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!!)

White helmet tours

One of the main tourist destinations of Taiwan, I wasn’t sure what to expect of my tour – was it going to be in English? Chinese? A big or small group? After an unexpected but fun ‘yellow hat’ tour with my cousin of the Yellow Mountains in China years before, I was kinda hoping for colorful hats.

Alas, it wasn’t to be, today’s tour was instead all about the white helmets! The tour was a small minivan that picked me up from the hostel, and for $988 included a full day of seeing the sights of Tarako, lunch and a drop off at the train station at 4.30pm. The tour was in Chinese, but as the majority of the others on the ground were from Asian countries that speak both Chinese and English (eg Singapore and Malaysia), I was in good hands.

In our minivan we went around and saw many special spots, including the tunnel of nine turns, the eternal spring shrine and the Swallow Grotto trail. It was on the way to the Swallo Grotto trail that we passed a roadside stop proclaiming “free helmet hire” – our guide stopped and picked up a helmet for each of us, including a tiny one for the 3 year old French boy also on our tour. At the Swallow Grotto trail we put on our helmets to wander along the trail – an area well known for landslides and rockfalls, over the years many have been killed and helmets are now mandatory.

Lunch was a brilliant mix of local foods shared over the table with others from the group. I made friends with a few (very well spoken) young boys when I came across a stamping area (like Japan, many attractions in Taiwan have a rubber stamp that symbolizes it – kids collect the rubber stamps in books). I immediately ran up to start stamping my notebook, when one of the young boys offered me a special kids stamping book instead, so now I’m set!

I’m sitting on the train as we slowly roll into Taipei and back to the hustle and bustle of city life. The guy next to me is playing on his psp, the guys across the aisle has both his iPhone and MacBook air out and the woman in front is playing with an iPod. Sitting here typing on my iPad and uploading via Bluetooth on my iPhone, I can see I fit in with a technology aware country such as Taiwan!

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?!

Just call me Travel Agent Bobbi!

Asia ~ Japan ~ Fukuoka & Beppu

Once again, blogs have been few and far between, whoops. It’s been a month of accomplishments with my Japanese – I can now do many things in Japanese that I never before had the ability or courage to do: order pizza delivery over the phone, direct a taxi driver to my apartment, make travel arrangements with a travel agent and more. Most of these things are activities I never even had the opportunity to do in English, in Australia – I live in the sticks, so getting a taxi home, or getting pizza delivered has never been an option. I’m finally beginning to really function over here!

Gyoza at the gyoza restaurant in Hakata

Gyoza at the gyoza restaurant in Hakata

My friend Jen from home has been visiting me for the past two weeks, and it’s been a blast. I’ve taken her around to do plenty of things around Kyushu, including clubbing in Fukuoka (stumbling home at 7am after spending all night at “Happy Cock”, all you can drink for 2000 yen, who can go past that?!), horse races in Saga (where you go not to watch the races in Saga, but to bet on the races in Kyoto!), temples in Dazaifu (students are starting to cram, the temple was packed!), a home party drinking cocktails and eating oden in Kurume (and laughing the night away with crazy cousins!), bali style onsens in Chikushi (Jen’s first onsen!), sand onsens, hostels and “hell valley” in Beppu (natural bubbling colourful pits of sulphur water, reminiscent of what hell may look like), souvenir shopping at the many 100-yen shops in Fukuoka (and then finding a post office that will accept the 100-odd kg of souvenirs that Jen bought!) and shopping and watching movies at Canal City in Fukuoka (New Moon has FINALLY come out in Japan!).

Students tying their fortunes up at Dazaifu

Students tying their fortunes up at Dazaifu

Matt’s headed off on his next adventure – he is now in Taiwan looking for a job, leaving me in Japan all on my own… Never fear, with my newfound pizza (and sushi, curry, hotpot, Korean, Indian etc etc) ordering abilities, I think I should survive. Throw in the attention of my host sister and cousin (I have an accessible apartment in the city, a big bonus on a Saturday night when trains stop at 11:30pm! This Saturday night is the first I haven’t been out till 7am, and it was only because Jen was leaving early Sunday that I was excused!) and my other Japanese friends.

At the Moomin cafe in canal city. If you're lucky, Mr Moomin himself will come and sit at your table to help you drink your gingerbread hot chocolate (which is easily the best hot chocolate I've ever had, and so it should be at $8 a cup).

At the Moomin cafe in canal city. If you're lucky, Mr Moomin himself will come and sit at your table to help you drink your gingerbread hot chocolate (which is easily the best hot chocolate I've ever had, and so it should be at $8 a cup).

Now it’s back to work, sorting out my parents itinerary for when they rock up in two weeks time. We’ll be hiring a car (eek!) and traveling a bit of Kyushu before heading to Kyoto & Osaka for a couple a days, and then heading to China on the ferry. Just call me Travel Agent Bobbi!


Asia ~ China ~ Shanghai

My fingers are soooooo cold. What’s making me even colder is the knowledge that we aren’t even really into winter yet – it’s going to get a lot colder! I don’t know the exact temperatures, but they have definetley plummeted in the last few days. I haven’t resorted to my thermals yet – but it’s only a matter of time. Discussions on where to go for dinner, when to leave for class, what to do on the weekend all center around one thing – what will be the warmest way to do it (I can foresee a lot of 2 minute noodles being eaten in our room!). For some reason, the heating in our classroom isn’t working so well anymore, and it was almost icy today. To top it off, my cold is progressively getting worse, so I’m madly sucking on cough lollies to try and get rid of it. I’ve run out of mouthwash (dad’s suggestion on how to get rid of the cold quickly), and have – as per dads suggestion – gone out and brought myself a bottle of cheap spirits to gurgle. I forgot that I had ‘experiences’ with baiju last time I was in Beijing – I nearly throw up every time I attempt to gargle it!

As per normal, we’re continually exploring the different food options. Today, we discovered that there is an upstairs part to our dining cafeteria – and it is so much better than where we’ve been eating. We have a sneaking suspicion that upstairs is only for the 3rd and 4th year students, and the teachers, but whenever anyone looks like they are about to approach us to tell us off, we just play dumb and keep eating. I have dumplings and fresh noodles for brekky – only cost 4.5 yuan (about 75 cents Australian). Tonight we are going to head out to our new favourite local restaurant – it has pics on the walls, so we just point at what we want – 3 yuan (50 cents) for a plate of dumplings. We’ve noticed a lot of the long term students that are staying at our hotel down in the lobby at about 7pm, waiting in their pyjamas. Turns out, most of the local restaurants will home deliver for free, and it’s just a matter of meeting the bike rider (‘delivery man’) at the door – now how do you say home deliver dumplings in Chinese?! Might just be the next thing I learn…

Strange apple juice that Kylie found at the supermarket, has black jelly 'pips' all the way through it, doesn't taste too bad

Strange apple juice that Kylie found at the supermarket, has black jelly 'pips' all the way through it, doesn't taste too bad

We spent last weekend getting to know a little of Shanghai… I had to get a visa extension, so we caught the metro to the right area, and I left everyone shopping, whilst I went off to find the visa place. I had asked my teacher where it was – and he wrote down the address and said to catch a taxi, it would be too hard to find. Stubborn as I am (and determined not to hand over the $2.50 for the taxi :)), I pulled out my map and walked. Took me 5 minutes, and it was sign posted all the way. I think Chinese teachers, just like their Australian counterparts, think that blondes can’t be trusted with maps… After a bit of shopping, our little group (Kylie, Paulina, Johnny and me) headed off to the Pearl Tower, where we spent the rest of the day. The Oriental Pearl TV Tower is a huge tower that can be seen all parts of the city (including from our bedroom window), provided the day is clear. From the top, you can see all of Shanghai and surroundings (once again, provided the day is clear, which is unusual). We managed to pick a fantastic day, and spent a great deal of time at the top, taking photos and just looking and looking and looking.

Oriental Pearl TV Tower

Oriental Pearl TV Tower

Classes are steadily getting harder, although I’m beginning to understand more. I’ve been feeling as though I’ve been picked on more by the teachers than anyone else – one of my classmates confirmed it yesterday. No idea why – there are heaps of people in my class the are basically fluent, but my name is easy to remember, and I’m sitting in easy view of the teachers. It means I have to always be paying attention, and am continually corrected, but at least I’m going to get the most out of this. It certainly is dispiriting when there are near-native speakers in the class (I’m only doing beginners Chinese, but some of the students have Chinese parents, and have been speaking Chinese in the home since they were kids), but everyone is struggling with writing the characters, so I guess it all evens out (I have some advantage in this area because of my Japanese studies).

Which reminds me – I have now successfully completed level 12 Japanese at Monash – woohoo! And with that note, I’m off…

xoxo Bobbi