Golden Kyoto: 6.10.2013

Our next few days in Kyoto were spent in a wonderful blur; we were never in a rush or following a strict agenda and had a wonderful time with Yudai, Karim and Yudai’s house mates, whenever they were around.

On our first full day in Kyoto, Karim, Jacob and myself took the bus to Shijo street and headed back to Nishiki market; Karim had not yet been there and Jacob and I wanted to buy a bag of rice; being able to cook rice for breakfast along with our supermarket-bought instant miso soups would help to keep our budget low. A one kilogram bag of rice cost us 400Y and should see us through a few breakfasts. There’s another little “Japan on a budget” tip for you…The three of us explored the market area a little more and I took one for the team and bought a baby octopus with a quail egg stuffed head to eat. A little too chewy for my liking.

Lunch was, of course at Yoshinoya, at the Hanumaru Udon chain where instead of our usual beef bowl we enjoyed udon noodle soup and age tofu instead. Karim is a fellow budget long-term traveler so it works well.

The three of us walked from Nishiki market area up to Kiyomizu temple area – one of the very well known and touristic areas and of course, where the beautiful Kiyomizu temple is… We easily spent a few hours wandering the little cobbled streets and exploring the many shops, eating so much food and so many – too many – free samples of various Kyoto Sweets, yatsuhashi and green tea drinks. We got lost amongst the tourists dressed in rental kimonos and the crowds of people as we walked up and up towards the temple complex.
Being budget travelers, we were too stingy to pay to go inside and instead took in the temple, surrounding buildings and structures from the outside and enjoyed the magnificent view over Kyoto that can be seen from just outside the Kiyomizu temple. It was pretty impressive and stunningly beautiful, but I think too many free samples of yatsuhashi left us feeling a bit tired and the rest of our afternoon was spent lazily as we headed back to explore more of Shijo Street.

We wandered into a Pachinko Slot Room – similar to a pokies room I guess – where Karim gave us a whirl wind lesson on how the game works. We’re not into gambling but Pachinko is everywhere in Japan and I guess part of the Japanese culture as it seems, so it was fascinating – and a little depressing – to watch all these people playing these machines. After so many months in developing countries and seeing how far even just $1 can stretch, it’s hard to watch SO much money being squandered away so easily…

Discovering that Karim had not yet experienced a Japanese department store food hall, we wandered into the basement level of Takashimaya and spent more than an hour wandering through the different food sections looking at all that exquisite food, watching various foods being made and prepared, marveling at the high price of plastic foods, tasting free samples of various miso pastes and foods we could not identify… We were amazed by the desserts that looked more like art forms and managed to embarrass a worker making some sort of delicious cake, who was too shy to face us as we watched him baking.

Exhausted by 7pm, we took refuge in a coffee shop that sold cheap, bad coffee but had free wifi – we’re budget travelers; this basically translates to “our wifi sensors are well developed.” We spent an hour or so using the wifi and chatting. It’s really nice traveling as a group – it changes up our “couple travelers dynamic” and is a lot of fun. It’s also great to hear a different perspective and have the opportunity to talk all things travel!

Late evening we caught the bus back to Yudai’s home; in the dark streets of beautiful homes we got a little disorientated and were forced to head to the local Family Mart convenience store to use the free wifi for google maps and pick up some quick, cheap dinner. Another “Japan on a budget tip”: convenience store food (instant cup noodles, sushi, onigiri) is pretty affordable.

Finding our ‘home’ again thanks to google maps, we spent our evening chatting with Yudai, Yudai’s housemate and another friend of theirs… we ended up going to sleep really late again – well after 3am. Not setting the alarm tomorrow morning, that’s for sure.

Welcome Kyoto: 5.10.2013

On the morning of the 5th we waved goodbye to our hosts Saki and Tomoki in Osaka and boarded a train: we were Kyoto bound.

A very quick (just over an hour) train ride left us feeling a world away from Osaka as we arrived into Kyoto. During our train trip a Korean couple currently living in Japan had chatted with us and kindly invited us to stay at their home in Kobe anytime – it continues to amaze me how generous people in this world are.

Dumping our bags into the coin lockers once again – something we’ve gotten very used to very quickly – we headed for tourist information to get ourselves a decent map and then went straight to Nishiki Market area, stopping for lunch at Gogyu along the way for delicious gyozas and one very unique bowl of burnt miso ramen. Sharing the enormous bowl of ramen between the two of us meant “Japan on a budget” wins again…

Nishiki Market and the surrounding area is a great place to spend a few hours (or more!) exploring. The market offers a wealth of different Japanese foods (fruits, vegetables, pickles, meats, sea foods, sweets, rice, sushi and sashimi, snacks, crackers, candies, ice-creams, desserts, green tea, traditional Japanese foods and more!) as well as handicraft, clothing, accessories and souvenir shops, generations-old knife shops, cooking shops and more. There are foods to taste and try, cheap snacks and incredible, mouth-watering sashimi skewers for 180Y!
Nishiki Market is fantastic for wandering around, sight-seeing, exploring, tasting, eating, photographing and buying (if you’re not on a tight budget like us)!

The near-by shopping streets are also really interesting to look through; they offer an insight into the various Japanese fashion trends which are sometimes cute and sometimes just… well, strange. The shops are filled with interesting, unique, cute and sometimes weird items (like giant stuffed cartoon poos) and we had some fun walking through the mall area – Jacob darting in and out of a few very busy manga stores.

From Nishiki we headed to the famous Gion district of Kyoto and through Pontocho street. We were lucky to see three real geishas, which was exciting. The Gion district is simply stunning; so beautiful and traditional-looking. The laneways are filled with tiny restaraunts and bars, many hidden behind material curtains. If we wern’t on a budget (in fact, if we were more likely on a spending spree) perhaps we could’ve afforded some of the delicious looking meals at the many restaurants on offer.
As we walked through the quiet streets I couldn’t help but imagining what must have gone on – and still goes on – behind some of the closed doors of these exquisite buildings. It’s a fascinating culture.

This evening we collected our bags and headed to the train station near by couch surfing host number three – Yudai’s home.

Yudai is a university student in his early twenties with a passion for music and in no way “shy” like the stereotypical Japanese boy. He instantly welcomed us into his home which he shares with two other university student boys. This is a real bachelor pad home, and a real university student home. I love it already and feel very at home here.
Soon after we arrived two of Yudai’s friends came around to meet us, and it was not long after that, that Karim – another couch surfer from Argentina – arrived. The six of us spent the evening chatting, sharing stories, sharing our cultures and forming new friendships. I stayed up until the early hours of the morning chatting with Karim; it was nice to have a fellow traveler to talk with.

We fell asleep on our futons, on top of beautiful smelling tatami mats, and I felt so excited to be here in Kyoto once again.

Osaka to Kobe and back again: 3 – 4.10.2013

This morning – our third day in Japan – we were up too early and madly shoving our belongings into our bags and heading out the door before 8am. We were exhausted after late nights, jet lag and little sleep.
We said goodbye to Keiichi – our first couch surfing host – and headed back to Umeda station where we once again dumped our heavy packs in a coin locker.

We took the train to Shinsabashi where we thought we’d try and find some clothing that…
a) didn’t look like we’d just rolled around in 2 months of Indian dust and dirt
b) didn’t spell “tourist”
c) wasn’t some form of travel/adventure/trekking gear brand!
Of course, before we could go shopping we had to get breakfast at none other than Yoshinoya. We’ve got this “cheap eating in Japan” thing down-pat already, although… maybe we should start being a little more adventurous with where and what we eat…? Then again, copious cups of free green tea and all that delicious pickled ginger is quite difficult to resist.

Shinsabashi is well known for its big shopping area; we looked through the streets and bought a couple of items of clothing that didn’t scream “filthy backpacker.” We went to UNIQLO – a chain shop that has some cool fashion at really cheap prices.

In the early afternoon we headed back to Umeda, collected our backpacks and took the train to Noda station where we met Saki, our second couch surfing host.
Saki greeted us at the station and walked us back to her lovely home where we felt instantly welcomed. We soon learned she is moving to Melbourne – our home city – at the end of this month and it was a lot of fun and a pleasure for us to spend our afternoon making lists of “must do/see/visit/watch/eat in Melbourne town” and drawing out maps with hidden lane ways and cool cafes. It was interesting to try and think of our home as a place to visit rather than live; a different perspective which filled us with pride and love for our beautiful Melbourne.

Seeing as we are in Osaka, and Osakan people love takoyaki, it was fitting that we cooked takoyaki for dinner. Together Saki, Jacob and I prepared the takoyaki mix and cut up the ingredients (including one mean looking octopus tentacle!) before Tomoki, Saki’s husband, arrived home from work.

Together the four of us walked down to the local supermarket and bought a few different Japanese beers to have with dinner, and then the rest of our evening was spent cooking and eating takoyaki, sharing good food and conversation. The boys had a wonderful time drinking sake and sharing their love of Manga – even though Tomoki’s English was very limited Jacob and him got along so well. We’re learning language is absolutely not a barrier – just an obstacle that can absolutely be overcome…

The next morning Saki greeted us with instructions for taking the train to Kobe, and a hand-drawn map of Kobe complete with the best coffee shops, cafes and restaurants to visit, places to see and landmarks to look out for. Amazing. Seeing as we don’t have a guide book, I love that she was so generous to help us like this. This sort of map can never be bought…

It took around 35 minutes to get to Kobe from Osaka, and cost us just 290Y each! See, see! We’re doing Japan on a budget! Yay!
We arrived into Sunnomiya Station and were instantly drawn into Loft Department store – the shiny lime green bento box in the window display lured me in like a moth to a flame. We spent the next hour wanting to buy everything in sight – from the exquisite range of beautifully coloured and decorated bento boxes to the enormous range of high-quality coffee equipment to the cute kitchen sponges, it was so hard to resist. In fact, it was impossible, and I walked out with my shiny green bento box and matching choppu stikkus. “Japan on a tight budget” failed to win this round; instead I told myself that “this is my belated birthday present to myself.”
From Loft we passed through SOGO Department Store where we spent way too long oooohing and ahhhhing over the exquisite foods being prepared and sold: we were drooling at everything that looked too good to eat. In the end, everything just looked too good and we couldn’t actually decide what we wanted… I ended up getting a sushi roll and Jake’s stomach stayed empty for the time being… that was until he saw a Yoshinoya. Japan on a budget wins this round.

We spent some time wandering around exploring before walking half-an-hour or so down the road to the Disaster Prevention and Human Renovation Museum to learn about the 1995 earth quake that devastated Kobe and still, to this day, is effecting people. In my opinion this is a must-visit museum if in Kobe; it offers a wealth of information, facts and insight into this natural disaster and its devastating effects, as well as illustrates how strong people are and how they can re-build and learn to adapt to the conditions.
We learned about the earth quake through several high-tech. sources including movies, a type of earth quake simulator, computers and touch screens with so much information, videos, survivor stories, dioramas, items uncovered from the quake and tour guides who spoke English and walked us through the exhibits. There was also an entire level dedicated to educating children through various interactive games and videos.

From the museum we took a train to Motomatchi St. where we walked through the lengthy shopping strip and found more beautiful Japanese things that we did not buy. We ended up in Kobe’s tiny “China town” (a small street) where we discovered supposedly “Kobe beef” buns (doubtful) and tacky souvenirs. Kobe China Town was not so memorable.

From Chinatown it was a small walk to Merikan Park – the Kobe Port area that is famous. Saki told us we should stay there until dark to see the lights and everything looking beautiful, reflected on the ocean. I’m so glad we got to experience this. We walked through the port area and saw the amazing buildings surrounding the ports, the boats on the water and a lot of outdoor art and sculpture. By one section of the port there is the Kobe Earthquake Memorial which is pretty moving; close by is an area of port destroyed by the quake that still remains as it was when destroyed in 1995. It was quite shocking to see this and hard to imagine what this entire city must’ve looked like after such a massive quake.

Our evening was spent walking through the park and port area watching near by boats move about, cyclists and skaters doing their thing, couples sitting with legs dangling out towards the ocean below, the bright lights of the ferris wheel reflect onto the water and the massive port tower standing tall. Near by a large art biennale was being set up; large outdoor sculptures and installations were dotted around us and it was a lot of fun to enjoy the more interactive ones. It all felt a bit magical and it was so quiet with perfect weather; it was a really wonderful way and the perfect time of day to explore the area. We took lots of photographs and simply enjoyed being there.

Oh, and of course, we had dinner at Yoshinoya before heading back ‘home’ to Saki and Tomoki’s house. What else would you expect?

We did a load of washing this evening in an actual washing machine – an absolute luxury – and then spent our evening talking and chatting with Saki, teaching her about Australian culture, some Australian slang and a few choice words. She had so generously spent her afternoon making us a series of detailed hand-written maps for Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya, complete with all her recommendations of where to go, what to eat, what is famous in certain areas, transportation information and more… She was so generous and so helpful; she was amazing to do this for us and it will no doubt be a big help for us.

Couch surfing at Saki and Tomoki’s has been so lovely and we so look forward to meeting her and Tomoki in Melbourne next year. We are thoroughly enjoying staying with locals through couch surfing; it offers us a completely different traveling experience and gives us an opportunity to learn so much more about the culture, the people and the lifestyle in this country – as well as form wonderful new friendships! We’re only into our fourth night in this incredible country but we’ve spent each one of them making new friends, sharing stories and cultures, laughter and learning. We’re sleeping on futons on tatami mats and falling asleep so happy and comfortable where we are. There is no where else I’d rather be right now, than where I am.

Tomorrow we are Kyoto bound and I can’t wait – a new place with new adventures to be found.

Cup Noodle Japan: 2.10.2013

Today was a fantastic day!

We left Keiichi’s home early, and took the train to Umeda (Osaka) station where we discovered the local Yoshinoya: breakfast was sorted. Yoshinoya is a travelers dream: great for people watching as well as cheap, quick and tasty food. I like how everyone seems to be eating there, from the young and hip, the fashionable, the punks, Goths and various sub-cultures, the businessmen, the elderly, male, female… Customers are greeted by a chorus of staff welcoming them, then orders are taken and almost instantly the food is served; people eat quickly and then leave. We take our time. It’s cheap, delicious and we can drink as much green tea and eat as much pickled ginger as we like. Winning.

After breakfast, we took the train from Umeda to Ikeda Station, not too far away, with the intention of visiting just the Momofuku Ando Cup Noodle Museum. Yep – a museum dedicated to instant cup noodles. It was an awesome place, and it was a lot of fun. We hired audio guides in English to explore the museum which gave us an insight into the background and invention of instant cup noodles, the inventor – Momofuku Ando – as well as their evolution up until today. Cup noodles in Japan are wildly different to the toxic crap on our supermarket shelves back home; they are “really good” as Keiichi explained to us, and often filled with a very wide selection of different dehydrated food items, noodles and stocks… Like children in a candy store, we were so excited and thrilled by this awesome museum – particularly the section of wall that showed every cup noodle flavour produced since invention.

After we’d seen enough of the museum, we bought a cup (300Y) and proceeded to make our own cup noodles, which was amazing fun! We got to decorate our cup before adding the noodles, choose flavors and toppings, sealing the lid, shrink wrapping the noodles and then putting the cup into a weird blow up necklace bag. This whole cup noodle making process took about an hour, mostly due to the fact that I was LOVING decorating our cup and couldn’t decide what colours to use…

After our super fantastic visit to the museum, we were wondering what we should do for the rest of the day… heading back towards the station, we came across a tourist information shop where we found a little “self-guided walking tour” map. It looked as though there were quite a few interesting sights to see in Ikeda, so we headed off down the main road following the suggested walking route – stopping by a 100Y shop on the way – of course.

The walking tour took us to visit little hidden shrines, gardens, cemeteries and temples. We visited famous Japanese sweet shops (where the sweets look more like an art work) but our tight budget meant we just looked, and didn’t buy. If the Indian touters taught us anything, it’s that “looking is free.”

Our little walking tour took us towards Ikeda Castle Gardens, where we spent a while just enjoying the beauty and serenity of the place. The castle had been re-constructed but was still pretty impressive; climbing the stairs and looking out over the balcony gave us a view of the entire gardens below us as well as a view over Osaka. Stunning.

Walking back along the road, I stopped to take a photograph of a beautiful building on the opposite side of the road. As I did so, a car came around the corner and the driver, seeing me taking a photograph, stopped so I could finish without her car getting in my way…
Oh Japan, so polite…

The little walking map kept us entertained for hours; after the castle, our next stop was an area famous for its historic buildings and homes, as well as beautiful sake brewries and more hidden temples and shrines. We spent a while just walking through the silent streets admiring the beautiful buildings and little gardens.

We spent some time strolling through a shopping street filled with little local shops selling various house hold goods and Japanese slippers and wooden shoes. Every second or third shop was a food stall or little eatery selling pickles, sushi and other various delights, or hidden away restaurants behind cloth curtains that always intrigued me… We found a shop front selling fresh, hand-made noodles, and the woman behind the counter smiled so politely and welcomed us through a small door. We’d made it into one of those hidden restaurants, and enjoyed amazing “Kitsune Udon” noodles for lunch, along with more beautiful green tea.

Our afternoon in Ikeda was spent strolling through the streets and looking at the cute shops. We found a little old lady selling beautiful cucumber maki, and chatted with a young Japanese guy for a bit who gave us more green tea.

In the late evening we took train back to Umeda station where we had dinner again at Yoshinoya. Yep – this place is definitely going to be part of our staple diet: 2 days in and we’ve already eaten it 3 times. Umeda station is massive and it wasn’t hard to spend a few hours just exploring the train station before we headed outside to discover a wealth of diverse street performers. We ended up spending more than an hour watching a Japanese boy band pump out some awesome music whilst a group of school girls went wild – squealing and swooning and putting on their most flirtatious giggles.

Oh Japan, you’re so awesome.

Sayonara Nepal, Konnichiwa Japan: 30.09 – 1.10.2013

Our final morning in Nepal was a blur of goodbyes, packing (suddenly my pack felt incredibly heavy… does my Nepali sari really weigh that much!?), and finding a taxi driver who would agree to drive us to the airport at a reasonable price.
As we weaved and darted through the noisy, dusty and built-up traffic and I covered my mouth and nose with my scarf, I felt grateful that my lungs would have some respite in Japan from the chaos and pollution we’ve been breathing in ever since we arrived in Asia.

The airport was a breeze, we filled out the departure form – which was actually just the arrival form (I think they had run out of departure forms so anything was sort of going…) – queued up with a thousand other people and eventually had a departure stamp signed and put into our passports; we were no longer officially in Nepal.

Japan bound, via Malaysia on a 3 hour stop over (where we spent the entire time using free wifi and drinking delicious teh tarik in Old Town White Coffee – we’ve got this whole backpacker thing down-pat!), it took a total of 16 or so hours before we touched down early-morning in Osaka, Japan. I felt suddenly, overwhelmingly at home.  

Customs was easy and soon enough we had another stamp in our passport and officially entered Japan. It may have been my second time here, but walking through the gates felt like I was both coming home and arriving here for the first time ever; I was so excited. So very, very excited.

With bags under our eyes, we were feeling tired but elated as we skipped through the airport to immediately get some Royal Milk Tea from one of the many vending machines. Royal Milk Tea…mmmmm.
We spent some time at the airport using the ATM machine, obtaining some maps and information at the tourist information counter, and – dare I say it – enjoying the luxury that is... a Japanese toilet. Anyone else who has had the joy of experiencing a Japanese toilet knows what I’m talking about, and after almost four months of scary squat toilets that often left me dry retching, these electronic wonders were a welcome change. The toilets even had a little TV in each of them. Winning.

Heading to the train station outside the airport, we were instantly greeted by some friendly people offering us free drinks; so accustomed to declining anything and everything from strangers, I said no thanks… Then almost immediately changed my mind. Starbucks has just introduced here something called “Origami Filters” for their coffee, and staff were giving out cups of free coffee as a promotion. Oh Japan, how I love you so SO much – you came to our rescue when we were both so exhausted and gave us wonderful customer service, friendly smiling people and delicious, delicious strong coffee.

Welcome to Japan.

We took the train from the airport to Namba station and dumped our backpacks into one of the coin lockers for the day before heading to Dotonbori Street – one of the famous streets in Osaka – to meet up with Hide; a Japanese man we met on the train in Agra. We’d arranged to meet him at 11:30am to go for lunch, but we got a little lost trying to find our way to Dotonbori and were a little late. Along the way we continually stopped people to ask for directions; it always amazes me how friendly people are – even those who speak little or no English are willing to assist. I love it.

Meeting Hide, together we walked through a side of Dotonbori we would’ve otherwise completely missed, amongst all the sounds and smells of busy Oskaka, surrounded by pachinko slot machine shops, cafes, takoyaki stands, dogs in fashionable outfits and people dressed up in mascot costumes, trying to get you to eat at their restaurant.

Hide took us to an okonomiyaki place that he said his friends and him used to visit during their years at university; a place we would’ve never known about or found otherwise. It was amazing; we were given our own room and sat on cushions on the floor. Hide ordered for us using a phone on the wall in our room and soon enough all the ingredients we could possibly think of were bought out to us on a big tray and the grill plate in front of us was lit and heated; we were going to cook these ourselves. Oh yeah!

Looks like delicious fun!

Looks like delicious fun!

Cooking the okonomiyaki was so much fun! We loved it, and Hide was such a good host to show us how it was done; he flipped those okonomiyakis like a true professional. We ate a mix of beef strips, vegetables, egg and stewed beef okonomiyaki, and a seafood one with calamari, prawns and vegetables on a bed of hokkien-like noodles; all doused in delicious okonomiyaki sauce and kewpie mayonnaise, nori flakes and smoked salmon flakes. So oishi (delicious)! We had such a great time cooking, such a wonderful welcome to Japan, and Hide was a lovely host.

We spent some more time walking and chatting with Hide; he took us to a big book shop with one very large manga selection, and along a strip of shops filled with cooking materials and goods, knives and anything else kitchen related, which we both really enjoyed (especially Jacob, who loved the manga and Japanese knives). Eventually, we said goodbye to Hide and spent the rest of our time wandering through the Dontonbori area and surrounds, taking in more of the shops and sights, the people and our surroundings.

We had some food at Yoshinoya, a chain restaurant that is famous in Japan for very cheap, quick and good Japanese food. It is very cheap – I paid a whopping 130Y – a whole $1.40AU – for a bowl of delicious Udon noodle soup and Jake had the specialty: 280Y gyu don (beef on rice.) Yep; this place is a winner, and the first of many to come lessons on “How to travel Japan on a super tight budget.” Yoshinoya, I can already tell, is going to be a staple during our three weeks here.

We walked through the malls and through Dotonbori, watching the people and the mechanical shop fronts with moving images and sculptures; the famous mechanical crab in full swing. We saw Osaka turn from day light to dusk, where the neon signs and thousands of lights began to turn on and flash and move and dart and make this whole area look even more magical and more exciting than in the day. Finishing off our day, we bought a “daifuku ice-cream” from a convenience store, and enjoyed the deliciousness that is Japan.

Taking a train from Namba Station, we collected our luggage that weighed so heavily on our backs, and headed for Umeda Osaka station, changing to the JR line once there. The railway map above the JR ticketing system had no English, and we couldn’t see anyone to ask. Standing there, pretending to understand what we were actually reading, a kind gentleman came and assited us with getting a ticket to the right place, on the right line. He was so helpful, and another example already – on just our first day in Japan – of how kind and polite the people here seem to be.

We met Keiichi – our host for the next two nights – at the “vending machines by the exit,” as I explained to him, and together we walked to his house, quite close by. Our first couch surfing experience in Japan – I’m excited!

Keiichi’s house is how I imagined Japanese houses to look inside; small but incredibly efficient. Keiichi offered us a Japanese beer and prepared for us a delicious, very simple dinner: cold noodles in a soy based sauce. It was really delicious, and I want to make it again! [Quite easy to make: boil Japanese-style thin noodles or soba noodles until cooked, then place in a bowl of cold water and ice. In a separate bowl, add some very light soy sauce, spring onion and a pinch of sugar, along with more ice cubes. Eat by adding a few noodles at a time to the sauce, immersing them in it then eating with choppu-stikku.]
It’s so nice to be welcomed into someone’s home and treated so well, and Keiichi seems like a lovely guy!

I can’t express how excited and happy I am to be here, and look forward to every moment I have here in Japan. I love this country, and it feels so incredible to be back.

Visas, Saris and Nepalese Fun: 27 – 29.09.2013

Our morning was spent lazily wandering the area in and around Durbar Square, Bhaktapur. We enjoyed more vegetable and buff momos from the Tibetan Momo Shop, along with milky chai before I bartered a taxi down and we traveled from Bhaktapur to the Myanmar Embassy. We planned to pick up our passports there and meet Sarah, one of our couch surfing hosts for the next three nights.
Arriving at the embassy, we collected our visas and were overjoyed: a whole page of our precious passports was now covered with a beautiful looking Myanmar visa, ready to use! Relief – it’s now finally done.

Meeting Sarah at the embassy proved difficult; again she had the same trouble as we originally did with trying to actually find it. Eventually we took a taxi to near-by her home and met her there. We dropped off our bags and met the new addition to her family: one very cute and tiny puppy! Sarah then took us for our first “Nepali Bus Experience” – we took a “micro-bus” (a mini van type vehicle, often overflowing out the door with people) to an area for a late lunch.
From there, we walked to Patan’s Durbar Square, where we all attempted to ‘sneak’ in through a back way so we wouldn’t have to pay the expensive entrance fee. We were stopped however, and only had a few minutes to view the historic area. It was indeed beautiful; similar to the Durbar Square in Bhaktapur.

Patan Square

Patan Square

Patan area was bustling and hectic and crowded with life and activity, people, motorists, dogs and street stalls. Shops lined the street, and our entire surroundings were filled with busy people selling and buying and trying to move about. Bag sellers stood wearing twenty or thirty backpacks over their bodies, strolling up and down the street. Fruit sellers weighed their goods, motorbikes honked, children squealed and men with giant wooden sticks covered in colorful balloons for sale moved about the hectic crowds without a single one bursting.

So exciting!

So exciting!

Bag Sellers... Efficient!

Bag Sellers… Efficient!

Sarah mentioned that tomorrow night (we’re going to a party her gym is throwing for an upcoming festival) all the women will be wearing saris. Having packed for 7 months of travel, a sari was not one of the items currently stuffed somewhere in my backpack, however, I wanted to wear one. I’d been wanting to try one on since we arrived in Sri Lanka to see women dressed beautifully, covered in colour. That want had continued throughout our travels in India, and into Nepal. Amazed at how cheaply they could be purchased for, and at how quickly they could be tailored, Sarah and I enjoyed browsing through the various beautifully coloured materials to find a sari material I liked. Jacob took a seat on the “mans seat.” I chose a light grey material with pink flowers on it; it reminded me of Japanese cherry blossom. Upstairs, a man picked from a big range of coloured materials, a colour that perfectly matched the flowers on my sari and would be soon measured, cut and stitched to make my blouse. With my sari and blouse material and a petticoat for underneath, we moved to the next room where a woman measured me with such speed and precision I knew she’d been doing this for a long time. I paid for my sari ($11 AU) and for my blouse material and petticoat ($4.50 AU) and was given a receipt; tomorrow it would be completely tailored ($3) and ready for me to collect! We left the shop and I felt really excited to be able to not only finally wear my very own tailor made sari, but also to have the opportunity to dress up for something! Hiking boots, worn-in thongs/flip-flops, travel pants, faded t-shirts and ‘quick-dry’ tops might be convenient, but after months of travel they are ingrained with swat, filth and dirt; it was exciting to look a bit pretty instead.

Sari Shopping!

Sari Shopping!

Our evening was spent with our hosts; we enjoyed an amazing dinner – real Nepalese food – lots of rice, veggies and dahl bat, along with good conversation and new friends. I really enjoy couchsurfing; every time we’ve meet new people it has felt as though we’re just meeting old friends again. It’s such a warm way to be welcomed in and travel through a country, and a brilliant way to share cultures, experiences, food and our lives. I get excited every time we meet a new host – and a little nervous – and it’s an exciting prospect that now we have more than a month straight of couch surfing, including both here in Kathmandu and in Japan.

Tomorrow is Saturday – our host’s only day off; we don’t have a lot of plans and that is fine by us. Tomorrow evening is the party, and more importantly, us girls are wearing saris. I’m excited – like a child before a birthday – about something so simple.
Tomorrow is also our second-to-last day in Nepal – already! – I can’t believe how quickly the time is going here, but then I guess I never expected one week to go slowly.

Saturday – aka “the day of the party” was a relaxing but a thoroughly enjoyable day! I like the idea of experiencing Nepal through couch surfing, rather than blindly hopping from one sight-seeing tourist destination to the next.
We all had a leisurely morning just chatting and sitting around, then Sarah and I went shopping whilst Jake stayed back and did our washing. Who got the better deal?

After shopping, we headed back to Patan to the material shop where my sari was being made. We arrived an hour earlier than we were told to; at that point it had not even been started. Lucky we did go early – I’m learning that “Nepali time” is a lot like “Laos time” – things and people tend to run on their own time and schedule, meaning “pick up the sari at 1 o’clock” might actually mean something like… “the sari will be ready by… 2 or 3 o’clock… maybe later, maybe earlier, who’s to say?”

We came back at 1 o’clock, after strolling around, eating an ice cream and getting caught in a small rainstorm. My beautiful sari and newly-made blouse was presented to me and I went to try it on. After first putting it on the wrong way, I eventually squeezed into the tiny blouse that didn’t cover much more than my breasts, shoulders and a tiny part of my upper arm. I’ve never been one to reveal my stomach – not a part of my body I particularly like – so staring back at my reflection, I was both a bit intimidated and some how liberated by this very ‘small thing’…

I asked Sarah to just see that it all looked right, and as soon as I got the okay from her, one of the woman in the shop barged in to my little change room, stared me up and down, smiled, laughed, dragged me out of the change room and stroked my bare back whilst she exclaimed to everyone in the room how beautiful and white I was (in Nepalese), to which everyone else was replying, oh yes, so beautiful and white. Sarah laughed and interpreted this all for me; it was both a funny and odd experience.

Sari in hand, we headed back through the crowds and bag-wearing bag sellers, street stalls and fruit sellers, back home to prepare for the party and get ready. Exciiiiiting….! Saris are complicated and take a lot of practice to get ‘right’, it appears; Sarah and I spent some time watching ridiculously fast and over dramatic youtube clips of how to put on and wear a sari correctly, before Sarah helped dress me in my sari; together we tucked and folded and pleated and adjusted the meters of fabric, layering it and holding it, moving and pulling it to try and get it to look right. It felt really exciting to be wearing it; it sounds so odd and childish to say but I had a lot of fun.
In our saris, we took a heap of photos and strutted about, unable to sit down for fear of messing up or ruining the work that had gone into putting out outfits on.

Dress Ups

Dress Ups

It was pouring with rain up until minutes before we had to leave, so Sudaman – Sarah’s husband – went out to hail a taxi and arrange a fair price (before the driver could see three white people and hike up the price). To get to the taxi, the four of us had to walk down the muddy path first, with me hiking up my sari to my knees to avoid the mud.

The party was a mix of people and everyone seemed to be eating and chatting and having fun; most people spoke English and we were able to chat and feel very much welcome, which was nice. Even more awesome was that most of the women wore saris – together everyone looked really beautiful and elegant (this party was the most elegant I had been in the last few months of travel, and no doubt the most elegant I would be for the next four).

We spent our evening dancing to Hindi music and Bollywood hits remixed, and eating way too many deep-friend cheese balls and steamed momos. It was great fun, and I had the realization that this was all possible  because we chose to interact with locals and had the opportunity to meet these people through couch surfing. I thought, how lucky we are to experience this, rather than wandering through the crowded and overpriced touristy area of Thamel; what we would’ve probably ended up doing had we not couch surfed. I feel so happy that when we travel, we are making the effort to get deeper than just “the number one attraction on trip advisor” or the “top pick” in Lonely Planet; these experiences and moments are far more memorable and enjoyable in my opinion.

I’m grateful to be here in Nepal; really, I’m just so grateful to be traveling. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to be doing what we’re doing – we’re so used packing and unpacking and moving, choosing where to go next and what we’ll do and see there, bargaining for this and that, checking that the food is vegetarian and that our water bottle seals are secure – it can become a blur of what has become our lifestyle, mixed with how amazing our lifestyle really is right now. Traveling has certainly, for me at least, become my normal and whilst I adore it, sometimes I forget to step back and make a point of acknowledging that right now, in this moment, I am doing what I love the most. I am exactly where I want to be.

I’m still amazed at how quickly our time in Nepal has come to an end, and both Jacob and I certainly don’t feel ready to leave this country; perhaps it’s because we saw just the tiniest snippet – enough to make us want to see more. This is a country that I want to come back to for a lot longer next time.

On our final day in Kathmandu – and Nepal! – we woke up early and were out the door before 7am, walking down the dirt path towards the bus stop ready for a full day of exploring and enjoying. Sarah and Sudaman helped us to negotiate the buses, which are a bit confusing and a little bit difficult for a foreigner to negotiate (okay, okay, a little bit difficult is an understatement in my case!). It took two buses (with a chai stop in between) to get to Boudanath; a famous holy sight where we were meeting Anjan – Sarah’s friend. We arrived just after 8am, and already the place was buzzing with pilgrims and holy men, monks and tourists. Shops were open selling all the usual touristy trinkets, the smells of coffee poured out of the many cafes and the sound of prayers could be heard from the surrounding temples.

Good morning Kathmandu

Good morning Kathmandu

Boudnath Stupa

Boudanath Stupa

Anjan was so generous to spend his morning with us; he guided us through Boudanath Stupa and around the area which was really interesting, and he spent time taking us into temples and showing us different areas and view points. At one point we were able to see the monks chanting inside the temple, and listen to the beautiful melodies they were creating – this sound is indescribable and I could’ve listened to it for hours; it’s encapsulating and enchanting; almost hypnotic.
We stopped for a cup of milky tea at a coffee stand that was crowded with monks having their daily caffeine hit; it was a really cool sight to see and be amongst – watching the religious practices amongst a mix of with tourists and locals, and lots of pigeons.

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Anjan then led us towards Pashnupathi – a large area classed as a world heritage sight, filled with temples and also used as a cremation sight; similar to Varanasi in many respects. The entrance fee was 1000 NR each, and we didn’t want to pay that to see bodies being burned, so rather, Jacob, Anjan and myself walked around the entire area, looking in from the gates as we walked through colourful stalls, past palm readers and open-air butcher shops, over hills and down to a point where we were able to view the cremations from a distance.

Jake and I had a wonderful time with Anjan and were so glad to have spent some time with him. He saw us off on the main road, where we boarded a public-style tuk tuk (driven by a female! Our first ever public transport ride with a female driver – woohoo!!) and squished in for a bumpy ride to Kathmandu Mall, nearby Thamel – our next destination.

In Thamel, we explored the shops a little more and stumbled upon a tiny momo shop selling delicious plates of steamed veggie momos for 40 rupees! Bargain – lunch for both of us cost 80 cents!… We chilled out for a while in the same place we’d found on our first day in Thamel, using the wifi and drinking cup after cup of lemon tea. Soothing.

We left Thamel around 4:30pm and planned to go back to Sarah and Sudaman’s home to cook them dinner as a ‘thank you’ for having both of us. As it turns out, we greatly overestimated our ability to find the bus, and underestimated the time it would take to get back to their home… After struggling to find the right micro bus for about an hour, we were about to hail a taxi when we found the right bus and even got a seat! Success! Little did we know that shortly after boarding the 12-seater micro bus (mini van) at 25 rupees a person, we’d be wishing we paid the exorbitant amount for a taxi.

We counted more than 45 bodies at one point inside this tiny van – images of clown after clown climbing out of a mini came to mind, but instead, the reality was lots of Nepalese people pushing and shoving and cramming into and out of the van at every stop. More than once, the driver got out and opened up the back door, shoving more people into the back of the van behind the seats in a space I didn’t know was even possible to stand in. In Nepal, it’s possible.

The sky got dark quickly, the traffic on the roads started to thin out (by Kathmandu standards) and it started to rain. The micro bus, however, didn’t thin out and our legs were soon numb from being so tightly jammed into our seats. I started to worry after we’d been on the bus for more than an hour, and didn’t seem to be anywhere near where we had to be.

Eventually we recognized the area that we had to get off at, and went straight to the nearest convenience store to ask for directions. We ended up calling Sarah from there, buying a heap of drinks, eggs for dinner, biscuits and bread, and walking back to the house feeling terrible we’d run out of time to cook anything spectacular.

Sarah was out when we got home – she was meeting a guy from the UK who was interested in teaching in Nepal – but Sudaman and their beautiful puppy were there to greet us. Sarah had bought buffalo mince meat so we were able to cook a spin on “Australian-style Rissoles” (more ‘The Castle’ quotes spring to mind).

Sarah came home, along with Howard, the UK guy,  who bought a bottle of South Australian wine and stayed for dinner. The power cut out so the three of us – Jacob, Sarah and myself – cooked in the dark by torch and head-torch light; an experience I enjoyed – we won’t get that anywhere else during our travels! Dinner was great – good conversation and great food; it was an unexpected but enjoyable way to spend our last evening with our couch surfing hosts and our last evening in Nepal, and I went to bed with mixed feelings: happy about how we’ve spent our time here, sad that we have to leave so soon, excited to be going to Japan tomorrow, and both ready and not quite ready to leave this area of the continent. Japan in a way is acting as an unofficial ‘breaker’ in our travels: we have been traveling in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal – prior to Japan, and after, we’ll be in South-East Asia.

We’ve got so much to be excited about, and so much to look forward to. Tomorrow we leave a country, board a plane, fly to another country, board another plane, and touch down in Japan – my ‘spiritual homeland’ as I call it. It’s a new part of our travels, a new part of our journey, a new adventure and a new experience. I’m just so excited.

Nepal has been absolutely wonderful – incredibly beautiful and hospitable – and I am looking forward to coming back here again some day in the not-too-distant future.

Back to Bhaktapur, Nepal: 25 – 26.09.2013

Our morning started early; we had chai with our couch surfing host Hem this morning, a brief but nice opportunity to get to know him a little more; he shared some stories and photographs, and we discussed more about life in Nepal and in surrounding countries such as Tibet, Bhutan and China. We could tell he is a generous and genuine person, with a real passion for his country and for politics. He was really intelligent and it would’ve been great to have more opportunities during our short stay to talk with him like we did.

We took a taxi from Milan Chowk area – close to Hem’s home – after bartering the taxi drivers down to a reasonable fee: we were headed for Bhaktapur, a UNESCO heritage town some 13kms away in Kathmandu Valley that is apparently renowned as “Nepal’s cultural gem” – a historic city famous for its beautiful temples and pagodas, its Indigenous Newari community, and its arts and culture: traditional art and crafts, dances, festivals, food and music. Bhaktapur is also one of the three royal cities in Kathmandu Valley. I’m fascinated…

Arriving into Bhaktapur, we were amazed at how close we were in distance to Kathmandu’s chaotic sprawl, but how far away we felt; it’s much quieter here and so incredibly beautiful – it feels like a world away.

There is a 1100 Nepalese rupee ($11AUD) entrance fee to enter the main area of Bhaktapur; Durbar Square – a fee that we feel is well worth it for the two days we plan to spend here. This beautiful town and its historic structures seem to be quite well maintained and preserved, so the fee is justifiable. Also, this place is simply incredible.

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We wanted to find a nice guest house here and weren’t in a real rus; our packs were not too heavy and we were happy to wander about and look at a few places, before finding a coffee shop with free wifi and enjoying a cup of caffeine whist scouring the internet for guest house recommendations.

Eventually, we settled on a place – Kumari Guest House – which is in a nice area of Durbar Square, situated a tiny bit out of the main area where all the bustle and noise is. The staff offered us a room for 1500 NR, which he dropped to 700 NR when I continually said “no, it’s too much. If we stay for 2 nights will you give us the room for 700?”  I’m getting better at this whole batering thing. Yessssss….!

Our afternoon was wonderful; we walked around as we pleased, explored the temples and pagoda areas, the square, the market and shop stalls, the pottery square (where a cute old man let me play on his pottery wheel and then became not so cute when he demanded 200 NR. I left feeling momentarily annoyed.) The pottery square is full of people making, drying, carving, stocking the large open-air kilns, firing the clay, and selling the end products. It’s smokey and full of people and clay hand-made goods, and a really interesting place to see. There are chickens scratching in the hay whist men and women work to make traditional products from clay – both by hand and by wheel.

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Cute old man...demanded money and then wasn't so cute.

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Durbar Square is difficult to describe; it’s just so magnificent and so beautiful, so relaxing and enjoyable. It’s pulsing with life and people, locals and tourists alike. Momos are being steamed in huge pots in lane ways, there are local chia stands dotted about, women in traditional Newari red and black saris wander the lanes and sell their fruits and vegetables, and the men wear gorgeous traditional hats.
It’s touristy, of course, with every second shop selling souvenirs and handicrafts at inflated prices, cafes selling coffee and free wifi, children selling their guide services and too many offers for taxis to Kathmandu at a “good price.” Regardless, it’s oddly nice; it’s still calm – it’s easy to spend hours walking around, the shops sell some beautiful handicrafts and it’s nice to browse.

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Bhaktapur is surrounded by stunning greenery and mountains, the skies are a beautiful blue, there is little traffic, and the people are friendly. As it got dark, religious ceremonies began to take place around the square and the sound of cymbols, bells and singing could be heard.

Our evening was spent eating beautiful fresh curd, kulfi ice cream, sipping chai and relaxing; we chatted with a fellow traveler who had some impressive stories and experiences to tell. We feel so happy to be here, and look forward to a great day tomorrow – especially because I am not setting the alarm.

   

We woke on our first morning in Bhaktapur feeling refreshed and hungry! Juju Dhau – a curd served in a ceramic cup – is famous in this area, and after enjoying it last night we wanted more. It feels as if today has just involved eating and drinking: we ate curd for breakfast and then visited a café we’d heard great things about. We ordered two coffees and two meals – one coffee and one meal came out; the staff member had “forgotten” the other two orders she’d written down, but we weren’t at all fussed. It meant we could eat momos at a tiny hole in the wall place we discovered, hidden from the road – the Tibettan Momo Shop. We enjoyed beautiful vegetarian momos and delicious chai. Our cheapest meal in Nepal to date, and also our best; it always seems to be the case. As we keep finding out, plastic chairs, metal plates and barefooted staff seem to offer up the best food experiences.

We wandered about the town looking into shops here and there and a few nice hours were spent in the shady court yard restaurant outside our guest house, drinking more chai and just being. We are loving the relaxed pace and the ability to just enjoy such a quiet space here in Bhaktapur – I could literally hear birds tweeting and nothing else, it was beautiful!

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So many dogs!

So many dogs!

We wandered around with no real direction again this evening, just enjoying the beauty surrounding us. This area would’ve been simply incredible in its heyday, and it’s nice to imagine how it would’ve looked. The temples and pagodas, buildings and cobbled streets – all still in such good condition offer a glimpse of how things would’ve looked. This place really has captured our imaginations, and our hearts.

We went back to the Tibettan Momo Shop again for dinner. It’s a tiny place completely hidden from view (lucky we chanced upon it during our explorations), and obviously a local-only type place. It was packed with locals enjoying Thukpa soup and momos, and the family running the place seemed quite excited to have us there. We tried fried buffalo momos, or “Buff Momos” as they’re known everywhere around town, and they were so delicious we ordered a second plate! I hadn’t expected to be eating buffalo here, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

We enjoyed more delicious curd for dessert – straight fresh from the ceramic bowl – whilst the man in the shop watched on with delight.

Back at our guest house, we could hear the cymbals and bells, the drumming and chanting coming from the nearby temples. It’s a beautiful background noise, and I felt really at ease here. We could spend longer here, quite easily, café hopping and strolling around. It would be nice to do some walks from here too, but we were happy enough just exploring the small area for the time we had here.

Tomorrow already we have to head back to Kathmandu – our passports and visas are ready to collect (and MUST be collected!) and we are meeting our hosts for the next three nights. We’re really looking forward to meeting them and enjoying Kathmandu with locals. There is a lot we want to see there and we only have 2.5 more days.

2.5 more days! It seems difficult to believe, we only just arrived here, right? It’s exciting and a little bit unbelievable that in a very short time, we’ll be in Japan!
I wonder if we will feel “culture shock” in a way, once we arrive in Japan? I know that after more than three months of travel in less developed countries and traveling on such a small budget, we will feel a bit of a shock in that sense. At the same time, I think it will be a wonderful “break” between where we’ve come from, and where we’re headed.

Being in Bhaktapur has allowed us to take a step back and travel slowly, enjoy our selves and our surroundings and begin to feel rejuvenated to the point where, I feel we’re back to our “optimum.” By the end of our time in India we were exhausted and a bit tired of traveling and being on the move constantly, but now I feel ready again and so excited to be somewhere new, pick up my pack and move, put it down somewhere else, meet new people and share stories and great food, explore places and try new things.

I absolutely adore traveling, more than I can express, and I can not even begin to portray or describe how overjoyed I am to be here, in Nepal… in the world… simply traveling.

Simply traveling...

Simply traveling…