Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category


Week 6: Gyeongju

   Posted by: Rhona Tags: , , , , ,

After leaving the bustling city of Busan we headed to Yeonhwa Island, off Tong Yeong. It’s a small island of fishermen and people who made money off the crowd of day trippers who seemed to arrive while we were out walking the island end to end. In the evenings it was nice and quiet as we enjoyed our first ondol room, underfloor heating that keeps the Koreans warm during the cold winter. On the boat out to the island we were a little confused as we had 2 tickets for one price and 1 for a more expensive price. A man explained to Brett (age 43) that he and my mum (age 61) had got the pensioner price for over 65s while I was paying the normal fare. I guess they have as much trouble guessing a Westerner’s age as we have with telling how old that smooth faced Asian grandfather is. On the island we spent the day walking from our village to the other end of the island via fantastic views of Yongmeori, a rock formation jutting out into the sea that is said to look like a dragon’s head.

From Yeonhwa island we headed north to Gyeongju, jewel in South Korea’s historical crown. It was the capital of the Shilla dynasty (57BC – 935AD), which is regarded as the dynasty that founded a unified Korea for the first time. We arrived and my mum immediately got very excited about the many tumuli, tombs of ancient kings and royal family members that are scattered around the city. To me they look like grassy hills which may or may not have really cool treasures buried underneath but I guess I’m not a connoisseur of tumuli… We visited the park which encloses some of the more impressive ones and saw a cross section with copies of some of the more impressive treasures unearthed. That was cool but we’re hoping to see the real things at the Gyeongju National Museum before we leave. As for the tumuli they seem to pop up all over town, between buildings and next to petrol stations.

On our first full day in Gyeongju we headed to Bulguksa, a UNESCO world heritage site that was built in 751. Our visit coincided with Buddha’s birthday and we weren’t the only ones crowding our way into the temple that day. All along the path and in the open spaces around the ancient buildings coulourful lanterns were hung, paid for by worshipers who had donated money and whose prayers fluttered on pieces of paper hanging from the bottom of the lanterns. From there we walked to the Seokguram grotto, another UNESCO world heritage site constructed around the same time as Bulguksa temple. I could wax lyrical about the intricacey of the carving, the spiritual experience and the beam of light that shone from the Buddha’s head when I realised the meaning of life. It would all be a complete lie. We were hurried through the enclosed space and i was twice told off for being too slow. There were too many people waiting behind me to allow me to smell the lotus petals.

The next day we went to Seongnamsa, another temple. Compared to Buddha’s birthday crowds it was blissfully quiet and we enjoyed the forest setting, bamboo forest backdrop and the amazingly colourful and intricate painting that seems to adorn the roofs of Korean temples. In the brochure it mentions a three storied stupa that was

“built by Master Toui in order to defend the fatherland. It was destroyed during the Japanese invasion of Korea (1592)”

I guess maybe it didn’t work so well? Mind you the Japanese were eventually defeated so there could have been something to it?

Yesterday we headed outside town to a village called Yangdong. It was founded in the 15th century and has always been a village of scholars and landowners. There are over 160 thatched roof and traditional tile roof houses in the village and most are still lived in today. Traditionally the tiled roof houses were where the landlords lived while the thatch roof houses were for their servants. You can go inside the buildings that aren’t lived in and it was great to be able to explore the fantastic old wooden mansions. We spent almost all day exploring the various valleys the village is based around. There are 4 valleys forming the Chinese character for “not” and during the Japanese occupation the villagers managed to divert a nearby railway away from the base of the valleys. The addition of that railway would have made the character for “blood”.

Today we hiked in Namsan, a mountainous area to the south of Gyeongju. Which is why it’s called Namsan – “nam” is south and “san” is mountain. It was a full day’s hike with historical relics galore. The Shilla dynasty lasted almost 1,000 years and we saw more tumuli as well as many Buddhist carvings and stupas. Near the end of the walk at Chilbulam hermitage we spoke for quite a while to a nun about her life in the mountains and how Korean Buddhism differs from the Buddhism Brett and I have seen in other countries. Traditionally nuns and monks wake up at 3:30am but the 3 nuns there have agreed to rise later, at 4:45 every morning, as they need to be awake enough to serve tea and coffee to all the hikers passing through. They chant for an hour 3 times a day as well as several sessions of seated meditation. Then there’s practicalities like having to hike down to collect water and the fact that they can’t do laundry or wash properly up on the mountain. To do laundry or shower they walk to the closest town, 30 minutes down the hill. While we were talking there was a Hungarian nun chanting, she has apparently been a nun for 7 years and speaks fantastic Korean.

We plan on spending another few days in Gyeongju. It’s hard to believe some people only give it a couple of days if the 1 and 2 day suggested itineraries are to be believed. From here we hope to spend a night in Haeinsa temple (rising at 3:30am) and some time checking out Daegu’s traditional medicine market. Then some time in Andong, a new addition to our itinerary that looks like a very traditional and rural area.


Week 5: Bibimbap in Busan

   Posted by: Rhona Tags: , , , ,

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.

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.

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.



We left Australia just over a week ago and have dived right back into Japan. It’s good to be back with some time to explore together as previously I had work commitments. It’s also nice to be back for blossom season, when the first flowers of spring burst through the chilly air and tell us that warmer weather is on its way. Of course for us, newly flown in from an Australian summer, the start of spring isn’t such a big deal. I’ve had an almost endless summer since the end of 2004 with all my globetrotting.

Our first stop after the embassies in Tokyo and some much needed sleep was the snow monkeys of Jigokudani onsen near Nagano. We stayed in a hotel near the park where they congregate and fulfilled our fantasy of sitting in an outdoor onsen while it snowed. The only thing missing was a furry friend, we’ve seen photos of the monkeys bathing with people and there were plenty of signs of their presence (read: droppings) but none joined us for a soak. There was a bit of snow overnight (but not a blizzard by Montana standards) and in the morning when we headed to the park there were plenty of monkeys hanging around and soaking in the onsen. It’s not a park in the usual sense, there’s no fence, but they monkeys congregate around the free food and the human free onsen. And of course the humans congregate around the monkeys, sporting big lenses and multiple cameras. A a little baby curiously groomed Brett (it had to pick the person with the least hair didn’t it?!), moving his “winter coat” sleeve out of the way to get to his arm hair.

The next few nights we spent in Takebe, a small town north of Okayama. I have to admit Brett saw a lot more of it than I did. He went out wandering while I tried to get all my photos in order, up to date and backed up. Something tells me this is going to be an ongoing struggle as I try to balance experiencing places with trying to record them. Still, it was nice to have a chilled out place to take some time out. Check out the photos of the toilet, I’m glad it came with instructions! Certainly impressive use of space though Brett was a little less enamoured than I as his 6’2” legs made sitting rather a challenge in the tight space. To celebrate our 1 week of marriage we made use of the kitchen and cooked up a stir fry which turned out (surprisingly) good and bought a small bottle of plum wine. A whole week! Seems silly to celebrate but it was a good excuse to have some umeshu :o)

On the way to Hiroshima I read the personals in Metropolis magazine – the English language magazine for Tokyo – and it reminded me how many top quality dating options there are in this busy city. Or not. Actually even the fact that I’m married would pose no problem should I decide to “get a little fresh air”. Plenty of the ads mention that the person placing them are married. One man who was “married and sexless” wanted a little fun on the side. I assume his wife is also married and sexless, maybe she placed one herself? Or she could answer this one:

“cheerful Englishman, pleasant and polite, married, 40s, seeks married JF, 30s-40s for daytime friendship.”

Or this one:

“Fun, fun and more fun. Married and feeling lonely, and want to love and be loved? Look me up and you won’t be disappointed.”

A few more favourites are:
“Slim or skinny.  English businessman, 42, living and working in Tokyo, would like to meet a slim, slender or skinny girl who wants to feel his strong hands around her waist…”

“Looking for romance… Romantic gentleman wanted for dinner, wine, nice chats, relaxing in spas, nice holidays etc. but lets be friends first. Me: ex-model, 32, 166cm, slim, mature and intelligent.”
(actually it’s mostly the email address on this one that cracks me up) And my absolute favourite: I swear this was actually printed, I’m not making these up

“Handsome man sought for my very good looking girlfriend, 30s. she is slim and very sensual. I travel very often and cannot meet her needs. Married men welcome but must be well off, handsome, fit and well groomed”

Quite a few listed mental stability along with the usual pre-requisites of drop dead gorgeous (for men seeking women) or rolling in cash and generous (for women seeking men). I guess if the Metropolis magazine was my dating scene I’d probably go a bit nuts too.

We’ve spent the last few days in Hiroshima seeing the floating tori gate on Miyajima island, walking over the 5 arched bridge in Iwakuni, listening to a survivor of the A-bomb talk about his experiences, wandering around the Peace Park, stuffing our faces with Hiroshima style okonomiyaki, requesting songs at my favourite bar and belting out some tunes at karaoke. Today we’re headed to the Iya Valley on Shikoku for a few days of wandering and hopefully a 3 day hike if the mountaintops are clear of snow.

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