Hawaii · Travelling · USA

Days 41 to 45 – The Big Island, Hawaii

Day 41 – ‘Hawaii’ or ‘The Big Island’

Today I headed back to Honolulu and flew south to what is technically known as ‘Hawaii island’ but everyone seems to call it ‘The Big Island’. I had another car hired and they kindly asked if I would I like a convertible. After thinking to over for 3 milliseconds I said yes. brrm brrrm. It is a Mustang and very fun to drive!

There are only really two towns one the island, Kona-Kailua and Hilo. I landed in Kona-Kailua and had a look around then headed north. I couldn’t check in til 4pm so I decided to tour the island. It seems that the west side has all of the beaches whereas the east side, where I am staying, doesn’t. However, I have had enough beaches for now so that was OK with me. I stopped for a quick break at Makelawena Beach and then headed across the centre of the island. The weather immediately changed and I had to put the roof back up due to rain, drizzle and fog! Like being back home.

I stopped in a lovely little place called Waimea and chatted to a woman who had spent part of her childhood in Yorkshire! Then arrived on the east coast and headed south towards Hilo, the other big town here. It is very noticeable the lack of people, and tourists here which is great. Also the landscape is very different, gone are the white sand beaches and huge green tropical mountains, replaced with black volcanic rock.

I am staying in an AirBnB, have my own little cottage in an amazing tropical garden with huge jackfruits, pineapples, avocados and lemons growing all around. At night you can hear the frogs and birds chirping and croaking and it is pitch dark too.

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Day 42 – swimming with turtles

Today I did something amazing. I swam with turtles in the wild. I drove to a local swimming spot called Carlsmith Beach Park. It has very shallow water, protected from the waves by rocks so is the perfect place to swim. I thought it would be good but had no idea how good. After swimming around a bit I caught sight of some beautiful rainbow coloured fish, and shoals of all manner of tropical fish, which was great. Apart from the snappy beaky one that came swimming up to me in a rage and gave me a good peck and made my leg bleed!

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Then a lady next to me said, ‘Hey, there’s a turtle’! and as I looked down underwater a huge Hawaiian green turtle swam beneath me! It was amazing. Over the next half an hour turtle after turtle swam around, beneath and past me. Some were huge, well over a metre long. It as such a privilege to see them, they are magnificent.

After that I am not sure anything could top my day, but I did some cool stuff. I drove into Hilo and had a look around. It feels very different to Oahu, lots more homeless people, more closed down shops, definitely more hippy and laid back too. I then drove to a nearby tourist spot called Rainbow Falls and then headed back south to a hippy town called Pahoa, as it has a cool veggie type wholefoods store.

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Rainbow Falls

I ended the day doing some volcano stuff! I found some lava-fied trees that were caught by lava and turned black and to lava ash which were cool to see, then I hit the south coast where all the volcanic activity was last year. You can walk across newly created lava fields, on land that didn’t exist before the eruption. There was also no-one there, so was great to have the place to myself. Standing on the rock hard terrain you really get a sense of the power of the forces that created the land. You can see lava flows that missed a house by a couple of metres, and the owners are still living there! Not sure I could be brave enough!

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Tomorrow I am visiting the Volcanoes National Park to see the volcano up close and personal!

Day 43 – volcanoes!

Started out early and drove 45 minutes south west to the Volcanoes National Park. As it is a National Park you have to pay to enter, $25, which pays to maintain the park. As I got there early it was pretty quiet. There are two ‘calderas’ there, which is the name for the floor of the crater of the volcano. The first one erupted last year and spewed lava for days, which hit the sea and destroyed 700 homes. It is still steaming and looking at it you can definitely feel the might of it and also the fact that it could erupt any minute. Luckily it didn’t.

I then walked about 40 minutes down onto the caldera of the other crater, which last erupted in 1959. It felt pretty amazing and weird to be walking across the top of a volcano! There is life there too, small plants and shrubs living amongst the hardened lava. Life finds a way…

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Hawaii is a beautiful chain of islands but what makes it so special is the diversity of landscapes it has, from rainforests and mountains on Oahu to black sand beaches and volcanoes here. It would have been wonderful to witness active eruptions but at the same time terrifying so I was fine seeing what I saw!

I then headed back into Hilo as I fancied a swim. I started at Richardson Beach, known for its coral reef and fish. I did not know there were reefs here, and it was only about a five minute swim out to see it too. I saw some beautiful corals and loads of multi-coloured fish too. I then drove five minutes back to the beach I visited yesterday, Carlsmith Beach. No turtles today but loads of great fish again.

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Carlsmith Beach Park

 

Day 44 – Up north

Lots more driving today, the car tells me that by the end of today I have been in the car for 14 hours! It really is the Big Island. I drove up north to a place called Waipi’o Valley. I did stop on the way at a few choice spots, one of which was this cool river which had carved a tunnel through a rock face and had become a waterfall.

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Waterfall

Anyway, Waipi’o Valley is famous around these parts and often features in marketing for Hawaii as a tourist destination. It also has significance to generations of the first Hawaiians and apparently there are lots of burial sites in the valley. I did not attempt to walk down to the valley floor as I saw two people who had just climbed back up and they looked they had been run over. Twice. The views from the top were stunning, see below.

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I then drove back to a small town called Waimea, a place I stopped at on my first day. A very nice lady chatted to be who owned one of the shops, admitting my Celtic knot tattoo. She had Welsh and Scottish ancestry so we had a chat about the homeland for a while! I gave her my blog address so she may even be reading this – hello!

Then I headed back to Hilo via a very windy and mountainous road. One minute it was sunny and then suddenly the fog rolled in and it was like driving across Dartmoor! Very eerie.

As I have done so much recently I decided to end my day at the cinema watching Dark Phoenix (X-Men). I have lots to say on this film but I won’t bore you haha!

Day 45 – a chilled out day

Day 45 feels significant. In my mind I think I am away for 90 days so this feels like I have hit the halfway point. Also it is my last day in Hawaii before I fly out to California tomorrow. Am looking forward to being back in my hood again and staying with my best girl Liz.

Looked round Hilo again, chilled by the seashore, read my book, watched some mysterious weasel like animals running havoc and being attacked by birds! There are so many interesting animals here. In the park there were some beautiful vivid yellow birds twitching around. In my cottage there are loads of green and red geckos which I have learnt to tolerate as I can’t keep them out! At night there’s a chorus of all sorts of noise that does not stop until morning! My animal expert source (mum) assures me they are frogs.

Another thing I noticed today is how much freedom local children seem to have. Parents tend to let them do what they want, I saw a young boy about 3 years old running around today barefoot on razor sharp lava and having the time of his life!

I have enjoyed my time in Hawaii, I would recommend coming here in a heartbeat. Maybe slightly out of season as it is now hitting peak season and is very hot. I would have loved to have visited some of the other islands, particularly Maui and Kauai. Maybe another time. Hawaii really is unlike anywhere I have ever been, so green lush and tropical, with stunning landscapes and wildlife. You forget when you are here that you are marooned in the middle of the Pacific, about 5 hours flight from anywhere.

Heading back to Kailua-Kona tomorrow and flying to LA and the next leg of my adventure 🙂 Aloha!

 

Hawaii · Travelling · USA

Days 36 to 40 – O’ahu, Hawaii

Day 36 – twice

The longest day ever. It has been like Groundhog Day. I took off from Osaka Wednesday evening at 10.30pm and after an eight hour flight landed in Honolulu at 11am. Wednesday morning. So I have pretty much lived this day twice.

Picked up my hire car and headed east to the small town of Kailua. I did not want to stay in Honolulu or Waikiki as they are too busy and this place seems perfect. I have my own place, a small cottage which is two minutes from the beach. Oh and what a beach. Stunning white sand and crystal blue warm water to swim in. As I was pretty jetlagged I crashed on the beach for an hour or two and swam in the sea. Heaven.

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I then meandered down to Lanikai beach which is just south of here and another beautiful place. The backdrop to all this is some huge mountains which I am looking forward to exploring. It looks so wild and tropical, unlike anywhere I have ever been.

Day 37 – Kailua and the east coast

Since the beach at Kailua is approximately 2 minutes from my place, I decided to hang out there for the morning. Though there are a number of tourists here in Kailua, it isn’t too bad and doesn’t feel swamped so I picked a nice spot with my chair and my book and chilled for a few hours. The sea is beautifully warm, has small waves and is great to swim in. I have yet to see any fish or turtles though.

In the afternoon I headed up the coast in my hire car. There are some lovely spots to stop at and take in the view. The centre of the island is dominated by tropical mountains which are stunning to see. My first stop was Kualoa Point. The highlight was being surrounded my flocks of cool birds, one of which is the Red Crested Cardinal, so I am reliably informed by an ornithological source (ie my mum).

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My next stop was this beautiful bay called Kahama Bay. there was hardly anyone there, which seems amazing as it was so great but hey I wasn’t complaining! My final stop was He’eia State Park, where I met lots of chickens and feral-looking cats!

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Heading home I jumped in the sea for an evening swim and a can of local beer on the beach. It’s a hard life.

Day 38 – Kailua and the Pill Box Trail

Started the day back at Kailua Bech, though this time more in the shade as I somehow managed to catch the sun a bit yesterday, I guess the rays in Hawaii are stronger than in Asia. There wind had died down so that meant perfect swimming conditions, the sea was so flat it was perfect. I read that this beach is Barrack Obama’s favourite beach in Hawaii so I am in good company!

I then walked up to the main town for some retail therapy, visiting my good friend ‘Wholefoods’! Even though it was only a 40 minute round trip I was so hot by the time I got home. I waited a couple of hours until 5pm before attempting my big adventure of the day – The Pill Box Trail.

This is a roughly 45 minute hike up a nearby mountain. The reason for the name I that there are two WW2 pill boxes up there, the second being at the top. Well parts of it were super steep, but luckily it was pretty quiet on the trail as the weather has not been that sunny. However, near the top the heavens opened – more of that to come! As I climbed up I was rewarded with fabulous views across the coast as well as inland to the rainforest. It was pretty exhausting and hot but well worth it.

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However, on the way down, let’s just say the rain has turned the once stable path into a little bit of a mud slide in parts, and wasn’t that fun getting back down! In parts I slid down grabbing trees as I went! I am laughing now but Lordy it was quite the rollercoaster :-0. By the time I got to the bottom I was covered in more sweat that I thought humanly possible, so I jumped into the sea which was the perfect antidote!

Day 39 – Travels around the island

Today I jumped in the car early and headed out to a beach known for its wildlife, Laniakia Beach on the west coast. It is famous for the local Hawaii Green Sea Turtles, as they like to eat around the area and also haul themselves on to the beach to bask. Unfortunately none were there during my two hour visit. However, I did swim twice in the rocky coves and saw lots of different tropical fish up close which was amazing.

Once the crowds started to arrive about 11am, I jumped in the car and headed north, with no particular plan. The entire west coast is very popular so I carried on driving until I found what I was looking forward. And boy, did I hit the jackpot! I found this amazing place called ‘Malaekahana State Park’ and I had it almost to myself! I think as there are so many great beaches here you can still find these quiet out of the way spots. I set up camp and spent about three hours enjoying the peace and the view as well as swimming in crystal blue water all by myself 🙂

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On the way back down south I stopped at the Polynesian Cultural Centre. it was mainly a tourist trap selling food and trinkets, but I did learn that there are lots of famous Polynesian American Football players!

Day 40 – Kailua

40 days away feels like a milestone. It has been a great trip so far, I think I am about halfway through so lots still to look forward to. Very quiet day today, partly because I am still suffering with jetlag and so slept really badly last night so feel zonked. Just chilled on the beach today edited my video (see above). I also prepared a pop quiz for Elizabeth Hurst and she has damanded one or said I can’t stay with her. This time next week I will be back in my favourite place, Laguna Beach, OC baybeee!

I have really enjoyed Oahu, particularly the beautiful beaches. Tomorrow morning I fly on to ‘the Big Island’, the most southerly of the Hawaiian islands. From what I know it is quite different, less beach life and more tropical mountainous scenery, volcanoes and lava so I am looking forward to that!

 

 

Japan · Travelling

Days 30 to 35 – Hiroshima, Kobe and Osaka, Japan

Days 30 – Hiroshima

Hiroshima is known throughout the world as the first place to have an atomic bomb dropped on it. It happened on 6 August 1945, during WW2, and three days later the city of Nagasaki was also destroyed, leading to Japanese surrender to the Allies.

A few years after the event, the city debated how best to remember the visitors, and they decided to create the Hiroshima Peace Park, along with a museum dedicated to showing the world what happened. I visited the museum and it was as moving as you might expect. You walk through galleries showing the impact of the bomb, on the people and the city. Photographs taken during the event show groups of stunned people with all their clothes blown off and the skin scorched. Buildings blown away. Children’s toys scorched. Houses turned to rubble.

The most poignant artefacts are the things that were left behind. A child’s tricycle. School uniforms. Lunchboxes. All presented in the museum for us to remember the impact of what happened that day.

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By the end of 1945, due to either casualties on the day or people who died due to the effects of the bomb, it is estimated that 140,000 people died, with countless other families ripped apart and ruined.

I also learnt why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen. It was because the American military were looking for sites that would have the biggest impact, where the blast would spread the widest and have the greatest casualties.

The museum is set in the grounds of what they call the ‘hypocenter’ which is the area directly below where the bomb exploded. There is one building now known as the A-bomb dome that remained standing and has been left as reminder of the horrors  of nuclear war.

Hiroshima is a fascinating place and a testament to the hours of war. Whilst it is not easy to see, I think if you visit Japan you should come here.

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Day 31 – Hiroshima

I visited a fantastic art gallery today, the first one in what feels like ages! I have been really unlucky as nearly all the galleries I wanted to see have been closed for one reason or another. I am always amazed how small regional galleries can have the most amazing permanent collections and the Hiroshima Museum of Art is no exception.

It contains works by Van Gogh, Chagall, Degas, Manet, Rousseau, Munch, Modigliani and Picasso to name just a few. If these works were in a major gallery you would queue to see them and be surrounded by crowds. Here I had them virtually to myself. Always check out local galleries where you travel, you never know what you may see! I also visited a second great art gallery in Hiroshima, with works by Dali as a highlight.

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In the afternoon I visited the rebuilt Hiroshima Castle. It was originally built in the 17thC but like everything else here was destroyed in 1945. It has been rebuilt with a museum inside, explaining the history of the castle. You can climb up to the 5th floor and enjoy views across the city. As you can see from the video it has been raining a lot today, in fact it has not stopped raining since I arrived! It is the rainy season after all.

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Hiroshima Castle

Just to end I wanted to share this photo below which is a genius idea but which I have not seen anywhere else. Locakable umbrella holders. Loads of galleries, museums etc have them, to stop everything being dripped with water, you simply insert your umbrella and lock it, taking the key. Since the Uk is obviously the wettest country in the world, why don’t we have them!

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Day 32 – Kobe

Today I headed east to the city of Kobe. Apparently it is famous for dead meat but I chose to ignore that and headed the wonderful Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art. As luck would have it there were having an Impressionism exhibition, I couldn’t believe my luck! I couldn’t take any photos but they had a wonderful exhibition including works from Monet, Picasso, Sisley and my new favourite artist, Maurice De Vlaminck. It is interesting how the collection came to be. The owner of gypsum production company, in the 1970s, decided to start collecting art so that his workers had a more pleasant environment to work in, and he amassed this amazing collection for them to enjoy. It now is touring Japan for us all to enjoy. What a wonderful employer.

The gallery also has a great permanent collection, including some Japanese impressionist paintings from the early 20thC, a movement I had not been aware of but which I loved! Particularly an artist called Heizo Kanayama.

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Outside the gallery there are also some great sculptures, including a big apple and a large girl!

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I then strolled along the harbour front to Meriken Park. Whilst parts of the walk were nice, Kobe is one of these cities that has dedicated itself to the car and sacrificed the pedestrian, building a monstrous two tier freeway going right through the harbour front.  It may have been built after the large earthquake that happened here in 1995. I only vaguely remember it but the monument in Meriken Park says that over 6,000 people died sadly. Meriken Park also contains the iconic Kobe Port Tower, shown below.

Day 33 – Osaka

A short hop east to the city of Osaka. Signs up everywhere warning people about security measures in place for the G20 summit next week, glad I am not here then! Plus I might accidentally see the Trump.

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Osaka Castle

Weather is a lot nicer here, cooler and no rain. Headed out to Osaka Castle in the morning, along with every tourist in the city it would seem. Climbing eight floors to the top you get some great views across the city. Running out of steam I headed to the river and the lovely Nakanoshima Park, marooned in the middle of the river on an island and very peaceful. After nearly five weeks away, travelling around on trains, planes, buses, subways, taxis, by foot I am starting to flag a little! So I lay on a bench and looked at the clouds for an hour and it was great.

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The Running Man

In the evening I headed south to Dotonoburi, a crazy, neon canal-side area of Osaka with shops and restaurants. There is a famous advertising sign called the running man that all the locals go crazy for and take endless selfies in front of. I don’t know why. There was also a man dressed as a wolf, dancing on the front of a boat to Michael Jackson songs, sailing up and down the canal. I don’t know why.

Day 34 – Osaka

A very lazy day today, feel like I am running out of energy! Plus it was super humid and that is the worst kind of weather. Anyway I spent the morning at the Apple store, trying to fix an issue with my MacBook, then wondered through the side streets of Osaka, visiting a few little community style temples that no tourists ever come too and it was great.

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I then headed back to to the riverside park I went to on my first day here and snoozed by the river. Lovely.

In the evening I sampled the local speciality which is called Okonomiyaki. It is a kind of vegetable based pancake, cooked in front of you on a hot-plate. The veggie option was cabbage, eggs, potato, cheese, with a mayonnaise topping with some other stuff I wasn’t sure of! But it was delicious.

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I then visited Osaka Tower and went up the tallest building in the city to see nighttime views across the city, a nice way to end my last evening here.

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Osaka Tower

Day 35 – Osaka

Today is my last day in Japan, and in Asia. I have not visited Asia for quite some years. I think the last time I was here was way back in 2005. I really love the culture and people and energy of this continent, it is everything I wanted it to be. Challenging, awe-inspiring, welcoming and a world away from my everyday life.

I am heading off to Hawaii tonight, but I just wanted to end with some thoughts on my time in Japan.

Life in the land of the rising sun

  • Japan truly is the friendliest country in the world. It is also the politest and most orderly. Everything you have heard is true. I like and respect order and efficiency and this country has it in bucketloads!
  • The Japanese people have embraced technology, without forgetting their culture and history. Technology like robots, sushi conveyor belts and self parking car garages sit alongside Shinto temples, kimonos and origami. This seems to be true of both young and old.
  • There is a real respect for older people, which is great to see and sadly lacking in many countries.
  • It is the tidiest country with the fewest bins. They have hardly any public bins, yet the place is sparkling!
  • There is a strange attitude to smoking. There are loads of signs telling you that you can’t smoke in the street, and yet you can still smoke in bars and restaurants.
  • People cycle on the pavements more that then road and you just have to get out their way quickly it would seem!
  • The attitude to tattoos is similar to the UK in the 1950s. In my current hotel it says you can’t use the spa if you are drunk or have tattoos. They pretty much equate the two together. They seem to have a view that tattoo=criminal. As much as I obviously look like a Yakuza overlord,  I just used it anyway #rebel.
  • The trains. Oh the trains. Not ONE SINGLE TRAIN I used was even one minute late. I will leave that there for you to consider.
  • The Japan Rail Pass is a brilliant idea and a great cost-efficient way to get around. Highly recommended.
  • Plastic. The Japanese, and Korean, people love plastic and plastic bags. The UK is certainly way ahead in our environmental outlook that’s for sure.
  • My final note I am sure to be back here one day, there is so much more to see. Aloha, I’ll see you in Hawaii.

 

 

 

Japan · Travelling

Days 25 to 29 – Nara and Kyoto, Japan

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.

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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!

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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 🙂

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!

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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.

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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.

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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 🙂

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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, Japan

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 £5!

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, Korea

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…

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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 £6!

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.