A Travellerspoint blog

JUNE 2007 -Hong Kong, Lantau Island & Disneyland

A very brief entry from a very brief visit to Hong Kong

sunny 31 °C
View Seoul to Hong Kong on Bulls's travel map.

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Hong Kong -"the fragrant harbour", was our last and the shortest trip out of Korea.
With Nick having only 1 day holiday left + the weekend, Maja and I set off a few days before to prepare the ground.

Before coming to Hong Kong we were a bit puzzled with "where would be the best place to stay". When we asked some different friends who had already been there, they gave us opposite suggestions all implying their options were the best.

Hong Kong comprises Hong Kong Island (the commercial heart of Hong Kong, almost futuristic skyscrapers with the offices of Asia's leading banks, trading companies, upmarket shopping malls and top class hotels) , Kowloon Peninsula ( mainly industrial and residential area with numerous factory outlets, street stalls bargains but also museums and parks), Lantau Island (the new airport, Disneyland) and The New Territories ( a big chunk of the mainland China ,mainly rural areas good for hiking) and some 260 other islands.

After some speculation we decided that we preferred to look at the famous Hong Kong skyline from the other side and stayed on Kowloon Peninsula in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) area. Although the most touristy it was also the most convenient place to stay -we got a good hotel deal -5 mins walking distance from the waterfront and Star Ferry that takes you to and from Hong Kong Island.

We arrived on wednesday evening, checked in at the hotel , quickly refreshed and went out for a bite to eat and to check out the neighbourhood. On the way we decided to get some take away and eat at the waterfront.
We followed the sign to the pier

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and suddenly we were there with the most dramatic view of the city I think I have ever seen

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It was the evening but still too early to be very dark. On the other side of the harbour we saw a silhoutte of mostly silver towering builidings with their peaks cut off in the clouds that hang over them like an old fashioned ladies' hat - covering and at the same time revealing but never giving the whole picture.

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Unfortuantely looking at our snaps you might wonder what I am on about as they don't come anywhere close to what it really looked like !

I am a nature lover and don't usually get easily impressed by modern architecture. Although I always appreciate the original designs and brave ideas I have never felt like "WOW" until now.

The combination of the modern buildings, the green bushes in the background appearing and dispappearing from the palette of grey and dark blue clouds made the harbour look amazing as if it was one huge modern construction floating on the water or hanging off the clouds, depends which way you looked at it.

We got to the pier just in time for the Symphony of Lights - orchestration of music, decoration and laser lights and a pyrotechnic fireworks display with commentary in English and Chinese depending on the day of the week. The show takes place every evening (weather allowing) at 8 pm and lasts for about 13 minutes. With 43 buildings on both sides of the Victoria Harbour and participating in the show it made it to the Guiness Book Records as the largest permanent laser and light show in the world.
It is definetely worth a watch and can be best observed from the waterfront of TST (Avenue of Stars) or from the deck of the ferry.

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After the show we decided to take a walk to the Star Ferry Terminal to check the opening times etc.
Having collected enough leaflets to organise our stay we went to Hong Kong Cultural centre -located just by the waterfront -to have a nose around and sit with a coffee/juice and plan our next few days.

The following morning the weather still didn't look very promising. We sat at the hotel by the huge glass window eating our breakfast and having watched people getting soaked on the street below we decided to go to the Ocean Park - although located mostly outdoors it also has a variety of indoor activities and some of Asia's biggest aquariums. We took the subway to get to the other side of the harbour and then a bus to the amusument park. The rain was easing a bit so it was actually all right to walk around in our raincoats. The park is located on the sides of the mountains of Aberdeen and offers fantastic views of the channel and mountains on the other side.
It is divided into 3 levels which can be reached by riding the cable car or using one of the world's longest outdoor sets of escalators. With a big variety of thrilling rides suitable for different ages, theatre shows (dolphins and sea lions),birds aviary , feeding schedules,some best aquariums in the world (Asia's biggest shark aquarium and world's largest reef aquarium), sea animals art and craft activities and many many more it should make a good day out for anyone not just a family with kids. Although it remained rainy and sticky for most of the day and we could not get on some of the rides as they were not operating due to the weather conditions or with Maja being only 4 -we were not allowed, we had a brilliant time! We left the camera at the hotel so we have no snaps from there but here is a good link for those interested to get a taste of it

http://www.travel-images.com/hong-kong17.html

While on the bus ride to/from the park we were able to have a closer look at the towers and buildings that we were admiring the night before from across the harbour. I was under the impression that the first (outside) "layer" of the buildings were grand but as we travelled further into the island more and more of the buildings looked pretty tired, neglected and were a big contrast to their flashy neighbours.... On the way we passed the Happy Valley with Hong Kong's Royal Jockey Club and also the cemetary which made a powerful impression on me, maybe because I always associate them with quiet spacious places on the outskirts or outside of towns and this one was quite the opposite -sunk somewhere amongst the buildings it looked so out of place -yet again all these souls were buried just there to rest in peace. It made me realise how every possible square meter of the Island had been used up.

The next day we went to Lantau Island and planned to go for a walk along the beach as well as to see the Big Buddha. We took the subway to get to the island and then a bus (about 1 hour drive) to get to the Buddha and the temple. There were some stunning views as the bus kept climbing up the mountain, the island looked pretty unspoiled and a nice place for hikes.

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Unfortunately the weather wasn't any better then yesterday and just got worse as we got to the Buddha so we gave up on walks and we only hoped to get a glimpse of the Buddha from amongst the clouds!

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We still had to walk up plenty of stairs to get a closer look at the Buddha

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as well as the misty view below:

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Once back in Kowloon we had a walk around the hotel area in the opposite direction to the pier. The streets were busy and the air so humid that we quickly decided to get back to the hotel especially as we didn't fancy any shopping and most of the streets were occupied by shops and traders. Maja didn't take long to fall asleep while I waited for Nick who was arriving later this evening.

Disneyland

It was an early start next morning and a big day for Maja -her (and ours ) first visit to Disneyland.
Thankfully the weather had totally changed overnight and we had a sunny day.

Disneyland is also located on the Lantau Island and you can get there by subway. The last part of the journey is on "Disney Resort" line where the train has Miki mouse shaped windows,statues of different Disney characters etc.
Maja just could not wait to get off that train ....she was sooooooo excited!

And so we arrived.

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For some reason we didn't think it was gonna be that hot and didn't take any sun cream. With the sun getting stronger and stronger, Maja's white and easy to burn complexion and no shops selling sunblock on the horizon, we were in trouble. If you ever get yourself in such a situation remember there is always First Aid or Emergency room. Although the staff seemed a bit suprised with our request we got the cream and could enjoy the rest of the day without worrying about the sunburn.

So here there was no plan, we followed wherever Maja wanted to go. She made sure she got to say hello and get a hug from nearly all of the Disney classic characters which involved just a little bit of queueing:

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Then we went to watch the 3D opera:

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And after that the parade:

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Having done and seen so much, there was still 1 character Maja kept on looking out for -the beautiful Cinderella.
She had seen her palace at the entrance and finally, towards the end of the day we spotted her near the gates. But as we joined the queue we were told that CInderella was finishing greeting kids for the day and was now going for dinner....just imagine our reaction....I told the woman they should block the road or something so other kids would not be able to see her and get their hopes up. However sorry I felt for Cinderella who had probably been smiling without the break for the last 10 hours (unless they had a twin sister) and was in need of a break and some food, I could not tell Maja that Cinderella wouldn't see her. There were simply no words in my mind that would justify the reason without breaking Maja's heart. So I went on and on, even said something like "We came here all the way from London to see Cinderella....", and after few minutes the woman took us on the side and advised that Cinderella will be passing through the nearby gate in a few minutes and if we wait there she will ask Cinderella to see Maja.....I was somehow suspicious that she was only trying to get rid of us but all we could do was to go to the gate and hope she would turn up.
I think the woman must have indeed said to "Cindy" that we came all the way from London as once she arrived she spent a good 5 minutes with Maja

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and Maja.......................................................................................................................... was in heaven:

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It was definetely worth the effort!!!

After that someone discovered the toy story zone and we were there forever!

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Although it was hot and crowdy, watching Maja having so much fun and innocently believing in the fantasy world we were in made our day and at the end of it we were all sad to leave:

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The next day we went to Hong Kong Island and took a tram on the 106 years old railway to the Victoria Peak. In the old days before the tram had been put in place, most people were carried to and from the Peak by the sedan chairs. The ride up is 1.4 km long and pretty steep but guarantees some fantastic views of the city on both sides of the harbour.

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We spent some time on the top enjoying the views

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and then came back down and walked around the Central. As it was sunday, the streets were closed and there were Filipino maids nearly everywhere you looked , sitting in small groups on mats with cool boxes, eating food or playing games. It was an extraordinary view because there were so many of them gathering just anywhere enjoying their only day off work.

As this was our last day and we didn't have enough time to walk the streets as we would like to, we took yet another tram. This time the 90 year old ricketydouble decker tram line operating through the centre from the west to the east side of the Island.

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It was very old and narrow inside the tram with many people on it as it is the cheapest way to move along the route. We went on the top deck and after some time managed to get a seat. The train slowly transported us from the modern glamour of the commercial city, through the local markets

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selling probably anything you wanted to the poorer residental districts in the east. We were glad we sat on the top as if we were at the bottom we would probably only see the nice shop windows etc. Being above allowed us to see more than just a glitz and tinsel of Hong Kong -the collosal numbers of apartments that looked like they were just piled on the top of each other. I couldn't help wondering how long it could all hold on.....

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We spent our last evening in Hong Kong cruising the harbour and looking at the twinkling lights of a city with a great history that definately deserves more of the tourist's time than the average 24-48 hour shopping stopover in between other destinations.

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And being there only a few days, looking at it from different heights and directions we felt like we hadn't seen it at all!

Posted by Bulls 07:42 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

MAY 2007 Buddha's Birthday

A Lotus Lantern Parade and another visit from London and Malaysia

sunny 15 °C

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Lotus Lantern Festival is held every year in spring to celebrate Buddha's Birthday which falls on the eighth day of the forth month of the Lunar Calendar. It is an official holiday in South Korea and festival includes many programs for Buddhist as well as non -Buddhist locals and tourists to enjoy like - making lanterns, sampling temple food, traditional Korean games etc.

Although only 15% of Korean population (according to most statistics) consider themselves to be Buddhists at the moment -The Lotus Lantern Parade was definetely the most bright and colorful event we had seen in Korea. It attracted crowds of people of all ages,
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from Korea as well as other countries,
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that marched joyfully through the central streets of Seoul bringing the sounds of drums, dancing and chantings for enlightment and peace.

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The parade was a real race of lanterns that came in many shapes and sizes, home made or state of the art ones representing different temples and Buddhist groups in shapes of the Buddha or Buddhist monks

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scary dragons, animals and other creatures.

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We only wished we knew more of what they were symbolising.

Our favourite however was a group with instruments made out of recyclable materials. They were definetely the most original and enthusiastic ones amongst the parade!!!

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We ended the evening with the dinner in the restaurant near the temple where all the lanterns where going to, so we could still watch parts of the parade and enjoy the noise.

Just a few days before the festival, our friend from London Kai and his girlfriend Wisky arrived in Seoul for their holiday in Korea and Jeju Island.
Although they had their own itinerary and understandably wanted to spend as much time as possible in their own company, we managed to hook up with them a few times!
We all went on a cruise on the Han river, to celebrate our birthdays with a buffet dinner, some drinks and "live entertainment"! Although it was cheesy and as the average age of other cruisers indicated most popular amongst the elder Koreans, the food was good and so was the company so I think we all enjoyed it although we all lacked in courage ( or drinks consumption) for the boogie on the dance floor.....

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Posted by Bulls 04:32 Archived in South Korea Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

MARCH APRIL 2007 Springtime in Korea

Time for Korean blossoms and good-bye to Maja's teacher

semi-overcast 13 °C
View Seoul to Japan part I on Bulls's travel map.

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We always associate Japan with beautiful cherry blossom trees but Korea can be proud of them too.
When spring arrived blossoms seemed to be nearly everywhere but they looked most impressive in big spaces, attracting people back to the parks with their families, mats and picnic basket. It was an awesome view when the petals were flying in the air blown off the trees by the slightest wind.

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Spring was my second favourite season in Korea, if not in the same place as autumn. It seemed as if it came overnight swapping shifts with winter, painting the city with colour, bringing warmth and fresh breeze of a not so fresh here air.So apart from our routine life of work, school etc we also took every opportunity to go to parks and enjoy the outdoors.

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We also walked the streets again but usually without the camera, so haven't got many great snaps but here are some of my favourite:

"Spring" - a shell shaped sculpture in the centre of Seoul
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Some street performances:
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An original display of Korean dresses:

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And a shop with some pretty fancy shoes (awaiting your orders):

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With the winter over Maja had to stop her weekly acrobatics on ice but we soon found a replacement - a ballet class in the nearby centre. It is all conducted in Korean so I wasn't sure how Maja would find it but she didn't seem to mind and just followed the teacher and the other kids.

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She also had to say good-bye to her school teacher who was leaving Korea and doing some more travelling in Asia. She'd been really good to Maja and Maja had grown very fond of her, so as a farewell, we all went to dinner in a Buddhist restaurant that served "vegetarian temple food".

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This month we didn't like:

"the yellow dust/cloud or sand dus/cloud" - the unpleasant side of spring in Korea and other Asian countries, it originates from the deserts of Mongolia, China and Kazahstan and is carried eastwards over Koreas, Japan, Russia as sometimes as far as the US . The clouds components include many toxic pollutants from solphur, ash, carbon minoxide, heavy metals such as mercury, copper, zinc etc, and also different viruses, pesticides, bacteria and what have you. As the cloud comes and goes sporadically the warnings are issued on TV, radio as well as sent to you mobile. Depending on the scale of the wind you are either advised to keep your outdoor activities to a minimum and while outside to wear a mask and shower properly from head to toe on your return or in the extreme cases refrain from going out, stay at home and keep your windows shut.
The list of side effects is probably as long as the list of its components so won't go into the details here but the main ones are -decreased invisibility (as its nickname indicates -the air looks yellow and leaves a layer of yellow dust on everything after the rain -best seen on cars if you brave enough to draw a line with your finger...), variety of health problems from sore throats to asthma and could be fatal for those who already have respiratory problems,harmful to wildlife, farmlands....and so it goes....

Posted by Bulls 04:08 Archived in South Korea Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

APRIL 2007-kaleidoscope of ancient & modern Japan -part III

Paper cranes in Hiroshima and red colours of Miyajima

semi-overcast 13 °C

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HIROSHIMA

It is difficult to say why we came to Hiroshima. All other cities we had visited in Japan where the obvious tourists hot spots, rich in cultural heritage and filled with countless attractions and fun things to do.
Although plenty of tourists visit Hiroshima every year I find it difficult to put it down on the same list of places we've been to so far.
The city's main attraction is ironically one of the greatest human tragedies, a terrific disaster to its nature and its people fully scripted and actioned by powers of other human beings on the 6th of august 1945 who turned this once military but also an educational city into the first atomic bomb target.

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Standing on the soil that has once, within seconds been burnt to ash and facing some of the reminders of this horrific event, one can't believe the horrors that had happened in this city:

The A-bomb Dome, the only blast survivor left in ruins, a naked skeleton of a building that had once proudly stood and served as an Industrial Promotion Hall has now become and eternal reminder of the sufferings and a symbol of a total destruction that took upon Hiroshima.

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Across the river from the A-bomb Dome, there is the Peace Memorial Park stretching behind the T- shaped bridge which was the actual target used by the bombardier.
It is dotted with memorials

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The Cenotaph that includes all the known names of the victims (excluding the Korean ones who have a separate memorial) and is believed to serve as an arch for the souls to hide from the rain. There is a flame burning beneath the arch and it is to be extinguished once the last nuclear weapon on earth has been destroyed.

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Further along the park there is the Children's Peace Memorial

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inspired by one of the victims Sadako, who at the age of 10 developed leukimia and decided to fold 1000 paper cranes -the Japanese symbol of longevity and happiness- hoping that once she achieved her target she would recover. Unfortunately Sadako passed away having completed her 644th crane. She was buried with 1000 cranes, the remaining 356 made for her by her schooldfriends.
The paper folding of the cranes continues up to this day and the monument is surrounded by milions of them, sent or delivered from schools from all over the country.

Each day we came back to our hotel room we would also find a different paper crane folded for us by the room-maid and in hope for peace in the world.

The Memorial Mound

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Although you probably find yourself like us feeling deeply touched, sorry and angry for what had happened here -especially while you are at the museum, where exhibits speak for themselves and the model showing the town after the blast makes it easier to imagine it although you are probably still nowhere near the reality of those days- the town is far from depressing.And it is all thanks to the citizens who have recovered and on the contrary remained in their town and managed to build a new city of a tranquil yet modern atmosphere and also rebuild some of its previous attractions. If anything it gives you inspiration and hope and shows how much us human beings can achieve on both - bad and good fronts. It reminds us how precious our life is and how little time it takes to destroy it!

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The Hiroshima Castle and one of the trees that had survived the blast and kept growing:

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And while visiting in the castle Nick and Maja got to wear traditional Japanese costumes and grins:

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MIYAJIMA

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Designated as a World Cultural Heritage, Miyajima is an island that makes a perfect day trip if you are staying in Hiroshima (although if you enjoy nature you can easily spend a few more days here!). It can be reached from Hiroshima by a train, followed by a short ferry crossing.

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On the day of our trip we were very lucky with the weather - the sun was shining and the sky was blue which contrasted nicely with the red colours of the famous "floating" O-Torii gate (classified as one of the "three Japanese best views), the shrine and the 5 -storied pagoda.
The island's corret name is Itsukushima taken from the Itsukushima shrine located on the island since the 6th century, although its present form comes from the early 12th century. The island had (and I suppose still has) a holy status and people were not allowed to set the foot on the island unless they approached the shrine - constructed in a form of a pier - on the boat , going first through the O-Torii gate.

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We walked around the gate for a while and then decided to climb the sacred Mt Misen - 535m above the sea level, not too high but those who did the walk know how difficult and fairly steep it was in places.

We passed by the Daisho-In Temple
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-one of the most prestigous temples in Western Japan. This is where we found why the little statues of Bosatsu (Buddhist monks) are wearing the red bibs and caps like babies - the parents who have lost their children take good care of them as though they were their lost children.

We also came across the statue of Tengu, who with his wings and a long nose has been considered to posses supernatural powers since the ancient times and is indispensable to the holy sites on mountains in Japan. It reminded me of our Polish "Duch Gor" -The Ghost/ Patron of the Mountains-.

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During the walk,Maja needed some serious encouragement from time to time and with a little help of daddy's back and the promise of an ice-cream afterwards (always works!), she proudly made it to the peak.

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The views from the top were magnificent and as the walk back would be same as the walk up- mostly through the forest - we decided to make our way down using the cable car and enjoy the views just a little bit longer. It was fun!

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There is plenty of other attractions on the island -for example the Eternal Fire Hall which shelters the fire, lit by Kyobo Daishi (who underwent the ascentic practise for 100 days on the mountain in the autumn of 806) and believed to have been burning for 1200 years! This fire was used to lit the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
The island is full of cultural assets and various spiritual sites located mainly on the mountain, "wonders of nature" and "Miyajima's living miracles" as advertised on the leaflet together with traces of travels of famous worshippers which are probably very interesting to the followers but wouldn't have much significance to us.
Still, we found the place absolutely stunning. The shrine and temples "co-exist" with perfect harmony with nature, that has been kept totally intact creating a magnificent scene for anyone who visits.

Here is what we found on the slopes of the mountain, a perfect description of the place put into words by the First World War poet Edmund Blunden who must have visited the mountain during his life- if you click on the picture it should enlarge:

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This month we also liked:

Books:

very sad and very true:
"Eyewitness Testimonies Appeals From The A-bomb Survivors"
"Hiroshima" John Hersey could not describe it better then The New York Times did on the back of its cover -"...nothing can be said about this book that can equal what the book has to say. It speaks for itself, and in an unforgettable way, for humanity..."

learning how to fold the paper cranes: get your colour square paper ready:

http://www.origami-instructions.com/origami-crane.html

Posted by Bulls 09:45 Archived in Japan Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

APRIL 2007-kaleidoscope of ancient and modern Japan -part II

Templed out in Kyoto and Nara

semi-overcast 13 °C
View Seoul to Japan part I on Bulls's travel map.

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Kyoto

Once we arrived in Kyoto our slight disappointment with Mount Fuji's "poor hospitality" towards us, was quickly replaced by the zing and excitement of being in Japan's most beautiful and most "Japanese city" -according to the worlwide reputation.

However, if you arrive like us by train, you will be first impressed not by -what Kyoto is best known for -rich cultural heritage of the ancient Japan (17 Unesco World Heritage Sites)-but one of the largest buildings in Japan -the very futuristic and modern building of the Kyoto Station. It will also take you back into the 21st century when your visit to Kyoto is over.

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We had only a couple of full days to explore it with an extra day for the trip to nearby Nara. With a late evening arrival, also a late departure and a trip to Nara we decided to stay in the ryokan located near the station and save some time on commuting to and fro.
It proved to be a good choice as it was handy and very comfortable and compared to Tokyo's one - recently renovated and very clean. The room was specious and once Maja was fast asleep in bed (read: on futon) we could sit on the little "balcony" and reflect on our busy day and plan the next one while sipping green tea...or indulging ourselves in Japanese beer and delicious desserts....

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Although most scenic and beautiful spots are located west, east, south and north of the city centre as if embracing all that is new, there are also a few highlights in the central part of the city which we decided to explore first.

We went to Nijo Castle -built at the beginning of the XVII century. It first served as an official residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns until the country's sovereignty had been returned to the Emperor in the XIX century and the castle became the property of the Imperial Family.

Passing through the fortification and over the moat to stand on the hill overlooking the castle grounds with its palaces and gardens, you're guaranteed to be taken back in time.

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But if your mind keeps drifting back to the present day wait until you go through old wooden gates and enter the reception rooms and the original "nightingale floor" starts squeaking under your feet as you walk along!

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Of course the castle wouldn't be short of blossoming trees that come in all colours and variations and it even has its own "blossom calendar":

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We have also visited "nearby" -well still centrally located- Imperial Park surrounding The Imperial Palace although we didn't go to the palace as you need to prebook your tour well in advance and also because we didn't have enough time.

It was getting late in the afternoon when we went to wander the streets of Gion district hoping to catch a glimpse of a geisha passing by. The place felt very aunthentic with its streets lit by lanterns, decorated with vivid colour ribbons and lined up with original old wooden buildings that served as restaurants, souvenir shops or exclusive teahouses -"geisha retreats" where patrons may pay more then $4000 to spend an evening in the company of 2 or 3 geisha.

According to the guide book the evening in a teahouse begins with an exquisite dinner presented in accordance with strict rules of ettiquette and geisha (or maiko-apprentice geisha) introducing herself in Kyoto dialect while the client eats his dinner. Next comes shamisen (traditional 3 string instrument) performance, followed by a traditional fan dance and of course the service of pouring drinks, lighting cigarettes and bantering.

Unless you are introduced by an established patron it is almost impossible to enter the a Gion teahouse and witness a geisha performance with the exceptions of annual public performances or dance presentations or.... watching more or less dodgy posts on YouTube!

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And today the luck was on our side - we managed to see quite a few, possibly on the way to/from their appointments or theater shows.

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Once in Gion we went to Gion Corner to observe tea ceremony, Moribana -a flower arrangement, a performances of Kyoto music, an ancient comic play and a traditional Kyoto dance performed by beatifully and colorfully dressed Maiko and Geisha. At the end we also watched a puppet play where the actors operating life size puppets are also present on stage although dressed completely in black.

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It was an interesting experience although it felt a little stiff and dry.

After that we went back to the central part of Kyoto to see what the modern Kyoto's night life and streets look like.
Unfortunately only to a certain extend as our own little puppet was getting a bit tired. We found a nice place to eat (deep fried noodles served and then crashed with salad and other bits, delicious!) and headed back to ryokan.
On the way we popped into an internet/manga cafe to check our emails:

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and of course some MANGA

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Although the central part of Kyoto is a very modern place with neon lights,big shopping arcades, modern architecture etc Kyoto's ancient vibe does not leave you for a minute. Many people move around on old bikes, you see many women and men casually wearing their kimonos, there are plenty of little shops or stands serving traditional foods and snack -we had delicious grilled rice cakes topped with succulent caramel.

Here is a view of a temple at night:

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The next day we went to the outskirts of town and visited quite a few temples which seemed to be appearing anywhere like "mushrooms after rain". After walking from one to another we were totally templed out and decided just to walk along and enjoy the serenity of nature without stopping by:

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While walking we came across not an average VIP you might think of - the moss boss and his numerous faces

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and here he is at his best, stretching amongst the trees like a green carpet decorated with red flowers:

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Nara

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While staying in Kyoto we visited nearby Nara (40 min train journey) -the first permament capital of Japan (before that capitals were moved from place to place with the passing of each emperor according to native Shinto taboos about deaths) and a second only to Kyoto as a repository of Japan's cultural legacy (8 Unesco World Heritage Sites ). In size Nara is quite small so we were able to see most important sights and attractions but we could easily have spent another day or two there and explore some of the more distant sights as well.

Most of the attractions are situated in Nara-koen area -a park on the eastern side of the city. It is within a walking distance from the JR station and the whole area can be easily covered by foot.

Temples and shrines are Nara's biggest attractions. Buddhism first flourished here along with traditional Japanese Shinto religion under the strong patronage of succesive emperors and empresses.

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The park is also home to an estimated 1100 deer which today hold a status of National Treasure and in pre-Buddhist times were considered messengers of the gods.

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You can see them roaming all over the park but mainly at the entrances to temples looking out for tourists with food. You can buy special buiscuits for them but if you are with children you should try to do it discreetly as their eyes are watching you all the time and the moment you hand out something to one you 'll be surronded by the others sniffing and biting your pockets which can be a little scary and intimidating.

Nara's star attraction is Todai-Ji temple and Daibutsu-den Hall

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which is considered the largest wooden building in the world sheltering the enormous statue of the Buddha (16m high, 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kg of gold!).
The statue represent the cosmic Buddha -the centre of the universe, believed to give rise to all worlds and their respective historical Buddhas,

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There is also a tall wooden pole with a hole the size of Buddha's nostril. It is believed that once you squeeze through it you become enlightened. We wanted to have a go but would have to dedicate half a day to it by joining a long que of schoolkids on their way to illumination!

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Outside the hall there is a "healing statue" (sorry I cannot remember the name) and again according to beliefs if you touch it with "a suffering part" of your body it will be healed.

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We walked around the park, admiring the scenery and the old architecture that survived through wars, fires and other disasters.

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On the way back we came across a Buddhist celebration. We tried to find out what it was but nobody could speak English although they tried to explain it to us by gestures mainly pointing at Buddha.

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Maja went to get a closer look and say hello to a beautifully dressed Japanese girl, who in return gave her a colorful flower to keep.

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Accompanied by fog and drizzle throughout the entire day,we really enjoyed Nara and wish we had more time to explore this little town , go to museums and see some more of the local people and their ways of life ...

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This month we also liked:

"Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken." Frank Herbert

"Memoirs of the Geisha"- strongly critised however still a great film!

Maja posing with Kitty - her favourite character !

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watching Japanese Matrix on YouTube (now we know where they get the idea from)
here is our favourite:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=5RrLWT4TjKs&mode=related&search=

Posted by Bulls 14:55 Archived in Japan Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

APRIL 2007-kaleidoscope of ancient and modern Japan -part I

TOKYO AND MOUNT FUJI

sunny 16 °C
View Seoul to Japan part I on Bulls's travel map.

Under the famous cherry blossom tree

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When we decided to come and live in Korea for a year it wasn't because we had any particular interest in the country itself but mainly for the opportunity to live abroad and travel to other "nearby" places.We also thought that it could have been a chance to boost up our finances -but so far we have only enriched ourselves with photos and the great experiences of places we have been to while away from the UK...not that we are complaining

Anyway the idea of coming this way excited us very much, especially because of its location -Korea is very close to Japan. And Japan has always been somewhere amongst the top countries we wanted to visit!

So Japan here we come!

Our adventure with Japan began in Tokyo where we flew in on friday night.
We took a taxi to our ryokan located in Asakusa -the old part of the city.

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The taxi ride was pretty cool. To our suprise there was not much traffic and entering Tokyo via the express way snaking amongst some very impressive buildings, it felt as if we were flying just inches above the city. And the views of Tokyo at night were stunning as expected.The city was buzzing with colourful lights and neons but we were mostly impressed with the red twinkling lights on top of a few buildings that seemed to be coming and going to/from nowhere as if the echo of light was drawing us deeper and deeper into the city.

However short our stay, while in Japan we wanted to have the ultimate Japanese experience. We decided to spend most of the night in ryokans - traditional Japanese inns dating back to XVII th century - somewhat equivalent to the guesthouses except there are no beds in the rooms but futons that spread out on tatami floors, the bathtub is more of the "squat in it" size but taller then bathtubs we have in our bathrooms and there is usually a beautiful tea set with some green tea. Once in the ryokan you take your shoes off at the entrance and you're supposed to change your clothes and wear "yukata" which is a casual form of the kimono and was originally worn after the bath (simply - a dressing gown or "around the house" clothes). Depending on the size, location and the price, ryokans tend to offer a variety of facilities such us hot spring baths, delicious home made food prepared out of local and seasonal ingredients,karaoke bar etc.
The best and most authentic ryokans are often located in scenic places on the outskirts or outside towns.

TOKYO

In Tokyo -having chosen one of the cheapest ones and conveniently located on the back streets of Asakusa - Tokyo's oldest part of town -we didn't have very high expectations. And right we were to do so as with its old carpets in the corridor, tiny rooms and a musty smell the place resembled more of an old youth hostel although still in japanese style. Considering it had all the basic works -the tatami floor, futons, yukatas and tea set were all there, the staff were all very friendly and we were out in town throughout the days and back totally knackered late evenings,the place did the job of providing a very cheap and basic Japanese sleeping experience!

We fully dedicated our first day to Asakusa -the old part of town, with some of the greatest temples, markets and where some of Tokyo's old folks live and carry on with their daily routines as if the world around them hadn't changed. It is not suprising it is packed with people -its old, traditional Japanese atmosphere attracts not only foreign but also Japanese tourists but somehow you're not bothered by the crowds who seem to be an integral part of it all.

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We followed a long street lined up with tourists and market stalls selling Japanese crafts and souvenirs to Senso-ji -the biggest and most significant temple in Tokyo. We not only visited the temple but were able to discreetly observe other people who came to visit and pay their respects to yet another incarnation of Buddha (the one of Mercy) and receive "blessings" by burning giant insence and bathing their faces in its smoke in front of the gate to the temple.

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It was a nice place to be and walk around although felt a little strange lacking the knowledge of what the place is really about and what different things symbolise but we learned more as we had travelled further on.
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There was another way we could have done the tour around the old town but at the time we somehow didn't fancy it...now I wish we did....it is cheesy and touristy but hey ....at the end we are the tourists!

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Having paid our visit to the temple, we decided to walk to the pier to take a cruise on Samida river. As we walked along we saw people gathering all along the river and suddenly we found ourselves looking at "backstages" of what was to be a show of a traditional archery competition performed on the horseback or foot, with its form going back as far as XII century and handed down to the present day.

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In the old days the shogun himself encouraged it as a necessary accomplishment for a samurai and in the present day the event is held by the head of the family that has been an active master of archery and horsemanship and inherited the shogunate.

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It was a great show as we didn't known about it beforehand and came across it simply wandering down the river.

Next was the cruise on the Samida river, nice and relaxing, offering not the most beautiful but an interesting overview of the city and Tokyo's bay.We passed under quite a few bridges, some old as well as modern buildings, the famous Asahi Beer tower, a XVIII centrury traditional Japanese garden and a fish market.

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We ended the day in a local restaurant in Asakusa where Nick had some traditional Japanese dish of egg, pork and noodles and I went for the chef's sushi plate of the day that had a wide range of sushi samples and I really enjoyed it except for the sea urchin roe one which had a very strong taste and was literally repulsive ....

Our second day in Tokyo we spent by travelling in between different this time modern and happening districts of the city but first we went to Ueno Park

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filled with galleries and museums that unfortunately we didn't have the time to visit but at Maja's request we stopped at the Ueno Zoo to see the giant panda. For some reason panda's enclosure seemed to be the least pleasant one. While other animals seemed quite happy and kept in good condition, the panda looked a bit miserable and depressed.

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After enjoyable time watching the animals, we went to see peonies garden filled with all the colours and sizes of the flower!It was beautiful and I absolutely loved it -peonies have always been my favourite flowers -my grandma use to grown them in her garden and I remember poking my nose to smell them just like Maja did here:

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In case you like peonies or are a fan of crosswords -its name comes via Latin from Greek and belong originally to the physician of gods.
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As it's been a while ago since we had accomplished all this, I can't remember in what order we did things, but we decided to walk the streets to get a bit more feel of the city instead of jumping on the subway getting on and off at major sights and attractions.
Looking at the map, city looks very compact and places we wanted to go to seem quite close to each other but once you start walking (with a 4 year old who wants to look and touch literally everything) it takes a bit longer then expected. Still we walked through very beautiful Hibiya Park with a large lake filled with spotty, red, white and black carps and turtles sitting still on the rocks as if they were statues to the Imperial Palace gardens as the palace itself is not open to the public.

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Just across the road was the busy shopping district of Giza

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with the expensive shops and the Godzilla statue somewhere within. We walked for ages looking for it and expecting it to be respectfully a big size and we nearly missed its ironically small statue although standing face to face with it, it could still send shivers down your back and it took few minutes to persuade Maja to come close to it and have a picture taken:

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Next we found ourselves on electric powered streets of Akihabara -famous for its many electronic shops and Mecca for games', manga and animation lovers.

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We only wished we had more time to dive into some of them as it looked fun and do some people watching as this is apparently place to be but all we had time for was to rush through the streets and visit the Anime Centre located in one of the higher buildings there which also gave us a good panorama of the area.

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Then there was the time for dinner and saying good-bye to the city from the 250 metres high observatory of the Tokyo Tower.
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Standing there and watching the city at night with its neon lights blinking in all colours and in every direction, Tokyo felt like a very cool city to live in offering a big choice of neverending and sometimes the weirdest enterteinment there is! It felt like all we had done here was having a quick peer at it through the keyhole not having enough time to turn the key and open the door. Definetely a place to go for the youngsters out there with spare time on their hands....
Not a very sharp snap of the night view but gives an idea:

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MOUNT FUJI

However sad we were to be leaving Tokyo behind, we were very excited and looking forward to the rest of the trip and the next day on the slopes of Mount Fuji!

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We booked a day tour to the mountain, with a cable car ride and a boat ride on one of the nearby lakes.
The clouds had hung very low this day and although we came half way up(by bus) to the 5th station, which is not always possible due to the weather conditions,the mountain still wouldn't show itself.

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Slightly dispappointed, we got the fridge magnet from the souvenir shop and went on the cable car but all we could see all up the way were other traveller's disappoited faces.

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Next was the lake and again as if cruising in the clouds, we couldn't even see the lake -never mind Mount Fuji! At least we felt relieved we hadn't gone ahead with our original plan of spending 2 days around the mountain, soaking up in the hot springs and enjoying the view ......

It was still a good trip, the guide on the bus was brilliant, sharing interesting facts of the country helping himself with self made pictures and lots of humour. If it wasn't for him we would never find out an interesting fact that Japanese almost NEVER say "I love you".....and that the headquarters of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult (responsible for chemical warfare conducted on the Tokyo subway using sarin gas) were located very near, by one of the lakes near Mount Fuji.(if interested - see more info at the bottom of this trip's entry)

Maja made a good friend with an American/Iranian boy and although they had only spent a few hours together, both found it difficult to say good-bye to one another.
Here they are with Maja's favourite Japanese cartoon character -cuddly, smiley, magical and mysterious Totoro :

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The best view we got on this trip wasn't unfortunately of Mount Fuji but this beautiful tree came to the rescue:

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This was the only organised tour we had joined during our travels through Japan All the the rest we have tailored ourselves.
So next we made our own way to the train station and bought some dinner to have on the way.

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This must have been the best dinner and the best train ride we have ever had.
While in England we would generally grab a sandwich or pasta/salad box (well I'm not mentioning Mc's and KFC's and all that lot) ,Japanese have all this too but what seems to be traditional and very delicious are the boxes packed with plenty of little things inside: a piece of fish, variety of pickles (oriental style), fragrant rice, little omlettey things and lots of other sometimes hard to identify bits and pieces!There is also a choice for seafood and meat lovers. Conveniently packed, fresh, healthy and with great variety of choice -it was definetely a winner for me.

As for the train -no need to comment -clean, spacious, cool looking, comfortable and fast as the bullet in its name, little expensive but definetely worth the money pleasantly transfering you from one place to another(worth buying Japanese Rail Pass if that's the way you're going to travel)!

This month we liked:

words by Caskie Stinnett
"I travel a lot; I hate having my life disrupted by routine."

2 books by Haruki Murakami:

"Underground" -already mentioned while writing about Mount Fuji, this book is a collection of interviews the author had conducted with the people who lived through the catastrophe including the victims, not affected passers-by and the members of the cult -the ones who had quit the cult since and the others who remained the members. Very interesting read!

"Kafka on the shore" - absolutely fanastic book, it starts a little slow but once you're "in it" there are two things you are no longer able to do - put it down or understand just as the words:

"In the place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment"

Murakami's state of the art website is definetely worth visiting if you decide to read him, music plays a significant role in some of the plots and characters life and you can listen to what they had listened to in an instant -loved it!

www.harukimurakami.com

Jonathan Ross "JAPANORAMA" series

"carp flags" (which brought my some memories back from my kindergarden years when I was chosen to read out the greeting (in English)to the Japanese comitee visiting our town's factory - it was my first (and last) public performance, I must have been 6 and scared to death lying to teacher's 5 mins before the big event that I had stomach cramps hoping to get away ...the same flags were flying over our heads ....now I know that generally the carp stands for good luck and prosperity in Japanese tradition although originally The Carp is a symbol of boyhood courage and strength -"In Japanese tradition, a boy’s family flies a carp shaped streamer to encourage him to achieve his goals in life through unrelenting perseverance. In this way, the boy emulates the Carp, that fights its way up stream against formidable opposing currents to reach its destination."

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Monchhichi- yet another childhood memory and a funny story:

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I had one when I was small and haven't see it since. I had to buy it FOR MAJA :)
She liked it straight away but unfortunately lost it during the day and was pretty upset about it. We kept looking for another one but typically couldn't find it.
While we were at Mount Fuji -they had some in the toys shop , so Nick secretly got another one (looking as close to the lost one as he could)and brought it back to Maja with the story that Monchhichi wasn't really lost, he just went to say g'd b-ye to his friends...Maja seemed to buy the story although she commented "He must have had a big dinner as he seemed to grew a bit bigger overnight"...

Recycling in Asakusa:

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And of course:

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And special thanks to: Dominik for sharing his experience and throwing in ideas

Our journey through Japan continues soon in the next entry in the meantime greetings to all our families and friends!

Posted by Bulls 15:40 Archived in Japan Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

JANUARY 2007- In The Land of the Long White Cloud - part II

Train hopping and whale watching on the South Island -part II without Nick

sunny 27 °C
View Train Hopping on the South Island & Seoul to New Zealand on Bulls's travel map.

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Maja and I had another 8 days or so left and having spent the last week travelling around the southern tip and the central part of the North Island we decided to give the South Island a once-over- well not quite...

We crossed Cook Strait from Wellington to Picton on the ferry and hopped on TranzCoastal train that took us through the farmfields and vineyards and along the coast to Kaikoura - known as the whales' favourite hangout with a food rich trench that lies just few kilometres away from its shores.

We arrived in the early afternoon, dropped our bags and headed to the sea. As the motel we stayed in was just across the road from the beach, that was exactly where you could find us few minutes after and pretty much until the evening (except for a stroll to the internet cafe and the local shops for some food):
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Next morning we got up early, picked up our bags and aimed for The Whale Watch Station hoping to be able to say that we'd seen a whale just a few hours after.
The weather was perfect and all looked promising!

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The Kaikoura Whale Watch station is a very well organised place, with informative films preparig you for the adventure ahead and a great choice of souvenirs -we opted for a book and a t-shirt for Maja which she keenly wore for her first encounter with the real thing!

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Shortly we got on the boat and were cutting the waves in search of the beautiful giant.The "state of the art" boat had all that's needed on board with a huge screeen inside explaining just about everything about the place, why it is so popular amongst the whales, dolphins and other sea creatures. It also went into details about the whales and their habits.

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Once we reached the appropriate depths, the search began and our eyes sparkled with even more excitement and anticipation.We didn't have to wait long until we could see something long, black and shiney floating on the surface. As we came closer it was clear this was a whale getting ready for his/hers next immersion and so the buzz kicked in and the camera flashes went off.
It wasn't that easy for me as I had to look after our camera as well as keep tabs on Maja curiously hanging over the rail. At the end I managed to take some snaps as well as catch a glimpse of the whale not only through the camera lenses.

Here is some whale action for you:

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Maja seemed a bit confused at first as I think she was expecting the whole whale just cruising on the sea surface with the fountain on the top of its head spraying the water around. It took me some time to persuade her that what we were all watching was in fact - the whale!

She didn't have any doubts about the playful dolphins though and wanted to join them in the water for a splash and a quick chatter!Next time Maja!

After that we boarded the train and carried on along the coast to Christchurch.
Apart from admiring the views I manage to have a read while Maja had a little snooze and dreamt about the new friends she had met earlier -the whales and the whale of a time we'd had.

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Forgot to mention about the train itself. It was a slow old fashioned type of train but with comfortable seats, large panoramic windows,a little table and plenty of legroom.There was an open air carriage with no windows on the sides for viewing and photographing and a buffet carriage serving all sorts of drinks and snacks. There was also a little but interesting commentary throughout the journey.
After the succesfull morning with the whales and a very relaxing journey still along the coast,we arrived in Christchurch in the evening and decided to have a wander around the city centre while looking for a place to eat.
We found that our motel was a little bit further out from the centre then promised on the website but having accumulated some energy while sitting on the train we didn't mind the walk. We only had this and another evening in Christchurch so had to try to see as much as we could although pretty much in the dark.

My impressions of Christchurch were exactly as described in one of the books I had read about NZ -"a transplant from England" and "the most English city outside of England",with many notable buildings and monuments that recall its colonial heritage as well as parks and gardens.
We headed straight to the heart of the city -The Cathedral Square with its famous cathedral which we could only view from the outside as it was being restored.
We settled for a while in the restaurant by the square and watched the Christchurch life go by. Although it was the heart of the city with few reastaurants, bars, a hotel and a backpackers next to it, it seemed pretty quiet with few people passing by and an old fashioned tram circling around which I promised Maja to go on on our way back.Nice way to end the day!

Next day -we had an early morning again, caught a taxi to the train station to embark on yet another train -exactly the same as TranzCoastal one with the difference in name TranzAlpine and the route it was taking. Having come from North to South Island, this time we were to travel across the island on what is known to be one of the most scenic train journeys in the world!

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The passage is 223 kms long and it took 4 and a half hours to get from the east coast to the west coast. .At first the train led us through the patchworks of fields and farmlands of Canterbury Plains and gorges and river valleys of Waimakariri River to climb into The Southern Alps with a brief stop at the highest point enroute -The Arthur Pass resting 737 metres above the sea level and finally descent through the lush and rainforest.

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Although it was a summer season and the mountains tops looked grey opposite to snowcapped as seen during the winter season, it was still a great journey! The scenery managed to take our breath away as we sat glued to the windows for nearly the entire journey. There were other attractions on the way, we dived in a few tunnels , went over high viaducts and passed by coalmines with the early mining settlements looking now more like ghost towns.

We arrived in Greymouth-the largest town on the West Coast but how different to Christchurch on the other side. I must admit I didn't like it very much. Although it is by the coast it is in fact located by the Grey (!!!!) river leading to the sea which makes it a bit tricky to get to see it. As the weather wasn't great we set for a little walk around the town but except for Honda dealership, a supermarket, a warehouse and a church it didn't have anything special on offer. One of the museums there is was closed but we managed to visit an art gallery with an exhibition of the local art at the shooting prices! I think we would have much nicer memories if the weather was better and we had a car to move around.

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Greymouth was the furthest south spot we got to on our journey. Knowing that just a couple of hours away were the gems of the South Island -Mount Cook with the highest mountain in NZ, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers and more -made us wish we had more time to explore it properly. As we were due to be back on the train midday next day, we only managed to take a taxi (there was no train or bus available at the early hours in the morning) to Punakaiki -a small coastal settlement famous for the Pancake Rocks and blowholes located nearby.

Although it was a flying visit it was well worth it to experience what miracles nature is capable of creating itself. We loved it!

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Shortly after that we were dropped at the station to take a train back to Christchurch. I was hoping to take more photos on the way back as hadn't really taken any on the way there but the weather was pretty bad so we stayed inside the carriage most of the way reading, colouring and chatting. Maja was still buzzying with excitement and bursting with energy but managed to sit in one spot colouring and making up stories. She had not only entertained herself and me but the whole carriage and people kept coming up to me praising her for both her good behaviour and creative imagination. I must say it again -she had made a great travel companion and made sure we had never wasted a minute for doing nothing -every minute of the journey had been filled with some sort of action or words!

Back in Christchurch, we went to the cathedral square for a ride on the old restored tram. It wasn't a very long route just aroud the square with a driver indicating different sights and points of interest etc. Maja loved it especially when she was invited to sit in front of the train and pull the old fashioned gong bell.
Not long after we went back to the motel and went to sleep. Next morning we continued our journey on the train to Picton and got a ferry to Welligton where Phil was awaiting us to take us to their new stunning home!

We stayed 2 more days in Wellington I think and just chilled out (as if we were doing anything else for the past 2 weeks anyway) with our friends. We went to visit the local Zoo with the kids and spent some time on the beach and a cafe in Scorching Bay (where the Lord of the Rings cast and crew used to hang out while being over in NZ doing the film).

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On our last day Monika and Ralph drove down and we all cruised off the Wellington Harbour to one of the surrounding bays although I am not sure which one it was -I think it was Oriental Bay but it could have been any other.
We had another very productive day of sitting in the park tucking into some delicious cakes and washing it off with coffee and just relaxing on the beach making the most of our loosey goosey times together.

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On the way back Maja and Henri kept poking into the captain's cockpit until he gave up and invited them to sit in and "steer" the boat back to the port.

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We had an AWESOME holiday in New Zealand and no wonder that more and more people choose it as a place to live. It is a beautiful country with most attractions still made by nature that keep the tourists coming and locals beaming. It was a constant feast for our eyes as well as our lungs. We didn't have to travel very far to come across beautiful not necessarily any extraordinary views and breathe the fresh air.
It proves again that the simplest are the most important and beautiful things in life!!!

And I am glad to say that we haven't even made it to the best spots on NZ visitors' list - the very top of North Island and the very bottom one of South Island...which gives us a prefect excuse to come back again!

I just hope not to leave it for too long...

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Next time we hope to see and learn a bit more about Maori heritage as this time we only saw recently made carvings in the rock while cruising on the boat around the lake:

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Until next time!

Posted by Bulls 12:35 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

JANUARY 2007 - Maja's 4th Birthday @ Sn'K

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MAJA !!!!

semi-overcast 3 °C

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As we were going to be in New Zealand for Maja's 4th birthday, she had celebrated a few days before with friends and teachers in her kindergarden. Although we couldn't be there with her, I designed a cake for her (that had to be baked by someone else as we don't have an oven here) and made "a hedgehog" out of watermelon and fruits.

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It looks like our little princess had a lot of fun!

Posted by Bulls 14:08 Archived in South Korea Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

JANUARY 2007- In The Land of the Long White Cloud -part I

A rather detailed rundown of our New Zealand adventure- part I with Nick

sunny 25 °C
View Wellington to Monika and Ralp's Farm & Wellington to Lake Taupo & Seoul to New Zealand on Bulls's travel map.

In the middle of Korean winter chills we only had to fly 10016 kms south east off Korea to find the welcoming sunshine of New Zealand

We were not up early enough to enjoy the sunrise -New Zealand claims to be the first country in the world to not only give women the right to vote (pretty amazing achievement considering it was the last country in the world to be settled) but also to see the sun rise- but man we enjoyed its sunsets!
Here is one seen while on Monika's and Ralph's farm -buggers they have it pretty much every night and probably wonder why the photo of this probably an average one, found its place on our blog.

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So far this trip has been a highlight (at least for me) of our year away from home.
We got to swap the snowless winter for the sunhine and summer, the grey and noisy hubbub of the city for a break on the far away and isolated island hopping between the lavish greenery of farm lands and the dramatic settings of the mountains:
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cruising (and more!) on the silvery and pink glitters of lakes and meandering amongst the spectacular and in places very smelly thermal theatre displays:
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enjoying unspoilt and suprisingly unpeopled beaches:

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and meeting some of the most beautiful creatures there are on Earth- such as whales, seals, dolphins, albatroses
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and of course ....OUR FRIENDS !!!!!...

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...all going about their days in their own natural enviroment or as it goes for our friends -in a very cosy, beautiful, somehow contemporary (no I did not use the wrong word here) country cottage on a secluded sheep farm and a few storeys house sitting on the hill with a spiral staircase (dream of mine) overlooking the most serene and content country capital I've so far experienced -Wellington.

But let's start from the beginning.
The same as we couldn't wait to get on the plane, we also couldn't wait to get off it. We had 2 extra legs on our journey Auckland to Christchurch and Christchurch to Wellington that were not showing on our tickets or itinerary and were not previously mentioned by our travel agent. NZ_-Maja_o.._posing.jpgExcept for a fright that we might have got on a totally wrong plane (being heads in clouds on that day we felt like we've been just cruising at the airport from the check-in through the passport control to the departure point without controlling anything ourselves, totally relying on other people and knowing by now that stupid mistakes like that could easily happen in Korea although we would only have ourselves to blame)and a bit of inconvenience with getting off and on the plane twice more then expected, we didn't mind it that much -Maja kept herself entertained in various possible ways while we enjoyed the diverse views of New Zealand's both islands.View_from_..aranaki.jpg

***In WELLINGTON with Elisabeth, Phil and Henri***

Once on land in Wellington, it took us a few minutes to collect our luggage and go through the customs. It was so fast and easy that we wouldn't have realised we were at the exit if it wasn't for our friends - Phil (senior) and Henri (junior)standing there and waiting for us -both as laid back as it gets, wearing shorts, T-shirts, jandals (never thought there was another word for flip flops), healthy tans and carefree smiles. It was so good to see them! Maja and Henri were playing shy at first but they quickly checked one another out and were up to their old tricks of running, screaming and talking in their "galla galla" language!

Although we were still at the airport we felt like we landed at the gates of paradise somehow 10 kilos lighter and 10 years younger. The place was filled with light, colour, buzz and smiling people -it might sound really naf but it felt the opposite to where we just came from -perfect holiday place!

It was a short drive from the airport to Elisabeth and Phil's place where we stayed
for a few days as well as in between other trips. Driving through the outskirts of New Zealand's capital city -although the word city somehow doesn't agree with me here, it felt like we were in some small holiday town by the coast. It looked perfect with its beautiful clear blue skies and green hills embracing the harbour. Known also as New Zealand's cultural capital, conveniently located sort of in the middle of the country( at the bottom of the North Island) and being now a home town to Elisabeth, Phil and Henri it served as a great place to hang around as well as a "hop off" point for our "tours".
It was good to see our friends settled in and looking so well and happy. Although they were pretty busy themselves -Phil was working, Henri was going to school and Elisabeth was pregnant, they looked after us so well and managed to organise their time so we could spend quite a bit of it together! THANK YOU GUYS!!!!!!!!!!!

It was also Maja's 4th birthday and what a treat she was in for! She had her b'day breakfast in the company of her kindergarden sweetheart Henri!Majas_bday_breakfast.jpg
There also happened to be a music festival in Wellington's botanical gardens on this day so we went along for a picnic with some pizza, wine and of course a birthday cake for Maja (again thanks Elisabeth!):
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The next day we went to explore Wellington's picturesque harbour:
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and visited a nearby Museum of New Zealand TE PAPA TONGAREWA to find out a bit more about the country's history, its natural enviroment and Maori's heritage. It is well worth a visit, full of interesting information and hands-on activities for kids. Sorry didn't take any good snaps.
Afterwards we treated ourselves to a lovely lunch of fish and chips and Elisabeth took the kids for some ice cream while we had a little time to ourselves and wandered back from the harbour through the town centre.
I remember loving it. It seemed very compact and easy to find your way around.
With few modern and higher then the average here buildings in the centre, through the streets lined up with a variety of commercial buildings and as we were walking away from the city -charming wooden and old looking cottages and stunning suburban hillside villas. The town gave off mixed (but always positive) vibes -it felt lazy or laid back and in the same time stimulating, old fashioned (vintage shops) and chic and happening(contemporary museum buildings, art galleries and cool looking , windows free bars filled with colorful people and laughter). It felt friendly,leisurely and so easy going if this can be used to describe a place. I think I could easily live there! Never mind the winds...

***On the farm and around with Monika, Ralph and the sheep***

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

After a couple of relaxing days in Wellington, we went to visit our friends Monika and Ralph, who lived on a farm (also called station) near Martinborough, north of Wellington and "on the other side of the mountain" -about an hour and a half drive. We decided to go in the car that Elisabeth and Phil kindly lent us. The drive was fantastic through the "proper" mountain range with spectacular often dramatic views of the mountains and trees that seemed to be shaped as if bent by the wind and frozen in time. Once we got to the other side, the landscape had completely changed. We arrived at Martinborough Hotel where Monika had already been waiting for us for a while as we were running a bit late. Sorry mate!

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It was so good to see her -the last time we saw Monika and Ralph was probably before they got married some .....years ago. She hasn't changed and looked really good! As it was still early in the day and Ralph was busy on the farm we decided to catch up a bit and stopped for a bite to eat and a drink in the restaurant at the hotel where Monika used to work. After that Monika gave us a drive guided tour of the area - we visited what Martinborough area is best known for -the vineyards
and drove to the farm.

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What a place! The farm is situated amongst the hills but still close to the coast where we went for a walk....

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....in the middle of nowhere or rather in the middle of the most green and scenic countryside I've ever been to. Once Ralph got back from work, he invited us for a look around the farm which turned into a spin on quad bikes.

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The ride up steep in places hills was awesome. We managed to get to the highest point on the farm (or quite close to it I think) and enjoy a pretty good view - look for yourselves -it was absolutely stunning

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After that we came home, had some dinner - home grown potatoes, salads, sheep and few drinks and did a bit of catching up. It is funny how it is with friendships -it did not matter that we haven't seen each other for ages -it was just good to spend time together,see that the others are doing great and are happy and talk about now and the future. We didn't dwell on the past as much as we used to (no Travelguide holidays ferry parties stories Monika -next time hey....)and having all sorts of responsibilities we didn't drink until the morning as we used to. Definetely make up for it when you come and visit us in London!

The next day we were in for yet another treat. Monika took us to see a seal colony. We drove for a while to get to the coast and there they were as close to us as we wanted them to, taking it easy, lazing about:

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and posing for the camera!
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It was wonderful and heartening to see them in action or totally out of it and to feel like this time we were the intruders invading their world (although we tried to keep the distance)! So much nicer than seeing seals in zoos swimming endlessly from one wall to another, diving through metal hoops or moving back and forth on swings in exchange for an old fish!

After that we climbed the 200 or something stairs( if my memory doesn't fail me here) and it wasn't just the climb that took our breath away. Look at these:

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After chilling out a bit on the beach

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and a lunch of fresh fish and chips and paua burgers, we went on another drive this time a mission to trace Peter Jackson's property that he had recently bought around the area. Nick who is a great fan of Lord of the Rings really wanted to visit the film sets etc but didn't have enough time for it so we thought this could compensate him for it a little bit.
However sad it sounds it was actually a great fun! We felt like we were being on a safari except it was not the animals we were looking for!Monika heard from few locals about its whereabouts and Nick had read something that he was also buidling a rail line (???) on his land. Put the two together we managed to find it, following a small road in the middle of nowhere. Once we saw a little tower (hello?the country houses do not have towers here)
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some sort of tunnels being dug out and
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a beautiful gate with a camera zooming in at us
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we felt like real paparazzi with the mission accomplished -for all you fans out there (Nick's mates) although can't really see anything!!!!

We had a lot of fun as well as a little peek into the scenes of the daily life on the farm and chores it involves, which we found is very demanding, challenging and requires a lot of commitment. Thanks guys for finding some time for us and showing us around!!!

*** Long weekend with Elisabeth, Phil, Henri and Nigel at Lake Taupo***

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

After the flying visit to Monika and Ralphs we went back to Wellington in the evening ready for an early start next morning - a drive for a long w/e to the central part of North Island -by lake Taupo. Elisabeth and Phil arranged the car and accomodation so there was not much else to do as pack up and go!
On the way there and back we passed through few small towns as well as Tongariro National Park so we could get a glimpse of the mountains
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as well as take a "postcard snap" of what I had imagined New Zealand to look like but found that it is so diverse that the mountain and some sheep simply don't stand a chance and I would have a problem picking my postcard.
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We stayed in Oasis 5 minutes away from the lake in the small village of Turangi -perfect spot away from the crowds and with natural mineral hot baths on site!!!
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On the first day we ment Nigel -a friend of Elisabeth and Phil, who was also by the lake and offered to take us for a cruise . It was brilliant!
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We stopped somewhere on the shore to have a snack

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and found that there were also water skies on board so we all (except for kids and pregnant Elisabeth) decided to have a go but not all of us succeeded....never mind-next time hey? At least you tried !Let's have some practise in the UK!

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At the end it all comes down to experience and a little talent ......

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The next day we drove a little bit north again to visit Waimangu Volcanic Valley and Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland
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-recognised as one of the most active volcanic areas in the world or according to Maja and Henri's speculations -home to all witches and place where they make hot chocolate and cook up....their dinners! We took a walk past a succession of many geothermal features like bubbling craters (witches pots), geysers,caves

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and colorful pallettes of hot and cold pools!

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It was a great walk with amazing views for our camera and out of this world scenery that wonderfully fed our kids' imagination and gave beginnings to many stories we've heard while exploring....

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Sunday was our last day and we planned to visit Tongariro National Park and have a little hike in the mountains as well as stopping by the beach on the way home.
As for mountains we managed to see all three peaks of Mounts Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe,but a drive to one of the mountain stations and lunch in a wooden bungalow was as close as we could get to a hike. The weather had got much worse than it was in the morning and it started to rain so we decided to head back home.

It did however clear a bit and we managed to have a wonderful afternoon by the sea. We sat on the beach and dined on fish and chips out of the paper,played ball, splashed around in the sea,built sand castles and admired the shells and other bits and pieces that the sea had chucked away.
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It was an idyllic afternoon and the last day of the holiday we got to spend together as Nick Waiotapu_T..nd_Nick.jpg

was flying back to Seoul early next morning.

Mine and Maja's journey around New Zealnd continues in part II coming soon to Travellerspoint

This month we liked:

"TRAVEL IS PARTIAL.WHATEVER ROUTE YOU TAKE MEANS A HUNDRED YOU DON'T TAKE" - taken from a great book describing the author's journey down and up New Zealand filled with information, humour and interesting and very insightful points of view -" A Land of Two Halves" by Joe Bennett

and by the same author "Bedside lovers" -collection of esseys on life and culture in New Zealand and beyond

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides "NEW ZEALAND"

seeing our friends, the scenery, the fresh air, Elisabeth's home made flan (can I have a recipe pls?), the wine, Monika and Ralph's little cottage with remainders of places they had visited, a cool, old style record shop in Wellington complete with dusty vinyl and geeky owner, the quiet nightsky forever stretching sparkling with stars, flying fox ride in the park -or better known as "a death slide"........ TUI adverts and its product:

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Posted by Bulls 04:29 Archived in New Zealand Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

OCTOBER NOVEMBER 2006 Autumn in Korea

Autumn colours, first visit from the UK (via Mongolia) and Halloween party at Maja's school

sunny 15 °C

Autumn felt like the best season to be in Korea. With nice weather and the sun shining most of the days, it remained warm until nearly the end of october, mosqitoes made their way out of the country and it was a pure pleasure to spend time outdoors.

We had our first guest from the UK -Jim (hello Jim -thanks for the postcard)who stopped by on his way from trekking in Mongolia. It was good to see a friend from the UK and spent a couple of days sightseeing and catching up:

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We also made a few trips to the parks to check out the reds, browns and yellows of the leaves. The autumn colours here are awesome !!!
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To keep the little one happy we also made a trip to one of the biggest children leisure parks in Korea -Everland, which proved to be heaven for Maja and hell for us. Although we loved watching Maja having fun we struggled pushing through crowds and refusing to buy "the goodies" that seemed to accompany every attraction. We came back with headaches and Maja asleep in our arms which hardly ever happens.

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It was coming up to Halloween so this was the main theme in the park. Halloween has definetely made its way to Korea - celebrations are in full swing in many places -including Maja's nursery.

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We also made a little effort although the biggest out of all the parents:
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Posted by Bulls 20:17 Archived in South Korea Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

APRIL 2007 Happy Easter! Wesolych Swiat!

While we are catching up with the past months....

sunny 10 °C

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.....we wanted to wish all our family and friends Happy Easter. Although Christmas celebrations are big here nobody really talks about Easter -fair enough although even Korean Christians that we know don't seem to be celebrating which is a bit strange.
Instead of hunting Easter Eggs which we couldn't find anywhere Maja had to look for a chocolate bunnie following the trace of colorfully wrapped sweets. Maja and Nick are off to watch a football game at the World Cup Stadium later on,while my ticket goes to waste as I stay in bed trying to get rid of a bug I must have caught somewhere right in time for Easter!

xxx

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Posted by Bulls 19:31 Archived in South Korea Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

DECEMBER 2006 Trip to Gyeongju and Korean Xmas

Nick's mum and dad came to visit

sunny 3 °C
View Seoul to Gyeongju on Bulls's travel map.

GYEONGJU_D..nd_pots.jpgWe've been warned that Korean winters are very cold and not particularly pleasant. It proved to be quite chilly and miserable on windy days but to be honest the weather didn't seem that bad at all.
The sun kept shining most of the days and December was an exciting month for us as Nick's mum and dad were coming to visit and we were also leaving Seoul for a few days and going down south to check out what else Korea had to offer.
Nick's mum and dad flew over at the beginning of the month and stayed with us for a little over a week. We were all very happy to see them, especially Maja who was looking forward to grandad's stories,gran's songs and even more attention.
We also benefited getting some sweets and mags from England and Xmas presents that wouldn't normally fit in the envelope.

After their jetlag settled and they had a w/e sightseeing with Nick, the following week they had to explore the city on their own as I fell ill and Nick was busy working.
We both felt sorry we couldn't spent more time together but they've managed to see quite a large chunk of the city by themselves and by the end of the week we were all ready for our w/e adventure out of town.


We went to visit Gyeongju -Korea's cultural heartland,so called "museum without walls" and in the past a capital of the ancient Silla Kingdom. We set off early in the morning and travelled there comfortably by bus which took about 5 hours.
It was during this journey that we saw the snow for the first time and also the last time in these quantities although once we got to Gyeongju it all cleared and the weather looked more like autumn then winter.
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As we only had 2 days there we planned the visit very carefully to try and see as much as we could without too much of a rush.
Once we arrived in town we checked in to our hotel (our bathroom had a jacuzzi!!!) and without wasting any time we hit the town.Thankfully the wood and stone reminders of Gyeongju's past are easy to find and just about anywhere in town within the walking distance.
At first we visited the hilly burial mounds of ancient kings in royal ground called Tumuli Park and a stone tower located nearby which is known to be the oldest exsistent astrological observatory in Asia.
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The royal tombs can be found throughout the town but that was the place with the largest collection of them and of the tomb that had been excavated and it's now open to the public.
Then we made our way to The National Museum of Gyeongju and its surroundings and had an interesting conversation about Buddhism and how it that some refer to it as religion when the others call it a way of life....

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The second day we fully dedicated to the Bulguksa- a true gem of Gyeongju ,a head Buddhist temple and a Historic and Scenic Site number 1 in Korea (all sights in Korea have a registration number...to be explained some other time).
We took a taxi from downtown to get to the temple. On the outskirts of Gyeongju,on the slopes of the mountain and hidden amongst the woods it offers an extensive view of the province and its perfect location serves as the best retreat. We spent some time wandering around its famous spots although we felt we were being watched all the time:
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On the way to the temple we passed over some beautiful ponds filled with fish and lilies and spanned with stone bridges leading us eventually to the main temple building:
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Spot the Golden Buddha through the window in the pillar:
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If you can't here is a close up:
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Once we checked out the temple we decided to walk to the Seokguram Grotto which according to the guide was located near the temple. Without any further investgations how far it was we followed the sign and strolled up the hill. After some time we realised that the walk has become more like a climb. We didn't mind as it was a beautiful day and views along the way were stunning!We kept on climbing but haven't met many people on the way and if it wasn't for signs showing the distance (total of 4kms as we found out later -doesn't seem much but it was a bit of work keepig Maja going although meeting "Buddha hiding in the cave" kept her motivated!)we could have doubted whether we were following the right track. Once we were getting closer we could see more people gathering in places and then we saw a bus! As the grotto was located high a top Mt. Tohamsan there was another way to get to it then walk. You could take a bus and be there within 10 minutes drive from the Bulguksa Temple -but what's the point of that???
We were happy we've done the walk and once we got to the top not only we had to pay a visit to the Buddha in his grotto but we also had a stunning view of the East Sea (according to Koreans) or The Sea of Japan (according to the Japanese) stretching in front us and behind the trees. Thinking the grotto was located just "by the temple" we did not expect to be on the top of the mountain so we couldn't get over the scenery

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It was awesome and we definetely felt well rewarded for our climbing efforts.Only later we found out that although it was all blue sky and sunny it was also -4 C. Once we delighted our eyes and warmed ourselves with a cup of hot choc and a sweet waffle we took yet another this time short though climb to the grotto.

Unfortunately we could only look at the Buddha for a few minutes and from behind the glass but it just added the flavour to it. The statue was sitting in the granite artificial cave, carved so finely that it appeared almost real. Maja put her lips together in astonisment as if to whistle. I can only imagine looks on our faces as we were all equally impressed!
Here is the picture of the grotto and I borrowed the picture of the Buddha from another site as at the time I respected the request of no photogaphing in the cave!

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Once we left the grotto and started making our way down we notice the bus that was just about to leave.
It took us a second to look at one another and silently agree to jump on board.

We were going back to Seoul the same night so it was good to have some spare time in between the bus journeys.

We all really liked our short break away and will plan to do some more of these in the future. I have a feeling Maja might want to go back to Gyeongju to see her prince:Maja_with_.._Prince.jpg
Nick's mum and dad stayed with us for few more days before heading back home and it wasn't just the tourists attractions they've enjoyed. Maja had a few of her "shows" up her sleeve (I'm very proud of the costume I crafted out of old pjs and tights):Maja_circus_show.jpg

**xmas*xmas*xmas*xmas*xmas*xmas*xmas*xmas*xmas*xmas*xmas*xmas**

Back in Seoul the preparations for Xmas were in full swing and the city was twinkling with lights and festive decorations. It looked like any other city in Europe -there were Xmas trees, presents, Santa's images and Xmas carols anywhere you looked and at first it felt just like being back home in the UK.
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Although the spirit of Xmas is well present in Korea, people view and celebrate it somewhat different. Korean background differ from generally Christian West and with 46 percent of people of no religious affiliation and 26 percent that follows Buddhist traditions the Xmas hype seemed suprisingly high. But as we found later only few people regard it as a religious celebration while the rest enjoys it as a day to celebrate the end of the year. Unlike in western countries where if celebrated Xmas is spent in a family circle, here it is a day to be with your boyfriend or girlfriend. I remember reading that while people in the West grow stressed with shopping, preparations and facing other family members (not sure about that though...), Koreans are under pressure to find a date if they do not have one already.As for presents it is not customary to exchange presents on Xmas although boyfriends usually buy presents for girlfriends and vice versa.
As for us - we bought a small Xmas tree, decorated the flat with Xmas cards we've received and some decorations Maja's made at school and at home.We spent Xmas eve at home and had a dinner - sort of Polish Wigilia traditional dishes prepared out of Korean ingredients, opened some pressies and listened to the carols. We also manage to skype our families and have a quick chat.

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On Christmas day we went to Lotte World theme park. We started with the ride on the baloon with the view of different attractions the park had on offer:
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After that we watched Xmas Parade joined by all the Xmas characters you can only think of. Here are Maja's and my favorites........

LOTTE_WORL..indeers.jpgXmas_Parad..owqueen.jpgXmas_Parade_-Santa.jpg

.......while these two definetely caught Nick's eye:

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During the festive seasons we also went to Grand Park on the city outskirts where Maja had a go at sledging on the artificial snow

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and checking whether she enherited a fear of heights while riding and down the Vertical Drop:

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December was also a beginning of our skating season. Once we found that the ice rink was 10 mins walk away from our house and the skating session with skates cost less then 50p per as long as your legs allowed you, we were there nearly every day. Maja has learnt how to skate and by the end of the season was doing rounds by herself with the big grin on her face and no falls. Nick has also tried skating once again since his fall when he was 12 and looks like he enjoyed it:

Xmas_-MAja..ating_1.jpgXmas_-Maja..skating.jpgXmas_-Nick..skating.jpg

This month we liked:

all of the above +

our new camera

Restaurant Mad about Garlic and its starter dish of full garlic bulbs baked in the oven and dipped in melted cheese-mustn't forget to try it at home (once I have an oven again) -success guaranteed for all garlic lovers out there

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware" Martin Buber

Posted by Bulls 03:05 Archived in South Korea Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

OCTOBER 2006 China !!!

sunny 20 °C
View Seoul -Beijing on Bulls's travel map.

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October is a very important month for Koreans.Chuseok -the second biggest holiday in Korea is here and we are off to China! Chuseok celebrations are mainly about remembering, paying respect and honouring the life of family ancestors and relatives who had passed away (idea that I could in some ways compare to All Saints /Souls Day although the rituals are different).During this time, apart from having a bit more time off,there isn't much to do for foreigners here. We decided to take advantage and make our first trip out of the country to see the first western neighbours.We picked a 5 day spin around Beijing, its surroundings and The Great Wall Of China. But just before we boarded the plane we decided to have a picture taken (we did not pay for this) in traditional Korean clothes -what do we look like?Go on have a laugh!!! Korean people continue wearing simplified versions of their traditional clothes for special occasions such us birthdays, weddings etc and you will find posed family photographs of people wearing those clothes in every house.
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As 5 days isn't very long we went on a package tour thinking we'd try to see the maximum of places at the nice pace without the trip being too hectic for Maja. Once in the van with our Chinese guide Sophie we met our "group" - 2 other people -1 American guy (whose grandad was Polish) and a Korean American girl who lived in America for most of her life so wasn't very familiar with Korea. We were slightly suprised to see that however small our group was we all had different itineraries -including Maja who was going to see the Chinese Opera while we were to enjoy the famous Chinese acrobats! We quickly agreed what we did or did not want to do or see but it was a bit difficult to communicate to the guide who seemed a bit confused about everything even the question about when and why Peking had its name changed to Beijing . We soon found out that there wasn't much information we would get out of her so we dipped our noses in our bookguides to find out more about places we were seeing.

The drive from the airport to the hotel allowed us a quick overview of Beijing. The city gave an impression of a land of concrete filled with great monument like buidings with ribbons of neon lights mainly red streaming through. We were driving on one of the serpentine highroads that run through the city which led us nearly to our hotel door. After the evening drive Beijing seemed to me to be grand, overweight with colossal buidings and tired-just being there and trying to take it all with the same speed as the one of our driver, left goosebumps on my skin. Having arrived in the evening there wasn't much time for anything else but a bath and some time on the balcony looking at the city! If it wasn't for Maja I believe it would be a different story and we would be down there with the city lights!!! But we didn't mind -being able to float in the bath tub and stretch out in bed without falling out were attractions to us as well as we don't have these luxuries back at home , well back in Seoul.
When we woke up I made my move to the balcony to see the city in the daylight. To my suprise it was very foggy and felt like I needed glasses. It wasn't until later in the day,when I asked the guide whether it was often foggy like this and not understanding my question she kept saying it was typical autumn weather, that it occured to me and the others it wasn't the fog after all but the pollution. It seemed so bad to me and I felt relieved that we were only there for a few days, at the same time I felt sorry for the Chinese people who have no other choice but to breathe it all on daily basis and daft and thoughtless for asking the guide about it.
It seems so unfair that the country pays for its economical growth with fresh air!
Anyway apart from the "fog" it was totally different view to the one I still had from the night before. Although it was still very early in the morning the streets were lively and buzzying with noise of bicycles' rings.Thanks to hundreds of people cycling slowly on their bikes to work etc city lost its weight and felt somehow airier.
After a fully enjoyable breakfast of anything you wanted (eggs and bacon was Nick's first course -remember we came from Seoul, a variety of cereals and fruits for Maja and unfamiliar looking things for me) we were ready to go.
We met the others and headed to Tian'anmen Square. I'm not even starting to describe the size of the place but just so you know it's the size of 63 football pitches put all together!
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It wasn't just in Korea that people had time off work, also here Chinese people were celebrating "Moon Holiday" -second only to the Chinese New Year in significance -the moon on this day is the fullest and largest to the eye,viewing it by the whole family while feasting on good wine, fruits and moon-cakes is the night's main event. There is also a beautiful story behind it. Children are told that there's a fairy on the moon living in a spacious but cold crystal palace with her sole companion, a jade rabbit. A heavenly general and friend would occasionally pay her a visit, bringing along his fragrant wine. She would then dance a beautiful dance. The shadows on the moon made the story all the more credible and fascinating to the young imaginative mind.
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It was also the 57th anniversary of the creation of People's Republic of China[/b] and Tian'anmen Square was packed with local, domestic and international tourists. It was a great time to visit as we could see it at its best - in full glory with flowers, flags and unity of Chinese people -some well dressed looking like they just popped out of the office, the others a bit tired and "worn" seemed like they had travelled from far away provencies to be there on that day. The place overwhelmed us not just with its size but also with the dignity and importance it had to people. Until 1949 even looking in its direction was strictly prohibited!
We read that it was a tradition to fly a kite on the square so we bought 1 for Maja to fly which was a bit of a mission amongst the crowds but she did it! Nick and the American guy bought "Mao waving watches" after the long bargain with the guy! We also wanted to visit Mao's Mausoleum but the queue was far too loooooooooooooooong.
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After that we went to visit The Forbidden City - a place isolated for over 500 years and first opened for the general public in 1949 allowing others to step into somewhere what used to be the secret world of emperors, eunuchs, ceremonies and splendour although we found major parts of it in restoration.
Again words that keep flooding my mind are the ones to describe the size of it. It is massive. Thinking of it now I suppose the size of it strikes you first simply because it was never designed to be walked through in a couple of hours as we did. It was a city just like any others (???) where different aspects of life had to be accomodated -from daily pleasures and routines of the Emperor within its palaces walls to the army presentations outside the palaces but still within the city walls. To cut it short I'll put it in a few words -vast, spacious, red, exceptionally well preserved, lots of roofs to look at and so so different to the world outside it!

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Having marched the length of the Tian'anmen Square and wandered from wall to wall in Forbidden City it was time to have lunch. As we were in Beijing we had to try the famous Peking duck. She arrived in one piece on a big plate,all shining brown, richly glazed with white paper cuffs around its legs and apparently very tasty.
Here is how to do it if you want to have a go at home no need to buy the whole bird though :http://www.videojug.com/film/how-to-make-peking-duck

I had to do with spring onions and other vegetables (yammy chinese mushrooms)wrapped in rice pancakes and dipped in different sauces.

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After lunch we continued exploring and toured my favourite place The Summer Palace and its surrounding grounds with beautiful gardens and the lake. It just had a wonderful feel to it and would serve me just fine as a summer residence - while in my dreamland I forgot to take any pictures of it except for
the snakeskin beast at the front gate and some by the lake.dragon_2_.jpg
My fondness of it began while walking through its different halls and reading up their names (here is a little taste: Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, Hall of Virtue and Harmony, Hall of Jade Ripples, Hall of Joyful Longevity, Hall of Dispelling Clouds (!!!!), Hall of the Sea of Wisdom...and so it continues....just imagine saying "I shall have my cup of leaf tea in the Hall of Dispelling Clouds today"). And then there view of the lake that suddenly opened in front of us with its boats and the reproduction of The Marco Polo Bridge.We just had to have a ride....and what a ride it was -on the dragon boat,in the gleam of the setting sun and to the gongs striking for a prayer in the temple that was rising on the hill as we were passing by...........

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After the palace we had dinner and went to see An Acrobats Show in Chaoyang Theatre. The show was truely amazing-death defying and at times ridiculous-picture 4 girls riding around the stage on one bicycle and another 8 joining in one by one as the bicycle passes by, jumping on the frame or colleague's knee and keeping the bicycle going and if that wasn't enough juggling the plates and what have you!!! Maja was captivated, during the intervals entertained the crowd with her own balancing display and clapped her hands forever at the end of the show.

Once it had finished we went back to the hotel and sunk in the bathtub!

We got up "with the birds" next morning to start another exciting day and visit one of the 7 wonders of the world (Middle Ages) ,the world's longest man made structure (over 6000 kms long), the only structure that can be seen from the Moon (which had now been proved untrue) or less popular name "world' longest cemetry" or "the long graveyard" due to amount of people that died or were buried alive while buiding it - The Great Wall of China.Built to defend borders and withstand the enemy attacks the wall continues to impress. It is suprisingly narrow and steep in places and it takes time to climb some parts of it due to popularity amongst other travellers but while on your way you're being rewarded by fantastic views stretching at 360 degrees and a feeling of being somewhere you -for some unexplained reason- always wanted to visit.
And of course we were so proud of Maja who kept climbing the Great Wall with lots of enthusiasm but also wanted to get to the top and back to the bottom as fast as she could for her ice cream and "I climbed The Great Wall" T-shirt - promised to her in difficult moments of her "climb" and so well deserved ! Well done Maja!!!

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After our adventure with the wall we went to see just recently excavated Ming Tombs but didn't have a lot of time there as the guide kept rushing us in order to go and visit some "emporiums" selling traditional Chinese souvenirs. We wanted to skip that part of the itinerary but the guide told us she had to take us there and get her book stamped to show to the agency she was employed by and if we didn't go she would be in trouble ...well...
There were few issues in between sightseeing : the driver not wanting to drive unless we tipped him,the guide complaining about not being paid for doing her job, the driver and the guide undoubtedly not getting on,not enough food for all of us while it was all supposed to be included in the package and so on but we won't go into details as we still had a great time.dragon_1_.jpg

We had one afternoon free and decided to go and visit hutongs - very old alley ways where people continue to live in very basic conditions. Although you are free to walk anywhere as they are just small streets and the life goes on ,we felt like we were intruding in someones backyard although noone seemed to be bothered by us.
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We also visited The Temple of Heaven -known to be the largest sacrificial complex in the world, architecturely representing Chinese thought of the times that the Earth was square and Heaven round. We were not very lucky with the weather on this day as it kept raining but we still manage to see a fair bit. Bad_weather.jpg

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We also visited nearby park and observed how wonderfully the local people went about their day

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We could also see some signs of China's preparations towards 2008 Olympics as well as many buiding sites around the city and many attractions being worked on and restored.

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This month we liked:
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Chinese proverb:
"Walking ten thousand miles of world is better than reading ten thousand scrolls of books."

http://www.videojug.com -brilliant for Asian cooking recipes and more!!!! Am I getting old?

books:
"Kite Rider"-by Geraldine McCaughrean
"The river at the centre of the world - a journey up the Yangtze, and back in Chinese time"- Simon Winchester

"The art of travel"- Alain De Botton

films:
documentary about Yinzheng and his visions
"The Last Emperor" -great for viewing the Forbidden City
"Curse of the Golden Flower" -as above


*********
While reading up about traditional holidays in China I was astonished to find out that there are few official holidays celebrated same in China as well as in Poland. I guess they were established by communist party in both countries and whatever opinions of them we have now (in Poland many people don't like them simply because they were labelled 'communist' but remembering it through my child eyes I seem to have very fond memories of them)

International Women's Day (March 8)
China -"interestingly, women employees will get a whole or an half paid day-off on the day while the men are at the mercy of their employers"
Poland -celebrations vary, but from what I remember women used to receive pair of tights or chocolates at the entries to their work places, men would usually buy flowers for their female family members and friends (there is also a song "Marzec, marzec pieknie sie wystroil....."

International Labor Day (May 1)
China -"no less celebrated than the New Year's Day. Employees will enjoy a paid day-off. Celebration parties in parks took the place of parades today."
Poland- paid day off and celebrations, parades around the coutry, speeches, live shows and entertainment with communist or labour related themes-often performed by school kids etc -that's what it used to be like when I was a child. I think it is still a day off but there are no celebrations as such.

Children's Day (June 1)
China -"It is the most memorable day of Chinese kids all over the country. Almost all entertainment places such as cinemas, parks and children museums and palaces are open free to them. Elementary schools throw celebration parties while parents shower them with presents."
Poland - same as in China although called International Children's Day which made us think -that we were celebrating the day with all the children of the world! I can still remember the taste of the ice creams my mum and dad treated us to on that day! It is not that they would not buy as ice creams on other occasions but this was a special day out to "kawiarnia" - where the word "ice cream" took on totally different meaning -Polish guys will know exactly what I mean :)

Posted by Bulls 11:50 Archived in South Korea Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

SEPTEMBER 2006 "a bit of daily routine"

Maja starts school

sunny 28 °C

Maja_ready_for_school.JPGDuring the past month we have been having lots of fun exploring all the new places and learning about Korea, Koreans and their daily lives. But in the meantime we have been also trying to find a suitable nursery for Maja so she could continue learning and be in the company of kids her age. As much as I tried every day to fool and mess around with her I know that she would much prefer to have fun with other little girls rather then her mum pretending to be one! I must say that finding a place for her proved to be a bit more difficult that we first thought. The assistance from Nick's school was very close to nil and after visiting a few places we were getting a bit worried -there were either international schools established with rich people in mind (children of businessmen, diplomats etc) whose fees we couldn't simply afford or ones that were still expensive but didn't seem to offer much and had kids that could hardly speak English. It was just by pure coincidence we found Story'nkids as they were advertising in the same magazine as Nick's school did. We went to visit and loved it straight away as the place was full of smiling people (little as well as big ones) and shelves wallpapered with colorful books. Again the fee was quite high (especially that it was only for half a day what wouldn't allow me to work many hours and earn it) but Nick's school manage to negotiate the discount as having Maja would be a good source of marketing for them.
The nursery is located about 20 mins car drive from our place and it provides a mini bus service for the kids. It seems that most of private schools or so-called academies provide the transport either free on included in their fees. I am not sure about the state schools but I would have thought that it's the same case. Dropping Maja at the pick up point and collecting her from there once the school session had finished was totally opposite to our routine back in London where Nick would drop Maja at school on his way to work and I would pick her up on the bicycle on my way back. Apart from spending the journey with her we would also be in direct contact with the teachers and see how she was getting on there. Here we don't have that any more and have to rely on the reporting system - where Maja has a little folder and at the end of a good day she gets a stamp or a sticker.

Anyway, the day had finally come and Maja joined the Moon Kids group for kids aged 5 onwards.

Although at the time she was only 3 years and 8 months according to Korean age she was 1 year older -4 years and 8 months. We knew about the difference and those who know me also know that I was always of the opinion that when once the child is born he/she is already 9 months old so when talking about the age we should be adding these months on, but as the years keep on adding on I am quite happy to stick with our way and be happy to be back in the UK and able to say that I am 1 year younger that I was in Korea (wish it was that easy:) but poor Maja seemed a bit confused when she was suddenly told that she was 5 in Korea and 4 in UK.

It was a big relief to have Maja join the school. She quickly settled in and made some new friends although her talks about Henri, Amy and other London friends still go on.
The activities at school are based around stories and books and children as young as Maja or even younger are learning phonics, writing and reading as well.Reading_at..y_nkids.jpgReading_time.jpg

Not being used to the classroom routine, Maja was bringing home mixed reports at first which would usually say
that she was friendly, expressed herself very well in English but didn't follow directions and had a disruptive influence on her class. At first we thought it was a matter of a new enviroment and once she's settled her behaviour would improve but the report didn't seem to change for a while and at the end she was moved to a lower class. This is when we found that she was put an older class to start with as her speech was very well developed but due to her age she wasn't able to follow the teacher's instruction that well. Since then her reports have completely improved as she's been through some sort of metamorposis from a naughty trouble maker to a girl who enjoys the activities and listens and respects the teacher. We are so proud of her!

She loves doing arts

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She also enjoys the outdoors

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As well as posing for magazine adverts:
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And of course a bit of learning as well as being a cheeky monkey with the others:

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This month we liked:

"I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost eveything." Bill Bryson

Books:
"Living with the Enemy -Inside North Korea"by Richard Saccone

Films:
Welcome to Dongmakgol - very good film showing that things are not black and white and easy to explain for Koreans let alone other nationalsposterphoto7608.jpg

Food:
Asia -tofu - so different to tofu that we know back in UK or Poland. This stuff is all fresh swimming in the water, tasting of nothing much and falling into pieces when touched,but after some further enquiring I found the ways to handle it and make it
delicious! all you need is patience and a clean cloth.

Maja -kimbab -although there are different kinds of it Maja loves the most simple dish there is -rice wrapped in or sprinkled with seaweed! nice, easy , healthy and served in all restaurants!

Visits to Seoul Forest:
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Posted by Bulls 01:01 Archived in South Korea Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

AUGUST 2006 "first outs and abouts"

Buddhas, penguins and creepy crawlies

sunny 30 °C

Having unpacked and sort of organised ourselves it was time to go out and face the music -although Maja & I were to dance to the opposite tune to Nick's. While he was straight to work doing long hours and getting used to the fact that things are never black and white here we were quite the opposite -the feeling of not having to be in any particular place at any particular time was fantastic and ever so easy to get used to. We knew that our utopia wasn't going to last forever (Maja would soon need to carry on with her nursery routine and I would have to start working to earn my keep) we opted for the active daily schedule.
August is one of the hottest and most humid months of the year and you are better off anywhere else but outdoors. After 5 minutes of being outside we would be dripping with sweat and gasping for water, so we tried to look for things to do indoors. We didn't need to look too far as the world of children's entertainment was at our doorstep.

The first few days we spent looking closer at what was around us and decided to walk around with the map and visit all the nearby attractions. As mentioned before we are surrounded by skyscrapers and office buildings so didn't think there would be that much to see but it was still good to get to know the neighbourhood.Crashing against the waves of suited bankers, businessmen and other office workers rushing to work we would eventually find a piece of greenery - a little park with some royal tombs, pagodas etc. Lovely place to come and spend the morning walking around and hiding under the trees with some pack lunch once it got hotter.
Our neighbourhood  .JPG Our neighbourhood   2.JPG Our neighbourhood .JPG

Another peaceful place we discovered was Bongeunsa Temple originally built in 794 but reconstructed after it was burnt down in 1939. Situated right opposite the very modern COEX complex and being the contrast to the speedy financial district I bet we were not the only ones pleased to find this place of peace and tranquility right where it is. As it was the first Buddhist temple we had visited we were not quite sure what were the customs for ordinary passers by but we found a leaflet in English informing that although there were prayers and chants taking place in various temple buildings around (there is 11 of them just there) we were welcome to walk around and observe or join in if we wished so. Not knowing what we were going to see we wandered around and suddenly we saw a huge Buddha face "poking out" through the tree trunks. We couldn't believe the size of it and that was just his head! We quickly chaged our walking pace into a sort of curious run as if we were about to discover the 8th wonder of the world! Forgot to mention that it was late in the evening and candle lit which definetely built up the atmosphere.
We had followed the path amongst the trees and after a few minutes we came to a wide open space with the 23 meters tall Buddha standing in front of us guarded by two lion statues.
Despite our attitudes towards different religions (mainly not being able to understand it all) it felt very special to be there. Maja wasn't sure what to make of this "giant man" but understood that he was important to people as they kept on coming and going, bowing and paying their respects. We've been back to see THE BUDDHA plenty of times since then!
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During the summer holiday COEX exhibition center was packed with children's exhibitions, theatres, activities etc.

The first was a Bugs' Festival where kids were invited at the entrance to hold a stag beetle on their arm ( as found out later stag beetles are being sold as house pets here).It was packed with all sorts of insects alive as well as stuffed :( and small reptiles.

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We were able to see how the silky cocoon expands to become a beautiful butterfly.
Apart from observing the creepy crawlies, kids were getting a paint tatoo (Maja's choice was a pink butterfly) as well as could take part in a drawing competition, where Maja represented London quite well.My butterfly.jpg

We didn't have to go to any exhibitions to be able to see cicadas
(cicada |səˈkādə; səˈkädə| noun a large homopterous insect with long transparent wings, occurring chiefly in warm countries. The male cicada makes a loud shrill droning noise after dark by vibrating two membranes on its abdomen) that seemed to be everywhere around us. Their size could be that of the middle finger and they made the noise that gave you instant goosebumps.I would have never thought that I could be brave enough to walk under the crowns of trees that were giving shelter to hundreds of them! Check them outcicadis.jpg

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Next visit was to meet 1 of the most popular kids cartoon characters -Peroro and his friends. Although Maja wasn't familiar with the story she had lots of fun and is now very fond of the little penguin and his gang.
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Before you start thinking that all we did was kids' stuff I must quickly add that we have also visited some adult friendly places:

The National Museum of Korea

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The Family Park

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This month we liked:

"Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of food, your closet full of clothes - with all this taken away, you are forced into direct experience. Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience. That's not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating." Michael Crichton

Books:
"Korea- a walk through land of miracles" by Simon Winchester BRILLIANT, A "MUST" IF YOU'RE COMING TO KOREA

Films:
"The King and the Clown" - moving, informative and very funny!

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Food:
Asia-we were taken to the posh Japanese restaurant serving sushi, where every type of sushi had its own designed chef preparing it in front of us - fresh, colorful, tasty little masterpieces definetely won my heart although I did enjoy sucking on the crab legs too, Nick and Maja kept on going back and forwards for more and more of the other little dishes called "desserts"

Posted by Bulls 12:05 Archived in South Korea Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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