Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Monkeys, Castles and early starts

I began writing this at 5am as I waited for the first subway to run on my way to the world’s biggest fish market, where tuna is sold whole for astronomical figures (think 5k plus). The streets are all empty and the metro has only now started to fill up. 

This on which is my last full day, is hopefully my earliest start. I’ve seen 4am before on my trip, but not from this side of sleep. Not that I ‘slept’ particularly well. My dreams are playing havoc with my perception (keep dreaming I'm at home, which is not particularly pleasant.) I don’t even think I probably nodded off until 2am. Giving me 2 hours of sleep, even though I went to bed at 11.

However, as its best to do things chronologically... says who? Here we go - Reeeeeeeeeeeeewind.

Ito as foretold last time, led to Nagano-Ken. My base for this area would be Nagano itself, home of the winter Olympics 1998. A few monuments/signs still hint at this and is Naganos main claim to faim. On my first day, the weather was still lovely and I went walking around Nagano. The main attraction is a temple called Zenko-Ji. As I arrived just before closing time it was quite quiet, this gave a nice feel, a more temple esque feel actually. The other thing to note about temples in Japan is that they are all very spacious, and have lots of greenery surrounding in the gardens.

Sights of Nagano itself done for the day, I had dinner, I think this was either noodle soup or pre-made sashimi due to being in ultra-cheap mode. These quick/easy/cheap dinners are actually pretty tasty.
The second day of Nagano involved taking a bus up towards the hills for a walk to Yudanaka to visit the ‘snow monkeys’ (Please note there was no snow at the moment). Despite the lack of snow, there were plenty of monkeys. Unlike the monkeys in China, these ones were pretty docile and indifferent to the presence of the humans. This is probably in a large part to the banning of feeding them. Before venturing to visit the monkeys I had a bath in the local hut. After all this I had some local style ‘soba’ Noodles. I thought these were dull and bland (They are however gluten free for all you food allergy people).

Third day was Matsumoto castle day, the temperature rocked up to 30 degrees. Matsumoto is a city southwest of Nagano and home to an original wooden style castle. This was one of my favourite castles/sights, it overlooked mountains, of which snow could still be visible. You could go inside the castle and visit the top.
In the evening of this day we had a Sake party, all of which came from Fukushima, in a sort of solidarity movement. We also had various snacks, including but not only Grasshoppers, Sea Urchin and Jellyfish – not all tasty.

Day four it rained, so I did nothing. Day five I went to Kamakura. Not a lot happened in Kamukura, I walked about 16km, saw another big Buddha (this makes four at least) and some more temples as per the usual. The real highlight of kamukura was the guesthouse. Another traditional style with all the walls being removal doors. We had family cooked dinners of bbq fish and Takoyaki (a sort of octopus dumpling) both were excellent and the atmosphere perfect.

Time for Tokyo, I almost feel as if Tokyo should be its whole own post, so why not? Coming tomorrow I reckon, when you’ll hear about Ninja’s, spaghetti metros, maid & cat cafes and a whole host of other weirdness.
As always more pictures on the picasa, and even more tomorrow. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The sun may rise in the east....

I have now been in Japan for a few weeks. First impressions were, in contrast to China, Clean, modern, efficient and expensive. Exactly what I was expecting. Its harder to go 'native' than in China because western comforts far from being a rarity (as in China) are more common. Before I delve into what I have been doing, I shall point out some Japanese quirks...

1. Food, Although relatively normal they have some right proper odd foods, ie whole strawberries with cream in bread. This is just bizarre...

They also eat poisonous fish, raw horse etc. I will go into this in more detail at the relevant time.
They do have eating sorted, whether you are in a group or alone. Alone you sit at the bar/cooking area and watch them. This is great for loners like me, no longer do I feel a social outcast at meal times.

2. Fashion - (as expected) people here dress quite ridiculously from time to time. People my age often dress like 8 year olds, in princess costumes etc or just odd clothes. There are plenty of people who dress normally too, but when its weird its extreme.

3. Toilets - Almost the same except for all the fun gadgetry on the side. The seats are often heated, has a French style bidet squirter that can be adjusted for strength of water splash and temperature.

4. Automatic doors - More a pet peeve than a quirk. The automatic slidy doors open too slowly. They don't start opening until you are inches from the door. I've had some close instances where I almost walked in to the door.

5. Umberellas - Whether its raining or sunny you will see about a 1000 umberellas.

6. Shoes - Shoes come off almost everytime you enter a building, from the Temples to Restaurants and Hostels/Hotels.

7. Lastly, Onsen/Sento (baths) These are dotted around everywhere. Due to Japans volcanicity plenty of rich mineral water seaps out of the ground, where a bath house will spring up. Unlike a swimming pool in England, you enter naked and most baths are segregated, although some communal ones do exist.

(They also drive on the correct side of the road [left] and obey traffic laws, oh my days)
If I think of anymore I'll add them when I need to.

Onwards to travel times. After leaving Korea, I got my boat and slept on the floor overnight. Ariving in Shimonoseki I saw all it had to offer, it was nice but boring. I saw some clowns, the aquarium and climbed a hill to see it and Kyushu Island.
I also went to the fish market, which was fun seeing all the fresh food being made into Sashimi. Shimonoseki is also famous for its 'Fugu' Puffer fish to you and me. It is the poisonous kind that if prepared wrong, you die. You will most likely know of this fish from the Simpsons episode where Homer eats it and thinks he is going to die. I of course ate it too. It was nice... and I have lived to tell the tale.

Next stop on the tour was Hiroshima. I don't think I need to point out quite why Hiroshima is most famous. I visited peace park and the A-bomb history museum. I was impressed by the unbiased portrayal of the events leading up to the A-bomb, as a historian who has studied this I felt it was quite a balanced report and gave both sides. The Museum itself housed roof tiles, pieces of clothing and other artefacts from the aftermath of the blast, including pictures and written records. It was quite a harrowing experience seeing the damage and suffering caused. Hiroshima itself as can be expected for a city rebuilt is quite modern and clean. Despite the sadness of the museum I liked Hiroshima. I also ate the 'speciality'* food here which is called Okonomiyaki, a sort of sandwich dish made up of a pancake on one side and a omelette on the other with noodles/seafood inbetween.

* I say Speciality food here because many places also claim Okonomiyaki as a speciality. (There is a photo on picasa)

Continuing the whistle stop tour, I moved on to Osaka. Osaka has been my favourite place so far in Japan. Bigger than Hiroshima, it has a sense of excitement/fun that Hiroshima lacked. In fact I liked Osaka so much I went back after Kyoto. Its more bright than Hiroshima, with neon everywhere. The station is huge, comprises about 3 massive department stores and an underground maze of shops and restaurants. It is topped in ridiculousness only by Kyoto's architectually interesting station (more on this later)
In aspects of sites to see, I saw Umeda Sky Building, The Castle, museum of housing, Ebisu Bridge and Amerika Kure. I also went to the aquarium, this hosts a massive tank depicting the pacific, it houses a Whale Shark and a giant Manta.

Amerika Kure and Ebisu Bridge are two spots where the cool kids hang out. Amerika Kure so named because it replicates american culture; musically and fashion wise. Ebisu bridge is smack bang in the middle of Dotombori, the 'nightlife' area and a massively long arcaded shopping street. I just stood in these areas for a few hours watching people, silly fashions and restaurant staff trying to entice customers while I waited for the sun to go down and the neon lights to take full effect.

Kyoto is next. This the old imperial city for quite a long time. It is host to mostly Temples, Shrines and Palaces. It also rained heavily. I saw some temples on the first full day but gave up halfway through as I was soaked to the bone.

(this shows rain pouring off the top of a temple)

The next day I got wet, saw the Imperial Palace gardens, Saw a market which was dull compared to others I have seen. I gave up for lunch, had a hot Caramel Chocolate at starbucks and thankfully the rain stopped. This allowed me to complete the 5km walking trek of Temples/Shrines in the eastern part of Kyoto. (I skipped a few cause once you've seen one temple you've seen them all)

I have forgotten to add that on this second day, I also explored Kyoto's train station. This is another grand looking building surrounded by shops and restaurants. It is 11 stories high, has a skywalk running above the concourse and has steps leading all the way to the top floor.

After Kyoto as noted, I went back to Osaka. From Osaka I made a day trip to visit Nara, specifically to see the largest wooden building in the world. (2/3rds the size of the original!) Here I am in front of it...

There were lots of deer around, who were amazingly tame and friendly despite the warning signs depicting otherwise...

After Nara and a night out in Osaka it was time to venture to Kawaguchiko, at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Lucky with the weather (as with Everest) although cloudy it was clear to see my second iconic mountain of the trip.
On day two I cycled around the area, seeing Bat Cave, Lake Saiko and Lake Kawaguchi with views of Mt. Fuji.

Kawaguchiko's famed dish is raw horse, or 'Basashi', in my haste to try it, I forgot to take a picture. It was very tasty, not chewy in the slightest and distinct. The other famous dish is Hoto noodles, thick noodles like tagliatelle, but thicker and wider.

After Kawaguchi I headed to Ito, on the peninsula to relax for a few days. It is a spring town and my hostel itself is a traditional 100 year old building with a 'Onsen' in the basement. My room also smells of Salt 'n' Vinegar crisps oddly enough.

Thats all for now, Hope you enjoyed this mammoth post of Japan. Nagano, Kamakura and Tokyo still to do. Less than 2 weeks of asia left :(. More Photos on the Picassa/facebook pages.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Top Of The World

The title of my blog being Sauntering Vaguely Downwards, it hasn't made a lot of sense that most of my travel has been Northwards (up) and up mountains. But Now i've been to the top of the world (or as close as im ever going to get) everywhere is now officially 'downward'. Thus here we go, travels in Tibet.

To get to tibet one must first jump through some hurdles set by the goverment, this was made a bit difficult as I was not in Chengdu when I was fixing the permit. Scans and emails later all was achieved and I had acquired a permit (which we never showed to anyone at all) Actually the permit I have is only a photocopy, the real permit was never really shown to us. Anyway enough permit talk.

Much more exciting, Trains. The train ride takes 44 hours. We had beds in the standard sleeping area. There was also soft seats, now seats on chinese trains are often over crowded places, I can't imagine doing it for 44 hours. Unfortunately we had to cross these war zones to get to the restaurant car. This meant crossing and climbing over people sleeping on the floor in amongst the rubbish they had thrown there. The train was quite uneventful except for some out standing views of the Qinghai plateau at about 3000 metres looking out on to what appeared to be an endlessly flat desert. Watched the sunrise come up over a mountain here too.

On too Lhasa then. Lhasa is the capitail of Tibet resising at an altitude of about 3400 metres. It has a heavy military presence, have regular patrols and you are not allowed to photograph them. This was my first taste of proper oppression (other than the internet firewall). The Tibetans themselves were lovely and welcoming, always having time for us and a genuine smile. The shops sell similar sorta touristy knick knacks and prayer stuff for the pilgrims. Pilgrims, literally 1000s of these guys, Lhasa is the Buddhist version of Mecca, well for yellow hat sect buddhism anyway.

The pilgrims come to see Potala Palace and Johkang temple mainly, as with all holy sites in Tibet the pilgrims walk around these sites a number of times. 3-5 usually. Potala Palace is 5km around and so the trip takes over an hour. Potala Palace is the home of the exiled Dala Lama, the legitimate head of state, in my opinion it is grander than the palace of Versailles. The sky is amazingly blue in Tibet as this picture of the Palace highlights. The guy who built it had 3 wives! One Tibetan, 1 Chinese and one Nepalese (actually wikipedia says he had five)

We also got taken to some quieter temples off the beaten track by our guide, this was not scheduled and was different. It had a much more intimate feel as we viewing actual pilgrims rather than tourists. We wouldn't have known or have had the confidence if we'd been alone. Despite spying on them they still didn't mind us trundling around, infact I think they were pleased.
Lhasa over with (3 days or so, in which Clare I only went to one bar) it was time to hit the road. 8 hours and a temple later we arrived in Shigatse, Shigatse was like a usual chinese town in that it was massive and messy. The temple we saw here had monks debating, ones would stand up and ask questions while those who sat down answered. This was shown on Michael Palins himalayas so thats worth checking out if you can.

Shigatse began day number 2 of 8 hours travel. This time the end goal was EBC (Everest Base Camp) this involved 4 hours on a bumpy dirt track of road. We also passed through some high passes of over 5000metres. We were rewarded with some glimpses of Everest far away in the distance covered by cloud. Not good omens, however this fear was not to last as we got closer it cleared up and we could see it in the fading light. However the best views were still to come. I apologise now squeamish people but its relevant. I felt really ill this night, and around 3am I got up to go outside and inevitably lost the contents of my stomach. (Either altitude or stomach bug). This in itself allowed me to see Everest, lit by nothing except a full moon and the stars in a completely clear sky. This is probably the best view I had but no camera, which can be a blessing. Anyway the clear sky held and the next morning we could see it all clearly as we walked to Base Camp proper, where the real hikers hang out in tents. They were all asleep tho...

Time to leave Everest for the 8 hour return trip to Shigatse and then the extra 8 to Lhasa the following day. Next day flew back to Chengdu which was easy enough, bringing an end to almost 6 days of solid travelling. (I spent ten days in Tibet, 8 of which were travelling days) Chengdu was kinda dull, I like it and I like returning but I was knackered. I gave the hostel staff the Lhasa beer I'd promised and promptly slouched in the garden to recap on the world and relax. On the last day I watched a football match, they were diving and acting up all the time just like normal, Chengdu lost to a rather dubious penalty.

Qingdao was similar, I ate some lovely sea food, walked around on some military ships and went to the brewery. Much to my annoyance the Submarine wasn't open to the public at this time, so thats twice in Qingdao I have now failed to walk around the sub.a In Qingdao I had arrived at 1am, they hadn't a record of my booking, and it was full... sensing disaster they actually stuck me in a double ensuite room for the same price as before, Travelling just like monoply ' Hostel error in your favour, advance direcetly to go' Qingdao's hostel also had lovely big fluffy white dog, and a rooftop bar overlooking the whole city. It was a pretty cool hostel, based in an old observatory.
The boat to Korea was entertaining, I met the only other westerner on it and we played some cards, talked about England, China and common stuff like that.

In Korea on the first day I did some cultural things, Joyghese temple which had lovely lanterns everywhere, Chungyok tower, a palace  a bell tower. Since then I have been socialising with the English teachers out here who have been very accomodating. Clar, this is where I pub crawled again - Goose to Underground to Whos, Back to Underground and then back to whos! Ha. Today I went to a play put on by expats about Vegas.

This brings us to here, tomorrow I may leave for Busan/Japan or I may spend it planning Japan a bit. It depends how I feel.
I may have left some things out, or not but ask away and i'll reply.

oh and heres some Scorpions, bugs and worms I ate :)