Price Name Price
デラックス (Delux) 1,100 JPY 焼きそば (Yaki Soba) 550 JPY
ミックス (Mix) 850 JPY “大盛 (large serve) 650 JPY
肉玉子 (Meat/Egg) 600 JPY 焼きうどん (Yaki Udon) 550 JPY
イカ玉子 (Squid/Egg) 600 JPY “大盛 (large serve) 650 JPY
エビ玉子 (Prawn/Egg) 600 JPY 焼きめし (Fried Rice) 550 JPY
チーズ玉子 (Cheese/Egg) 600 JPY “大盛 (large serve) 650 JPY
コーン玉子 (Corn/Egg) 600 JPY 肉野菜いため (Stir Fry) 550 JPY
肉 (Meat) 550 JPY “大盛 (large serve) 650 JPY
イカ (Squid) 550 JPY 御飯(小) (Small Rice) 550
エビ (Prawn) 550 JPY ビール(中)(Beer) 500 JPY
チーズ (Cheese) 550 JPY コーラ (Coke) 200 JPY
コーン (Corn) 550 JPY オレンジ (Orange Juice) 200 JPY
玉子 (Egg) 450 JPY ジンジャエール (Gingerale) 200 JPY
ヤサイ (Vegetable) 400 JPY