Japan · Travelling

Days 25 to 29 – Nara and Kyoto

Day 25 – Nara

Today I jumped on a plane and flew 650 miles south to Osaka. Not that I am staying there, as I then got two trains to the city of Nara.

Nara was the capital of Japan in the 8thC and has a legacy of beautiful temples and shrines. It also has a crazy number of wild deer roaming the streets. They have become so tame that they’re not phased by anyone and hilariously scare tourists by trying to steal food out of their bags. They have also developed this amazing trait where they all have learnt to repeatedly ‘bow’ to people to get food off them. It is quite surreal to see it, a few clips in my video above.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I didn’t get to my hotel til 3pm so did not have much time to explore. However I did visit the Daibutsu Grand Buddha in Todai-ji temple. The buddha was built in the 8thC and is housed in the largest wooden building in the world. The buddha is 15 metres tall. It really was awe-inspiring to see it. It was however insanely busy with tourists – a few clips in my video!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I also lucked out finding a great Japanese curry restaurant that had a veggie menu! It also served the most amazing dessert, pictured because it was so good. I going back tomorrow for sure. In fact I am thinking about it now 🙂

img_2260

Day 26 – Nara

Learning my lesson from yesterday, I was up and out before the bus and train loads of tourists arrived. It was also raining which I hoped would deter them and it seemed to thankfully.

I started my day at Kofuku-ji temple. It was moved to Nara from Kyoto in 710 and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Attached to the temple is a museum showcasing some of the artefacts associated with the temple, including some stunning buddhas. The temple has burnt down at least 4 times over it’s history but amazingly a lot of the statues and artefacts have survived.

I then headed over the stunning Kasuga Taisha Shinto shrine. Japan is full of both buddhist and shinto shrines. I am not sure which is the largest religion here. Either way it has left Japan with some amazing places to visit. Founded in the 8thC, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is built at the edge of a forest with literaly hundred and hundreds of stone lanterns lining the pathways. They are only lit twice a year at special ceremonies but stunning to see them nevertheless. Luckily for me the place was pretty empty and I had time to slowly walk round and talk some great photos and video footage.

I lastly visited the Isui-en garden, a beautiful example of a traditional Japanese garden. Again, I virtually had the place to myself, so I could sit and feel tranquil! I then trekked back into town, expecting the usual where the hell can I eat moment, but actually found a great sushi conveyor belt restaurant with a decent number of veg options. Result. Tonight I am returning to the Japanese curry place with ‘that’ ice cream!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Day 27 – Nara and Kyoto

My lat day in Nara and I wanted to see one of the four National Japan museums that is in Nara, as it was closed Monday. I was pretty much the first person through the doors at 9.30am which is always a great feeling! The museum houses some amazing buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Each one I look at and imaging owning it 🙂

A Bodhisattva and a thousand armed Kannon
A Bodhisattva and a thousand armed Kanon, 9thC

A quick whistle stop for an early lunch at the sushi restaurant I went to the day before and the waitress even remembered me, and that I was veggie!

I jumped on the train for the 45 minute journey north to Kyoto. The city was previously the capital of japan, and similar to Nara has many amazing shrines and temples. It is also astonishingly full of tourists. I think the book ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden is to blame as the vast majority seem to be American.

Anyway I decided I need to go to some slightly quieter places, so I go the bus up to a beautiful old Japanese house and garden called ‘Shoren-in’. It backed onto a bamboo forest, and had a lovely garden with a pond and carp. It then started thundering which only added to the great atmosphere. And rain usually means less people too. I got chatting to the gardener who told me that the fish, which were huge, were only 5-6 years old and that they can live to be over 50 years old!

Bamboo forest
Bamboo forest

I then trundled back into town and through the famous ‘Gion’ area, where most of the book is set I think. It is the older part of town, with lots of small lanes to discover. I then sat by the Kamo River for a while watching herons and cranes dip for fish, before heading back to my hotel.

Crane on the Kamo River
Crane on the Kamo River

In the evening I broke my ‘I won’t go searching for veggie restaurants’ rule again but this time it was spectacularly with it! I ate at a fab places called ‘Pettirosso’. The owners were an Italian Japanese couple who set it up because they had travelled the world and struggle to find the veggie food they liked, so they set up the restaurant in Kyoto so other travellers could eat great veggie food. And boy am I glad they did, as it was easily the best thing I have eaten this trip 🙂 Happy Ben.

Day 28 – Kyoto

Today the full force of the Kyoto tourist industry hit me! I employed the trusted technique of getting out early to beat the crowds, only to discover everyone else had the same plan. Add into the mix commuters and bus loads of school kids and it is a recipe ‘oh for God’s sake, I cannot be bothered’ so I sat in Starbucks for an hour whatssapping with my bestie as it seemed more fun! And it was.

When I finally did get out I headed to the famous Kinkakuji golden shrine. As beautiful as it was, the much promised serenity the guidebooks assure was somewhat spoilt but the hundreds of people trying to get a selfie in front of it. I took a few shots and headed off.

The rest of the day I wondered through the small lanes and alleys of the city, through Nishiki Market, where I had some top-grade matcha tea which was very green and very nice! I also ventured to the top of Kyoto station, which seemed an unlikely thing to do but they have built this great viewing platform up-top so you can see across the city and across to Kyoto Tower.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I ended the day at a vegan place called Ain Soph. Whilst not as great as the place I ate at yesterday, to have two veggie/vegan places in one city is welcome indeed!

Day 29 – Kyoto

My last day in Kyoto. After the early aborted start yesterday I had a lay in! I went to the station to book my onward trains and then headed to a lovely quiet temple called Higashi-Honganji. Rebuilt in 1895 after a fire, the main hall is claimed to be the largest wooden building in the world. Thought the temple in Nara said that too. Someone’s lying….

Anyway it was lovely and tourist free so I hung out there for a while in the shade as it was about 30 degrees today. Then I walked up to the Imperial Palace and walked around the grounds and the gardens.

img_2439
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Kyoto Imperial Palace

In the evening I walked up to the Kiyomizu Shrine, with great views across the city. I also wrote a wish and claimed through a hole in a rock! All part of a mission to grant any wish! Can’t remember the name of the shrine but I was very scared I would get stuck in the hole! Most Japanese people are considerably smaller than me, and one lady watching laughed the entire time I was doing it! In fact you can see her laughing in the photo. Bitch.

img_2459

I ended the day at a sushi conveyor belt restaurant, cheap as chips as ever. I have enjoyed Kyoto, as touristy as it is. Onwards to Hiroshima tomorrow.

Advertisements
Hokkaido · Japan · Travelling

Days 20 to 24 – Hokkaido, Japan

Day 20 – Tokyo to Hokkaido

I left Tokyo today for a more sedate pace of life. I jumped on the Shinkansen train to Hakodate, which took about 4.5 hours. Riding the bullet train is a quintessential experience of travelling in Japan. I did what most Japanese people do and bought myself a bento box to take with me, and amazingly I found a VEGAN box! It was so beautifully presented, with carved vegetables, different types of rice, beans pulses, and other things I had no idea what they were, but it was tasty!

Of course the train was perfectly on time! I then changed onto a local train for a short hop down to the port of Hakodate. It reminds me of towns I visited in New Zealand funnily enough. I arrived at 3pm and headed up the nearby mountain by way of the cable car. It is pretty quiet here, and so much cooler than the south, about ten degrees cooler in fact which has been a welcome change. I found a park and lay on a bench and had the place to myself and it was wonderful.

Mount Hakodate
Mount Hakodate

Hakodate is really just a stopover for my journey tomorrow up to the main city of Hokkaido, Sapporo. But it does have its charms. I wondered through the older area of the town, a few schoolkids said hello to me and I ended ups at the supermarket for dinner – a running theme of this trip so far! I also discovered the oldest concrete electricity pole in Japan. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. How lucky I am to have seen that. I like visiting smaller more out of the way places, as you get a truer sense of what it is like to live in a country. Electricity poles and everything.

The oldest concrete electricity pole in Japan
The oldest concrete electricity pole in Japan

Onwards to Sapporo.

Day 21 – Sapporo

Local trains in Japan are quite different from the whiz-bang-whallopp Shinkansen bullet trains, but they are still pretty good, though slightly reminiscent of British Rail in the late 1980s. It bizarrely took almost as much time to travel from Hakodate to Sapporo than it did to go from Tokyo to Hakodate, and if you look on a map you’ll see how outrageous that is!

Sapporo is the largest city on the island of Hokkaido and perhaps most famous for beer! It certainly is very laid back and so much quieter than Tokyo! The weather is about 10 degrees cooler too. The level of English is also noticeably less and therefore the old Google Translate app has been coming out a lot more. The hotel I am staying in is great as it has its own Onsen (Japanese spa). On the first day I went down twice and floated in the soothingly warm water, it was amazing!

img_2104

I also discovered a great Indian restaurant called Jyoti. It was like being back in the UK, loads of familiar curries and can breads to choose from and more importantly loads of veggie options! To round off my evening I stumbled across a fantastic five night outdoor free dance festival called ‘Yosakoi Soran’. It is an annual event apparently and celebrates a particularly energetic group style of Japanese dance and it is amazing! If you watch my video you’ll see some examples. The coordination and costume changes are stunning.

Day 22 – Hokkaido

Today I spontaneously decided to go on an adventure! Within ten minutes of waking up I decided to go see some of the island as the weather was good, so I grabbed my rail pass and headed to the station.

My ultimate destination was a town called Furano. The journey itself was lovely, trundling through the Hokkaido countryside, with rivers and mountains. The place I ended up at was an area famous for lavender and flowers. It was a long journey but was beautiful. I was a little early for the full effect of the fields and fields of lavender but what I saw was still great. You can buy lavender everything – lip balm, ice cream, cakes, pillow cases, perfume, you name it! The area is also famous for its melons.

Hokkaido flower fields at Farm Tomita
Hokkaido flower fields at Farm Tomita

I did have a funny experience too, whist looking at the nearby mountains. There seemed to be this low lying white cloud hanging around one particular mountain. Whilst sitting there pondering why it hangs around that mountain especially, it suddenly dawned on me that I was staring at an active volcano!!!?!

I ended my evening back at the dance festival and got myself a front row seat! After all that sitting I thought I should indulge in the Onsen experience once again which was a soothing way to end day 22 🙂

Day 23 – Beer and the eternal frustrations of a vegetarian abroad

Bit more of a lazy day after yesterday’s exertions. I started the day by booking my onwards train trips, from Kyoto to Horishima, then to Kobe and lastly to Osaka. The lady who helped me at the station spoke perfectly English which in Hokkaido seems to be quite unusual. I then took the old green line streetcar to find a veggie restaurant that I had seen recommended online. However, a tale as old a time proceeded to unfold, as I walked for ages to try and find it. But couldn’t

It has happened so many times that I have decided to stop trying to search out veggie places anymore using Google maps. It frustrates the hell out of me! I am just going to try and find veggie food in normal restaurants and chance my luck. Today was the second day in a row that I ate from a 7/11 store! Literally just rice and edamame.

I then walked over to the Sapporo Beer Museum. The brewery was set up in 1876 because the Japanese government were trying to develop the island of Hokkaido, as it was largely just agricultural in the 19thC. They had originally chosen Tokyo as the base but decided to bring it up here. You can walk around the museum , look at the history of the brand and see some interesting advertising posters (all using women to advertise the beer!). Apparently it is the most popular beer in Asia. I bought myself a limited edition  classic beer and sat on a bench and enjoyed a nice chilled brewskie! (I don’t drink beer much).

Sapporo brewery
Sapporo brewery

I then headed back to what has become my daily ritual and relaxed in the Onsen. I took a few photos (highly illegal) of what it looks like. Basically there is a single sex bathing pool with hot spring water. Then there are individual cubicles where you can wash, shower, shave, brush your teeth, you name it. I have noticed that Japanese men like to come down later in the evening and it is their evening regime to sit in the pool and have a shower before bed. It is a lovely relaxing way to end the day.

Day 24 – Otaru, a garden and a museum

My last day in Hokkaido today. I started my day in the sunshine at the Sapporo Botanical Garden. It was lovely and quiet, the only other occupants were a group of al fresco painters and some very noisy crows. It seems that people here are a bit scared of crows, there were signs up saying they cause mischief and to be wary of them! That’s why I like them.

19047f28-bdd8-405e-b15b-a919209c7cdf
Sapporo Botanical Garden

I then headed to the nearby Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art. It wasn’t modern so much, a lot of the paintings are from the 18thC but it was a great gallery nonetheless. I then immediately broke the rule I set myself yesterday and tried to find a veggie restaurant I saw in a leaflet. Big mistake. It was closed. That really is it it now. Never again.

7e0b1910-597f-4533-bf0a-0ee3a22d55ec
Sapporo Modern Art Museum

I decided to see a bit more of the island and jumped on the train to the nearby town of Otaru. It used to be a busy fishing and trade port, but that industry died off years ago. That left the town with a series of canals and docks that became redundant and in need of repair. Luckily for us tourists the town regenerated the area and now it is a lovely area for boat rides, cafes and shops. I visited the local museum which was lovely, and I had it virtually to myself. I like to support local galleries and museums, sometimes they are not amazing but if you don’t support them, they won’t be around! Support your locals museums people 🙂

e90b6fc9-0706-4072-81df-e689ad6629f5
Otaru

Tomorrow I am flying down to Osaka, then staying for a few nights in the old city of Nara. I have really enjoyed Hokkaido, the peace, the pace of life, the countryside and people. I definitely got stared at way more up here, as there are significantly less white people and less English is spoken. I do however like going to more out of the way places, and seeing the less obviously touristy side of country.

I ended my evening watching the start of the new series of Tales of the City! I have such an affinity with this series, having read the books when I visited my good friend Liz who was living in San Francisco, way back in the day. In fact we visited the inspiration for Barbary Lane last year on a trip up to the city, which is actually called Macondray Lane.

Watch it, it’s great!

 

 

Japan · Tokyo · Travelling

Days 14 to 19 – Tokyo

Day 14 – Busan to Tokyo

On day 14 of my trip I said goodbye to Korea and headed over to the land of the rising sun – Japan. I had some amazing views of Busan as I took off, see my video. It isn’t very far to get to Japan from Korea, only two hours flight from Busan to Tokyo. I had to pick up my SIM card and rail pass which was pretty easy then I jumped onto a train into the heart of the biggest city in the world! And boy does it feel big!

I immediately felt a difference in the people. On the train there was none of that Korean shoving to get a seat. It was so much more orderly and respectful. I arrived into Tokyo station at rush hour with a large suitcase which was as much fun as you can imagine…! However there are so many rail lines it is actually pretty easy to get around.

First thing I did when I got to my hotel was laundry! I literally had nothing left to wear.

Day 15 – Finding my way around

I just checked and I walked 23,000 steps today and it is only 6pm! I decided to do some sightseeing today and book some of my onward tickets. I have booked a ticket up to the island of Hokkaido in the north next week which I am really looking forward to. I bought myself a ‘Suica’ card for the metro and set off exploring. A few dead ends to start with though, as the Museum of Western Art is closed the entire time I am here and the National Museum was insanely busy so I thought, no. I should’ve known better than to turn up at 12 noon. Going to have to do that another day.

Bonsai trees
Bonsai trees

I did walk around the gardens off the Japanese Imperial Palace which were lovely, and also the Gojo Tenjinsha, a shrine in Ueno Park surrounding the National Museum. I also stumbled across a display of flowering bonsai trees which were beautiful. I know keeping and pruning bonsai is a Japanese art form, the people looking at them were fascinated by the trees.

I then headed on the metro down to the Shibuya district, with the famous crazily-busy pedestrian crossing that seems to appear in loads of films. I tried to go to a conveyor belt sushi place for lunch but like everywhere else here it was crazy busy so I bought some cooked aduki bean rice and salad from a shop and headed to the park instead!

Golden temple door
Golden temple door

Veggie food here is certainly no picnic but it is a little better than Korea so far. In the afternoon I visited the forest park that contains the Meiji-Jingu shrine. There was also a beautiful garden with water lilies and irises so I decided to eat my lunch there in the relative peace. Tokyo is fun but you need to escape the noise sometimes.

Meiji-jingu Gyoen
Meiji-jingu Gyoen 

Finally I visited the famous Harajuku district. This is the area where all the trendy young things hang out and shop, so I was in good company. I went to a vintage shop and bought some sunglasses, as I lost both my pairs already!! It was a really interesting sight, seeing all the crazy outfits everyone was wearing, especially after the conservative nature of Korean young people.

Day 16 – Museums

Learning my lesson from yesterday, I headed out early to the National Museum of Tokyo. I was very glad I did, as for the first few galleries I had the place to myself. The museum is actually four galleries in one, with an entrance fee of about 600 yen which is about ÂŁ5!

Second century Indian buddhas
Second century Indian buddhas

The main gallery has artefacts from Japan including some amazing buddhas, masks and some wood prints images. Similar to Seoul Museum, it was incredibly well presented and laid out. I also went to the museum cafe and after explaining to the waitress that I don’t eat no meat, she found a special tofu burger meal I could have which was very kind of her, and delicious too! The other galleries focus on Asian art in general, with stunning Indian buddhas from the second and third centuries being my highlights. Overall I spent five hours there and it was fantastic.

Japanese masks
Japanese masks

In the evening I checked out the Akhihabra district, otherwise known as Electric Town. Well it was quite the assault on the senses. I looked round some of the game arcades, which were pretty funny, as they were packed with middle-aged businessmen playing retro games, presumably reclaiming their youth after a busy day in the office. The area is also full of ‘maid cafes’. Which is kinda what they are, lots of young women dressed as maids standing in the streets with menus trying to tempt (mainly men funnily enough…) into the cafes, where I think they put on performances and food comes in ‘kawaii’ style – cute. On the flyer I was given the highlight were teddy bear shaped omelettes!

Japanese anime
Japanese anime

 Day 17 – Closed, closed, closed

Well the lesson of the day is to check museum websites before you travel. I went to THREE art galleries all of which were closed. Closed. Closed. What were the chances I turn up when all three are closed to put together new exhibitions. After the weeping stopped, I headed over to the Roppongi district. There is a great art complex there called the National Centre for Art and there was a fabulous Austrian art exhibition on celebrating 150 years of diplomatic relations between Japan.

Now, I would not normally consider Austrian art to be high on my agenda, but boy was I wrong, it was fabulous. Gustav Klimt is probably the artist from the exhibition you are most likely to have heard of (‘The Kiss’) but the whole exhibition was very interesting, concentrating on the 19thC and early 20thC. I also discovered two fantastic new artists, Hans Makart and Egon Schiele. The painting below is ‘Sunflowers’ by Schiele and I love it! The most famous painting in the exhibition was ‘Portrait of Emilie Floge’ from 1902 by Klimt, another stunning painting.

Day 18 – Shinjuku, Harajuku and Asakusa

Today I decided to mop up a few of the remaining areas of Tokyo I had yet to visit. I started with Shinjuku. There is a beautiful garden there called Shinjuku Goyen, free to get in on a Sunday and the perfect place to lie down on the grass and do nothing!  Shinjuku is more famous for its nightlife, so I am heading out there tonight to see what it has to offer.

Shinjuku Garden, Tokyo
Shinjuku Garden, Tokyo

I then got the metro over to Harajuku, made famous by Gwen Stefani perhaps, Harajuku girls. Anyway, it is very trendy and hip. I visited the Kawaii (cute) monster cafe for lunch. Oh my. I guess it is more for kids but was fascinating anyway to experience it. The cafe itself is a crazy, neon, OTT visual experience, and the staff put on shows, complete with cute dancing monsters.

Monster Cafe, Tokyo
Monster Cafe, Tokyo

Finally I headed east over to Asakusa. This area contains the oldest temple in the city, Senso-Ji. As it was a weekend it was packed. It is very touristy, lots of things to buy, lots of street food stalls, but interesting nonetheless. It reminds me of what I saw in Korea, a less sanitised version of the city.

Senso-ji temple, Tokyo
Senso-ji temple, Tokyo

Day 19 – Robots

My last day in Tokyo and I looked to the future. Literally. I visited the Museum of Science and Emerging Innovation in the Odaiba district. The best part was watching a demonstration by ASIMO, the resident football-playing and dancing robot! It was really interesting to see how human they had made it, and what it could do. ‘He’ could also jump on one leg! The museum had lots of interesting exhibitions, including using cells in medicine and space exploration, where you could look round one of the actual living pods used on the International Space Station.

Robots in the Museum of Science and Emerging Innovation
Robots in the Museum of Science and Emerging Innovation

Nearby there was also a huge robot thing which my friend Dom reliably informs me is called Gundam, and it is based on some cartoon or something that was popular once. Anyway it was pretty impressive, and it looked like a transformer. Another oddity in the area included a replica of the Statue of Liberty (not full sized). The area also has fantastic views of the city, as all as of the ‘Rainbow bridge’.

I have really enjoyed Tokyo, everyone is so friendly and welcoming and willing to try and speak with you. This goes for everyone who works for the rail system, anyone in a cafe or restaurant, anyone who works in a shopping centre, a 7/11 store, you name it. It definitely is the friendliest and politest country I have ever visited. The most efficient too!

Tomorrow I have my first experience of the Shinkansen trains (bullet trains). I am travelling five hours up to Hokkaido in the far north of Japan. I can’t wait!

South Korea · Tennessee · Travelling

Days 10 to 14 – Busan and Daegu

Day 10 – Songdo Beach, Amnam Park (and Pizza Hut)

On day 10 I jumped on the ‘KTX’ train and sped down to the southern coast of Korea. I say sped as that train flew down the line! Previously I had only taken ‘Mugunghwa’ trains which are older and slower, whereas KTX trains are like bullet trains, very modern and sleek.

I immediately connected with Busan. It is similar to Seoul, but the weather is nicer, it is easier to get around and more importantly I found a VEGAN restaurant for lunch! Big win. It is the second city of Korea and is a large port. It also has a number of beaches, which I intend to utilise as I need a few days of not rushing around.

On my first day I bought a return ticket on the Busan Air Cruise cable car, and headed up to Amnam Park from Songdo Beach. I practically had the place to myself, and with cool ocean breezes it was the perfect place to unwind. I hiked around the park and it was wonderful, with breathtaking views across the southern seas.

Amnam Park and the cable cars in Busan
Amnam Park and the cable cars in Busan

I did find ANOTHER vegan restaurant to try for dinner, but here restaurants seem to close incredibly early, and disappointingly when I arrived at 8.10pm they were already closing…?!!>>>@! Imagine my surprise. However all was Ok because I ended up in Pizza Hut which is virtually the same thing. Will try again another day.

Day 11 – vegetarian delights and the world’s biggest shop

I had a very welcome vegetarian experience today! As I may have mentioned a few times, being vegetarian here in Korea is quite frankly the worst. However, there are nuggets of vegetarian goodness if you know where to look. I found a great restaurant called ‘Ecotopia’ and had a delicious tofu burger with rice, roasted veg and some amazing pickled cucumbers in lemon. The best part however were the amazing people who run the place. The owner told me she had studied in Leeds of all places, and then interviewed me for her Instagram channel! She also gave me a free book. Then they gave me a free cookie a previous customer had bought and left for me, as I had told him he had left his phone on the table. A small thing perhaps but things like that remind me how people can be amazing and generous and kind, which I need to remember from time time…

img_1458
Vegetarian goodness

I also visited the largest store in the world! Officially. Well, according to a sign they had up. I don’t deny it has pretty huge. So huge I got completely lost. But it did have a Boots, rather weirdly, so I shopped in there for a while til I found my bearings!

Day 12 – Taejongdae Park and a hidden gem

Didn’t have much on my agenda today, decided to have a quieter day, so I jumped on the bus over to Taejongdae Park, about 50 minutes from my hotel. It’s a hilly cliff-side park which you can walk around, with some fantastic views across the sea. Unfortunately, it seemed like half of Busan also wanted to come with me. Thankfully most of them were very lazy and jumped on this train thing that ferried around the park, meaning I was largely left to my own devices.

Funnily enough it was mainly the older generation who I shared my walk with. It is quite surprising to see how active over people in Korea are. They love using those outdoor gyms and are always power-walking somewhere. I was imagining if they lived in the UK they would be curling up on the sofa watching Corrie most nights instead of hiking up a mountain!

Taejongdae Park, Busan
Taejongdae Park, Busan

I also stumbled across a beautiful and very quiet buddhist temple, with a reclining buddha outside. Most temples do not let you take photos of buddhas but this one was Ok which was good. It is funny though, as because it was not a ‘touristy’ temple on the tourist trail, there was no-one there. Just shows what you can find if you out the guidebook away and just wander…

Yes more meal-drama today, searched out two places to eat, both of which were closed. I finally found my old saviour, the Japanese restaurant and had at least some vegetables to eat. The whole mission-to-eat thing is becoming pretty tiresome. I do not enjoying eating here at all, I find it pretty depressing that Korea is so unfriendly to the idea of not eating meat.

Days 13 & 14 – a trip to the bathhouse and Daegu

On day 12 it didn’t stop raining, so what better time than to visit the quintessential Korean experience – the bathhouse. I have been to one before, in Orange County, with my good friend Liz, so I kinda knew what to expect. Which was a good thing as the experience can be a bit confusing. Where to put your shoes? What to wear? What NOT to wear etc! The place I chose was called Heosimcheong Spa and it was huge! The way Korean bathhouses work is that there is a mixed area called a Jimbang. This is where the dry saunas are, as well as communal lounge areas and a cafe. The wet areas are single sex and that’s where all the saunas, hot and cold baths are. Also where you have to get over your British reserve and whip your clothes off!

There was an outdoor bath, a boiling hot scald-your-skin-off bath, freezing cold baths, powerful water jets to massage your shoulders, you name it, they had it. It was about 8 times bigger than the place I visit in California and I spent about three hours there, all for about ÂŁ6!

On day 13 I got the SRT (I don’t know the difference between KRT and SRT?) train to the city of Daegu, about 45 minutes way. It is famous for it’s oriental medicine market, which I looked around and smelt some amazing aromas, have no idea what they were though! In the words of ‘French & Saunders’, it was just a bunch of old twigs…. I did see a few disturbing things like turtle shells though too.

I also stumbled across a brilliant sushi restaurant, and some veggie rolls! The lady who owned it had lived in Austin, Texas, which I visited on my last trip so we reminisced about our time spent there which was nice.

I also had a funny/terrifying experience at the railway station. I was just finishing buying my ticket when I heard some screams and shouts and I turned around only to see about six masked men dressed in black hurtling towards me holding semi automatic rifles!?! Well I froze and though good god this is it, I’m dead, when I then saw some man waving a fluorescent orange stick which turns out meant, don’t worry this is just a drill. In a packed railway station. With no notice. Thanks 🙂

Highlights of Daegu
Highlights of Daegu

I ended my day back at the veggie burger place in Busan that I went to on my first day here, so a pretty good day all round food wise! I am heading off to Tokyo tomorrow which I am really looking forward to! Hopefully more so if Trump has departed!

I just wanted to finish my thinking out loud a few thought on my time here in Korea…

Some general musings on my time in Korea

  • Korea is the worst country I have ever been to for vegetarian food. And I’ve been to France! And Germany. If I never have to eat Korean food again I will be a happy man.
  • The people are generally very friendly, helpful and respectful. I always felt safe and welcome.
  • Getting a seat on the subway is a national sport. Heaven help you if you try to get in someone’s way if they have an eye on seat. You’ll stand no chance.
  • Everyone is very law-abiding when crossing the road. I wasn’t.
  • Train conductors will happily go up to anyone who is speaking even vaguely loudly and tell them to shut up which is pretty amusing to see! I somehow can’t see that working on UK trains.
  • Korean men have a disgusting habit of hacking up their lungs and spitting in the street. One guy did it right at my feet. Gee, thanks.
  • Pedestrian crossings mean nothing – Korean drivers would rather run you over than even contemplate stopping.
  • If you come here as a westerner, be prepared to be stared at. Every. Day.
  • Rural Korea is beautiful, the mountains and rivers, the temples and palaces.
  • Someone described Korea to me as a blend of Chinese and Japanese culture which I think is probably spot-on.
South Korea · Travelling

Days 6 to 9 – Andong and Gyeongju

Day 6 – Andong

On day 6 I left the capital and headed south. I love big cities, the culture, the galleries and museums, the hustle and bustle, but I also love the tranquility and slower pace of more rural life too. My first stop is Andong.

Andong is about four hours train ride away from Seoul in a south-easterly direction. It was super cheap to get here, about ÂŁ7! I am staying a lovely guest house run by a Korean couple who couldn’t be more helpful. It is a Korean style room with a bed on the floor and minimal furniture. My hosts made sure I was well versed in everything there is to do here in the town. I was also guided around the array of different shoes you have to wear. bathroom shoes, indoor shoes and outdoor shoes too! I also made some new friends – Terry and Jun the dogs!

Me and Terry
Me and Terry

Andong is famous for two ancient brick pagodas. I stopped by both on my walk, one is nine stories tall and is the largest in Korea and dates from the 10thC. I then walked along the meandering Nakdong River, and crossed the longest wooden bridge in Korea, with beautiful views up and down the river. I then headed back into town via a lovely wooden walkway that rises and falls with the adjacent hills.

 

Tomorrow I am getting the bus to the famous Hahoe Folk Village. So famous that when the Queen visited Korea, she asked to be taken to the most Korean town in the country, and they chose to bring her here! Apparently the village has a monument in honour of her visit! I shall find out tomorrow…

Day 7 – Andong

Well, the rumours were true! QE2 had indeed visited Hahoe Village, there was a plaque and everything to prove it! I spent about three hours at the village, wandering around what is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was nice that it is a fully functions village with people living there. You can see the homes they live, many dating from the 16thC.

The village name means meandering river and you can walk by the river and up a nearby cliff for wonderful views of the village.

Hahoe Folk Village
Hahoe Folk Village

I also visited the Andong Folk Museum. I learnt some interesting facts about Korean traditional life. It used to be that Korean boys did not cut their hair, wearing it in a braid until they married, when it was cut. I also learnt that when every child turned one, the family had an elaborate ceremony, one of the elements of which was to place a number of toys in front of the child. Depending on which toy the child selected was supposed to determine what career they would have. Not sure it happens too much now but it was fascinating insight into generations past.

Trees of Korea
Trees of Korea

I also managed to find some vegetarian sushi which was cause for celebration! I am off to Gyeongju tomorrow and I hope it is easier to find something to eat there. Andong has not been kind to me food-wise, my body is craving healthy veggie food! Oh what I would do for an oat milk flat white and a quinoa salad lol….

Days 7 & 8 – Gyeongju

I arrived by train into the town they call the museum without walls. It was about a billion degrees and I immediately melted. Having pulled myself together I headed to the Gyeongju National Museum to find out about the history of this area.

Gyeongju burial mounds
Gyeongju burial mounds

Founded in the 5th century, the Silla dynasty has left its mark on this area of Korea. Primarily in the form of a series of royal burial mounds found throughout the town. They are quite an eerie site, but beautiful too. My video below shows a few highlights.

You can go inside a few of them and see how they were excavated and how they were laid out when the person was laid to rest in them. The king or queen was laid out with their possessions, often gold jewellery and crowns. Some of the crowns are in the museum and they are stunning.

Sixth century Silla gold crowns
Sixth century Silla gold crowns

In the sixth century, buddhism was introduced into the Silla dynasty, and this has left an amazing legacy of temples and shrines in the area. The most famous is the Bulgaksa temple. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I sensibly went early, to avoid the heat and crowds of tour buses, and was rewarded with a tranquil experience to take in this beautiful temple.

I then headed high into the mountains above Bulguksa to a temple called Seokguram. I couldn’t take any photographs but this is a temple based round a beautiful stone carved buddha. I loved walked through the cooler air and the trees of the forest, with views back down to Gyeongju.

Bulkguksa
Bulkguksa

I then ended my day eating Japanese ice cream and cinnamon buns from a little Japanese cafe I found. I then sat next to one of the tombs and read, thinking how funny it is that two weeks ago I was commuting to Horsham up the A23 and now I am sitting next to a royal burial mound in Korea!

Tomorrow I am off to the south coast of Korea, to the second city of Busan. It has lots of beaches which I am looking forward to, then onwards to Japan!

 

 

South Korea · Travelling

Days 1 to 5 – London to Seoul

So here I go again….

About 27 months after my last big trip, I decided to head off again to do some exploring. This time I wanted to challenge myself a bit more, in terms of visiting some countries that don’t speak English that widely and whose cultures differ greatly from mine. So I chose to start with Korea and Japan!

Here are my video highlights of my first few days.

Days 1 & 2 – Flying to Seoul and Deoksugung Palace

Images of Seoul
Images of Seoul

After an 11 hour flight from Heathrow to Incheon, I touched down in South Korea on Thursday 16 May 2019. Unfortunately it was very hazy so couldn’t really see the city as I came into land. As with any long distance flight, with an 8 hour time difference, I’m  jetlagged to hell!

One of the first things to hit me is that it is astonishingly hot here, something I was not expecting. 30 degrees and humid. I had read that it is not wise to come in the summer because it is too hot, so I chose spring. What must summer be like?!

Today I visited

  • Seoul Art Museum – mainly to get out of the heat! It was all contemporary Korean art, some of which was interesting. You can definitely sense a tension is the art, reflecting a constant tension at the situation in the north.
  • Deoksugung Palace – one of four main royal palaces in Seoul. Highlight was watching the changing of the guard and listening to the most out of tune band ever which was very amusing (for a taste of them, see my video)!
  • Cheonggyecheon-ro stream – this was really cool. Years ago this stream was concreted over, and a flyover built on top of it. About twenty years ago the city and the people decided the reclaim the waterway, and today it is a lovely place to sit in the shade and relax.
Images of Seoul
Images of Seoul

I also had dinner at Namdaemun market, my first proper Korean meal. I have been a bit concerned about the whole Koreans love meat thing, but today was Ok! I saw some plastic rice and eggs in the window and went for it! I also tried kimchi for the first time (fermented spicy cabbage and very much a national obsession) and wow, yes, it blew my head off!

Fried rice and kimchi
Fried rice and kimchi

First thoughts are that everyone is really friendly, everyone is very orderly and respectful and I seem very tall!

Jetlag is hitting me so I am signing off for today…

Day 3 – Gyeongbokgung Palace and Jogyesa Temple

A marathon 21,000 steps today, mostly spending wondering around the quite frankly mahoosive Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds. A royal palace complex for hundreds of years, it fell into ruins, only to be rebuilt in the 19thC. I felt a bit like a rockstar as loads of teenage girls repeatedly came bounding up to me asking to take a photo with me and to fill their surveys out! Move over Bono. Or Rick Astley is probably closer.

Deoksugung Palace, Seoul
Deoksugung Palace, Seoul

I also visited the Korean Contemporary History Museum. I had not been aware of the details of the turbulent recent history of this country, especially that it only gained independence from Japan in 1945, and then 5 year short years later was invaded by the north, hence the start of the Korean War.

I also visited the beautiful Jogyesa buddhist shrine, with three huge buddhas and hundreds of coloured lanterns strung across the sky.

Jogyesa Temple
Jogyesa Temple

I ended my day at the sweaty, crowded and vibrant Gwangjang market, where I ate some delicious mung bean pancakes. Partly because everything else had a face, or used to!

Day 4 – Changyeongung Temple and Namsan Park

More palaces today. There are quite a few around! Today it was the turn of Changyeongung Temple, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not as vast as the palace complex I saw yesterday, but it did have some beautiful gardens. There were again lots of Korean people dressed in traditional costume touring the site which made a lovely atmosphere and some nice photos.

Changyeongung Temple
Changyeongung Temple
Changyeongung Temple
Changyeongung Temple

It was also mercifully a bit cooler too, and less humid, and a breeze too! I went on a vegetarian food hunt to the district of Hungdae, following a recommendation in my Lonely Planet which ended up being a wild (veggie) goose chase. However I luckily stumbled across a lovely place called Sukkara. It was part Japanese, part Korean, part very welcome! I knew getting decent veg food here would be hard and boy it sure is, unfortunately.

I ended the day climbing Mount Namsan. I had planned to get the cable car up to visit the North Seoul tower but half the city had the same idea so I just went for a stroll round the park and watched the night fall.

North Seoul Tower
North Seoul Tower

Day 5 – National Museum of Korea and Dongdaemun Design Plaza

I started my last day in Seoul doing what I love best – visiting galleries and museums! Today I had the pleasure of visiting the amazing National Museum of Korea. It really is one the best museums I have ever been to! It is purpose built, and has fantastic lighting, exhibition spaces, layout, you name it. It also contains some beautiful artwork. With an obvious focus on Asian art, it has comprehensive collections of buddhas dating back hundred of years, as well stoneware, statues and paintings. Here are a few of my highlights.

Assorted Korean artificats
Assorted Korean artificats from the National Museum of Korea
10thC buddha, Korea
10thC buddha, Korea
Wooden figurines decorating a funeral bier, late Joseon period (Korea)
Wooden figurines decorating a funeral bier, late Joseon period (Korea)
Arain deity 'Adu Sirana, Indonesia, 19thC
Grain deity ‘Adu Sirana, Indonesia, 19thC

I also visited the impressive Zaha Hadid designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza. It is pretty impressive from the outside, but it seems that the authorities do not know what to do with it inside. It feels very empty and lacking in focus unfortunately.

Dongdaemum Design Plaza
Dongdaemum Design Plaza, Seoul

I am heading out of Seoul tomorrow to see the more rural side of this country. Seoul has been fun but I am ready for a bit more down time!