Holiday Bragging: Ask me anything!

Hi everyone!

I’ve finished my posts about my amazing holiday through Asia, so I’m going to stop annoying you by continuing bringing it up ūüėõ

But seriously, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it, and it’s inspired you to check out a few places I’ve mentioned, or I’ve helped you plan a holiday in some way. This final post is basically for you to ask me anything you want about the places I visited, how I got there, or even how I survived spending 24/7 around two of my favourite people in the world (which trust me, will do your head in no matter how much you love them). If you want to know what I thought about the air companies we used, or how we managed with the language barrier, than this is the place to ask. I hope I can help with any questions ūüôā This will remain a live post, so if you’re planning a holiday further down the track, you can always come back here (and I’ll hopefully still remember!).

And since no holiday post would be incomplete without photos, here’s some of the funny signs, sights, Engrish we saw whilst away (if you need to click on a photo to read it better, it’ll be worth it!).

-S

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Geek & Eat: Japan

Here’s the last of my Geek & Eat posts. Hold onto your seats, because Japan is going to be a¬†loooong one…

GEEK!

OTAKU

Alright, let’s get straight into it. You like anime? You think Japan has anime in every nook and cranny of the country? Trust me, you’re not far off. You can buy anime merchandise¬†pretty much everywhere. This is especially the case for really popular titles; One Piece and Attack on Titan are the two I saw everywhere when I was there. When you visit well-known landmarks, such as Osaka Castle or the Tokyo Sky Tree (amongst others), you’ll usually find an anime character hugging or posing with the landmark in the souvenir store. Usually it’s a key-chain or something else small, and only the most popular characters are used (you’ll find Luffy and Chopper everywhere). Other cheaper (and sometimes tacky) anime-related products you can find are gachapon! These are basically vending machine-dispensed capsule toys. There’s lots of different types (not all are anime-related; you can find some pretty hilarious ones!) and you’re basically gambling on what you figure/variation you’ll get for each line of toys. WARNING: They are very, very addictive. You’ll tell yourself you’ll just want one or two, and before you know it, you’re actively seeking them out. You find them¬†in gaming centres mostly, but they’re pretty much everywhere.¬†There’s also plenty of anime-related products in department stores (but they’re so much more!) such as Loft or Tokyu Hands, as well as toy shops and souvenir shops. Don’t be afraid to go a little crazy!

If we’re talking anime heaven, then, naturally, we are talking Tokyo. Akihabara is probably on your list if you’re into anime. Selling everything from figurines to manga to body pillows, there’s bound to be some sort of merchandise you’ll want to pick up. A couple of things to keep in mind when visiting; Akihabara is very, very big. And there are a lot of places you’ll probably want to check out. We’re talking multi-level gaming centres and stores, maid cafes, and other themed cafes.¬†Basically what I’m saying is: have a plan. Of course you’ll want to explore at your own pace, but if there are certain places that you really want to check out, you’ll need to have the self-discipline to drag yourself out of a store and continue on your way. Alternatively, plan to have multiple days here! Another good Tokyo location is the area around Ueno Station. There you’ll find Yamashiroya, a cool toy store, but there are plenty of other similar stores in the area. Finally, there’s the Ghibli Museum for all you Miyazaki Hayao¬†fans out there. There are a couple of exhibitions inside the museum, but sadly, not all of the text is translated to English. However, just the joy of visiting the museum is enough reason to go! They’ve really thought through the building a lot, and nothing feels untouched or ordinary. If you’re ready to be swept up in the magic of Ghibli, then you should be buying your ticket already! Note that the ticket process is a little complicated, but you can find lots on useful information on their website.

 

Now otaku isn’t¬†all anime, so I’m going to take a moment for two other things that are well loved about Japan; kimono and youth fashion. There are several places where you can rent out kimono in Japan, but by far, Kyoto is the most popular place for tourists to do it. This was particularly the case in the Higashiyama district, where there there are a lot of stores to rent (and buy) them. Don’t be afraid to have a look around; some places include doing hair and/or makeup, some charge extra for shoes or bags, some have time limits on how long you can take the kimono. We spent somewhere in the region of ¬•8 800 ($110 AUD, $85 USD), so it’s not cheap, but also not horrifying expensive. Now, for those of you who don’t know, I’m full-blooded Caucasian. I was a little nervous about wearing a kimono, and a little cautious as to how Japanese people would react. Throughout the duration of the day I wore one, I got maybe two unpleasant side-glances. However, the overwhelming excited and encouraging responses I received from people more than outweighed the two nasties. There were older ladies waving excitedly at us when we walked by, and a massive group of middle-aged ladies (who had just left a temple) telling me in broken English (and my understanding of maybe three Japanese adjectives) that I looked pretty. If that doesn’t convince anyone who’s worried about offending others, then I don’t know what will! And boys, don’t think that this is just a girly thing to do, because there were plenty of places that rented male kimono out as well. One of the people travelling with me was a Caucasian male, and he also received a lot of positive responses when wearing one (one group of girls asked for a photo with him). The whole experience of picking out the clothing and decorations, getting dressed, and then feeling stunning the whole day is definitely worth it! As for Japan’s fashion, Harajuku in Tokyo is the place to go (although undoubtedly there’ll be similar youth hot-spots in other cities). You’ll see lots of street fashion and lots of shops so there’s plenty to see and explore! The best day to visit Harajuku is on a Sunday, so make sure you’re in Tokyo on that day!

 

ASIAN POP CULTURE

Everyone probably already knows about Japan’s massive pop and rock scene, and drama and movie scene (and if you don’t, you’re missing out!). Obviously, you’ll be able to easily get your hands on CDs, series, and the like, once you’re in Japan. I’ve heard that merchandise can be a little bit harder to obtain, but you can be guaranteed to find some in youth areas such as Harajuku in Tokyo or in Akihabara. If you’re a fan of the girl-group(s that comprise)¬†AKB48, you can also visit their cafe in Akihabara and watch one of their performances!

If you didn’t already know, K-Pop is a big thing in Japan. There are certain groups that are more popular there than others (Big Bang rules over all, as usual), but if you are really seeking out something K-Pop related whilst in Japan, you will probably find it. For example, Tokyo’s Korea Town has merchandise, music, and dramas (I didn’t actually visit, having just come from South Korea). In other places, you can find some unusual K-Pop merchandise (of sorts). We often saw Big Bang’s teddy bears in gaming buildings, and I even found and EXO gachapon! With some K-Pop groups touring Japan fairly regularly, keep on the look out for shows you might to go to! We used Japan Concert Tickets to buy our tickets, since we didn’t have a Japanese address and couldn’t read the websites. The website was reasonably priced, the person I was emailing was very helpful, and it’s all very legal and trustworthy. The actual concert was amazing, the crowd was really energetic and excited (although hardly anyone clapped, which completely threw us off after the first song!), and there was a merchandise stall at the concert. Despite not being able to speak Korean or Japanese, we still enjoyed ourselves, so that gives you an idea how great it is!

HISTORY BUFF

If you’re visiting Osaka, you should definitely squeeze in a visit to Osaka Castle. The castle played an important role in Japan’s unification in the 1500s, but was mostly-destroyed during the Meiji Period. The main keep you see today is a restoration of the 1928 restoration of the castle. It’s not unusual for buildings in Japan (and other parts of Asia) to be rebuilt over time due to damage from war, civil unrest, fire, or earthquakes (most buildings are, after all, made of wood), so don’t let the more recent build put you off! After exploring the pretty grounds, you get in the elevator up to the top floor and then work your way down. The interior of the castle is actually a museum, focusing on the castle’s history and the life and achievements of Hideyoshi Toyotomi (certainly a very interesting character!). Beautifully kept and informative, it’s worth the visit!

Kyoto, considered the “thousand-year capital”, is just bursting with attractions for those of you seeking out history.¬†There are countless temples and shrines to visit in the city, so I’m not even going to try and mention all of them. Instead, I’m going to talk about the Higashiyama districts; one of the city’s best preserved historical¬†areas. Narrow lanes, wooden buildings, and lots of traditional merchant shops, it’s got the atmosphere you’re craving. It’s also a popular spot to rent kimono, which only adds to the feeling! Major attractions in this area include the Yasaka Shrine, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Tofuku-ji Temple, Kennin-ji Temple, and Kodai-ji Temple, amongst many others. There’s plenty of other attractions too; I visited the Entokuin Gardens and Temple and¬†the site of the Goryo Eji Tonsho. The area’s very compact, so with good planning, you can see a lot in a day!

There were two places we did as a day trip from Kyoto that may interest you history buffs out there. The first was to Nara Park. Apart from some very intense deer, the park has a lot of religious buildings including Todai-ji Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple, and the Kasuga Grand Shrine. There’s also other smaller temples and historical buildings and gardens… that’s a lot in a small space! The other day trip was to Himeji Castle. This castle is considered one of the best examples of surviving Japanese castle architecture. The castle has an incredible perch on top of a hill overlooking Himeji, and the grounds of the castle, with a large parade square, are equally impressive. The inside of the main keep is relatively empty, with signs drawing your attention to the main architectural features of each floor. Elsewhere, there is plenty of information about the castle’s long history. Be sure to also explore the West Bailey Palace, a more recent (1618!) addition to the castle!

Finally, Tokyo. Now Tokyo has its Edo-Tokyo Museum (amongst many other museums) and Imperial Palace, but unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to visit them. ¬†We did, however, visit Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple. It’s been rebuilt several times, but the location itself is obviously an important spiritual place for the city. The Asakusa Shrine is also adjacent to the temple. Leading to the temple is Nakamise, a line of various shops that features traditional crafts as well as more modern souvenirs. There are many interesting attractions in the area, including Hanayashiki, which claims to be Japan’s oldest amusement park. We didn’t get to visit here, but I plan to next time! Tokyo is also a good location for day trips, and heading up to Nikko is a great option for history-lovers! Toshogu Shrine, with its beautifully decorated carvings, is breathtaking… and I’m saying this without seeing the main Yomeimon Gate (under restoration)! There’s plenty of other things to see in the area, make sure you grab a map from the train station and plan out your day!

EAT!

Just like I’ve said about every other country in these posts,¬†Japan is the place for food!¬†If you’ve had Japanese food before, then you probably have dishes you want to try already. The most popular dishes (e.g. sushi, tempura, tonkatsu, etc.) you can find easily, and noodle restaurants commonly specialise in one type (udon and ramen are the most common). Make a list of what you want to try, and cross it off as you go! Another thing to note is that different areas in Japan have different specialities. We tried the houtou noodles in Fuji when we were there, and they were delicious! If you’re travelling around while in Japan, be sure to do a little research to find what you should be trying where! A little less luxurious, but still an interesting experience in itself, is the food from convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, Lawson, or FamilyMart. Apart from the snackage (definitely check out the ice-creams!), there’s also light meals available; bento boxes, onigiri, various types of breads, and many, many others. The quality is better than what you’ll find in western countries, and it’s cheap! I particularly loved the onigiri with karaage chicken! You’ll also find drink vending machines¬†everywhere in Japan. Offering warm and cold drinks, and ranging from various teas, energy drinks, soft drinks, and milky drinks, they’re an incredibly convenient and fun way to try some of Japan’s popular drinks! Finally, if you happen to be visiting a temple or shrine during a festival, be sure to keep an eye out on the food stalls. Apart from popular regulars like takoyaki, yaki soba, and dango, you’ll find lots of other interesting food! A lot of the times, you’ll play some sort of game or draw a coloured stick to determine something about the food you’ll get, such as the number of eggs, toppings, or the number of treats you’ll get. A very interesting test of luck!

A couple of other “everywhere” places that are worth trying are some of the chain restaurants. If, like me, you’re from a country like Australia where there aren’t many big American chain restaurants, Japan is a country where you can enjoy them. We’re talking Denny’s, Starbucks, etc. It may just be ‘anytime’ food for others, but it was exciting for me! Japan, of course, has its own chain restaurants. We tried out a couple and found them really delicious. For some good quality Japanese curry, Coco’s Curry House is a good choice. You can customise your meal easily, including size and spiciness, and, considering I don’t particularly like Japanese curry but I enjoyed eating here, you can rest assured that it’s delicious! If you’re craving something more western-styled, Mos Burger is a chain restaurant. Their burgers are quite tasty, and served with chips and a drink if you buy in a meal. It’s very delicious, and a competitive alternative to McDonalds! Finally, Yoshinoya is a chain restaurant that specialises in gyuodon. This is essentially bowls of rice or noodles topped with beef (although lots of variations). The restaurants are usually quite small, and you get in and out fairly quickly. The bowls are cheap and pretty tasty!

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Spice guide in Coco’s Curry House

Finally, on to more specific locations and restaurants. I found that the teppanyaki in the Kansai (Osaka and Kyoto, amongst others) area was the most delicious. In Namba and Shinsekai in Osaka, there is a high concentration of teppanyaki restaurants, so if you’re in the area, check them out! You’ll find similar things on each menu, but usually there’s variations in ingredients for things such as okonomiyaki and yaki soba. Eat at restaurants that seem the busiest! In Kyoto, there are two very specific noodle restaurants that we went to that were amazing! Both are located on the main north-south road in Higashiyama (I believe it’s called Higashi Oji Dori). The udon place Mimikuo (small white building, very close to the Yaska Shrine complex) served some incredibly delicious noodles! If you’re a fan of udon, or you want to try a Kyoto-style dish, this is the place to go! The staff spoke very good English and you’re given bibs to wear while eating! The other noodle place Abura Soba Nekomata specialises in “oil noodles” (better described as soup-less noodles). This place is further up the road from Mimikuo, but well worth the walk. Follow the restaurant’s suggestion to add an onsen tomago (slow-cooked egg) to the dish, follow their instructions in the menu on how to eat, and enjoy! I loved the noodles so much, I ate here twice, and still dream of the food! Moving on to Tokyo, where there’s a lot to eat. However, I’m just going to talk about one thing; crepes in Harajuku. They’re a very big thing, and you’ll get overwhelmed both by the number of stalls selling them, and the number of options! As with anything else, follow the crowd to the popular places, even if it means waiting in queues. You won’t be disappointed!

Well that’s it for my Geek & Eat posts. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them! Have you been to Japan? If so, how were your experiences there? Did you find a cool anime figurine you’ve been dying for, or visit a really interesting, historical place? Or did you have one of the best meals of your life? I’d love to know!

-S

Holiday Bragging: Japan (Part 3/3)

At the end of my last holiday bragging post, we left behind the beautiful scenery of Lake Kawaguchiko and Mt. Fuji to get into Tokyo. This is my final holiday bragging post and covers the last two stops in our trip; Tokyo and Sapporo!

We caught the train from Fujikawaguchiko to Tokyo, and then another train to get from Shinjuku Station to Nippori Station, and then finally a bus to the hotel. We checked in, but we were really only interested in food, so we caught a bus to the nearby Asakusa, which was thankfully food heaven. We decided on KFC, officially eating it in every country we stopped in! It was straight back to the hotel and off to bed not soon after; we were absolutely exhausted.

On our first full day in Tokyo we walked to Asakusa to check out Senso-ji Temple. We first went through the Kaminarimon Gate and into Nakamise, a shopping street with traditional crafts, snacks, and souvenirs. There was a lot to see here, and we could have easily spent the day going through the various stalls. However, we decided to get into the temple first, and then come back to the streets. Senso-ji Temple is dedicated to the Goddess Kanon, and Tokyo’s oldest temple. After entering through the Hozomon Gate, we saw the five-storied pagoda, the main hall, and a little garden with the¬†most beauitful koi fish in it (although the water was actually blue? Is that healthy for fish?). There were a few food stalls as well, and we snacked on some bun-like honeycomb, takoyaki, fermented rice drink, and a weird chewy-syrupy fruit skewer, which you played a game to get. After the temple we walked our way back through Nakamise, buying various souvenirs, before walking to the Tokyo Sky Tree. The views from the tower were amazing; you could really appreciate how huge Tokyo is! We also bought extended tickets up to the Tembo Deck, another 100m (110 yards) up the tower. There was a massive Star Wars display, a scary glass floor, and more! After the tower and catching the train back to Asakusa Station, where we went for dinner at a chain-curry restaurant called Coco’s Curry House… pretty nice stuff.

The next day was a Sunday, so we made plans to visit Harajuku. However, we first wanted to visit the Meiji Shrine, dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. We caught a train to get us to Yoyogi Park, which is where the shrine is located. After passing underneath the giant¬†Otorii, we headed into the Meiji Jingu Garden first. Both His Majesty and Her Majesty frequented the garden when they were alive. Inside we found a tea house, the Nan-Chi¬†Pond and its fishing spot, as well as the Kiyomasa-Ido Well. It’s a shame we were there in winter, because I’d really like to see the iris field in full bloom! Afterwards we headed to the shrine, which was very, very busy. There were even two wedding parties! We then headed out past the wine and straw-wrapped sake displays, both sacred offerings for the shrine. It was onto Takeshita Street in Harajuku! There was so much to look at, both in the hundreds of little shops and also the people strolling along the street! With some terrible English slogans and some interesting¬†shirt designs, we were thoroughly amused. There was also a lot of street fashion, I recognised some lolita, goth, and hybrid steampunk styles, but there were a lot where I wasn’t too sure what was going on. We also tried some crepes from a street vendor; there were lots to choose from! After everything starting closing, we headed back to Asakusa and had our dinner at Mos Burger. It was a very interesting day!

Our third full day in Tokyo was a bit of a quite one; I was on a mission to wash my clothes because I only had a clean pair of pajama pants and a single thermal shirt! One of my friends went out for breakfast and the other went to visit Yushima Tenmangu, an education shrine. After my washing was finished, the breakfast-friend and I headed back to Nakamise for some more shopping. We also had some taiyaki¬†and udon, both were delicious.¬†Our other friend contacted us to meet him in Ueno, so we caught the train there. He had found a seven-storey toy shop called “Yamashiroya”, and we decided to explore it. There was a lot to see, so we were in there for a very long time. Afterwards, we setted out for a cat cafe, visiting the nearby Nekomaru Cafe. The cats were really quite cute, although fairly indifferent to us (My cat-owning friends assured me this was normal). We stayed until the cafe closed, and I did get the honour of little Kotetsu settling on my lap for a while. We found a 24 hour restaurant that served a little bit of everything; yakisoba, deep fried pork and beef, Californian rolls, pork fillet, and pork cutlet, as well as pear, grape, plum, and strawberry spirits. Very delicious! We also had fun watching a very drunk business man give one of the wait staff an egg from his bag… the wait staff looked as confused as we did.

On Australia Day we decided to visit Tokyo’s Disneyland! We caught two trains to get to Maihama Station where we walked to the entrance, bought our tickets, and entered immediately. The first area was called the World Bazaar, and it was full of shops selling various types of Disney merchandise. We were looking through a stationary shop when we heard the sound of music outside, and rushed out to find a marching band! They played through a few Disney melodies before marching off. We noticed that a lot of people in the crowd were wearing various types of Disney headgear, and we wanted in on the action, but first we took our seats for the day parade; “Happiness is Here”. The floats were really cute, and we had fun recognising all of our favourite characters! Afterwards we bought some merchandise before starting to head on a bunch of different rides. They may have not be the most thrilling rides, but the set designs and staging were amazing! Later in the evening, we watched the night parade; “Dream Lights”, which was as pretty as you’d expect! We ate a lot during the day, and stayed right until the park closed, before heading back to the hotel. It was a fun day!¬†The next day was comparatively more quite, with one friend cooped up in bed with (man) flu. My other friend and I headed down to Asakusa for some delicious tempura, before shopping for a little bit. Afterwards, we we headed to Ginza to explore another Tokyu Hands. We caught the train to get to Tokyo Tower, timing our visit to be there for the Disneyland fireworks display that had been cancelled when we were in the park, but they must have been cancelled again. Oh well, at least we enjoyed the spectacular views! Afterwards, we ate at Yoshinoya, a counter-top chain restaurant specialising in beef meals. We headed back to the hotel, reassured ourselves that our other friend was fine, and headed off to bed.

We had planned a day trip to Nikko, and since my sick friend was feeling better, we decided the next day would be the best time to do it! The train trip took about 2 hours, and we mostly slept on the way. Once in Nikko, we were at a bit of a loss as to what to do, but eventually grabbed a map and jumped onto the World Heritage bus. We got off at the Toshogu Shrine, famous for its carvings. There was a lot to see inside the shrine, including the bell tower, the drum tower, the famous three monkeys carving, sacred warehouses, the carved sleeping cat, the palanquin house, and the crying dragon painting. Everything was beautifully decorated! However, the Yomeimon Gate, the main shrine gate, was undergoing restoration, so we missed out on seeing its carvings, but we could still appreciate the beautiful Karamon Gate and main shrine. We were also allowed into the prayer area and right up to the altar; something we hadn’t experienced before. We then walked up a lot of steps to the inner shrine and tomb of Ieyasu Tokugawa. Afterwards, we stopped at the museum cafe for something to eat, but missed the last entry into the museum. Oh well, we still headed out to view the Shinkyo Sacred Bridge and the crystal clear water of the Daiya River. We then went on a bit of a misadventure up the mountain, only to freeze to death for thirty or so minutes before catching the bus back down. By the time we got back to Tokyo, we were freezing and hungry, and so ate at the nearby Denny’s, which proved to be a good choice!

On our next two days we hit up two of the otaku heavens in Tokyo; the Ghibli Museum and Akihabara! We had already purchased our ticket for the museum before leaving Australia, so we made the journey to Kichijoji Station and walked through Inokashira Park to get there. There were so many things to admire inside the museum, you could really tell that a lot of thought and care had gone into the design and interior of the building. Everything from Ghibli stained-glass windows, a massive two-storey clock hiding a staircase, and so much more! We also went into the Saturn Theatre were we watched an original short about Mei from My Neighbour Totoro having an adventure with a baby Catbus! We also explored Mamma Aiuto; the chaotic gift shop! I absolutely loved the museum, but I do wish there was more English in the exhibits. The next day we spent a long time deciding what to do. After having something to eat at a Gudetama-themed cafe (I ate Gudetama ūüė¶ ), one friend and I headed to Akihabara. There were¬†so many anime shops and gaming arcades. We explored a few of the shops, my favourite being Volk Akihabara Hobby Paradise. It was a massive building just¬†full of figurines. After it was closed (and we were kicked out), we wandered around the streets a bit longer, finding a small room full to the brim with gachapon, watching the workers from various maid cafes promoting their cafe, and eating ramen and crepes. ¬†A lot of fun!

That’s it for our time in Tokyo; the next day we repacked to catch a train to Narita Airport. I went and got my suitcase wrapped because I was convinced it wouldn’t last the trip to Sapporo. We were a little late checking in for the flight, so we were rushed through security, onto a shuttle bus, and straight onto the plane. The flight was only an hour and a half, and soon we were in Sapporo, Hokkaido… which was -4¬įC (25¬įF)! After catching a couple of trains and walking through some very icy roads, we arrived at our hotel… definitely the nicest place we’ve stayed in so far.We could see a Ferris Wheel from our hotel room, and we decided to go out to see if we could find it. However, we first stopped at “The Grill Market”, a cool little restaurant where we pigged out on gnocchi, Camembert, lamb chops, beef kebabs, cedar salad, onigiri, and fruit “brandy”… wholesome food to keep us warm! We then found the Norbesa Ferris Wheel, which was on top of a building so it was really high! Apart from playing around with some gachapon machines and visiting a gaming level, we went back to the hotel and to bed.

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Flight into Sapporo!

The next two days we spent exploring Sapporo. On the first day, we did a lot of sleeping (starting to get worn out from this holiday), but we did get up in time to get into central Sapporo. There was a massive shopping centre attached to Sapporo Station which we explored (yay, another Loft!). We also ate (a lot!) at a teppanyaki restaurant before navigating through the maze to get to Tower Three Eight. Looking over Sapporo was pretty amazing, since it’s very different to the other cities we had visited. While Tokyo and Osaka were both a sprawling, confusing, mass of buildings, Sapporo’s neatly organised into a grid system. We stayed until closing before returning to the hotel. The next day we decided to further explore Sapporo. We visited the Clock Tower first, one of the long standing symbols of the city. It was originally built as a drill hall for the university, and its (still working) clock is the original one installed in 1881! We then walked through the freezing cold to the former Hokkaido Government Office building, also known as Akarenga. There was a free warm drink stall at the front, an an older man offered to take a photo of us with the giant snowman out the font. Afterwards, we explored a few of the exhibitions inside the building, before heading off to the “Yuki Terrace”, a little plaza. There were four igloos lit up and with different light displays inside; one had been painted with rainbow black-light paint, and was really cool! We went to a yakitori-styled restaurant for dinner and managed to spend ¬•‚Äé11 468 ($140 AUD, $110 USD), which was probably the most we spent on food! We also found a Donguri Republic in the shopping mall around Sapporo Station, where we did some more shopping. Back at the hotel it was snowing fairly heavily, so we ran around in a nearby park to make the most of it!

We went out on a day trip on the next day, to the picture-perfect town of Otaru! The train ride only took about 40 minutes and we were soon walking from the station to the canal in light snow fall. Otaru is well known for its glass blowing, and there were lots of little shops to stop and look in. There were a lot of very cute glass figurines, and all of us parted with a little bit of money! Once we got to the canal, we found it super pretty! There were also a couple of small ice-sculptures in the area, in preparation for Otaru’s Snow Light Path Festival (which we wouldn’t be there for). We then started on our way to the Otaru Music Box Museum, passing two interesting and delicious food stalls! One was selling a potato and Camembert cheese fritter, and one was selling giant takoyaki balls. Once we were at the museum-shop, I was in absolute heaven. I adore music boxes, and I spent a long, long time fiddling around with them all and exploring the shop. I ended up only buying three boxes, which I thought was pretty good! We were among the last customers to leave the shop, but hung around a little longer to watch the steam-powered clock at the front chime the time. We found another souvenir shop full of glassware that we spent a long time admiring it all. We had dinner before heading back to Sapporo and the hotel. We were pretty exhausted, so we all fell asleep quickly, which was a good thing, since we had two action-packed days left…

Our last two days in Sapporo were both spent at different festivals. On our second-to-last day, it was the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival that we wanted to check out. We first had to get out to Chitose, where the airport is located, to catch a bus to Lake Shikotsu. The train was pretty quick, and the bus trip only took an hour. It was snowing when we first arrived, and we hadn’t seen snow fall that was as cute or as fluffy as this before! We worked our way down to the shores of the lake, which was really pretty. The lake has an average depth of 265m (290 yards) and was formed when a mountain’s cone collapsed following volcanic action over 30,000 years ago! We then headed to the festival site, which was breathtaking. Over the course of 2-3 months, water is pumped from the lake and sprayed over various support structures to make a huge collection of ice sculptures. Inside the walled ice area was a shrine with coins stuck to the ice, two ice towers 8m (8.75 yards) tall, a long tunnel with frozen pine branches and fish, and even ice slides! After having a lot of fun, we continued further around the lake and made a brief climb up the to the Shikotsu-Toya National Park, before heading back to the festival to see it all lit up at night! We caught the last bus back to Chitose, and then the train back to Sapporo; both were very packed! Back at the hotel we had to pack our bags, because we’d be changing hotels the next day.

Finally, our last full day in Sapporo was spent at the Sapporo Snow Festival! We were planning to store our luggage at Sapporo Station so we could easily get to the last hotel (near the airport) that night, but it seemed everyone else had the same idea in using the lockers. Fortunately, the station had opened up a luggage-drop place because of the crowds, although it was only open until 6.00pm. We’d have to keep an eye on the time! We made our way to Odori Park, right underneath the Sapporo TV Tower. The first section was a skating rink that wasn’t open to the public, but the second section had a couple of small mascot-y type ice sculptures. It was the third section where things started to get really exciting; a massive ski-jump had been constructed, and there were snowboarders doing stunts. Some of them were so talented, I could have easily watched them all day! However, we had to keep moving, and after a brief stop for food, we continued through some massive snow sculptures; Macau’s St. Paul’s Ruins, and an Attack on Titan display! There were hundreds of smaller sculptures too, featuring lots of characters from Disney, Star Wars, Snoopy, and even my beloved Gudetama! There was even a section for international artists, although a lot of them were still being carved (it was only the first day of the festival, after all). We soon realised the time and rushed back to the station to collect our bags, and, finding free lockers available, stored them again so we could continue onto Susukino Station for the other part of the festival. Here there was one street with ice sculptures on display, all prettily lit up. A lot of the sculptures seemed to be for sponsors of the events, but they were all very beautiful, regardless. After stopping for ramen for dinner, we were on a mission to get out to Chitose and our last hotel. Our last night proved to be quite eventful; a siren and fire warning sounded in all of the hotel rooms, with the fire apparently being on our floor. Luckily it was a false alarm, but we still managed to get locked out of our room!

Our final two days of journeying involved the exhausting 21-hour trip back to Perth, Australia. After catching the 7.40am bus to the airport, I was shocked to discover that there was no wrapping service available. Really, really worried my suitcase wouldn’t survive the long trip home, I improvised… and a roll of strapping tape later, my suitcase was a secure as it was going to get. We had the chance for some last minute shopping before catching the 7 hour flight to Bangkok. At Bangkok we had the chance to eat and nap, before getting on a 11.55pm flight to Perth. Another 7 hours later, and we were home! My suitcase thankfully held together, and after sixty two days together, the three of us finally parted ways to get back to our respective houses and sleep.

That wraps up my time in Japan, as well as the entire two-month holiday! It was exhausting, it was exciting, and I had certainly made memories to keep for a lifetime! I can’t wait to visit all of the countries again, and I hope that you too have a chance to check out these unforgettable places!

-S

WANT TO VISIT JAPAN?

MUST DOs:

There is¬†a lot to do in Japan, so make sure you thoroughly research before heading over! However, there a couple of cities that I think everyone should stop in, and you probably already know what they are; Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. But before we get to that, I think everyone visiting Japan should also try to get out of the major cities, and into the country’s beautiful nature! The mountains in particular were absolutely¬†gorgeous. If you happen to be there during winter (and the timing of the snow festival in Sapporo), you¬†have to go!

I found Osaka to be a bustling city, obviously not on the same scale as Tokyo, but still not as sleepy as Kyoto. The Minami area in Namba is a pretty interesting place to visit if you want a taste of Osaka’s youth area, with gaming buildings, lots of food, and just a very vibrant atmosphere. I would also recommend Osaka Castle to anyone wanting a taste of Japanese history, and to see views of the skyline. Osaka is also perfectly situated for day trips into other parts of Japan (we technically did these day trips from Kyoto, but the two cities are so close to each other, it doesn’t really matter). Consider visiting the demanding deer in Nara or the beautiful Himeji Castle!

I don’t think you can go to Kyoto without visiting the Higashiyama district. Who doesn’t want to wander these beautiful streets and let their imaginations go wild with what Japan would have been like only a couple of hundred of years ago? With everything from pretty temples and shrines to unique stores, it should be a must on everyone’s list (and it’s also the perfect place to rent kimono)! I would also recommend spending a day out in Arashiyama for some beautiful scenery and the lovely garden at¬†Tenryuji Temple. It was one of my favourite places in Japan! Finally, Kyoto is well known for its shrines and temples, and I would recommend checking out its two most famous; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and the Fushimi Inari Shrine. You can even easily fit both in a day!

Finally, Tokyo. As the major hub of Japan’s train network, day trips to beautiful areas such as Nikko or Mt. Fuji, amongst others, are very easy. Inside Tokyo itself, I had a lot of fun in some bright areas such as Harajuku (perfect for people watching) and Asakusa. Harajuku is also right next to the Meiji Shrine, while Asakusa contains Senso-ji Temple and the excellent Nakamise shopping street. If you’re visiting Tokyo, you should also check out at least one of their novelty cafes, and get right into the nitty-gritty of what makes Japan Japan. From cat cafes, to maid cafes, and even a robot restaurant, there’s bound to be a unique experience in Tokyo that will tickle your fancy!

HOTELS: 

I enjoyed every place we stayed at in Japan. I’ll list the hotels and what I liked most about them; most of them are highly recommended;
OSAKA: Hostel Zoo. A quick train ride from central Osaka, incredibly clean with friendly staff. Great value for money.
KYOTO: Amenity Hotel. Very clean, right next to Higashiyama, and well connected to central Kyoto. Good choice for budget travellers.
NAGOYA: Nagoya Sun Nishiki. Had trouble with the wifi, but we were only here for one night. Clean room, nice staff.
NAGANO: 1166 Backpackers. Offers traditional styled rooms. A little further from the nearest train station, but staff are incredibly friendly. Would suit those wanting a backpackers’ or hostel atmosphere.
FUJI: Kagelow Mt. Fuji Hostel. Beautiful decor in rooms and views of Fuji! Staff were friendly, bathrooms very clean.
TOKYO: Hotel New Koyo. This one’s more of a mixed bag. The rooms are very, very small (you’ll need to stay in singles unless you’re¬†really friendly with who you’re travelling with), but the place was very clean. The hotel was quite old, but they were clearly renovating while we were there. Should be a lot nicer now. Good value for budget travellers.
SAPPORO: Quintessa Hotel. Our most expensive hotel, but really, really nice. Very comfortable and clean. Full hotel services.
CHITOSE: ANA Crowne Plaza. Very nice hotel, we only stayed for one night for our flight the next day. Staff very helpful, hotel offers shuttle bus to the airport.

TRANSPORTATION: 

Japan has a really good public transport system, making it possible to get around the country without having to set foot in an airport (we could have even done Tokyo to Sapporo without flying!). There are lots of buses throughout all the major cities, highway buses between cities, and buses designed for tourists at population destinations (the World Heritage bus is something you’ll see everywhere). Interestingly, there seemed to be different systems for paying on buses; in Kyoto we found that you enter through the backdoor and pay the driver as you leave through the front. However, in other places you took a number as you got on the bus through the front door, and then watched the fee screen at the front of bus to see what your fare was to pay when you hopped off. If you’re not sure what to do, follow everyone else! It seemed that throughout Japan, you’re expected to have the exact change when using the bus, so try to keep your coins.

I personally found Japan’s train system incredibly confusing, although the infrastructure is amazing! Basically the train lines in each city belong to multiple companies. You’ll find JR (Japanese Rail) lines everywhere, and there’s also the subway for each city. However, there’s also a range of lines belonging to other companies, and only some stations are used commonly by all lines. We found that Google was pretty reliable for giving us directions for using the trains to get to our destinations (both inside cities and between cities). Another thing to note is that JR Rail does a pass specifically designed for tourists. Be aware that you can¬†only use this pass on their lines, and it might just work out cheaper (and easier!) to just buy as you go.

BEWARE!: 

Japan is known for being quite a safe country, and after spending a month there, I can see why. Much like South Korea, you can be as cautious as you are in your own country.

Holiday Bragging: Japan (Part 2/3)

At the end of the last holiday bragging post, my friends and I had just finished visiting Nijo Castle in Kyoto, and were getting onto a train to get to Nagoya. So began the most intense (travel-wise) part of the trip in Japan; Sunday morning we were in Kyoto, and the following Friday we were in Tokyo, having travelled through Nagoya, Matsumoto, Nagano, and the lakes around Mt. Fuji. Welcome to part two: From Kyoto to Tokyo.

We arrived in Nagoya after a 40 minute ride on the Shinkansen. We literally got to our hotel, checked in, chucked our luggage in the room, and left. We were on a mission to get to the Winter Light Festival, in the Nabana No Sato flower park in Kuwana City. We knew we had to catch a train and a bus, but the information I had found to get there proved to be incorrect. So after 30 minutes of turning back on our journey and figuring out what train station we were supposed to catch the bus from, we eventually got there. The lights were really pretty! The front area had all bright blue lights which were cool, but made us feel a little cold. Then around the buildings the trees were all lit up different colours, which looked awesome reflected in the ponds. At the back there was a couple of light tunnels and a light show set in the Alps which involved a lot of yodelling? Not really sure what was going on there, but it was actually pretty cool because the display changed through the four seasons. We watched the show about four times (it wasn’t very long), and by the end I was well and truly sick of the yodelling. There was a slight drizzle, and we were feeling a little chilly, so we went to an outside hot spring spa where you could put your feet in. Nothing like naturally hot water for weary feet ūüėÄ We would have easily stayed the whole night there if the park hadn’t closed and we were kicked out. It was then that we discovered that we had missed the bus back to the train station by¬†six minutes dammit Japan why do expect everyone to be punctual?! Our only option was to make the twenty minute walk back to the train station, through the back streets and residential areas,¬†and in a light rain. Thank goodness for Google maps. We caught one of the last trains back to Nagoya, and then found a awesome little restaurant-slash-bar, since the food at the festival had been crap. Finally back in the hotel room, the three of us crashed, fully dressed. Travel can be exhausting!

Despite our exhaustion and the late night before, we still managed to wake up pretty early the next day. Checking out of the hotel and grabbing breakfast, we then went back to Nagoya station¬†to buy tickets on the semi-express train to Matsumoto, where I really, really wanted to visit the castle. After an hour’s wait, we went up onto the platform all ready for the train. Except it didn’t arrive; very unusual. It seemed that the mountains were experiencing heavy snowfall, which was why our train was delayed. Thirty minutes after it was due to arrive, we were finally on the train, but no sweat… we still had lots of time before the last admission. Except our train kept getting more and more delayed, having to stop frequently for snow to be cleared from the rails. I began to get a little wary… would we get there before 4.30 pm? Fortunately, I was frequently distracted by the beautiful snowy scenery. We finally go to Matsumoto, stowed our luggage in the lockers, and then made a very brisk walk over snow and ice to get to the castle. We entered the park surrounding the castle at around 4.28 pm… on the opposite side to the entrance. Theoretically, we¬†could have made it into the castle, but we decided to instead enjoy the fresh snow in the surrounding park, and just admire the castle instead. The castle was so pretty, anyway, so I don’t feel like I missed out on anything! We had a couple of snow fights and just played around in the snow. Once the sun set, we decided to get something to eat before continuing on our trip to Nagano. The latest we could check into our hostel was 10.00 pm, and we bought tickets for a train that would get us there at 8.39 pm… except that we learnt the train before ours had been delayed by 40 minutes (we should have really tried to get tickets for that train, but lesson learnt). Fortunately, we did manage to get into Nagano and to our hostel with only a short delay (thankfully the staff stayed up for us!). What a day!

We missed out on breakfast at our hostel due to a late start the next day, and instead went to a cafe at the train station. We then bought our tickets for the Jigokudani Monkey Park, which included train tickets to Yamanouchi, the town closest to the park. Once we arrived at the station, we caught a bus out to one of the onsen, which was the starting point for the walk to the monkey park. The road was covered in ice and slippery, but once we got into the snow it was relatively easier to walk. There was a little souvenir shop at the start of the actual hiking trail, where we stopped for one of my friends to hire correct footwear, and then we were off. The trail was only 1.6 km (1 mile) and a really easy walk. The surrounding national park was really pretty blanketed in snow! Once we started to get closer to the stream, we started to see lots of monkeys wandering around everywhere. They were pretty cute, but we kept our distance from them (I’ve always been cautious of monkeys after seeing them in Bali, Indonesia). We got to the natural hot spring that is used exclusively by the monkeys. Only one monkey was using it, and he looked pretty relaxed, soaking in the heat and steam! There was another monkey that was clearly wet, and must have been using it before we got there… how was it not freezing now?! There were plenty of monkeys not using the hot springs, and we ended up staying in the park until it closed. Afterwards, we continued back down the trail, returned boots, and then waited in a little shed that was the bust stop for the next bus to Yamanouchi. It was a 40 minute freezing cold wait in the dark, but we were back in the town in no time. Our first stop was to find somewhere to eat and warm up, and fortunately there was a great restaurant just around the corner from the station, where we had grilled onigiri, pork katsu, karage, fried octopus, and mixed yakitori. There was another foot spa just behind the station where we spent the remainder of the time before catching the last train back to Nagano.

The next day was one¬†looooong day of travel. We had to get ourselves sorted for the trip to Mt. Fuji, and after having breakfast at the hostel, we made sure we were packed and ready to go. And then disaster struck… the zip on my suitcase split. Closer inspection revealed that the track had been damaged, so the zip wouldn’t be able to go back over it. Fortunately it was only the one corner of the suitcase that wasn’t closed, so if I was gentle enough with it, it would survive. My hopes sank as we saw the moderate snow fall outside; something that had obviously been going on since early, as the streets were thick with snow. It’s not much fun trying to pull a suitcase that is moments away from bursting through snow, but we eventually got to the train station. At the nearby shops, I bought two sturdy looking luggage straps, so I was at least safe for now. We decided to buy our train tickets from the counter, since our trip was an unusual one, and found out we were going to be travelling via Tokyo. No problems there; we boarded the Shinkansen for the 2 hour trip, the delays from the a few days ago no longer a worry, and we were off! We even bought bento from the trolley lady! At Tokyo, we were suppose to buy a ticket for a 2 hour bus ride out to Mt. Fuji, but we discovered we’d missed the last bus by 30 minutes. Bummer. Instead, we caught a train to Otsuki, and then a local train to Kawaguchiko, and finally arrived at 7.30 pm. We then had to walk across more icy and snowy roads to get the hotel, but at least it wasn’t snowing this time! After checking in, we went out for our first full meal for the day, but since it was so cold, it was back into the room not long after. I tried to fix the zip on my suitcase, but made it worse… now one zipper was completely off the top track! I went to bed hoping the straps would be enough to help it survive.

We spent two nights around Lake Kawaguchiko, right next to Mt. Fuji. On our first day, we bought a two-day tourist bus pass from the station, and jumped on the bus to check out the lava caves in Aokigahara, the “sea of trees” (and also known as Japan’s suicide forest). The bus ride took about 50 minutes, and the views of the surrounding area were absolutely beautiful! The first cave we visited was the Fugaku-Fuketsu (Wind Cave), which was quite small but interesting, and we were in and out of it pretty quickly. After trying some¬†unusual¬†corn-flavoured ice-cream, we walked around the corner to the Narusawa Hyouketsu (Ice Cave). This cave was shorter, but deeper, than the Wind Cave, and more difficult to get through. We had to pass through “Hell’s Cave”, where the lowest point of the ceiling is 93 cm (3 feet) from the floor! This cave had a lot more ice inside, but again, we were in and out pretty quickly. The souvenir shop next to the cave had some interesting things inside, and after a bit of shopping, we caught the bus back into town, before changing to a different bus to take us further around the lakes in the opposite direction. We were keen for some houtou noodles, a speciality of the area, and the small restaurant we visited served us a really large and delicious serving! There was a light display a littler further around the lake, and we went to visit them after eating. Some of the lights were half-buried in snow, and it all looked super pretty. We went to catch the bus back to our side of the lake… except we had missed it by 20 minutes (are you sensing a theme in this post yet?). So, at around 8.00 pm, in 0¬įC (32¬įF), we had a 5 km (3 mile) walk back to our side of the lake. Stomping through knee-high snow and slipping along on icy roads, getting weird looks from locals passing by in their cars, and laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, we finally made it back an hour and a half later. All I can say is thank goodness Japan has drink vending machines everywhere. Fortunately, the next day didn’t involve any silly mistakes like that; instead we checked out of the hotel, stowed our luggage in the lockers, and caught the bus to the “Kachi Kachi Ropeway” for views of Mt. Fuji. We caught a cable-car up to the top, and although the peak of the mountain was initially covered in clouds, it cleared up while we were there. Plus we also got to see just how far we had walked the previous night! We explored a couple of the shops at the bottom of the ropeway, including one selling Fuji cookies (delicious), before deciding to get a move on to our next destination; Tokyo! But that’s a story for another post…

Phew, what a journey from Kyoto to Tokyo! If I were to do it again, I would definitely give myself more time in each of the areas we visited, especially around Matsumoto, which was super pretty. I probably would avoid the hectic Nagano to Mt. Fuji trip again, but you have these experiences so you can learn ūüėõ Keep a look out for the final part next week!

-S

 

Holiday Bragging: Japan (Part 1/3)

And now, the last stop on the amazing two month adventure; Japan. We spent a month here, from January 5th to February 6th, travelling through Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Nagano, Fuji, Tokyo, and Sapporo. It was an intense itinerary, and we did a lot and saw a lot in a very short amount of time. I enjoyed every minute of it. Since it was such a full trip, I decided it would be best to break my bragging up into three posts. The usual Geek & Eat post will follow the final part and the usual “Want to Visit Japan?” advice section will be in the last part. Welcome to Part 1: Osaka and Kyoto.

We arrived in Osaka after a flight that lasted about an hour and a half from Busan, landing in the early evening. We had to first get from the airport into Osaka, and then finally onto a train out to Dobutseun-Mae Station. Fortunately our hotel was right outside the station. We didn’t do much on this night; just getting settled, and finding a little ramen restaurant for dinner. However, the next day was when we could really start to explore Osaka. We got into Umeda, the middle of Osaka, where we had something to eat, before going to Yodabashi, a massive shopping centre. We did a lot of window shopping, and also explored the Jump! store. Afterwards, we discovered, and fell in love with, the Loft department store. Eight floors filled with everything; stationary, costumes, anime merchandise, cosmetics, and everything in between! No wonder we spent the entire afternoon inside, only stopping for dinner before heading back to the hotel.

The next day we were off to Osaka Castle! The castle was built from its original designs in 1931, and opened as a museum. You actually start the exploration of the castle from the eight floor, an observation deck, down. The museum inside was all about Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the “great unifier” of Japan who ended the Warring States period, and the Siege of Osaka in 1614-1615. It was all really interesting, and we stayed on sight until the museum closed and we got to see the main keep lit up. Afterwards, we made our way to Minami in Namba, an area known for food and entertainment. There were so many lights and restaurants and gachapon¬†everywhere… as well as a lot of prostitutes and sketchy looking male host clubs. It was here we got addicted to gachapon… particularly ones related to the character Gudetama (my spirit animal… egg?).

The next day in Osaka involved exploring the massive thirteen storey shopping centre on top of the Osaka train station in Umeda. We found a store call Tokyu Hands; very similar to Loft, and with a lot of gachapon… so it’s no surprise we were there for a while. There was also a Pokemon Centre, and some of the toys were so adorable! Afterwards we caught a train out to Mino Park to see its famous waterfall. We had a 2 km (1.2 mile) walk through the pretty forest first, passing a couple of graveyards and the Ryuanji Temple. By the time we got to the actual waterfall, it was quite dark. We could see it clearly enough, but weren’t able to take any photos, but what does that matte?. The park was pretty as it was, but I would really like to come back and see it in Autumn! Afterwards, we headed back Minami (Dotonbori? I really don’t know which name to use) area again, eating at a teppanyaki restaurant and having warm melon bread with vanilla ice-cream from a street van. Delicious!

The day after was a much anticipated day for one of my friends and me… we had bought tickets to see the K-Pop group Big Bang on their MADE Tour! The concert wasn’t until later that day, so we spent the morning and early afternoon in the nearby Shinsekai. The area was once developed as an entertainment district but was neglected following the Second World War… today it’s a pretty nostalgic place with the distinctive Tsutenkaku Tower at its centre. We went up to the tower for some views of Osaka, and even went up to the open deck at the top- very cold! There were a lot of souvenir¬†shops to keep us occupied on the walk back to the hotel. Afterwards my friend and I headed to the Osaka Kyocera Dome for the concert. We went a little crazy at the merchandise stall, but we were soon all decked out and ready for the concert. IT WAS SO INCREDIBLY AMAZING I CAN BARLEY PUT IT IN WORDS!! BIG BANG I LOVE YOU, I STILL WISH YOU DIDN’T LEAVE THE STAGE!! We did head back to Shinsekai afterwards for more delicious teppanyaki.

We managed to squeeze in a visit to the shrine Sumiyoshi Taisha on our last day in Osaka. Because it was still early in the new year, there were a lot of people at the shrine buying good luck charms for 2016, disposing charms from 2015, getting their fortunes for the year, and paying respect to the Gods. It was really interesting to see the bonfire where priests were burning old charms and blessing new ones, and also where they were doing chants. There were a lot of festival tents set up selling food, and also set up with little games inside. After we explored the really pretty temple and walked over its famous bridge, we enjoyed some takoyaki, omusoba (yaki soba wrapped in omelette), squid omelette, and candied grape, strawberry, pineapple, mandarin, and apple. We also walked through the pretty Sumiyoshi Park before heading back to our hotel to collect our bags and training to Kyoto. We found a restaurant selling abura soba (soup-less “oily” noodles) which was SO DELICIOUS. The next day, our first day in Kyoto, was spent pretty quietly. We were staying in the Higashiyama district, so we went out to explore on the first day. There were temples and shrines everywhere, a lot of interesting shops, and a lot of people wearing kimono! It’s an area we definitely want to explore more closely. We had the most delicious udon for dinner that night.

One of the reasons we were spending almost two weeks in the Kansai region was because there were a number of day trips we wanted to go on. The next day marked our first; training out to Nara to explore Nara Park (the trip taking less than an hour). We started at the Kofukuji Temple, slowing making our way into the park. Nara is quite famous for its wild deer, and they were absolutely everywhere. We bought crackers to feed them and they were insane; one deer in particular followed us non-stop and headbutted if you didn’t feed it quick enough! One of my friends got bullied into feeding it all of her crackers! We wandered through the pretty woodlands and down to the Ukimido Gazebo before heading back up towards Todaiji Temple. The temple was closed by the time we got there, but an older Japanese man led us up onto a balcony overlooking the temple where we could watch the sunset. His English was really good and he told us all sorts of things about the temple. Afterwards, we headed down for a delicious serving of teppanyaki (again) before heading back to Kyoto.

The day after we went to Arashiyama, a really pretty area just out of Kyoto that is surrounded by mountains. The first thing we did was go on a 30 minute cruise on a Japanese houseboat on the Oi River, an activity once enjoyed by nobles and royalty. The boats were pushed by a man with a bamboo pole, and the inside room had tatami mats, cushions, and a little heater. The views were really pretty! Afterwards, we made our way to the Tenryuji Temple, where we wore slippers and explored inside the temple. Afterwards, we changed back into our shoes to explore the beautiful zen garden, still in its original design from the thirteenth century! In my opinion, it was the prettiest garden we saw the whole time in Japan (although we did go in Winter). Afterwards, we headed out to the bamboo groves, which the area is famous for, passing the Nonomiya Shrine for the Sun Goddess and other female-related deities. After finding an observation deck, which we stayed at until sunset, we headed back to Kyoto. We had teppanyaki for dinner again; no surprise there!

We decided to get back to exploring the Higashiyama area on the next day… but in style! We rented out kimono to wear on the day. Selecting a kimono and getting dressed was an experience in itself; because it was so cold, we wore thermal pants and shirts underneath, and then had the nagajuban¬†(under white kimono) tied pretty securely over the top. We then put on the kimono, which was secured with two ribbons. The obi was then tied over the top with a board, and decorated; mine with a pink ribbon and bow and a beaded chord. Finally, we wore two layers of tabi socks and then the zouri (shoes)… it was a lot of fuss to get dressed! Us two girls also got our hair done, and three of us were given traditionally-styled bags to put our belongings in. Feeling very special, we set out to explore Higashiyama. There’s a lot to see in such a small space; we started off at the Entokuin Gardens and Temple, went through some traditional craft shops (lots of chopsticks to buy!), the site of the Goryo Eji Tonsho (something I knew a little bit about thanks to the Hakuouki anime series!), up to the Shinshu Otani-Ha Buddist Temple, and then to the Temmangu Shrine. I prayed here for healing due to my various injuries, following the somewhat complicated instructions of walking around the hall three times while spinning the prayer wheels with my right hand. We then walked through the Kodaji Temple and gardens, down through a bamboo grove, shopping up through the historic streets and up the stairs to the top. We were hoping to go to the Kiyomizudera Temple, but it was getting late and it had closed. Instead, we returned our kimono, and, having not eaten much all day due to the fear of staining our clothes, went and ate some deliciously messy burgers for dinner. All in all, we felt extremely special the entire day!

We went out on another day trip the next day, catching the Shinkansen to Himeji to visit the beautiful Himeji Castle… one of the things I was most anticipating in Japan! The castle is¬†super pretty from the outside, plastered in white and extremely bright! There was a school excursion there the same day as us (so many children), and the kids were really cute, a lot of them saying hello in English to us when they passed by. They were in and out pretty quickly though, while we took the time to learn all about the main keep, the castle’s defence system, and its use of recycled stone in construction (including using stone coffins!). Although the castle only looks like it’s five storeys from outside, it’s actually seven! After exploring the main keep, we visited the West Bailey Palace with the 300 m Long Corridor which also had super steep staircases. We had bought a combined ticket to see the gardens as well, but since the castle was starting to close up, we instead turned our attention to dinner, having various types of kushikatsu. Afterwards, it was back to Kyoto where we explored the train station. You can get to the top for views over Kyoto and after six massive escalators, one right after the other, we were there. Apart from the night views, we also got a chance to appreciate just how huge the train station is! After a long day exploring, it was back to the hotel and off to bed.

We saved some of Kyoto’s most iconic sights for our second-to-last day. We first went to the beautiful Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Its top two storeys are completely covered in gold leaf, making it really pretty! We worked our way around the lake it was situated on, and through the gardens where there was a shrine and a few souvenir shops. We had a little bit to eat, including some sweet dango with sesame paste and pork and tofu steamed buns. Afterwards, we caught a bus and two trains to get to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, a shrine famous for its thousands of torii gates. There were a lot of people there, and after checking our the main complex, we worked our way up the torii gate trails on the mountain. The gates are donated by those wishing for good financial luck, usually from big businesses. Inside the trails there are also lots of little shrines, which isn’t surprising considering that Fushimi Inari is the headquarters for over 30 000 smaller shrines! We reached the viewpoint just in time to see the sunset over Kyoto. Afterwards, we continued along a loop pathway to the mountain summit and back down as it darkened. Fortunately the pathway was well lit, and it was actually quite nice to be there with less people around. We went back to our hotel room relatively early after dinner, with a plan to do some packing for our travels the next day (which, sadly, only ever turned out to be a plan).

We explored Nijo Castle on our last day in Kyoto. The carvings on the gate to get to the Ninomaru Palace were really detailed and pretty! We went through a lot of rooms inside the castle where we learnt a little about Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of Japan. We also walked through part of the garden and up to an observation deck, where we could see some of the Honmaru Palace, which was unfortunately closed to the public. There was also an art gallery displaying the original cherry blossoms paintings of the Ninomaru Palace, and also from the nearby Nagoya Castle. The paintings dated back from 1603 and 1626! The brochure we were given helped explain the difference and development of style between the two paintings, which was very interesting. We briefly stopped at a souvenir shop before getting back to the hotel to collect our bags and head off to Nagoya… but that’s a story for a different post.

That’s about it for the time we spent in the Kansai region in Japan! As you can see, we had a lot of things we wanted to see, and we were pretty busy the whole time we were there. But that’s only the start of our trip in Japan, and you’ll soon see just what else we got up to in this amazing country! I really loved Osaka and Kyoto, and I especially fell in love with the beautiful scenery, interesting history, and amazing food. I can’t wait to get back!

-S

 

Geek & Eat: South Korea

Hiya everyone! With my two weeks in South Korea, I finally have a lot more I can add into the Geek section of this post, and if you’ve already seen my holiday bragging post, you’ll know that I have a lot to say about eating in South Korea!

GEEK!

OTAKU

Given the popularity of anime in South Korea, it’s not surprisingly that there are a number of places in which you can buy manga, posters, and figurines (more so in Seoul compared to other cities, but I’m positive that there would be places in Busan selling merchandise as well). However, at Myeong-dong station (and probably available in many other clothing shops) we found an amazing sock shop which sold¬†Studio Ghibli socks! I have a bit of an obsessive love for socks, and these were absolutely amazing! I never saw anything similar in Japan, so keep an eye out for quirky anime merchandise if you ever go to South Korea!

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My Ghibli socks! (L-R) My Neighbour Totoro, Howls’ Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service

ASIAN POP CULTURE

With the popularity of South Korea’s music and drama series, there’s no shortage of places to visit! The South Korean tourism website has a whole section dedicated to places you can visit that are associated with different dramas, and you can visit a whole host of places associated with entertainment companies, as well as specific idols and groups.

Obviously, there’s merchandise¬†everywhere, so if you’re chasing stickers, postcards, calendars, mugs, jewellery, socks, clothing, or really anything, you won’t have far to look. Most of the major shopping areas in Seoul will have merchandise stores (especially in Myeong-dong) and there’s a lot in Busan’s markets.

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K-Pop merchandise! I actually bought a lot more, but to give as gifts. AND LOOK, T.O.P SOCKS!

With such a large number of famous entertainers in South Korea (and particularly Seoul), if you’re a massive fan, keep your eyes peeled, because you never know just who you might see… (on a side-note, any BTS fans out there? I want to brag ūüėõ )

HISTORY BUFF

We didn’t do much in terms of visiting historical sites and museums in South Korea, except for the time we spent at the National Palace Museum of Korea, Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the National Folk Museum. The two museums are in the same complex as the palace. There is a¬†lot to see here if you want to visit everything, and so if you’re trying to fit it into one day, be prepared to get there early and leave late. However, it’s not very expensive to get into the palace, so you can always go multiple times, like we did. The National Palace Museum, rather obviously, focuses on aspects of Korea’s royalty, specific the Joseon Dynasty (both the longest and last dynasty of Korea). With information ranging from the members of the royal families, science during the period, court music, and so on, there’s a lot there for anyone interested in this time period! The palace itself is very maze-like, but there’s a lot to look through and see, from the guards at the very front of Gwanghwamun Gate right down to the expansive coffin hall and shrine at the back of the palace. The National Folk Museum is all about Korea’s people and their lives; right from the earliest archaeological records to modernity. I was really impressed with the set up and exhibitions in both museums, so if it sounds like something you’d like, you should definitely check it out!

EAT!

There is¬†so much delicious food in South Korea! It’s definitely a place to go and eat! I recommend trying both street food and food from proper restaurants. The street food is safe and delicious (if you’re ever not sure which stall is offering the best quality, follow the crowd) and the restaurant food is amazing!

There are always several options when it comes to street food. If you like spicy food, tteokbokki, or spicy rice cakes, is an obvious choice. There’s quite a few varieties; in Seoul in was pretty common to just see your standard rice cakes, but in Busan we noticed that fish cakes or soondae (blood sausage) was commonly mixed in. Bungeoppang is the Korean equivalent of Japan’s taiyaki; red-bean paste enclosed in sweet pastry, and a must for anyone with a sweet tooth (plus perfect in the cold weather!). Another good choice for those with a sweet tooth is Gyeranppang, a sweet egg-bread cross cake. Other street foods that you see everywhere and may interest you include hotteok (filled pancakes), kimbap (“Korean sushi”), and odeng (fish cakes; served on a stick). I didn’t know the correct names of a lot of the foods I tried, but there are sometimes a couple of signs in English, or you can just watch them being made to know what’s inside ūüôā

You can’t go to Korea without going to a Korean BBQ place! The concept here is to buy different cuts of meat (some marinated) from the menu and then cook them on charcoal grills that are set into the table. It varies in restaurants how much you cook yourself and how much the waiters cook it for you. Try to have a bit of idea what to do before going in, or else try and find a tourist-friendly place, because otherwise there’s a good chance the staff will expect you to know what you’re doing. There’s many BBQ places everywhere, and you can look forward to some delicious meat and an interesting array of side dishes. Having food being cooked in front of you seems to be a pretty common thing in South Korea, as our delicious meals of bulgogi¬†and dak galbi¬†showed. If you find a restaurant offering these dishes (designed to be shared among a group), try them out! South Korea is also famous for fried chicken. There’s a number of chain restaurants as well as small businesses, and it’s pretty common to go out for beer and fried chicken. Our first lot we had at the delightfully named “Cucurucu Chicken” in Jongno-dong in Seoul, which was delicious. We also tried Cheogajip in Busan (may be a chain-restaurant, I’m not too sure) which was better than the first restaurant. So good! If you want something a little different, Bon Gousse, a chain burger place, does delicious and interesting rice burgers!

Okay, that’s about all I think about to say for South Korea. Do you have any great dining experiences or any other interesting aspects to share for South Korea? I’d be happy to add them to my list for my next trip ūüėČ

-S

Holiday Bragging: South Korea

I spent around two weeks in South Korea between the 22nd December and the 5th January. Although we only split our time between Seoul and Busan, it was incredibly enjoyable and we ate so much amazing food! The time spent in South Korea was a bit of a relaxing buffer for us between the hectic two weeks in Hong Kong and China, and soon to be busy month in Japan. Although we didn’t get around to doing as much as I’d hope, I’m really glad I got to enjoy the time we had there!

We landed in Seoul late on a Tuesday night after our flight from Beijing had been delayed for 45 minutes (probably due to poor visibility from the smog). After catching the train from Incheon International Airport and navigating the streets of Jongno-dong, we arrived at our hostel after 1 am. It doesn’t come as a surprise that our first day in Seoul consisted of, well… sleeping. When we did eventually get out, we were overwhelmed at the sheer amount of¬†food around us; from restaurants to cafes, and even street food! Since we were (almost literally) just next door to Sungkyunkwan University, all of the food was really cheap as well! The rest of the day involved a trip to Gangyeon Techno Mart so I could check out cameras after my (mis)adventure in Pingyao. I didn’t end up buying anything, but we got to see how gigantic the store was. A few hours later we were back in Jongno and eating some delicious Korean-styled fried chicken. The next day, Christmas Eve, marked our first in trying¬†street food. We bought breakfast from a street vendor before heading out to stroll along Cheonggyecheon Stream; a restored water-way in central Seoul. It was an interesting experience walking below road-level and having fish and ducks in the stream beside us. I really want to go back and experience it again in Spring or Summer. Part way through our walk we climbed up and explored Gwangjang Market. The cart-food section was packed and chaotic, so we bought some tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) and bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes) and went back down by the stream to eat (something that earnt us a lot of strange looks). After snacking we continued on to the Cheonggyecheon Plaza which was decked out in Christmas decorations and a live choir! There was also a lot more food to try! When we eventually got back to the hostel, one of my friends and I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens at a local cinema.

Christmas Day was a quite one for us, we explored the nearby Sungkyunkwan University, first established in 1398. We also had a bit of a walk around the residential streets before heading out for a Korean BBQ lunch. The food was delicious, but the staff acted in a way that very much reminded us we had no idea what we were doing. Regardless, it was a good meal. Afterwards we explored some of the shops in the area, including Daiso! And then,¬†as a Christmas miracle, we experienced our first snow fall of the trip, late Christmas night! It wasn’t much, but considering some of us had never experienced it before, it was amazing!

We spent the next two days exploring the same place; Gyeongbokgung Palace! Well, technically we also visited the National Palace Museum of Korea on the first day with half of the palace, and then the second half of the palace and the National Folk Museum on the second day. Pretty much all of the information was in English, and was very interesting, so we learnt a lot about the country’s history. While Gyeongbokgung Palace isn’t as large as China’s Forbidden City, there seemed to be more buildings, and more of the workings of the palace were revealed (e.g. we got to visit the Sojubang, where the meals for the royal family were prepared). We tried some interesting food over the course of these two days; steak and cheese rice burgers from BonGousse, which fell apart as soon as we started eating them, but were delicious regardless, and a dosirak ¬†(“Korean lunchbox”) from Miss Lee Cafe. The dosirak was very interesting; it was essential a metal box with egg, rice, seaweed, kimchi, and spam, and the idea was to put the lid on it and shake it so all the ingredients mixed before eating!

We went back to the area around Gyeonbokgung Palace for a third time, but not to visit the palace. In fact, we wanted to explore the Bukchon Hanok Village, a residential area with traditional houses. My main reason for visiting was actually to find the hanok that was used for the exterior of “Sanggojae” in the drama Personal Preference, but I also wanted to check out the area. We managed to find it, and we also spent some time soaking in the sunlight and taking in the view from the Bukchon Observatory. However, we did have to continue on, because we wanted to squeeze in a visit to Bau House… a dog cafe! We walked in to the central area of the cafe where there were easily twenty dogs running around, napping, playing, or just watching what was going on. The dogs ranged in size from Chihuahuas and Daschshunds to a giant Alaskan Malamute and (I think) a Great Pyrenees. We bought snacks for them and they went insane. I really adore dogs, and since I was missing my own mutts, it felt great to just be surrounded by so many different types and personalities. The dogs were obviously well looked and after and greatly loved by the workers, and the cafe was extremely clean (although there was dog hair everywhere, but that’s to be expected!). There were other people who had bought their own dogs to socialise, and adding two puppies to the mix meant that everyone was entertained as they all played. We stayed here for a few hours (and I could have happily stayed longer!), but we did have to get a move on to the last stop for the day… N Seoul Tower on Namsan Mountain. The tower marks the geographical centre of Seoul, so we had 360¬į of the city stretched out before us. The views were amazing (even in the toilets!) and I couldn’t believe just how large the city is!

Our last full day in Seoul was actually… not spent in Seoul. We had booked through the desk of our hostel to go on a snowboarding tour. We caught the bus very very early to join a tour group with twenty nine other English speakers and four Chinese speakers; everyone else was skiing while we chose to snowboard. After getting decked out in brightly coloured clothes from the rental place, we headed out to practice. One of us had done it before, and he did our best to teach us what he knew, since the tour guide was focusing more on the skiers. I had a lot of fun but gave up after 30-40 minutes (my ankle and knee injuries made it a nightmare), but the other two did really well. The more experienced of us went up onto the slopes, while us girls decided we would have more fun eating, watching the pros, and playing in the snow, and left to do that for the next couple of hours. Once back at our room, we went out for bulgogi¬†for dinner and it was¬†amazing (one of the best meals we had in Korea). I don’t know the name of the restaurant, because it was only a little one around the corner from our hostel, but if I ever go back to Seoul I will certainly find it again!

We caught the KTX (high-speed train) to get from Seoul to Busan on the 30th of December… it travelled up to speeds of 273 km/h (170 mph)! No wonder it only took as two and a half hours to get to Busan Station. Apart from a slight mishap with bags being left behind on the train (and quickly recovered), we were soon settling into our hostel in Nampo-dong. We decided to head out for something to eat and discovered that just across the road was a whole stretch of food markets.However, we opted for a delicious serving of dak galbi with cheese and ramyeon (ramen). We then explored BIFF (Busan Inernational Film Festival) Square and the Gwangbuk-dong Cultural and Fashion Street, which was all decked out in Christmas decorations, before calling it a night, returning to the hostel, and meeting Mango, the hostel cat.

The next day was New Year’s Eve, and we spent the majority of it at Busan Tower. We spent the morning finding the tower, taking in the scenery around us, and exploring around Yongdusan Park. We then went back down to the food markets, pigged out on all types of snacks, and slowly made our way through the streets to get to the giant Lotte Mall. Because we had seen the roof of it from Busan Tower, we knew that there were gardens and other interesting things, so we caught the elevator up. It was dark by this stage, so we were able to appreciate a night view of Busan! We called back in for a couple of ours before heading back out to Yongdusan Park and the base of the tower for New Year’s celebrations, which included live singers, lots of balloons, confetti, the tolling of the bell, and an amazing fireworks display! Happy 2016!

There were a couple of days in Busan where did nothing but shop, eat, and explore the streets around us. New Year’s Day was one of them. On these days we found Gukje Markets, discovered the weird stock in Art Box and Boda, and were continuously amazed by the number of people in the markets and the variety of street food!

Our next full day of adventure was when we decided to head over to the Gamcheon Culture Village. This area was once a multi-cultural slum but was brightened up in the early 2000s to the bright community you see today. We walked there from Toseong Station because the bus driver refused to take anyone else on the full bus! Fortunately, there were others who seemed to know where to go, so we followed them. Once inside the village, we bought a map which had a stamp trail on it. Following the trail, we managed to see a fair chuck of the brightly coloured village, and visited a few public art exhibitions as well!

Our last adventure in Busan involved visiting the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, one of the few ocean-side Buddhist temples in Korea (most are found in the mountains). We first went and explored along the water’s edge, which was lined with cairns. We also spent some time relaxing down on the rocks, before heading into the actual temple. Although it was under renovation, there was still a lot to see. We eventually headed back into Haeundae where we decided to visit the famous Haeundae Beach. We ended up staying and watching the sunset which was super pretty! For dinner we had Korean fried chicken, which trumped the chicken we had in Seoul!

Our final day in Busan simply consisted of getting to the airport… but that meant that the highly anticipated epic month in Japan was just about to start!

Our time in South Korea was pretty relaxed; there was a lot more eating and shopping than there was sight-seeing and exploring. However, that doesn’t at all mean our time there was any less enjoyable! I really want to return to both Seoul and Busan for some more exploration… and more food!

-S

WANT TO VISIT SOUTH KOREA?

MUST DOs:

If it isn’t already obvious, South Korea is a good place to eat. From formal restaurants to street food, there is so much delicious variety that you’ll be in foodie heaven! Make sure to try a bit of everything, but, if you’re a sook when it comes to spicy food like me, watch out!

If you’re in Seoul, I think that¬†Gyeonbokgung Palace and its associated museums are a must. All of the information is in English, there’s a lot to explore, and it’s all very interesting! Plus the museums and palace will take you from pre-historic Korea right up to the modern age!

If you’re in Busan, Busan Tower is a great place to get amazing views of this densely populated city, and its proximity to shopping and food means you can easily plan a day in the area! Haeundae Beach is also pretty in any weather (and not too cold to visit in winter), and the surrounding Haeundae area is a fun area.

HOTELS: 

I really like both the areas and the hostels themselves that we stayed at in South Korea. In Seoul we stayed at the Backpackers INSIDE Seoul Hostel. The staff were really friendly and helpful, and the rooms were really nice. Being located right at the doorstep of so many food options made it even better!

In Busan, we stayed at the Busan Popcorn Hostel (Nampo). The staff here were also friendly, and the rooms were immaculately cleaned everyday. The location was perfect for eating and shopping, and, as a bonus for you cat lovers, the hostel cat Mango was absolutely gorgeous! (If you’re not a cat person, don’t worry, because she only pays you attention if you pay her attention; there’s also none of her hair anywhere).

TRANSPORTATION: 

Although lacking the easiness and elegance of Beijing, Seoul has a very good railway system. It is a little complicated though, so make sure you have a copy of the network maps handy at all times. Busan’s train system is less developed, but still pretty reliable. One thing we noticed is that a lot of the stations are pretty close to each other, and you can pretty much walk from station to station in the massive underground malls (at least in Nampo-dong where we were staying).

South Korea is also known for its good train system in between cities. There are many high-speed trains running throughout the day, and you can simply walk into the station and book your ticket on the day (although be aware that more popular times will fill up earlier).

BEWARE!: 

I really found South Korea to be a safe place. There’s probably no need to be any more cautious here than what you are in your home country.