Sayonara Japan

25 02 2011

It’s amazing to think that the whole time I was travelling – immersing myself in new cultures, trying new activities and flitting from place to place – I always managed to find time to update my blog but since I’ve been back in the “real world” I’ve somehow not found the time to create the last few entries. Somehow the day-to-day grind of being a feckless, unemployed bum has precluded my ability to write the last posts. Whether it be the occasional foray into looking for worthwhile employment (a tricky endeavour when despite 18-months away from the workplace I’m still not sure what I want to do – and any major change of direction results in problems such as lack of experience and skills); the (what seemed interminable) search for a new place to call my own; or even basking in the park reading a book during the UK’s recent heatwave, have all conspired to stop those final words being submitted to the interwebz. And then, of course, there has been my recent attempt to learn Java by coding a computer version of Yaniv (maybe one day coming to an Android phone near you), the game I played so much whilst travelling which has kept me busy too. Who knew that grappling with complicated GUIs using the swing class or trying to do simple things like print the output in UTF-8 format (so that I could display the symbols for playing cards correctly: ♠♣♥♦) would cause me so much pain and anguish? Maybe the subconscious reason for my tardiness is that once those last two blog entries are written I have finally drawn a line under my wanderjahre. Even now I keep reminding myself that this time last year I was sunning myself in Mancora with Andy or cursing Julia for the double-whammy of taking me on another high-altitude trek through Santa Cruz (having sworn after my Kilimanjaro experience with Hiten that I’d never put myself through that again!) AND the worse offence of continually beating me at Yaniv. But anyway, without further ado, here is the penultimate blog entry:

My last weekend at the hostel in Tokyo promised to be busy. All the dorms were full so I had to check into a single private room. If I’d expected this to be luxurious I was sadly disappointed: there was barely enough room in the little box for the mattress on the floor, let alone my luggage; and the lack of windows added to the prison cell feel. Still, at least unlike a dorm, I could leave my laptop charging up whilst I wasn’t there. After dropping off my luggage and grabbing a quick shower it was time to head to Shibuya to meet Lisa at the Hachikō dog statue. Unfortunately, everyone else in Tokyo also seemed to have arranged to meet there and it was much harder than expected to find the tall, blonde form of Lisa than you might expect in the midst of a crowd of short, dark-haired Japanese. Telfort’s risible roaming agreements had once more left me without the ability to use my mobile in an emergency but we found each other eventually and set off for some dinner.

It was great to catch up with Lisa and gossip about all the people that we knew from the previous June back in Colombia but after a great dinner of Japanese “tapas” and some fruity, sour cocktails the evening was over much earlier than I expected and it was back to hostel for the night. The care-free party animal Lisa who I knew from Medellin was now weighed down by an hour-hungry job and exhausted at the end of a long week. Did this fate await me when I went back to work for the man? I wondered. Fortunately, apart from the annoying omnipresence of overly-camp Paul (see previous postings) in the hostel lounge, there were actually some normal people there and I chatted to Stephen quite a bit. I was particularly excited when he revealed that there was an even-newer version of my camera available – the TZ20 – and since mine had been behaving erratically for some time now I decided to pick one up  in the electronic city of Akihabara. Unfortunately, after much fruitless searching, I discovered that only Kanji models were available – the English ones weren’t going to be for sale until the next month. In light of what happened to my camera a week later in India, this was probably for the best.

Karaoke - The end of Under The Bridge

The next evening I went to karaoke with a Norwegian couple that I’d met in Kyoto. Despite my best efforts around the hostel I failed to conscript anyone else to join us, although a newly arrived French couple did briefly contemplate it, and the three of us returned to Shibuya in search of a suitable venue. We probably walked past 5 before we finally noticed the words “karaoke” blazing back at us in neon from various alleyways. It was an extremely strange experience – we were locked away in our own private room – and it reminded me more of Singstar on the Playstation than karaoke as we know it in Europe in front of the general public. Unfortunately all the video footage of my wonderful renditions of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Frank Sinatra and an ill-judged Wham request (“Last Christmas” hardly the correct season either!) are now lost in time and space. I know a lot of you are thanking the Lord for small mercies at this potential assault on your eardrums.

Despite the fact that the Norwegian couple had threatened to go home with the last subway, we soothed our weary vocal chords with a few drinks in a bar just down the road from the main station. We met a friendly Aussie couple there and a couple of French expat girls who, despite joining us at our table, then spent the whole night chatting up some Japanese guys, before suddenly realising that they were way too drunk and going home early. We also chatted (often with the aid of a pen and paper and some Pictionary skills) to a Japanese girl who made Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z toys for a living. After a while in the bar, during which time we’d easily missed the last train home, we decided to head over to Roppongi Hills and check out a nightclub there. Unfortunately here too (much like the French girls and the Australian girl) the alcohol soon overcame the Norwegian girl and after arriving at our destination, we quickly made the call to head back to the hostel without even stepping out of the taxi. Considering we were going to get the last train home, however, our 2:30am finish was much better than I expected. Fortunately she didn’t need to make use of my toque as an impromptu sick bag either.

The Aussies and the Norwegian girl (all names now forgotten!)

For the rest of my time in Tokyo I went to Yoyogi Park – famed as a place where all the alternatively dressed people hang out. I don’t know if I got there too late but apart from a lot of strange Elvis lookalikes and ornate dogs that looked like they should have been on Crufts being taken for walkies, I didn’t see anything too edgy. I also decided to visit an Onsen – the Japanese hot springs. There was a big sign outside forbidding yakuza and tattoos. I never realised before that both were crimes of equal parity.

Dancing Elvises in Yoyogi park

My destination was the Oedo-Onson Monogatari: a posh onsen resort in the Southeast of the city by the Telecom Centre and, after checking in, I picked up my yukata robe and sash belt and headed to the changing rooms. I thought it might be a bit of a challenge putting the yukata on, but it came with pictorial instructions and other possible faux pas such as whether I should wear underwear beneath the robe (I should!) were explained in English next to the pictures.

Suitably garbed, I first went to visit the outdoor foot bath (fortunately, given the cold weather, they also provided additional outdoor robes) and then it was on to the main event: the single-sex springs. Here too, I was unsure if I was supposed to take the towel into the baths with me or not but the helpful attendant told me to leave it behind and so, decked out only in the clothes that I was born with, I headed into the baths proper. Whilst this might once have upset my British sensibilities, a decade of living amongst the less prudish Dutch, meant that I wasn’t particularly bothered as I strode sans vêtements into the springs. Besides, if the old saw about Asians and their magnitude is to be believed, I hardly had anything to be embarrassed about. After wallowing in various different baths of different temperatures and chalkiness I decided to splash out for a body scrub in the adjoining room. Any hopes of some cute Japanese nymphet running her soapy hands over my body were quickly dashed by the sight of my older attendant. Still, it was an interesting experience, although I think a massage is probably more fun and relaxing.

Asahi Brewery Headquarters

I didn’t do a great deal else in Tokyo in my last days. I went to Asakusa to see the infamous Phillipe Strack-designed Asahi Breweries headquarters topped with the distinctive golden flame (or is it a turd or some discoloured sperm?), followed by a boat trip down the river and then onto the tallest building in Tokyo – the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building – to view the crepuscular skyline. This was free entry, as opposed to the more popular Tokyo tower, so it appealed to my backpacker sensibilities. I was also supposed to meet up with a friend of a friend, Matt, but we never quite got our diaries in order. I did go to the gyoza place in Omotesando that he and Laura had recommended so highly – it was definitely a great insider tip, the restaurant didn’t have any English displayed on the outside and I would have walked past it on my own – and washed multiple portions of one of my favourite Japanese foods with a few beers and some sake.

Afterwards I found a local Japanese bar where I was lucky enough to find both a barman and a customer who spoke passable English and I discussed my travels with them (including showing lion pictures and Machu Picchu on my laptop). The customer was a voice actor for animé films and we talked about her experiences there. Eventually it was time for me to catch the last subway home and I headed back to the hostel for my final night. In the lounge I sat up drinking beers with Stephen and a big group of Australians. One of the Aussies was thinking of becoming a stand-up comedian and for a moment it looked like he might actually give us an impromptu performance; in the end he resorted to doing it in the Aussies’ dorm – away from people that he didn’t know – so we only heard about it from one of the other Aussies, Paulette, later. Finally it was time for my last night’s sleep in Japan. More so than any of the other wonderful places I visited, Japan is definitely a country that I want to see again – although in retrospect given the earthquake, tsunami and radiation; it probably is a good thing that my stay was shorter than I originally planned. The next day I would be flying to India for my final week on the road.

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Lost in Trans-Osaka Station

24 02 2011

There were still plenty of temples for me to see in Kyoto – there are so many I think you could take a whole week and not have seen every temple and shrine – but I decided to mix things up a bit and got the train to the nearby city of Osaka. This was only an hour away so it made it good day trip with Kyoto as my base. Upon arrival, however, I couldn’t find the tourist information office so I wandered around aimlessly for a while before finding somewhere for a late breakfast. This proved to be the undoing of any power-sightseeing of Osaka that I might have had in mind; I ended up staying in the restaurant for more than an hour and a half until I’d finished reading the compelling The Girl Who Played With Fire. After buying a copy of the final installment of the trilogy from a nearby book store I was still at a loss as to where the tourist office might be. After asking directions I finally found it and then asked for some advice of what to see.

Aside from the Universal Studios Japan and the local aquarium most of the attractions were, of course, more temples and shrines. I decided to visit the Osaka Castle Museum to begin with. Much like castles anywhere the tall outer walls were surrounded by a wide moat but the actual castle building was much more ornate than the Tokyo one – with gold gilt adorning the roofs. The whole building was given over to the museum where I read lots of unmemorable facts about the shoguns that had lived there. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon but I was hardly writhing in paroxysms of enthusiasm as I went around.

Osaka Castle

That most common malady of my travels – temple fatigue – hit me afterwards so, after a brief visit to the Shitennoji temple, I decided to wander to the Tsutenkaku Tower and ascend that. A lot of the Japanese cities seem to have a big Eiffel tower-esque structures in them and Osaka has one of the first (although this is now the second on the site). Obviously it offered great panoramas of the Osaka skyline from the top although without any extremely famous buildings it didn’t really give me a lasting impression.

Osaka skyline

After descending, a friendly street vendor shouted out to me and offered me a gaijin special of 8 takoyaki for his normal price for 6. I’d seen the strange balls of batter for sale all over Japan and had no idea what they actually were. Despite the obvious language barrier the street-seller was extremely affable so, in a fit of daring, I decided to take him up on the offer. The dumplings were like a cross between two of my favourite Dutch foods (I never ever thought I’d juxtapose those words together): poffertjes and garnalenkroketten. The batter was filled with a creamy savoury goo containing pieces of octopus and the whole thing is topped with a brown takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise and shavings of katsuobushi (smoked and dried tuna). It was delicious – although I scalded my mouth painfully with the first one; they were molten-hot inside.

 

Takoyaki

It was now time for me to head back to the hostel in Kyoto. My 8-bed dorm was now empty – the other 2 guys having vacated that day – and the hostel was very quiet. I decided to do my laundry which, for the first time on my travels, I actually had to do myself instead of putting it in a service wash. I was, after all, in a much more expensive country than those I’d visited in Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia. Fortunately the laundry room was located next to the TV room so I was able to hang out there whilst I waited for it to finish. In the TV room I chatted to a couple of strange German guys that I’d met the night before and a really young Norwegian couple who I’d arranged to go to karaoke with in Tokyo on Saturday.

I heard an Australian couple in the corridor asking if anyone knew a good place to go out. Had I not been waiting on my laundry, I think I’d have forced myself on their company, but I still had some time to wait and I didn’t manage to hear their recommendations either. It was clear that no-one else in the lounge was heading out so after I’d finished my laundry I decided to head to that mainstay of solo travellers everywhere: the local Irish pub. It wasn’t exactly busy but eventually struck up a conversation with a friendly old Scottish expat. His friendliness was probably due in some part to alcohol but, as a professor of philosophy he was very interesting enough although most of our exchanges (wherein I must have told my whole life story) ended with his sage advice of “F**k them”. He was keen to understand my views of Japan and Japanese culture and I mentioned how often as a gaijin, Japanese people wouldn’t sit next to you on the subway – I’d interpreted this as possible rudeness or fear of strange foreigners – but he informed me that this was them being polite. Eventually, of course, the conversation covered Japanese women: how beautiful they were, and how I should definitely make sure I slept with one before I left. I am also now blessed with the indispensable knowledge that apparently geishas don’t wear knickers. I think he may even have been trying to set me up with the barmaid, who was half-Korean and half-Japanese (the most beautiful combination my sage companion informed me), but I think she was just being friendly and ensuring good tips by flirting with the clientèle. In any case, I ended up with an extremely small bar tab by the time I left, my new Scottish friend having bought most my drinks for me.

 

"Tourist" geisha

The next morning I wandered around a few more temples in Kyoto and tried to find some real geisha near the tea houses but, although there were some that weren’t obviously tourists dressed up as geisha for the day, I’m not sure if I actually saw any real geisha. I also revisited a snack stand that I’d seen with Alex when we first arrived in Kyoto because I really wanted to try the Japanese equivalent of bapao (as I knew them in Holland) or steamed buns. Whilst the Dutch versions have an innocuous mush of minced meat more akin to something you might feed your cat, these contained delicious chunks of steak in a juicy, oozing gravy. Once again I was rapt in my appreciation of Japanese cuisine. In the early afternoon I got the bullet train back to Tokyo where I was due to meet up with Lisa, a travelling friend I knew from Colombia, who was now living and working in Japan. It promised to be a good start to the weekend.

Beef buns





Taking a Bullet For a Geisha

23 02 2011

Alex and I had arranged to meet at 7:30 in the hostel but, after scarcely being ready on time myself, there was no sign of Alex. After waiting for 10 minutes I ran up to his dorm room which was fortunately unlocked and whispered “Alex” into the gloom. I wasn’t sure which bed he was in and it was still early in the morning so I didn’t want to raise my voice too high. There was no response and we’d already eaten into our contingency time so I had to leave – I just hoped that Alex had already decided to leave without me.

I bundled quickly down the road, weighed down by my full rucksack, and got the metro to Ueno. From there I jumped on the JR line which would take me to the main Tokyo station. It was the middle of rush hour so it was extremely busy and it was hard work moving through the masses with my heavy burden. Like the tube in London, Japanese people are very good at standing on one side of the escalator so that people in a rush can pass them by. Of course, the one time you actually need this to happen, the crowds hog both sides of the escalator.

I arrived at the bullet train with minutes to spare and discovered that our carriage was at the opposite end of the platform. I strode quickly down the platform and finally found our seats. There was no sign of Alex and I doubted I’d see him now. It looked like I’d be visiting Kyoto on my own – I hoped he’d at least be able to get some of his money back towards a later train. Just as the train was readying to pull out of the station, a flustered looking Alex appeared at the end of the car – he’d made it after all!

The train journey was incredibly smooth and there was no way of telling how fast we were actually going. I’d hoped that there would be a digital speedometer in the carriage telling us how fast we were going but no such luck – so I have absolutely no idea how fast we were going as the Japanese countryside hurtled past us. At one point a huge snowcapped mountain crowded the view – perhaps this was Mount Fuji – my Japanese geography is still not very good.

After a couple of hours we arrived in Kyoto station and a short metro journey later we were at the Kyoto Backpackers hostel. This had proven to be an absolute nightmare for me to book. Even though it was a sister hostel of the one in Tokyo (hence the equally inventive name) I couldn’t pay for it there and they insisted on having a credit card to guarantee the room. Since I’d lost my only debit card in Vang Vieng I didn’t have any valid cards to guarantee my reservation with. “Well Alex is coming with me. Can we use his card to guarantee my bed?” “No, it must be your card.” “Well since it’s just to guarantee the room, can I leave the money here in an envelope as a guarantee for the reservation?” “No, it’s a separate hostel.” Despite all my inventive workarounds the receptionist was complete intractable and offered no solution of her own. Then I thought of one. “Wait. Do you take Amex?” And so I handed over my American Express card as a guarantee for the room. The fact that the card had been cancelled two months beforehand and could never have been charged if they’d tried didn’t seem to matter – foolishly they did no pre-authorisation – and I managed to book okay.

I dropped off my pack at the Kyoto hostel and we asked where we should go if we only had a day to see the highlights of Kyoto. The receptionist underlined a few highlights and pointed us in the right direction for the bus and then our whistle-stop tour of Kyoto began.

I really liked Kyoto from the get-go. It is an incredibly picturesque city filled with temples, canals and traditional buildings. It is also the home of the geisha and it really brought home parts of the book and film Memoirs of a Geisha as I walked around. Parts of Kyoto are also incredibly touristy (both international and Japanese tourists) but the marauding hordes don’t take much away from its inherent charm. Our first stop of the day was Kinkaku-ji – the temple of the golden pavilion – a gorgeous shariden (containing relics of Buddha) covered in gold-leaf and set amongst beautiful Japanese gardens overlooking a mirror pond. The golden pavilion was located quite a way outside of town to the Northwest but it was mercifully small so after a quick march around there we jumped back into the bus.

The golden pavilion

Our next destination was Nijō Castle, home of the Tonkugawa shoguns from the 17th century. This was a large compound surrounded by sturdy walls, moats and ornate Japanese gardens. The centrepiece was the Ninomaru palace where the shogun received his guests in different rooms dependent on their status. The corridors were laid with “nightingale” floors which squeaked whenever you walked on them. This was to protect the feudal lords from unexpected visitors and potential assassins – Alex and I tried our best to walk along them without the tell-tale squeak and almost succeeded but it was impossible to walk on them without any noise.

 

Inside Nijo Castle

 

After exploring the grounds there for quite a while it was back on a bus (the tourist information girl didn’t quite point us in the right direction) and we headed to our last destination of the day: Kiyomizu-dera temple. The approach to the temple was up a long hilly road. Tourists thronged the path and, on either side, souvenir shops and cafes vied for attention. There were uniformed guides pulling tourists along on wheeled carriages and a lot of shop staff in traditional costumes. Nearly all the tourist shops sold ornate chopsticks: Alex should have saved his shopping mission which had taken us all across Tokyo for Kyoto instead. At the top of the hill we entered the main temple complex: inside it seemed to be like a Japanese Blackpool. Little booths along the way were selling good luck charms and prophesies and inside the complex we found the Jishu-jinja shrine which is dedicated to Okuninushino-Mikoto, the Japanese god of love and match-making. There were two “love stones” there about 20 metres apart – legend has it that if you can walk between them with your eyes closed you will find true love; Alex gave it a go and arrived safely at the second stone, although I think I was supposed to tell him before he crashed into it.

 

Me and Alex in front of the temple

 

Throughout the temple there was lots of geisha wandering around. They weren’t really working geisha – these are now a rarity in Kyoto – but rather tourists who had got dressed up as geisha for the day. Alex managed to find two particularly attractive tourists and get his photo taken with them; I think he was hoping that his true love prophecy might already come true. After the shrine we went to the Otowa waterfalls to catch and drink some of the sacred waters; supposed to give the visitor wisdom, health and longevity – although the Japanese believe that you may only choose two. We just thought they granted you a wish.

 

Catching the sacred waters at the entrance to the temple

 

We were now pretty exhausted with the whole tourist trail and had a couple of hours before Alex got his train back to Tokyo. So after some aimless wandering around through the restaurant area of town (most of them seemed to expensive for our backpacker budgets) we found an eat and drink as much as you like place where we did our best in our 90 minutes there to do just that. We ordered plate after plate of meats (not necessarily the choicest cuts) and cooked them on our little grill in the table. After dinner it was time for Alex to head back to Tokyo – this time he allowed plenty of time to catch the bullet train – and I headed back to the hostel lounge, where I chatted to a few people there before calling it a night.





Two Gays One Cup (‘O Noodle)

20 02 2011

Japan! What a feast for the senses to the world-weary traveller. A place that I’ve always dreamed of visiting and somehow never quite made it. A Western standard of living and yet weird and foreign through root and branch. I was instantly mesmerised by the bright lights and strangeness of it all and yet intimidated by the fact that speaking the lingua franca doesn’t really help much in the Land of the Rising Sun where everything is written in Kanji and few people speak English. Fortunately a lot of the tourist information and subway signs are written in English – it was actually easier than it could have been.

The luggage took a long time to appear on the belt; although considering how long it took to walk from the aeroplane to the baggage hall this was probably not that surprising. Finally, I collected my stuff and headed to customs. “How long are you staying in Japan for?” he asked. “About a week and a half” (Not long enough by far but from here on in I was on a tight schedule). “And will you be staying here the whole time?” he said, pointing at “Tokyo Backpackers” on my immigration form. “Probably not the whole time. I plan to travel around a bit but I’m not sure where yet.” My vague answer or perhaps my unkempt (I think of it as backpacker chic) appearance triggered some suspicions on his part and so he started searching my bags. Eventually after feeling around through my dirty clothes for a while he seemed satisfied enough and let me carry on. I’m just glad he didn’t discover my zip-lock plastic bag of Malarone malaria tablets – most of which have spilled out of the blister-pack; they looked suspiciously like the meta-amphetamine pills in the anti-drugs poster at the airport.

It was quite easy getting into town from Narita airport. The staff at the counter for the Keisei line spoke good English so I soon had a ticket to Ueno for 1000¥ (12$US). It wasn’t the quickest way into town – it took 80 minutes – but I was in no immediate rush and it was the cheapest. I was amazed on the train at how many people I saw playing on their PSP’s. I’ve never seen so many in one train carriage before. At Ueno I got the Tokyo Metro’s Hibaya line for two stops to Minowa station. Even just those 4 minutes on the subway were an aural marvel – some of the announcements at the station reminded me of the strange commentary on a Bubble Bobble type game that I’d played on the Playstation and piped birdsong thronged the air at the stations. It occurred to me that my exposure to Japanese culture hasn’t been that high – the Final Fantasy games, one Manga film and copious consumption of Japanese food.

This part of the journey had been quite easy but I still wasn’t quite sure where the hostel actually was. Luckily I ran into 3 Aussie guys who’d just come back from snowboarding just outside the station who were also looking for the hostel so I joined them in trying to find it. We still managed to walk straight past it and had to head back down the road slightly but it was all good in the end. The hostel seemed a bit quiet though and I couldn’t seem to find anyone to go out to dinner with – I hoped that it was just because it was a Sunday and everyone was still recovering from a hard weekend. I got chatting to an American kid, Charlie, who seemed to have major beef with his parents. I got the impression that they were quite well-off and the only reason he was in Japan skipping a semester was to annoy them and spend their money. He also told me how he’d worked at McDonald’s for 3 months for the sole purpose of annoying them. Inevitably we got onto a discussion about the metric system and I had to explain what a stone was and the weird hodgepodge of different systems that we use in the UK. I’ve had these discussions a lot on my trip – still, it’s always a good excuse to point out that, apart from Belize, the USA is the only country in the world to still use Fahrenheit.

He was drinking some beers on the terrace and I decided to go off and get some as well. His directions for the shop weren’t that good though – I found myself wandering through a red light district of ladies bars at the end of the street. Big bouncers in dinner jackets kept trying to usher me into their club (most of them had Dreams in the name) – eventually I backed up and found the convenience store and brought some beers back. It was quite cold in Tokyo; especially after the warmth of Laos, so after another beer run and buying a Cup O’ Noodle for my dinner we headed into the lounge on the 2nd floor.

Here, an incredibly camp guy called Paul completely dominated the conversation. He was vaguely amusing at first but, after many days at the hostel, I came to realise that, as well as being crass and lewd, he was a complete Münchhausen. I quickly tired of his high tales which were designed to shock everyone in the room and would normally concern his sexual exploits that day (although I’m never quite sure when he fitted these encounters in; he always seemed to be in the lounge) or the differences between the tastes and sizes of penises of different cultures. He would even start playing gay porn on his iPad and showing it to everyone – “It’s not porn, it’s educational,” he would say. One time he even put it on the television; I was fortunate not to be in the room when that happened. I knew that if I made a comment against his salacious stories I’d probably be accused of being homophobic; eventually I coped with his endless verbal diarrhoea (which undoubtedly involved at least two guys and a cup) by listening to The XX on my iPod so that I didn’t have to listen to the XXX in the lounge. I’m sure if I’d told similar stories about any heterosexual exploits or started showing everyone straight porn on my laptop I’d have been roundly ostracised and possibly banned from the hostel.

I spent the whole of my first morning in Tokyo trying to sort out my Indian visa. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I went first to the Indian Embassy and then discovered that they’d outsourced the visa applications to another company over the other side of town in Myogadani. In the course of my travels I discovered that Tokyo has two different companies running the subway lines (Tokyo Metro and Toei) and although they intersect at regular points and you can travel between them the tickets do not work on the other lines. This resulted in a few tickets being swallowed by the machines before I’d completed my journey or having to swap them with the attendants at the gates. I resolved to get the Tokyo equivalent of an Oyster card to make my journeys easier in the future.

The map that they’d given me at the Indian Embassy was a crooked photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy and most of the Roman alphabet writing on it was illegible; the Kanji was in an even worse state so, when I initially couldn’t find the visa centre, I also struggled to ask directions of the local people. When I finally found the office it was almost 11am and it closed at 12:30 for lunch. I grabbed a ticket number, filled in the application form and then watched as the ticket numbers clicked over incredibly slowly. I decided to risk heading back to a coffee place where I’d asked for directions earlier and wait it out there for 30 minutes – there were still at least 10 numbers before mine when I returned at 11:50 and I was one of the very last people to be served in the morning session. I was lucky I did manage to get seen before lunch: it took 8 working days to obtain the visa and applications after lunchtime took 9 days – there didn’t seem to be any leeway on this even if I’d offered them more money for an express service. Fortunately, the 8 days was just enough: my visa was due for pickup on the 2nd; the day before the flight that I’d already booked to India. I decided to keep hold of my passport so that I could use it as ID and was told that I’d need to return it on the morning of the 1st at the latest – otherwise my visa would be delayed by additional working days.

 

Pedestrians crossing the road at Shibuya

 

With that all sorted I headed back to the hostel and asked where the famous square was that everyone talked about: the Times Square of Tokyo and the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. The receptionist looked puzzled at the Times Square reference but on further explanation she told me it was Shibuya. This commercial and nightlife hub of Tokyo was about a far away from my hostel as was possible; it was my first inkling that the hostel was located a bit far out. I’d first heard about the scramble crossing by Hachikō square from Happy, an Icelandic girl that worked at the hostel in Antigua, Guatemala. She’d told me that every time she crossed the road here (which she did repeatedly) she’d worn her trademark big grin – and it was indeed fun. The traffic stops at all four compass directions at the same time, allowing pedestrians to bundle across the road in which ever direction they desire – there are even diagonal zebra crossings; although when the traffic is stopped you can pretty much walk where you like.

I was starting to feel peckish at this point but although there were lots of restaurants around it was hard to know which ones would actually offer an English or picture menu. I felt quite intimidated by the Kanji and foreignness of it all. I imagined myself to be like Dekkard in Bladerunner: the last Gaijin left on planet Earth whilst all the English-speakers had headed off-world to seek a brave new world of opportunities. Finally I found a ramen bar with a picture menu and ordered what I think was a minced beef ramen with an almost raw egg that you cracked into the top and a side plate of gyoza. This was delicious and I, of course, washed it down with a Kirin beer.

 

Beef ramen

 

After dinner I headed back to the hostel and sat in the lounge. Once again, no one seemed to be in any hurry to head out on the town – I think half the problem with the hostel was because it was so far out you really needed to head into town earlier so it involved more forward planning than most travellers are used to – and a lot of the guests seemed to be permanent residents with jobs with no interest in drinking every night. Somehow, even though I had to keep putting my earphones in to block out the blue balderdash of camp Paul, I met an English guy, Alex, that night and we arranged to meet up the next day to visit the Tokyo Imperial Palace together.

Alex knew a good restaurant on the way to Minowa station which was uniquely Japanese. We walked into the restaurant; inserted our coins into a vending machine at the entrance; pressed a big button with a picture of the food we hoped to receive, and then handed the ticket to the chef. It was like freshly cooked FEBO and the food seemed to come almost as soon as we handed the ticket over: which defied all expectations of how long it should take to cook it.

 

The moat around Edo castle

 

After our brunch we headed to the Imperial Palace and wandered around the gardens and the remnants of Edo Castle there. Even though it was too early in the year for the main season, I was pleased to see that some cherry blossoms (technically they were plum) had braved the cold weather just for me.

 

“Cherry” blossom

 

After struggling to find an English book the previous day in Shibuya (quite why they translate the names of the stores when they don’t sell anything suitable for foreigners I’m not sure), I’d Googled a store near to the palace. It took us a while to find it and, contrary to the information I’d read online, it didn’t sell any English books or Japanese guidebooks. We were clearly going to have to look elsewhere in town. Alex was looking for some chopsticks for his girlfriend so we decided to go to a big shopping centre in Roppongi called Roppongi Hills. Here we discovered, much to our surprise, that it is incredibly difficult to find chopsticks in Tokyo – or at least chopsticks that looked fancy enough to give as a gift. I did at least manage to find a bookstore with a small selection of English books and bought the Girl Who Played With Fire to feed my new Larsson addiction. I decided against buying a travel guide – they were too expensive and I decided I could find out the necessary information at the hostel.

Alex asked another Gaijin there if he had any ideas where we could buy nice chopsticks and he suggested a department store in Shinjuku called Tokyo Hands so we headed over there. We exited the subway in completely the wrong place and, after wandering around aimlessly for a while, asked an American businessman (at least with the gaijin you were pretty sure they’d speak English) where the shop was. We found it and Alex was able to complete his mission to find some present-worthy chopsticks – although we both baulked at the price.

From there we decided to head up to Akihabara Electric Town – I needed a new hard drive to back my computer up with; my previous one had given up the ghost and I was worried about not having a backup of all my photos from the past 18 months, and Alex wanted to investigate some iPod ripping software. Huge stores filled with every kind of electronic toy lined the streets; I was in heaven. With my new hard-drive in hand we then got another metro back up the road to Ueno where we wanted to buy shinkansen (bullet train) tickets for the next day to Kyoto. A local guy with weird bandages all over his hands decided to help us find the subway – we weren’t immediately sure why but it became apparent as we went to board our train and he asked for some money – we declined and left him behind whining pathetically. I felt a bit guilty but I couldn’t go giving money to every beggar around – Japan was expensive enough.

Neither Alex nor I had invested in a rail pass which, if we’d applied for it whilst we were still outside the country, would have saved us an absolute bomb in rail fees; but this did at least mean that we could get the fastest of the bullet trains – the Nozomi; with an impressive operating speed of 300kmh. We booked this for first thing the next day and then headed back to the hostel to rest our weary feet after a full afternoon of sightseeing and shopping.

After relaxing at the hostel for a while it was once more time to get some food so we went to a Chinese restaurant down the road. The proprietress didn’t speak any English but we were eventually able to order some food by pointing at the pictures and enlisting the help of a guy at the bar who spoke a little bit of English. He then offered us a glass of sake each which, as is the habit of Englishmen when presented with a small shot-sized glass, we both immediately downed. From the looks of shock and disbelief on his and the owner’s face, I think we were supposed to sip it. Sensing a challenge from these strange gaijin, our new friend then bought us another sake from the top shelf. We also demolished this with a flourish – I think they expected us to breathe fire after necking the 56% proof brew and were disappointed when we sat there quite unaffected.

After our dinner we retired to the hostel and then went to bed early, ready for our trip to Kyoto early the next morning. We couldn’t have imagined how much difficulty we’d have meeting up the next day.





The 300th Post: Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

18 02 2011

Well here it is! Post number 300, which surely deserves a strident fanfare of trumpets – especially for anyone that’s actually followed the itinerant Barry from the beginning. Of course, if I’d blogged my earlier African adventures with more than this brief summary of my first six weeks and maintained the one-entry per day format; that number would be far, far higher. Still, for those of you bored of the constant Barry-spam on your Facebook walls or those living their lives vicariously through my vagabond lifestyle, we are now nearing the end.

I have mixed feelings about my return. On the one hand I’m actually looking forward to being in one place: maybe even having a wardrobe and chest of drawers to put some clothes in and not just be pulling the selfsame attire out of a rucksack all the time. Also I’ve felt for a while that being on the road has become so commonplace that I no longer fully appreciate the amazing sights that I’m seeing; the new experiences that I’m taking part in; and the wonderful opportunity that I’ve been given to roam the world without worrying too much about money. I’ll also miss the chance to meet new people on a daily basis and listen to their stories and adventures around the world.

On the other hand, the idea of going back to w*** gives me the heebie-jeebies. Hopefully I’ll find something that challenges and reinvigorates me in much the same way that my travelling gave me new strength when I started off. Like Forrest Gump, one day “for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run.” Okay, there were reasons at the very start: some minor annoyances like dissatisfaction with my career and a failing marriage but those quickly fell by the wayside as I travelled on: “I ran to the end of the road, and when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town.” What drove me on was a compulsion to go to places I’d never been before, to experience the world as you can’t see on a two-week vacation, to test myself with new experiences and push myself in ways that I’d never been pushed before. On the whole I think I succeeded but, eventually, like Forrest “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.”

One question that I’m often asked about my travels is “What have I learned in all this time on the road?” Firstly I think I’ve become less concerned with material things although I’m still very attached to my MacBook Air. Probably because it is my window to the outside world and stores my prized photographs of my trip. My iPod too has been a travel essential – I doubt I could have endured some of the long bus journeys without it. Apart from that my head-torch and Swiss Army knife are items that I’d be reluctant to travel without in the future. Carrying my thoughts forward, I’ve learned to appreciate the smaller things in life: a comfortable bed, a fluffy towel, a hot shower and a toilet where you don’t have to squat and can flush toilet paper down. And although I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly asocial, I think I’m now even more able to mingle with a roomful of complete strangers. The other thing you learn (although this will probably evaporate when I get back to the real world) is to be patient: when you’re travelling a few hours delay here or there doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. You also learn to be very adaptable and more spontaneous: if you have a plan you can change it; if you don’t have a plan you can always make one.

Anyway, after this indulgent introspection, it’s time to move on with the travels. On my last day in Laos I said my goodbyes to Jan and Yana (who’d been my travelling companions for most of my Laos trip) and Ellen (who I’d been running into since Hoi An). I think I’d said goodbye to Sarah and Manon the night before – which was just as well because, much to our disbelief, they’d finally left the island after days of saying that they would. I was on my long way to Japan, which due to the hefty prices is a bit off the backpacker route. I’d be unlikely to see anyone there that I knew from elsewhere. After a boat and bus ride I arrived in Pakse once again. From here I got a bus across the border to Ubon Ratchathani. The border crossing was quite smooth; although some people somehow managed to cross to the Thai side without having an exit stamp in their passport – which caused a bit of a delay. At Ubon, I was happy as a pig in clover when I discovered a coffee shop in the bus station offering free, good quality WiFi – I’d missed that in Laos; but unfortunately they didn’t do any food so I still had to leave after a while to get a dose of Thai cuisine: we only had an hour at the bus stop.

I’d bought The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the day before and found myself compelled to read it to the very end, even if it meant I wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep. Even when the lights on the bus went off, I strapped on my head torch and carried on. I finally finished it at around 11pm. The bus wasn’t a sleeper so it wasn’t the most relaxing trip ever and we arrived two hours later than expected at almost 8am. I had been travelling for 23 hours and still had another 17 hours to go before my 15 hour flights to Tokyo. I wasn’t sure whether to just hang out at the airport for all that time or check into a hostel for the day. In the end I decided that 55 hours without a shower might be pushing things a bit far so I headed to the Lub*D hostel for the day. This was quite pricey for a Bangkok hostel and far away from the normal backpacker haunts on the Khao San road but it was located right next to the Sky Train which made it easy to get to the airport later than night. Unfortunately none of the other backpackers at the bus station were heading in this direction, so I shared a taxi with an Australian couple to Khao San and then got the boat down the river to the main sky train terminal.

Chang beer

I couldn’t check into my room until 2pm – so, after being in Indochina for 2.5 months and somewhat limited in my culinary options, I did what any self-respecting foodie would have done when in Bangkok: I went to McDonald’s and got a Big Mac. For the rest of the day I had a small afternoon nap and just chilled out at the hostel using the WiFi. I couldn’t even find it in myself to socialise too much: it seemed pointless when I was leaving before the end of the evening. The hostel seemed really nice and in some ways I wished I stayed there longer but at 10pm it was time to catch the sky train to the airport, ready for my journey to Tokyo. This involved a brief stop-off in Beijing where I think I paid $11 for a coffee (isn’t China supposed to be cheap?!) and finally after more than 2 day’s travelling from Laos I found myself in Japan.





Been There Don Det

14 02 2011

The sleeper bus down to Pakse was a bit of surprise. Instead of the single-berth beds that had been the norm in Vietnam the bus had two lines of double bunks down the bus. I was next to a German girl. I’m not really sure about the etiquette of spooning with complete strangers so I tried not to get too close as we slept – although they were really narrow beds so this was sometimes difficult. I spent the first part of the trip watching Run Fat Boy Run on my laptop – not my facesake Simon Pegg’s greatest movie; but enjoyable enough.

In Pakse we swapped to a regular bus which drove us to a ferry crossing on the Mekong where it was a short boat trip to the island of Don Det. I was wandering down the main street and ran into Ellen, who I knew from Hoi An and had run into again in Vang Vieng, and Sarah (German) who I knew originally from Luang Prabang and had also seen in Vang Vieng. They were with a French girl called Manon. I sat down with them for a while and eventually checked into the guest house just opposite the cafe where the girls were also staying. In the afternoon we decided to rent some tubes and go tubing in the river. This wasn’t really the same as it would have been in Vang Vieng. The river currents were quite mild – the only place they were wilder in this area were those parts of the river leading to the big waterfall (it was generally NOT a good idea to go tubing there) – although I seemed to struggle more than anyone else actually paddling my way across the river.

The Four Thousand Islands are pretty enough (I think the “islands” can often just mean any random tree that is growing on a 1m² patch of land and I doubt that anyone has really counted them all) but I’ve been spoilt by being on too many exotic rivers over the past year or so. I scarcely found anything in the view that I felt was worthy of a photo. I really had become a jaded traveller and it was another clear reminder to me as to why I needed to stop soon.

Cow on 4000 islands

In the evening we went for a curry at the local Indian restaurant. The food here was absolutely amazing and once again in Laos I’d find myself in a curry house every single night of my stay in a town. The only downside of the restaurant was that it took a minimum of an hour to get any food. We eventually got around this by working out when we were most probably going to feel hungry and going there an hour beforehand to pre-order. We’d generally only have to wait 30 minutes for our food to arrive when we came back. The Indian was packed every single night there – it was far and above the best eatery in town – I can only imagine what additional profits they would have realised if they’d sped up the cooking process.

After the curry house we went to the reggae bar which would become another staple element of my time in Don Det and chilled out on the cushions there whilst we drank a few beers. There were quite a few French people at our table and Sarah is at least trilingual so the conversation would often lapse into French and I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said. Me and Ellen got our own back by speaking to each other in Dutch. The next day the bar was having a big all-day party on a random island outside of town and we all decided to go. The boat left at about 11am, I just hoped that Jan and Yana would arrive in time so that they could come too. I’m not sure why I worried so much – like reggae bars the world over, accurate timings were not strictly enforced. I’m sure there’s a reason for this.

There was a big party on the beach that night for Valentine’s Day and for wont of something to do we wandered down there. There was a DJ playing lots of tracks and everyone was sitting around in the sand drinking beer. It was a lot of fun and (perhaps because we were far away from the mainland) we were all able to drink away until 3am. It was probably the only time on Don Det that the party went on so late. When I went to the toilet I discovered that some people had remained in the main bar there and were singing some very bad karaoke. I was glad the sound was drowned out by the DJ on the beach.

The next day I had breakfast in a restaurant just overlooking the beach where I hoped the boat would drop Jan and Yana off. They arrived just before 11 and I quickly rushed them down to our guest house where they managed to get the last room. We bustled to the reggae bar – I barely let them get breakfast – and then signed up for the party. As could be easily predicted it was at least another hour before we actually got on a boat and headed to the island.

I was a bit out of sorts for the first hour of the party; perhaps the late night the night before had tired me out more than I thought and I didn’t really make much effort to mingle with people outside of my existing acquaintances but we had a really good time sitting on the beach and swimming in the Mekong all day whilst supping on Beer Laos. Eventually it was time to head back to town and, as was our pattern, visiting the Indian restaurant and the reggae bar.

An informative sign on the bridge between the islands

The next day we rented some bikes and cycled over to the nearby waterfalls. Unfortunately, Yana’s had a puncture and we had to keep stopping along the way to get some air in her tyre. Some of the locals were more than willing to help out a damsel in distress; others were less than helpful and would give a simple shrug that eloquently said “Well, if you’d rented a bike from me instead this wouldn’t have happened”. When we finally got to the Khone falls, which we got to by crossing a bridge to the neighbouring island of Don Khon, I was disappointed to discover that there was nowhere to swim there. I’d dreamt of a quick dunk in the Mekong to wash off the sweat from our bike ride through the midday heat but there wasn’t anything like that. We then debated whether to carry on further to see if we could see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins but we knew this would involve a lot of negotiating with a boat captain to get a boat into the middle of the Mekong so we instead headed back towards town.

Khone falls

That evening, in addition to our usual trips to the Indian and the reggae bar we all decided to head down to a local party. This was actually a funeral but they didn’t seem to mind a load of falangs sitting at the fringes. Rather than the sombre overtones of a European funeral the Laotians have a 5-day festival to celebrate a person’s life. We’d probably have sat a bit closer to the centre but the noise coming out of the stereo was a discordant mash of white noise and the incessant jabbering of the compère. The microphone was way too loud for the speakers to cope with. The compère was even making jokes about all the falang at the party and eventually, after another goading, we all risked bleeding eardrums and got up to dance with the locals. It was a fun evening and I’m glad we went but I’m sure my ears were suffering the next day.

I didn’t do that much on my last full day in Don Det – most of my time was spent trying to organise my onward flights (on the appalling and expensive Internet there) and finishing reading Marching Powder so that Jan could read it after me. Obviously the evening involved the usual schedule of the Indian restaurant, the reggae bar and a few games of Yaniv. I enjoyed my time on Don Det but maybe it was little too chilled for my tastes and the absence of WiFi annoyed my need to feel permanently connected to the real world. The next day I would start with the 11am bus on my long trip to Bangkok.





Vientiane

11 02 2011

I met up with Yana and Jan at the Spicy Laos hostel first thing in the morning ready for our bus to Laos’ capital, Vientiane. We were going to go straight to the hospital to visit Idiet but Kate’s mum let us know via Kate’s Facebook that they were already moving on to Thailand. The hospital in Vientiane had apparently been horrendous and they were going to a more modern, Westernised facility in Udon Thani just across the border.

It took about 5 hours to get down to the capital city. We were dropped right in the centre and it was a short walk to the street with all the guest houses on where we found a triple room at the Youth Inn 2 for 40,000 kip each. We weren’t planning to stay long in the capital and resolved to get the night-bus the very next day down to Don Det in Si Phan Don (the Four Thousand Islands) on the border with Cambodia. Obviously, Laos is a landlocked country so these islands are situated in the middle of the Mekong.

Vientiane was initially quite refreshing for a capital city. There really is no comparison to the other regional metropolises of Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh – most of the time I kept asking myself if this really was a capital city. The roads are quiet; there is none of the mayhem, noise and pollution that characterises the other cities and everything seemed very orderly and sedate. It felt more like a small town than the capital of anywhere. We went for lunch at the Swedish Pizza & Baking House and the smell of the fresh pizza was absolutely amazing – even though it was quite pricey compared to my normal backpacker fare I knew I’d have to have one. It was as delicious as it smelt!

Jan and I played a few games of Yaniv there whilst we waited for Yana to get back from the bank. This was annoying on at least two counts – the first was that he was absolutely thrashing me; he got more than 10 Yanivs in a row which should be statistically impossible. And the second was that at one point he asked me whose turn it was to deal. “Mine” I said immediately, forcing me to do 10 push-ups in the middle of the restaurant – it somehow seems unfair to catch people out playing the Game of Life when you’re not even drinking.

For the rest of the afternoon I desperately tried to find anywhere that did free WiFi. Most of the restaurants only seemed to offer chargeable WiFi from various local Telecom companies. We finally found a bar on the same street as our hostel (it turned out that this was where all the WiFi spots were) which offered a very ropey connection for patrons. At least now I was able to update my blog and get in touch on Facebook. There was still no word from the girls over in Thailand – we hoped that everything was okay.

In the early evening I was pleasantly surprised to meet the English full-time lads from Sapa and Halong Bay sitting on the terrace outside our guest house. I thought they were already in Luang Prabang and hadn’t expected to see them again before I left Laos. We had a good catch-up over a beer – apparently they were still playing Paper Telephone and the drinking game 21 that I’d taught them. At least I got an invaluable tip out of them on what to do in Vientiane before they left to catch their bus – Buddha park sounded like a must-see place. Jan, Yana and I headed down towards the Mekong River (ultimately disappointing – it was set so far back from the town and wasn’t the atmospheric river front I imagined it might be) to find a place for drinks and had another chance encounter with Julia and Jemima, the Aussie girls from Luang Prabang. We went for a few drinks with them in a Tex Mex bar down the road. It seemed okay to begin with but as we left it was filled with a lot of dodgy looking characters: sex tourists, lady boys etc. It seemed that Vientiane did share some of the characteristics of the other capital cities in the area after all.

Jemima wasn’t feeling too good so she headed home but the rest of us went to the market and grabbed some food there. It probably wasn’t actually that much cheaper than a local restaurant and didn’t particularly stand out. Afterwards we went for a few more drinks in one of the bars by the guest house and chatted away there till the bar shut (not particularly late). I finally traded one of my books with Julia for a copy of Marching Powder, which I’ve been wanting to read since Bolivia. We talked about going to the nightclub in town but we were all a bit tired and from Julia’s reports it was quite weird anyway so we headed off to bed instead.

After a late breakfast the next day we headed back to the guest house to book our bus ticket to Four Thousand Islands and discovered that the buses were all full. “But you told us it would be fine yesterday,” we protested to no avail. I decided to book one for the next evening but Jan and Yana put it off by one more day. At least it meant they could sort out their Thai and Vietnamese visas on Monday. I kept complaining that I was going to be “all by myself” which I of course sang like Rene Zellweger in Bridget Jones. I wasn’t jealous of them spending another day in Vientiane though, I was fast finding it too quiet for my liking and without any real tourist attractions.

 

Chicken in the bus

After we’d sorted out another night’s accommodation we got a local bus to Buddha Park. The bus was probably not the quickest way to do it but it was very cheap and you always get the most interesting experience travelling on local buses. At one point a monk was sitting next to us and a woman brought a squawking chicken into the bus on her lap. The journey took more than an hour; we first drove to the Thai border and Buddha Park was the last big stop.

 

The pumpkin of heaven and hell

The park itself was quite impressive; more than 200 Hindu and Buddhist sculptures vie for your attention – and some of them are really quite bizarre. One of them is sized like a giant pumpkin with a tree coming out of the top and you can climb your way through it to get a fantastic view across the whole park. Apparently the three levels are supposed to symbolise Hell, Earth and Heaven as you go up but this imagery was lost on me. The climb would probably have failed every health and safety guideline in a Western country – the stairs were sized for tiny-footed people; garden gnomes would have struggled with them.

 

Buddha Park

After clambering around the various sculptures and admiring the statues for a small while we headed back into town. There I finally decided to get my beard trimmed. It was getting to the stage where I could store food in it and hibernate for the winter; which is pretty gross really. I finally found a hairdressers near our guest house – the old woman led me to a back room; which she first needed to set-up to make it usable. I’m guessing that she didn’t get many customers there – at least I felt that I was making a direct contribution to the local community.

We didn’t do a lot else in Vientiane: we played innumerable games of Yaniv and drank a few casual beers but nothing really worthy of note. Before I knew it I was heading south to Don Det. I was travelling on my own for the first time since I arrived in Laos.