A Travellerspoint blog

Thoughts on Japan - Part I

You thought I'd forgotten, didn't you?

At last! The Japanese update, three weeks late. How rubbish am I? (Don't bother to answer that, by the way; I already know.)

Anyway...

We spent a total of eleven days in Tokyo, being ready for a break from all the dashing from place to place. It is an intriguing city, and although we got to see a large chunk of it, we would have needed another week or so to do it all.

The accommodation

Japanese hotels are different from Western ones (says Little Miss Stating-The-Blooming-Obvious). We initially stayed in a hotel that catered to tourists. There we had a “twin room” – basically two singles that had been knocked through to make one big room. There were Japanese style beds: a roll-out futon on a tatami mat, plus a pillow that felt like it was filled with dried peas or something. (I swear, never have a pillow fight with these things; one of you will end up with concussion!) This, basic as it seemed at the time, was actually quite luxurious. We then went on to spend the majority of our time at a traditional hotel that had quite a lot of businessmen as clients. This room was… a cupboard. A large-ish cupboard, true, with room for two mattresses - which were the thickness of tissue paper - and not a lot else. On top of that, this was a whole new ballgame for us because we had to learn Japanese hotel rules: taking off outdoor shoes when entering the lobby; the etiquette of using the public bathing area, etc. Actually I’m sure we made a mess of things a dozen times a day, but everyone was very understanding.

It was an interesting experiment, but not one either of us is keen to repeat at this stage. Honestly, I think we are still in Spoilt Western Mode, and things like proper mattresses and en suite bathrooms appeal to us. We’ll get over it – we have to if we want to go exploring in more remote areas, ‘cos I don’t think they have en suite bathrooms in yurts.

The people

Lovely, friendly, polite – pretty much every stereotype you’ve ever heard about the Japanese is true. Some spoke English very well, others knew only a few words, but everywhere we went people were helpful and tried hard to communicate with us. It’s also amazing how much you can say through ‘sign language’, too; Pete and a pharmacist had a fascinating encounter when we were trying to buy mosquito repellent. I wish I’d had a video camera, it made great viewing.

The food

I’ll admit to being a bit apprehensive about this, ‘cos I had never tried Japanese cuisine before (except sushi a couple of times), and I had only the vaguest idea of what to expect. On our first day in the city, Pete announced that he wanted to eat ‘local’. I eyed the many McDonalds, KFCs and other Western Junk Food Emporiums with more than a smidgeon of longing, and agreed with some trepidation.

Of course, finding a place we could cope with took a while. Restaurants are plentiful, but the majority of them had menus only in Japanese. Fortunately some of them had accompanying pictures, so we focused on those. That wasn’t the end of it, however, as the Japanese do love their technology, and even something as mundane as ordering lunch didn’t work the way we expected it to. Instead of going inside and giving our order verbally, we had choose a dish from the window, memorise the appropriate number, then get a ticket from a vending machine outside the building. This ticket was handed to the cook, and it all went from there. Apart from the fact that we spoke no Japanese, the lady behind the counter spoke no English and our orders came with noodles and other bits and pieces that we weren’t expecting and couldn’t easily express preferences for, it all went swimmingly.

Oh, yes… and apart from the fact that I am a fumble-fingered klutz when it comes to using chopsticks. And they gave me noodles. In soup. Are you getting the picture? Messy, isn’t it? Still, we got served one way or another, and I managed to get more food into me than I flung around the restaurant, so we are calling this particular experiment a success!

I’m glad Pete made me do this early on, though. As I say, Western-style food is readily available, and it would have been so easy to chicken out and simply order chicken nuggets! As it was, once I’d survived my first local dining ordeal, I was happy to try other Japanese places, so ate a wide variety of things I’d never tried before (*).

(*) I would like to point out that we did later try Japanese versions of McDonalds (pretty much the same as UK/NZ McD’s) and KFC (better selection than NZ and their teriyaki chicken burger was to die for!), plus we also tried the Japanese chain Mos Burger. In all cases the food was freshly prepared, but it was expensive and servings were small. There ain’t no Super-Sizing in Japan!

Supermarkets were also great fun, ‘cos each time we went we grabbed an MFP: a Mystery Food Product. There were many interesting looking items lining the shelves, and of course we couldn’t read a word on the ingredients list, so we just chose one at random and hoped for the best.

BTW, this is a picture of a Japanese microwaveable ready meal:

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Pete assures me that it was every bit as delicious as it looks.

And just to prove that we really did sample the local cuisine, here is a picture of Pete bravely tasting the local brew:

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He was so brave, he had several ‘tastes’ one after the other!

To be continued, so watch this space...

Posted by Julie1972 05:01 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Bangkok: More of a ‘fizz’ than a ‘bang’

In which we recount our non-adventures in Thailand

As certain people have pointed out (yes, I am looking at you, Hrvoje), it has been a while since I last posted anything. This was not my intention, I assure you: my plan was to write my entry about Japan whilst on the flight to Bangkok, then post it as soon as I had sorted out the photos and could find a decent Internet connection. I actually did write the thing, but everything after that went a little bit pear-shaped. As a consequence, the next few posts will be out of order. I’ll give you the Bangkok update now, and will post the Tokyo entries tomorrow.

So, as I said, things went haywire pretty much on landing. I became ill, developing a miserable cough & cold which I generously shared with Pete. This meant that we were both too sick to travel or do anything much for the best part of a week, apart from sit around the hotel, moaning, coughing and surviving mainly on the contents of our room’s mini bar. (It will be some time before I am able to face another packet of salted cashews!)

Then we got better, finally looking forward to seeing something other than the interior of our hotel… and all hell breaks loose in the city. You’ve probably heard about the Thai anti-government protests in Bangkok – it’s been all over the news. Fortunately we were quite a long way from the riots; unfortunately all the interesting stuff we wanted to go and see was in the danger zone. After half a dozen urgent emails from both the British and New Zealand government agencies declaring a state of emergency in Thailand, we decided we wanted out and arranged for expedited visas to Vietnam.

Exciting reading, isn’t it? Well, I did warn you.

To be honest, we didn’t have a lot of luck in Thailand generally. Our first hotel leaked like crazy during a thunderstorm (we are lucky we still have a laptop!), and our second one, despite being advertised as an oasis of peace and calm, was a nightmare: two days of twenty-odd horrible teenagers running up and down and making a racket, followed by two days of drilling and building works immediately outside our hotel door. (You should have seen the customer feedback form I submitted at the end of that little adventure!) Our third hotel was, happily, a nice environment, and we would like to go back there when we return to Bangkok (*).

So, enough with the whinging already. We did get to do odd bits and pieces while we were there, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time. Bangkok is proof that the however bad the economy gets, consumerism is still alive and well. I have never seen so many malls in one place! And to get to these shopping centres, you often have to elbow your way through a crowded street market or two. And you can forget walking on the pavements with any ease, ‘cos they are all packed with street vendors.

I’ve probably mentioned before how much we hate shopping, but there was one acquisition that we are very pleased with:

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Our little Cube speakers – perfect for upping the volume on our Netbook, but small enough to pack away and transport easily.

The only other photo we took in Bangkok was this one:

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It’s rainy season in Thailand and although it's hard to see it in the photo, the rain was bucketing down! We took it when we got caught out in a storm and were forced to take shelter along with a couple of sensible locals. It turned out we were the tourist attraction on this occasion, ‘cos passengers on the buses kept waving and laughing at us. Personally I don’t see what’s so funny about a couple of damp foreigners, but I’m glad they were enjoying themselves!

The other event that happened while we were there was the Songkran festival, otherwise known as Thai New Year. One of the main parts of this celebration is water-throwing: people line up at the side of the road with hoses, super-sized water pistols and buckets, and give each other a good dousing. It’s all in good fun, and although they obviously really like getting tourists, they will leave you alone if you ask them to. Pete and I got ‘splashed’ (i.e. drenched) a couple of times, but we had to ask them not to after a while ‘cos we ran out of dry clothes!!

Probably the most powerful memory we will take away with us from our short time in Bangkok is this: on TV we watched protestors clashing with the police, the army, and each other, yet downstairs in our hotel lobby the girl receptionists were squealing ‘cos the bellboys had ganged up on them with water pistols. It was like two different worlds, very hard to reconcile.

This state of unrest is predicted to hurt the Thai tourism industry quite badly, which is a real shame. We both liked the little we saw of Thailand, and intend to return once the political situation has been resolved. It was unfortunate that we had to leave before we got to see much of the country, but we both agree that this was the smart thing to do. We are now in Hanoi, Vietnam, and are hoping to take a road trip down the east coast of the country, starting tomorrow. I promise not to get sick again and will update soon (including interesting pictures!)

(*) For anyone reading this hoping for travel tips, the place we hated was the Anda Boutique Hotel on Ramkhamhaeng Road in Bangkapi. They are in the process of remodelling, and although it will be great when it’s finished, it really isn’t habitable right now. Aside from the noise and the dust, many of the facilities were not available (e.g. room service). The one positive thing we would like to mention about Anda is the staff. They were consistently courteous, helpful and professional, and managed to do an excellent job in difficult circumstances, but I still highly recommend checking to see how their renovations are going before booking.

The place we liked is the Sawasdee Sukhumvit Inn in Prakanong. These guys have reasonable rates and are perfectly situated for easy access to the city, plus they have lovely staff and a restaurant on-site.

Posted by Julie1972 04:16 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Haere Mai

Goodbye, New Zealand (though I refuse to ‘farewell’ you. ‘Farewell’ is not, and never will be, a verb!)

And so the New Zealand part of our adventure comes to a close, way too soon. Despite the frenetic pace we set over the past couple of weeks, we still did not have time to explore the whole of the south island. We wanted to leave the glaciers and head up north via Greymouth, visiting a bunch of vineyards along the way, but sadly it was not to be. Instead we had to head back to Christchurch to return the rental car, promising ourselves that we will come back and complete the south island tour some time in the future.

Despite the adage about not being able to teach old dogs new tricks, Pete and I have learned a thing or two, and this post is really to sum up the good, the bad and the ugly, what worked and what didn’t.

Let’s start with the good stuff.

Trip highlights:

- Walking on a glacier (and having another helicopter ride).
- Getting up close and personal with cute little penguins, both at the Antarctic Centre and on the nature tour.

Trip lowlights:

- Invercargill. Not in the least helped by the fact that the weather was freezing cold, and when it wasn’t raining we had hail. Truly miserable!
I’m gonna upset people with this one, I’m sure, but what the heck…
- Milford Sound. Now before people start sending me hate mail and stuff, can I just say that I don’t really categorise this as a major lowlight, but more of a minor disappointment. Yes, Milford is pretty with its mountain scenery and lakes etc., but it was also a major drive from Invercargill. Pete and I both agree that a) it was something we had to do, just to say we’d seen it; but b) it perhaps wasn’t worth the time it took to get there, given that there are equally pretty mountains that are way more accessible.

*Okay, I’m wearing my flame-proof suit now. Fire away!*

Anyhoo, enough of insulting the Sound… what’s next?

Place on the south island we’d both like to live:
Dunedin.

Main problem with living in Dunedin:
The lousy winters and horrible snowfalls.

Potential solution to the above problem:
Global climate change. Go to Dunedin (in the summer, obviously) and release loads of CFCs into the atmosphere. The hole in the ozone layer above Dunedin will widen, letting in more UV rays and heating up the land. Once Dunedin resembles Bali, we can move there with our sun lotion and beach towels and live happily ever after.

Reasons why potential solution won’t work:
1) I’m pretty sure the greenhouse effect doesn’t work that way; and 2) It’s a really evil idea, and although I have my moments, I don’t think I am capable of wreaking such environmental havoc.

Secondary potential solution to problem:
Buy some thermals and two dozen hot water bottles and learn to tolerate the lousy winters! We should be used to it – we’ve lived in Edinburgh, after all.

Other things we have learned:

It is possible to become inured to too much pretty scenery

For the first couple of hundred miles (or kilometers, if you insist) of rivers and mountains and what-have-you, we were all, “Ooh” and “Ahh”; for the next hundred whatever-units-you-prefer-to-measure-in our reactions were a little more understated, in a sort of a “Oh yes, very nice” kind of way; by the time we were heading back to Christchurch we were deliberately driving past every scenic lookout, and the only view that really grabbed our attention was an open-cast mine where trees were non-existent and dirt was piled everywhere. (I know, I know. We are a couple of city-raised philistines who have absolutely no business in the country!)

Driving is knackering

We have seen so many places over the last two weeks that my memory of the towns and cities we visited has merged into one big Mega-City. Although I have no sense of direction and am usually lost, it has been worse than usual recently because of the constant moving around.

This disorientation extended to Australia, too, and even caused us joint stomach ulcers on one way-too-memorable occasion. We made a brief stop-over in Oz in order to take advantage of some super-cheap flights to Japan (update coming soon), so got to see a bit of Brisbane and a bit of the Gold Coast. We had to brave one of the local malls to withdraw some cash, and had a major freak-out when we discovered that our bank account was showing a much lower balance than expected. Paranoia kicked in, and we started worrying about our account being hacked or other types of fraud… just to realize during a panicked phone call to the HSBC “Help, We’ve Been Robbed” hotline, that we hadn’t been cheated at all. The ATM machine was displayed our balance in Australian dollars, not New Zealand dollars, so of course it was lower. Once we’d stopped having simultaneous heart attacks and calmed down, we wondered why on earth we hadn’t realized this sooner. I put it down to the fact that Oz and New Zealand aren’t sufficiently different for us to recognize that we were in a foreign country. It sounds stupid, I know, but honestly, looking round that shopping centre there were very few clues as to our location. Many of the shops are the same, and there are branches of New Zealand banks all over the place. The style and layout of such buildings are similar, and most of the time I didn’t feel like I’d left NZ at all. Given all that, I think it was a reasonable assumption that we’d expect our balance to be displayed in Kiwi dollars. (Either that or we are complete idiots who shouldn’t be allowed to travel the world!) Still, we learned the hard way and won’t be fooled like that again.

We packed way too much stuff to bring on this trip

Remember I mentioned in a previous post that Pete’s backpack had up and died on in Wellington? Well mine waited until we were due to fly out to Australia before deciding to split its seams. After buying me a newer, smaller pack, we spent an evening whittling our stuff down to the bare minimum. Clothes now take roughly one quarter of our pack space, not one half, and we can now get everything into our backpacks if required, eliminating the need for separate day packs.

We cannot keep up the current pace of travel

It’s too disorienting and too exhausting. Our plans have now changed for the umpteenth time, as follows:

Instead of doing a mad tour of Japan, we are having a city break in Tokyo. We have a hotel booked for three nights already, and we hope to find another hotel where we can spend the remaining 8 nights. (Not having to get up in the morning and clear out every morning will be pure unadulterated luxury!) From Tokyo we fly to Bangkok, Thailand, where we will spend one week, before travelling a popular route through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

In conclusion:

The south island is beautiful, and I am glad we took the opportunity to see it before leaving New Zealand. We were both impressed enough that we may consider living there at some point - if we can overcome our abhorrence of cold weather, that is!

This was the easy part of our tour, and it has given us a chance to get into a routine in a familiar environment. From here on, things will be a bit more challenging, ‘cos for a large part of it we will be in countries where we can’t speak the language, and the locals may not speak English, either. It will be interesting, to say the least…

We shall update you on our Tokyo adventures soon.

From

Julie and Pete

Posted by Julie1972 22:57 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Why New Zealand's South Island has no Theme Parks

Or ‘adventures in motion sickness’

Hello all

This is the first of two posts finishing off the New Zealand part of our trip. I realise that I have been extremely slack when it comes to this blog, and really must make more of an effort to keep it up to date. I promise to do better in future.

Anyway, on with the blether...

New Zealand is not known for its theme parks. Gorgeous scenery, yes; sheep, for sure; but theme parks are thin on the ground in NZ, and a few days ago I think I worked out why. See, it’s the mountains that do it. The south island is full of ‘em, and it’s a bit of chore travelling any distance because soon or later there is going to be another mountain range to cross. And we’re not talking mini-mountains here, either. These are full-on big ’uns, all rocky and craggy and sprinkled with snow. You know, the impressive kind that look like they should have top secret research facilities hidden underneath like in all the spy movies. Actually it’s a miracle anybody attempted to build roads over ‘em at all, ‘cos I swear that your average New Zealand mountain contains more curves, chicanes, switchbacks and loop-the-loops than a Scalextric kit. We had to jump a ravine once. (Well, no, we didn’t, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if we had!) Anyway, this driving-unfriendly terrain is the reason that nobody has built a theme park on the south island: Once you’d driven there, you’d be too travel sick to enjoy any of the rides! That is my theory, and I’m sticking to it, so ner…

So, as you may have gathered, little old me has not had a good time of it on the mountain roads. After one particularly memorable trip, Pete even voluntarily drove 50 kms out of his way in order to avoid the same mountain range on the way back. (What a sweetie!) I’ve never been a good traveller, mind, and although it has improved somewhat over the years, I still get hit by it occasionally. And as if mad driving isn’t enough, I actually went and deliberately put myself in a position where a queasy stomach was pretty much inevitable.

One of the things I really wanted to do while visiting the south island was to walk on a glacier. Don’t ask me why; I saw a travel show once where people were hiking over glaciers in Switzerland, and I’ve wanted to try it myself ever since. Of course, glaciers are a major tourist attraction on the south island, given that there two humungous ones on the west coast, and a bit of time with the Internet-lover’s best friend (Google) let me know that there were a couple of options available:

1) Work for it - Grab some hiking boots, crampons and thermal undies, and undertake a 4+ hour arduous hike up the glacier.
2) Cheat - Hire a nice friendly chappy as a pilot, and get him to fly you up to the top of the aforementioned glacier in a fraction of the time and for no appreciable effort.

Wanna guess which option we chose?

So, off we went and booked ourselves seats on a six-passenger helicopter with a very friendly chappy as a pilot. We lucked out here, ‘cos we managed to get ourselves upgraded to a better flight for no extra charge. We were due to take a 30-minute trip that briefly landed on both the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, but instead we had a grand tour, flying over Franz Josef, passing by Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, and ending with a good ten minutes or so walking on Fox Glacier. It was cool – literally!

You may have already surmised that this trip was not the smoothest, given my earlier complaints about motion sickness, but in this case it was totally worth it. I think in this case you’ve been Typed At long enough already, so I’ll let the photos do the talking for me from here on. Enjoy!

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Pete posing by our helicopter on Fox Glacier.

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A bird's-eye view of a glacier.

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Twin peaks: not the bizarre 90's TV show, but Mount Tasman and Mount Cook.

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A close-up of the glacier ice. Apparently it has a blue tint to it due to a lack of oxygen.

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One thing these pictures can't adequately convey is how bright is was up there. I now understand the meaning of the term 'snow blindness'.

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You know people climb these things for fun? Glad we took the helicopter!

Posted by Julie1972 23:23 Archived in New Zealand Tagged photography Comments (1)

Attack of the Killer Penguin!

Watch out! It's coming right for us!

One of the things we’ve been doing on this trip is chasing penguins. Not literally, of course; that would be unfair, ‘cos penguins can’t run very fast and it’s easy to catch them. No, what I mean is, we’ve been going on trips with the intention of spying on the funny little creatures.

This is not difficult; there are penguins all over the south island. They even have ‘penguin crossing’ road signs in some areas:

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There are also many nature tour operators prepared to swap our hard-earned tourist dollars for a glimpse of penguins in the wild, and this is actually one of the best ways to see them. A lot of the birds live on protected grounds, so it’s a) hard to get close to them without risking getting shouted at by officials, and b) a pain in the neck even if you do choose to trespass, ‘cos some of the colonies are a bit inaccessible.

We decided to go the legitimate route, and booked ourselves on a Natures Wonders tour in Dunedin. I’m glad we did, ‘cos the path was rough, hilly and exceedingly muddy, so it was a good thing they provided transport.

It is quite a bizarre sight seeing penguins on a beach – they look so out of place. I was a bit disappointed that there weren’t more of them, and the hideout we were in was a long way from the beach, so most of the viewing had to be done through binoculars. I didn’t get many pictures worth seeing, except this one:

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*Note: picture is grainy 'cos I had to use maximum zoom.

This little guy is a rare sight on the beaches of Dunedin, simply because he is a Crested Fiordland penguin and should be on the other coast. Of course, being me, I have spent many hours since then trying to think of reasons for this little fella’s defection from west to east. These are my ideas so far:

1. He’s got my sense of direction and is hopelessly lost.
2. Being stared at by Fiordland tourists all day became too stressful for him and he decided he needed a holiday.
3. He’s having a mid-life crisis and decided to (e)migrate.
4. Fiordland Penguin is disillusioned with life in the capitalist West and is hoping for a new start as Comrade Penguin in the Eastern bloc.
5. Mrs. Fiordland Penguin kicked him out of the den because he spent that week’s fish money on a second-hand ice floe from this dodgy bird down the watering hole.

Yeah, yeah, I know that last one needs some work, but what can I do? Things like that run through my head all the time. It’s quite exhausting, really.

Enough of that, I think. On with the story…

Yeah, so, after we’d all taken pictures of the few penguins on the beach and I was starting to feel vaguely ripped off, one of the guides called me over and drew back a panel in the wall. Just a few inches away sat the most adorable penguin chick I had ever seen! Sadly we weren’t allowed to take photos ‘cos it would have disturbed them, but I really, really wish I could have taken one home with me. Cute overload, I tell ya!

I did get to experience a parcel of penguins in Christchurch, at the International Antarctic Centre. The IAC – amongst other things - rescues injured birds, tries to fix them up, and releases them back into the wild. This is where we encountered the Killer Penguin mentioned in this blog heading. Don’t believe me? I put it to you that the aforementioned penguin did:

- Squawk and screech loudly and threateningly;
- Flap its wings in menacing manner;
- Peck at numerous trouser legs and any body parts that got in the way of its beak;
- Trample Pete’s foot maliciously and with intent.

The perpetrator of these heinous crimes?

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Meet Panya, a two year old Little Blue Penguin, who we got to see ‘cos we paid an extra $20 for a behind-the-scenes tour. We don’t actually know if Panya is a boy or a girl, ‘cos apparently it’s really hard to distinguish between the sexes until they are about three years old (without a DNA test, that is). I think what usually happens is this:

1. The keepers give the bird any old name.
2. They wait until breeding season and see if it lays an egg.
3. If it does, they check the bird’s current name and change it if required.

Cheaper than DNA testing, anyway, eh?

On our quest to pester penguins we encountered various other animals, so I shall leave you with a selection.

Seals that we also saw on the Natures Wonders tour:

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This fella is still breathing, we think:

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A surprise that we encountered on a beach on the way to Milford Sound. This guy could really move, so we didn’t want to get too close:

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And, of course, the scariest beasties of all:

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Us!

Hope you have a good one, wherever you are!

J&P

Posted by Julie1972 12:31 Archived in New Zealand Tagged photography Comments (0)

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