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!!)

Pirates in Hakone

Asia ~ Japan ~ Hakone, Yunesan, Kawaguchiko, Kamikochi, Matsumoto

Nope, I haven’t been taking mind altering drugs – there really are pirates in Japan…

I left the pleasant tiny island of Hachijo Jima last week, and flew into the crazy city of Tokyo.  At the airport, I discovered that although the monorail-train-train-bus route to my next destination would be cheaper, there was a direct bus that was a little more expensive.  The bus meant I didn’t have to go into the heart of Tokyo – whoopee!

For 3 days I became one of the millions of tourists that travel to Hakone every year.  Due to the season (first weekend of summer school hols), getting accommodation proved to be difficult, so I ended up at a different hostel/hotel each night.  Hakone has an interesting “free pass” that allows you to catch the local transport for three days.  Local transport in Hakone means bus, [toy] train, cable car, ropeway and pirate ship!  The whole route is a little touristy, but fun none-the-less.  One of the must stops is a sulfur volcano.  At the top of the mountain (which you reach by ropeway), you can have a “black egg” – an egg that has been boiled over the sulfur spots.  Although a little off putting to look at, they were quite delicious (and are said to improve your life span…)

Eating Black Eggs

Eating Black Eggs

My final day in Hakone was spent at at a very traditional…  Water theme park.  Silly me, first weekend of the summer school holidays (and a long weekend to boot), but hey, if you’re there, you’re there.  Yunesan is a water theme park literally minutes from where I was staying (with a free shuttle!), so it made sense to go.  Lines were crazy to get in, but once in there was plenty to do.  The park has a great system, where you’re given an electronic wristband, which serves as your locker key, and your virtual ‘purse’ – you can use it all day to pay for drinks from vending machines, food from restaurants, even for photos from your favourite amusements.  Highlights of the day included the red wine bath, the green tea bath, the coffee bath and the fish bath.  “The what?!”, I hear you say…  One of the attractions of Yunesan was the foot pool, where you put your feet into a pool of small ‘sucker fish’, the fish nibble on your feet, supposedly eating all the dead skin and making your feet healthier.  Felt kinda funny, a little harder than ‘tickle-ish’, but not painful by any means (not that you’d think that, based on the amount of screaming from the Japanese girls).  Sorry, no photos of the fish bath – I have one that was ‘professionally taken’, but will have to wait till I have access to a scanner to see it!

Red Wine Bath

Red Wine Bath

Next stop was Kawaguchiko, the base of Mount Fuji.  I ummed and ahhed for several months whether or not I would climb Mount Fuji on this trip, and decided… no – I would not climb Japan’s famous mountain.  Being in Kawaguchiko, surrounded by professional climbers and hobbyists alike has made my decision waver a little, but the state of my feet (they’ve blistered up really bad from the new shoes, am having trouble walking from the kitchen to my bedroom, let alone up a mountain) has pretty much made it impossible to contemplate the climb.  It is on the list however, I will do it one day!  I have been listening keenly to everyone’s opinions though, so I know what to do next time…  The temperature at the top is about 20 degrees below the low here – so today was a low of 20 degrees here, meaning it was a chilly 0 degrees up on the mountain – in the middle of summer.  So preparation is a must!  Other than sitting around the hostel listening to climbers stories, in Kawaguchiko I went out in search of pictures of Mount Fuji, and didn’t do too bad…

Mt Fuji

Mt Fuji

Another day, another place.  On Thursday I spent the day on trains and buses, to get to my intended destination, Kamikochi.  Coined “the entrance to the Japanese Alps”, Kamikochi is an absolutely gorgeous area, surrounded by snow covered mountains, a true mountain climbers destination.  Alas, as many of you know, I am not a mountain climber.  I am, however, a lover of onsens.  And Kamikochi has one of the best onsens I’ve ever been to, bokuden no yu.  Just before the bus reaches Kamikochi, there is a fork in the road, with a small corner store.  Inside that corner store, if you ask nicely, (and pay the right amount!), the owner will give you a key.  Take that key over the bridge and to the little door that sits beside the flowing river.  Inside, you’ll find onsen heaven – a small private onsen built into a cave overlooking the river.  Amazing.

Bokuden no yu

Bokuden no yu

How many stories start with “I walked into a pub”, and finish with “and then we were standing on the tables, singing in German…”?!  Well, this one does!  My last couple of days in the area have been spent in Matsumoto, a small city a fair distance away from Tokyo.  It is much hotter here compared to the mountainous areas that I’ve recently been.  With that in mind, yesterday, needing a respite from the heat, I headed into one of the many bars in town, and old Irish style bar.  After my pint, I sat at the bar talking to the staff, who told me that Oktoberfest was on, just by the castle!  So out I stumbled, to find a full tent city, complete with German flags and kegs.  Grabbed a spot at a table – ended up sitting next an English guy who’s been here for 4 odd years (a good amount of that time has been spent at Oktoberfest, I dare say!) and his two Japanese friends.  The night was spent singing along, downing our beers and chomping on bagels and edamame (Japanese beans).

Matsumoto Oktoberfest!

Matsumoto Oktoberfest!

Now time to head off, I’m going North, to Hokkaido, where the weather should be a little cooler (was 33 degrees at 10am this morning!).  Take care xoxo

Nimotsu-less in Tokyo

Asia ~ Japan ~ Osaka & Tokyo

And once again I’ve made it back to Japan.  Although not without a few tiny weeny little incidents.  These last couple of months have been so hectic that planning for this trip was left to the very last minute – literally.  I finalised accommodation details for my first couple of nights only 1 night before I left!  Problems for the trip began when, two days before my flight, I received a phone call from Jetstar.  “Eeek”, I though, “at least I have travel insurance”…  Turns out they had canceled my first part of my flight – the Melbourne to Sydney section – and so had booked me on an earlier flight.  As I’m not known for my awareness early morning, I begged them to put me on a later flight, which they agreed to.  Little did I know…

Wednesday morning saw dad and I at Tullamarine Airport awaiting my (first) flight.  When they began announcing that there were technical faults, I knew straight away I was to miss my connecting flight in Sydney to Japan.  Several hours later I finally got on a (new) plane, getting into Sydney waaay too late for my connection.  Qantas (it was a Qantas domestic flight) put me up at an airport hotel, which was fine by me, meant I got another nights sleep…  Bags hadn’t arrived yet, as they didn’t want to delay our flight any longer (so they said), they would come in on the 2pm flight we were told.  So we toddled off to the airport hotel with just our carry on bags.

Needless to say, the bags didn’t arrive that night.  When I went to check in the next day, my bags still hadn’t arrived, so I checked in, then went to the Qantas counter to beg for some vouchers to get essentials.  The guy at the counter asked if I’d checked the ‘baggage room’ – not one person had mentioned this in the numerous times I was on the phone the night before.  So off I went to the ‘baggage room’, where you have to knock on a blank wall three times, wait three minutes and knock two more times to be allowed entrance…  Wasn’t expecting to find anything – after all, I had been chasing the bag for nearly 24 hours, and assumed it hadn’t left Melbourne yet – however, sitting right on top was my familiar backpack.  “It’s mine!” I shouted with joy to the staff.  As I had already checked in, they promised to get it on my flight for me.

On the way to the boarding gate, I grabbed some deoderant and earplugs, because I had forgotten to grab some out of my backpack.  Although I had spent half the night thinking about what clothing I would buy at the airport, I bought none, as my bag had been found, or so I thought.  How wrong I was.  Flight was uneventful, I had 3 seats to myself, so I got a decent rest.  Arrival in Japan bought an unpleasant surprise – my backpack wasn’t on the flight.  About then is when I went into panick mode.  No change of underwear?   No pajamas?  I’m in Japan, where the average size is toothpick.  Eeek!

Much of the next couple of days were spent attempting to find clothing – although I did ok with some tops (surprisingly!) underwear and skirts eluded me.  In any case, I was sure that my bag was going to arrive “tomorrow”, and didn’t want to over-buy, just in case.  In Australia, mum was spending almost every waking moment attempting to locate my bags, screaming her head off at incompetent Qantas staff.  Amongst trying to find clothing, I have also spent a good amount of time trying to buy a mobile phone in Tokyo, a near impossible task.

Crazy Shibuya at night

Crazy Shibuya at night

Never fear, my luggage did arrive, but not without dramas.  On my fourth day in Japan, I headed off to Hachijo jima, a hippy island an hour south of Tokyo.  After being assured by Qantas staff in Australia that my bag would be at Haneda airport, I spent an hour and a half trying to communicate with staff there, only to find the bag hadnt even left Australia yet.  But I was over it, I was heading to a tropical island…


Eating gyoza in Japan

Asia ~ Japan ~ Tokyo, Kobe & Kurume

Well, it’s official, my most favourite-ist place outside of my home country is Japan. I don’t know why I haven’t been back here since I first came in 2000, I’ll definetly be visiting more in the future. My Japanese is pretty rusty, I haven’t really practiced or studied it for about a year, but it’s coming back to me in droves. The customs guy at the airport pulled me up, saying ‘Hello, could you please open your bag’, to which I replied ‘Konnichi wa’. We then chatted in Japanese about the weather, where I learnt Japanese and where he thought I should go in Tokyo. He then let me pass, bag unchecked!

Tokyo was my first stop, as I had never been there. I stayed in a fantastic little hostel right in the heart of Tokyo. They say Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world, but I don’t agree (Dublin wins the award for that, in my opinion). The hostel I stayed at cost just 2000 yen per night – about half what I was paying in London. I also spent one night in a capsule hotel – something I just had to experience. Because trains finish up early, many Japanese business men (and women) miss that last train, rather than catch a taxi home (can be extremely expensive, particularily in Tokyo), they created the capsule hotel. In the room where I was, there was a long wall full of ‘capsules’ – tiny rooms, about 1 meter high and a bit over 2 meters long. In each capsule, there was a bed, tv, radio, light and tiny holes in the wall for a book and so forth. On another level, there was a [women only] traditional Japanese bath room. It really was suited to a person who misses the last train – they give you a towel, facewasher and pajamas. In the bath there was shampoo, conditioner, toothbrushes, everything for free. Lots of fun, very Japanese.

Tokyo Capsule hotel

Tokyo Capsule hotel

I met up with one of my host sisters, Sawako, whilst in Tokyo, which was great. Sawako is on her last year of studying acupuncture, and she showed me around the city, helping me with the subway (a big blessing – the Tokyo subway consists of a heap of different lines, the map looks like a ‘messy plate of colourful spagetti’). We visited Asakusa Jinja – a huge shrine around the corner from where I’m staying and watched all the school kids running about. October is the official month when school trips take place and so everywhere we went in Tokyo had middle school kids racing about, taking photos. The next day I visited Akiharaba – electrical town. I had so much fun that I spent 3 hours in a single store. Just playing and looking and playing. Electronic dictionaries, digital cameras, mp3 players, rice cookers, even eletronic toilets! During my time in Tokyo, I also visited Ueno Park (and spent a couple of hours playing with a kitten and her ‘mum’ – a 3 year old Japanese kid), Ginza (very happening, busy area, full of ‘modern’ tokyoites – and the occasional kimono clad woman) and Harajuku (home of the Japanese ‘alterative’ lifestyle)

Next stop was Kobe, where I visited another of my host sisters. Asako came out to Australia in 2001 and spent 6 months living with us. It was great to see Asako and meet her family. Asako took me to see Kobe, where we spent most of our time wandering around, shopping and seeing the sights. The highlight of the visit was definetly the time spent around the dinner table – listening and talking with her family, watching her grandfather do magic tricks and listening to the concert they put on for me (Asako’s sister played the keyboard, Aunt played the piano, Cousin played the flute and Asako worked wonders with the xylophone). It was hard leaving, but I’ll be back!

Eating Okonomiyaki with Asako's family

Eating Okonomiyaki with Asako's family

The final stop on my trip around the world – Fukuoka – was fantastic. Kurume, a small-ish (about the population of Melbourne) city on Kyushu is where I lived when I was an exchange student, way back in 2000. Seeing all my host families again was fantastic, as was visiting all the places where I used to hang out. My host families took me all over the place, it really was weird seeing all the places from 5 years ago. So much has changed, but so much is the same. Also went to my old high school and saw my old home room teacher, as well as a few others. Managed to find my way to town and ride around where I used to, all on my own, which I thought was a pretty decent effort. Visiting my host families and catching up with them has been great, I wonder if Japan is where I should be, after all? Only the future will tell…

Me with 3 host families, at the local Chinese Family Restaurant

Me with 3 host families, at the local Chinese Family Restaurant

Of course, I’ve been enjoying the Japanese food too. Gyoza – Japanised Chinese dumplings – is probably my favourite, but sushi, gyuudon, yaskisoba and takoyaki are up there too. The food is reasonably cheap too, about $5 or $6 for a sit down meal, as long as you know where to go. I love being able to order food and know exactly what it is you’re eating. That said, it doesn’t always work out that way – the other day I wandered into a resturant, looked over the menu and realised I only understood one thing – yakisoba. That was fine, I thought, I love yakisoba. But when I ordered it, I was told it wasn’t available. Glancing over the menu again, I decided not to risk it and point, but rather to ask the waiter for his suggestion. He raced away and came back with a delicious dish, but I’m still not sure what I ate!

Well kiddies, I’m now ready to go back to Tokyo for a few more days, then I head for home. What a fantastic year, I’ll miss the traveling, but am quite looking forward to having my own bedroom, a bathroom where I can leave my shampoo and a kitchen where I can store stuff… And of course my family, friends and pets!

xoxo Bobbi!!!