Archive for April, 2009


Week 5: Bibimbap in Busan

   Posted by: Rhona    in South Korea, Travel

We left Tokyo on a 33 hour ferry to Kita Kyushu in Western Japan. Combined with the ferry from Shimonoseki to Busan it was the cheapest way to get to Korea without taking a flight, and to be honest we both really enjoyed the trip. It was great to kick back, read and have an excuse to do not very much at all. And of course there were onboard attractions such as the sushi vending machine (came out frozen and needed to be heated in the microwave), the public bath (like sitting in a wave machine), the pachinko machines, all sorts of new and exciting vending machine fare and the novelty of leaving the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolis by ferry. It was much less gut wrenching for me to pull away slowly than zoom off at high speed in a plane. As the psychedelic Odaiba ferris wheel and the red lights flashing on buildings for the safety of planes going to Haneda airport faded into the distance we retreated into our warm cabin.

At Shimonoseki port we watched Koreans arrive and tried to get a feel for what type of people inhabited the new and exciting country we were headed to next. Bottled water, pot noodles and alcohol were major components of their baggage and they seemed louder than Japanese. In some indescribable way they were earthier, oh and the massive visors and short curly hair that I’ve always associated with middle aged Korean women seemed to still be the fashion.

On arrival at Busan port there was no hassle whatsoever, visitor information was helpful and we found our way to the subway and hotel easily enough. My mum joined us later that night and will be travelling with us for 3-4 weeks. In general it has been incredibly easy to get around and people have been as helpful as they can given we speak not a word of their language. So far we’ve mastered “thank you” and “hello” though I keep having mental blanks at crucial moments and looking like a fish grabbing for food in my attempt to speak.

Speaking of fish, we visited the Jagalchi fish market here in Busan, the largest one in Korea. It was a massive sprawl of small stalls and indoor market with seafood of all varieties. A friend of mine once called Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo “fish hell” and I’d say Jagalchi would up there on the horror scale if I happened to be seafood. We saw an octopus making a break for it as the shopkeeper’s back was turned and, being Australian, I rooted for the little guy. Only when he was about to cross the street and get run over did I tap the lady on the shoulder and point out that her merchandise was, quite literally, running out the door.

On our first day in Busan we headed to a baseball game and watched the local Lotte Giants play we’re not sure who. I like going to baseball games despite only having a passing interest in the sport itself. It’s a cool way to see normal people hanging out and having fun and some of my favourite memories of Hiroshima in Japan are from watching the Hiroshima Carp play. As an aside: could they have chosen a less menacing team name? I know it’s historical and all that but carp? Personally I’d like to name a team the earthworms. Just imagine the fear that would invoke in rivals… Food at the game was quite different to what you might expect at an American baseball game: there was sushi, truckloads of whole rotisserie chickens, soju (local firewater), whole dried squid and tofu skewers. The best marketing ploy we saw was a man in a chicken head and carrying a rubber chicken selling fried chicken. Vendors seemed to be older than I’d expect – plenty of middle aged men and women in jobs I usually associate with students. The Jagalchi fish market also seemed to be staffed by almost exclusively middle aged women, are the students actually busy studying?

Today we headed to the north of Busan for a great day hike from Beomeosa temple to Mandeok subway station. Both Beomeosa and Seokbulsa temples had lanterns hung out in preparation for the Buddha’s birthday celebrations in early May and they made the already beautiful temples even more colourful. Beomeosa was hidden amongst the trees and seemed to have a lot of followers; again most of them middle aged women, who walked around bowing respectfully to statues and chanting with the monks. Seokbulsa was a much smaller temple, hidden in a cleft between two cliffs adorned with huge carvings of Buddhist figures.

Tomorrow we’re headed out to Yeonhwa island, a speck of land south of Tongyeong and then up to Gyeongju for some serious UNESCO world heritage viewing.

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Week 4: Not a proper post

   Posted by: Rhona    in Japan, Travel

Already i’ve failed to keep up to date on my postings, not even a month in to our big trip and i’m already late! I have an excuse though, i’ve been without my laptop for the past half week or so because Brett and I headed off to do the Tanzawa traverse near Mt Fuji. It was a 2 day hike which involved altogether to many ups and downs for my liking. The trail builders seemed to do their best (bless their hearts) to get us to the top of every mountain they possibly could, not even bypassing the totally bypassable nameless bumps to save our legs for the ones worth summiting. So my blogging has suffered as much as my calves (and knees and quads).

We then spent the last few days in the Fuji 5 lakes area, staying at our favourite guesthouse in Fuji Yoshida and one night at the Kawaguchiko youth hostel. Described in the Lonely Planet as “somewhat regimented” it still sounded doable, but then we didn’t expect to be blasted awake at 6:45am with very loud classical music. Once they’d established that everyone (all 5 or so guests) were awake and out of bed they turned it off, but for a while there it was deafening. Odd. Thankfully we were still on hiking time so had had plenty of sleep. At the mountain hut the night before I asked what time breakfast was and must have looked somewhat stunned when the man told me 5am. He gently added that it was “from” 5am. We were up anyway. 

Apart from that our time in Tokyo has been rather mundane, picking up visas (Brett, China), getting new passports (me, Australian, Mrs Voegele reporting for duty), catching up with people and stopping in at our favourite eateries. To Die For Chocolate Cake from the place in Nippori near where I used to live, endless skewers at Piss Alley and some nostalgic drinks in the Golden Gai. It’ll certainly be hard to say goodbye to Tokyo and Japan when we get on the ferry for South Korea.

Tonight I presented at the 61st Pecha Kucha night in Tokyo, a great night of creative presenters from all sorts of different fields. In the slideshow/gallery are the 20 photos I presented as well as a few from the past week. I haven’t taken many though so it’s slim pickings for weekly photos. Hopefully more when we get to Korea.

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Week 3: Temples, gardens and lakes

   Posted by: Rhona    in Japan, Travel

We spent a few more nights in Osaka including one at a capsule hotel so Brett could experience the uniquely Japanese experience of sleeping in a 1m x 1m x 2m box. We put our shoes in a shoe locker, squished our big bags into the not so big lockers and went to our respective areas (men and women had separate lockers, bathrooms, lounge areas and sleeping capsules). In fact most capsule hotels don’t take women so it took a little searching to find one that would let me stay.

On our last full day in Osaka we went to Nara to check out some of the many ancient temples in what is considered Japan’s first true capital. In 710 the powers that be decided that the Shinto influenced practice of moving the capital after the death of every emperor was no longer necessary as Buddhism had taught them that death was simply a step in the never ending cycle of reincarnation. Or something like that. The capital only lasted in Nara for 75 years but it was a period that is still considered important in laying the foundations of modern Japanese society. We checked out some of the 8 UNESCO world heritage sites in the area namely: Todaiji, Kofukuji, Kasuga shrine  and Gangoji. Todaiji houses the enormous bronze Buddha (the largest in Japan and one of the largest bronze statues in the world) in the world’s largest wooden building and is by far Nara’s most famous attraction. Kofukuji was moved to Nara in 710 and its pagoda is the second tallest in Japan. Kasuga shrine used to be rebuilt every 20 years due to Shinto ideals of purity and is now famous for its lantern festival. Gangoji was relatively unspectacular but had tiles on the roof that are a mind boggling 1420 years old!

That evening we popped in to Kyoto for dinner – our favourite sushi train and sundae for dessert combination. At the sushi train any special order comes out on a separate track on your own private shinkansen! Hours of entertainment! And the sundae place… ooooh the sundae place… if I were to tell you there were a place where the menu gave you almost 200 choices of delicious ice cream sundaes you would surely think I was joking. I’m not, such a place exists. They also have an 18,000yen (about US$200) mega sundae which must be ordered 3 days in advance.

After tearing ourselves away from the joys of Kyoto (we went back for Shabu-shabu/sukiyaki and one last sundae another night) and Osaka we headed to Lake Biwa, just north of Kyoto. My accommodation searching had yielded nothing and with Kyoto just 10 min south we didn’t have much hope for finding a place to stay but the visitor information in Otsu proved its worth and found us a place for all three nights. Not only that but the place seemed almost empty and we saw very few foreigners the whole time we were in the area. A little weird seeing how packed to the gills Kyoto was but then again I’ve been in Japan 2.5 years and never been to Lake Biwa even though I visited Kyoto too many times to count.

Our first afternoon at Lake Biwa we headed up Mt Hiei, a Buddhist mountain with what was once the most powerful temples in Japan. At the height of its glory Enrakuji had around 3,000 buildings and thousands of warrior monks. Then in 1571 Oda Nobunaga, busy uniting the country, saw the temple as a threat and burnt the lot, monks and all. I wonder if the phrase “all’s fair in love and war” negates the bad karma that would have created?

On the way home we picked up snacks for the next day’s hike and discovered that the 7-11 in Ishiyama was the place to be on a Friday night if you’re too young to get into bars (or wanted to pick up girls who are too young to get into bars). The hike was an all day event which started with the most incredible ascent past, through and around 8 spectacular waterfalls. At one stage the book commented that a river crossing looked impossible but that it was, in fact, what you had to do. Both Brett and I will attest to the fact that it was impossible to do without getting your shoes wet and the combination of slippery rocks, steep drops and strong current made it quite an adventure. At the top of the mountain we were looking forward to a bowl of noodles and a sugary drink at the cable car station. By the time we got to the top of the mountain I was also looking forward to a quick trip down. Unfortunately the cable car no longer existed and so we walked out, making it back to the train station not long before dark. Ramen never tasted so good.

At the moment we’re in Kanazawa and spent today wandering the streets in the rain. We also visited the city’s most famous attraction, the garden Kenroku-en. It’s listed in the top 3 gardens of Japan and was certainly worthy of the title, even in the rain. We didn’t have good weather and the rain is bringing down what remains of the delicate cherry blossoms though already you can see where the irises are going to come out along the streams. I’m reminded of how Japanese gardens are designed and planted so that there’s always something in bloom: as the cherry blossoms fade the irises bloom and so it goes on.

As I do my final read-over and edit before I post I’ll tell you about our dinner that we just got back from. It was a small Showa period (1926-1989) themed restaurant down on the main road. Apart from the cheap prices what struck us when we arrived was the all you can eat cabbage. That’s something I’ve never had before! We stuffed ourselves on homestyle Japanese food for the grand total of $10 each. Nice.

Tomorrow we’re headed back to Tokyo for a few days and then to the Fuji area before catching a ferry to Kita Kyushu and another ferry from Shimonoseki to Busan in South Korea. Long term plans change as often as we talk about them – ranging from WWOOFing in Kazakhstan to learning Spanish in South America or maybe studying massage in Thailand. Who knows?

See this week’s photos in the gallery or watch the slideshow above.

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Week 2: Out in the country

   Posted by: Rhona    in Japan

After leaving the bustling city of Hiroshima we headed to Shikoku for some quiet time in the Iya Valley, a rural area in the east of Shikoku island. I’ve been there before on tours but this time we opted for a backpacker place, local transport and planned to do some hiking. Unfortunately the overnight hike we’d planned wasn’t possible as it was still snowing at the tops of the mountains and even the lower elevations we were at there was some piles about. We spent a few days wandering around the area, using buses where possible and hitching a few rides. The area is famous for its vine bridges, built to cross the steep sided valleys and apparently favoured for the fact they could be cut down if pursued. Legend has it that the area was the refuge for Heike warriors defeated by the Genji clan in the 12th century. The Genji went on to found the first shogunate government of Japan in 1185, a style of government that remained in place almost all the way through until 1868. With varying people taking the role of shogun of course, and here ends my Japanese history lesson, I could go on…

We made our way out to the husband and wife vine bridges which I’d never been to before. The higher one is obviously the husband, and being higher is obviously superior in every way. Yes dear, of course dear, whatever you say dear ;o) Expecting to do plenty of walking to get there we were pleasantly surprised to have the bus take us all the way and then pick us up again an hour later. Perfect! This wasn’t so much the case when we headed up to Chiiori, a thatched roof house restored by Alex Kerr and the Chiiori trust. The bus dropped us off at the bottom of the hill and it was a 4-5km walk uphill. I didn’t really consider myself unfit but after a few days of walking (even when we caught buses the hotel was 45min walk from the closest stop) I felt it. It was fun catching the first bus of the day 2 days in a row – we recognised the bus driver and the regular customers, many of whom were dropped off in places that weren’t actually stops. One guy brought the driver his morning coffee in a can from the vending machine.

En route to our next stop, an island on the Seto Inland Sea we stopped at Naruto to see the whirlpools which form when the tide flows through the narrow channel. It was my idea and I’m very very sorry. It was average at best and I think I used less complimentary language at the time. We waited patiently for 2:30 (the best time we were told) to tick around, hoping that the swirling waters would somehow suddenly morph into impressive whirlpools but even as 2:35 and 2:40 ticked around we stared intently at very boring water. There was quite a flow to the tide but it was most certainly not worth a trip, even if you were in Naruto (which, unfortunately we weren’t). Thankfully Shodoshima, our island getaway, was worth every second we spent getting there and away.

We arrived on a ferry from Takamatsu and rushed to the bus stop as the bus left 3 mins after the ferry arrived (very girigiri as the man at the ticket counter told me). A local woman stopped by to make sure we were OK, checked the bus times and would have given us a lift even though it was in a “somewhat” different direction to where she was going. The road from the port went two ways, it would have been in quite a different direction I suspect. The bus came, we got off at the right stop and walked in to the most informative and helpful youth hostel I’ve stayed in for a while. Before even getting to our room we’d organised a hike and bike for the next day, a lift to the start of the hike and our bikes delivered to a convenient location for us to spend the afternoon moseying about. The Lonely Planet showed a road circling the island and we were thinking of doing a circumnavigation until the English speaking owner/manager strongly discouraged us. Just as well! There were some serious hills about and the bikes had no gears, even small inclines seemed steep.

The Kankakei hike was great, even on a grey day, though both of us were surprised at how short it was. Of course it would have been longer if we’d headed out to the highest peak but on such an uninspiring day it seemed pointless to head up for a view. Besides, we had bikes waiting and an island to explore! We rode through the quiet neighbourhoods, stopped at picturesque houses, explored temples, came across a local festival and in general really really enjoyed our afternoon. Brett tried moromi flavoured icecream – which the dictionary defines as “main fermenting mash (in the production of sake)” but in this case was probably in the production of soy sauce, a product the island is famous for. It’s also famous for olives and was one of the first 3 places experimental plantations were made in 1908. For an island that has so much hype about their olives (we stayed in the Olive youth hostel, the boat we caught was the Olive Line and the island has Milos, Greece as a sister city) we didn’t manage to hunt down a single olive. Strange but true. They had olive oil galore, olive soap, olive socks (pictures embroidered), olive chocolate and olive tea but not a single olive!

Our boat from Shodoshima took us to Himeji where we hit the most beautiful castle in Japan at the most beautiful time of year. Right at peak cherry blossoms. It was busy but not as busy as expected. Of course both Brett and I took an obscene number of photos, me especially as I’ve been to the castle many times before and at cherry blossom time before. Still, every angle looked new and every blossom unique, as they always do. We were finally kicked out when the castle closed and headed to Osaka because Kyoto was fully booked. I’m not joking, the city’s hotels, ryokans, minshukus, hostels, business hotels and everything else I tried were fully booked. We spent yesterday in Kyoto as it’s only a 1 hour train ride away and there were a few things Brett didn’t get to see last time we were here. First up was Daisen in, a small but beautiful sub temple of Daitokuji, with a delicate rock garden with the famous blue green stones from the Iya Valley we’d just visited. Next was Nijo castle, not a castle by Himeji standards but the residence of the Tokugawa shogun when he visited the emperor in Kyoto. Nearby was Nijo Jinya, an inn where visiting lords stayed when they wanted to meet the shogun. It’s famous for a variety of architectural features that prevent fire and also protect visiting lords from attack as well as the opulence of the fittings. It was cool to be able to take Brett there. From there a quick taxi ride took us to the Miyako Odori.

Once a year in spring the geisha and maiko of Gion Kobu flower town put on dances to celebrate the cherry blossoms. They started in 1871 after the imperial capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo to show that Kyoto’s arts and culture were as strong as ever despite the perceived loss of status. It was beautiful to watch the grace of the dancers and to see geisha and maiko performing the skills that they train so hard to obtain. I can only imagine how busy their lives must be during the cherry blossom season. With 4 performances daily, endless parties to attend and a city full of gawping tourists every time they stepped outside the girls must breathe a sigh of relief when spring is over.

Last night we caught up with an ex-Intrepid leader back here in Osaka and are planning on spending a few more nights here before some hiking at Lake Biwa, up to Kanazawa and back to Tokyo briefly.

See this week’s photos in the gallery or watch the slideshow above.

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