A Travellerspoint blog

June 2007

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


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

Under the famous cherry blossom tree


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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!


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.


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.


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.



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


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.


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:



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.

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.


Just across the road was the busy shopping district of Giza


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:


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


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.


Then there was the time for dinner and saying good-bye to the city from the 250 metres high observatory of the Tokyo Tower.

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:



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!


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.



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.


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 :


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


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.


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!


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."


Monchhichi- yet another childhood memory and a funny story:


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:


And of course:


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.


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):

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!


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!


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.


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:


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.


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!


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.


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.


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!


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).


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.


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.


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...


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:


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


semi-overcast 3 °C

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.



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)

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