Golden Myanmar: 10.11.2013

We’d arrived early into Yangon after an overnight bus from Inle Lake and had shared a taxi back to the same guest house we’d first stayed in on our arrival here in Myanmar. Matt was also staying at the same place so we ended up having breakfast together and made plans to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda this afternoon and evening.

Once we’d checked into our room, showered and started feeling remotely human again after the over night bus ride with little sleep, we ventured out into the streets of Yangon. I was keen to find a certain shop I’d researched so we took a taxi to a mall where this shop supposedly was. No luck.
Another taxi and we arrived at “Scotch Market” – a market that is massive and diverse in what it sells, catering to tourists and locals alike (although, I think they are two very separate areas). It was evident before we even barely walked through the entrance that the prices were highly inflated tourist prices and we were pretty happy to not buy the $300 USD miniature statue of Buddha, nor the antique something a rather for $500 USD. Every sales person wanted us to buy gems or jade stone, gold, silver, antiques, fabrics, clothing, shoes, local goods, everything and anything – and of course, they would promise profusely to give good price and big discount.

The market was okay; we ran into Matt – we keep running into him – and had a quick chat before deciding we’d had enough of the touting and jade scams. On exiting the market we came across a lady selling some sort of street food snack – a local sweet – that involved some sort of sweet bean in a rice covering. It was half-decent.
Whilst I think some Burmese food is really incredible (like Shan Noodles and Shan Tofu Salad), I’ve noticed the food in Myanmar as a general rule is lacking something, and more often than not, a little bit more on the bland and ridiculously oily side…

We soon left the market area and walked through the streets, navigating our way to a famous Indian curd and sweet shop. We found the shop and ordered ourselves a lassi each which was probably the closest we’ve come to finding authentic Indian food/drink outside of India.
Although it was boiling hot outside and we were quickly drenched in sweat, it was a pleasure and a joy to walk through the streets of Yangon. I feel safe here and I like the old, weathered buildings. I like the people and the traffic, the food stalls on the streets and the miniature chairs. The streets are easy to navigate too – they go by numbers such as 19th, 20th, 21st etc.
It’s nice to end in the city we started in after travelling throughout other areas of Myanmar – I feel we’ve returned with a different view of the city and more of an understanding.

We stopped by a noodle shop that was supposed to be one of the better places (according to our almost useless guide book) to eat at but the food was just barely okay; I ordered something and was bought out something completely different and five times the price, meanwhile, the owner didn’t understand any English when I said it might not be what I ordered, but then very fluently tried to sell me her amazing guide services… We decided again, after countless times previously, we are ditching the guide book and it’s outdated and unreliable information.

Late afternoon we met up with Matt in our guest house lobby and caught a taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda together for the evening to watch the sun set. Previously when we’d first arrived in Yangon we’d decided to ask other travellers if this pagoda was worth paying to visit; seeing as there are thousands upon thousands of pagodas in Myanmar and we were also going to Bagan, we wondered if it was more spectacular… as it turns out, our three hours spent there has become a true highlight of our time in Myanmar. It was pretty spectacular sight – especially as day turned to night and the massive golden pagoda shined and glowed in the changing light and lit up when the sky turned a royal then dark blue.

Our bare feet soaked up the heat of the sun through the tiles on the ground as we walked throughout the pagoda grounds. The area was just so massive and the pagoda was just so spectacular and impressive. The gold was shining from every angle in the sun light and surrounded by so many other religious statues and areas for people to worship.
Whilst we didn’t understand the religious ceremonies, rituals, practices and monuments, it was fascinating to watch everyone practicing their religion and spirituality. It felt very special to be able to witness and be surrounded by this religion that is such an integral part of the local’s lives.
Watching monks meditating, people praying, people offering gifts and volunteers spending their time to ensure the areas of the pagoda were kept in good condition was very humbling.

What I especially loved seeing was the locals and families who had come to the pagoda with large containers of food, blankets to sit on and plates to eat on. So many families were sitting in groups eating in the surroundings of the pagoda, the social family and community aspects of this pagoda really stood out to me and it was really quite a beautiful part of our experience there.

Watching the sky turning from daylight to a royal blue to dark, and the pagoda go from a shining gold to being lit up against the night sky was spectacular, and we were grateful for the opportunity to see this sight at this time of the day.

Once the sky had turned to dark and after more than three hours at the Shwedagon pagoda, we left and walked a few kilometres to 19th street, a street famous for hawker and street food stalls and open grills.
The entire street was packed with people eating and grilling, every eatery had a stall of fresh skewers and touters keen for business.

It was enjoyable for us to be out in the fun and bustling night-time atmosphere and a cool experience with good company. It’s Matt’s last night in Myanmar as he returns to the UK tomorrow evening.

Late evening the three of us took a walk from 19th back to our guest house on 54th street. After little sleep on last nights bus ride and a full on day today, we were in bed and asleep by 9pm.

Tomorrow is our final day in Myanmar and it’s hard to believe; our time here has been incredible and time has flown…

5 Day Tokyo: 16 – 20.10.2013

Our time in Tokyo became a blur; the days were spent too quickly and we became good friends with our couch surfing host Yuki. We spent a lot of time just chatting and hanging out, cooking, eating, laughing and generally just enjoying ourselves.

Our first full day in Tokyo was spent indoors – the typhoon rains were so heavy we were pretty much forced to stay inside; the ten minute walk down the road to the local supermarket left us drenched and cold, but at least we had a heap of ingredients to cook ourselves an awesome lunch, dinner, and for Jacob to attempt to make bread!

We stopped off at Daiso, the 100 yen shop near by ‘home;’ whilst Jacob worked on and succeeded to bake bread in the rice cooker (how amazing is that!?), I attempted to teach Yuki how to crochet. Craft in Japan… who would’ve thought?

Our dinner consisted of Japanese rice and mouth-watering Japanese curry, vegetables and freshly-baked bread. The rain might have stopped us exploring Tokyo, but we’d had an incredible first day.

On our second day in Tokyo the rain had subsided and the sun came out to shine. We headed by train into Tokyo and spent the day wandering through a few different suburbs, eating Yoshinoya and generally hanging out. Yuki had generously hand-drawn us a little map and given us some great directions, so we knew exactly where we were going and what we were doing.

Our first destination was Ryogoku – an area of Tokyo well known for its large Sumo Stadium, sumo attractions, sumo stables (aka “sumo homes”) chanko (aka “sumo food”) restaurants and a heap of shops selling awesome sumo stuff that I wanted to buy, purely because they had awesome sumo pictures on them… I mean, who doesn’t want a set of shot glasses with little images of obese, almost naked men with giant wedgies fighting each other!?

As it so happened, within about two seconds of actually being in Ryogoku district we’d seen a sumo and I was almost wetting myself with unexplainable delight. Within about ten minutes we’d seen several. Jacob had to put up with my constant “Jake, Jake, JAKE! I just saw a sumo! An actual SUMO!”… There was a lot of skipping involved as well.
We saw several sumos actually, they were usually just riding around town on tiny bicycles. Or, perhaps, now that I think about it, the bikes were actually just normal size… maybe it was just more so the fact that the sumos were massive in comparison… Still, pretty awesome. There we were in Ryogoku, totally and unintentionally “sumo spotting…” I’d completely forgotten about the Sumo Museum and was more interested in seeking out these big guys.

Of course, being in a new place in Japan, one of the first things we needed to do was find the local Yoshinoya for 280 yen gyu-don breakfast. And find it we did – we’re experts at this now; we can almost sniff that gyu don out! Japan on the cheap? Yeah, we’ve got this down.

We visited the Sumo Stadium and a very small museum which was interesting but way less exciting than actually seeing them in the fluffy flesh. There was some sort of event happening and by around mid-day we were ready to move on to Asakusa, where we spent the afternoon strolling through the streets, shops, market stalls and temples.

Back at Yuki’s home in the evening, we cooked beautiful soba noodles with mushrooms, spring onion and a light soy dipping sauce then filled up even more on Japanese sweets and royal milk tea. We are so Japanese right now…

Our third day in Japan was pretty chilled; we went out and strutted about for a while, cooked our selves a Japanese style lunch, explored some supermarkets, shops and areas around where we were staying, bought some sushi and ingredients for tea, surfed the internet and didn’t do a whole lot else. Jake was feeling a little unwell so most of our afternoon was quiet. Yuki had school all day and we were happy to entertain ourselves… and drink a lot of macha green tea and royal milk tea in the process.

We’re learning that traveling long-term means that not every day can be filled with all day sight-seeing, exploration and new adventures. Instead, having a day off and just doing one or two little things, taking in your surroundings and processing all the information and amazing experiences is a normal and necessary part of this long adventure – sometimes sitting back and appreciating what you have done whilst not doing too much is the best way to spend a day. Looking through photographs and reminiscing about previous travel experiences can feel like you’re traveling to that certain place all over again. I often feel really “guilty” when we’re not out and doing something – I’m always conscious of the fact that where ever we are right now, it’s not for long… but, at the same time, it’s really nice to just be somewhere..

We cooked dinner for Yuki, loving the opportunity to shop like a local and cook at home, Japanese style. Whilst at the supermarket a Japanese man stopped us for a chat – I think he was just so excited to practice his English and didn’t want to say goodbye to us. It was lovely.Poor Yuki had to put up with our cooking – we cooked the exact same thing as the previous night, although this time we added grilled chicken and egg. I’m drooling at the thought of it, it was so delicious… Jake bought ingredients to make chai, and our evening was spent eating, talking, laughing and drinking chai… and, of course, more royal milk tea.

We’re loving this experience and adore couch surfing with Yuki – as we have with every other host. Couch surfing changes you experience completely and offers you a style of travel that is not possible when staying in hotels and hostels. It’s a lot of fun and we have made some very precious memories.

Our fourth day in Tokyo was just so wonderful, it’s hard to put it into words. Yuki had to unfortunately work all day today, but we did get to enjoy watching her “before work routine” where she sat in front of her fridge eating a piece of chocolate. Her little pre-work reward. Cute.

We traveled to Shibuya, where the coolest sight can be seen from the window of the world’s busiest Starbucks on the first floor – the massive and very famous scramble crossing that is also the busiest in the world. It was there we met my dear old friend Akane, a Japanese girl who had come to live with my family as an exchange student some seven years ago. When we saw each other we were so excited, we hugged and squealed and the first thing I thought – and said – was “you look the same!”

We spent the day with Akane and it was truly wonderful. We ended up in Harujuku, where we took a stroll through my favourite Japanese street, Takeshita Dori. I bought some cute socks – it’s a must when in Japan, I feel – they’re just so nice. I resisted most of the other shops and unfortunately we didn’t get to see any Harujuku girls dressed up, but Akane and I did eat a crepe which was pretty awesome. Another “must” when here… or maybe I’m just telling myself that to rid myself of any guilt.

Akane took us walking through famous areas and streets surrounding Harujuku and Shibuya, and we ended up in the greatest shop – Kiddy Land. 5 floors of toys, games, cute characters, stuffed things, stationary and staff dressed as bears and rabbits, complete with tails and ears. I want/need a job here, purely so I can go to work dressed as a bear with a pom pom stuck to my ass. The Miffy and Hello Kitty sections were my personal favourites.
Jake went straight to the Manga section whilst Akane and I swooned over every cute thing we saw… in other words, we spent a good hour or more in that store.

Moving back to Shibuya, we needed some food… and not just any food, we needed sushi from a sushi train. Akane navigated us towards a little place tucked down some stairs just nearby to Shibuya station – also, just next door to Yuki’s workplace. We spent a good hour or more watching deliciously fresh fish become little pieces of edible art and then rotate around the large table whilst hungry customers picked out what they liked. The little sushi chef man took a liking to Jake and I, and kept giving us the expensive stuff on cheap plates as a “presentu.” What a guy! He was awesome. Even more awesome when we were all taking photos of ourselves and he kept photo bombing and pulling hilarious faces. Absolute gold. Love it.

Our afternoon was spent flitting about and strolling through the streets and my favourite Japanese department store, Loft. In particular, we were in the stationary section which is an incredibly difficult place to be when traveling on a tight budget. I would consider it almost torture, actually, to not be able to buy anything. Anyone who knows me knows my absolute endless love for beautiful stationary. To walk out of that store without half of the entire shop contents in bags in my hands was a hard pill for me to swallow. I really needed those candy shaped push-pins, those do-it-yourself flash cards with a cute character on the front, the design-your-own 4 coloured ink pen, the flash disk shaped like a scuba diver, the fun shaped paper clips, those 3D sticker letter seals, the musical note writing pad, the leather bound journal in a large range of colours, a webcam shaped like a cat, those rainbow coloured set of gel pens, the camera case with the amazing design, the lime green coloured EVERYTHING…Ok, I’ll stop there…

More wandering about and I guess our visit to Kiddy Land didn’t quell our need to fluff about in stores made for children. What I mean to say is, our visit to Kiddy Land didn’t quell my need to fluff about in stores made for children. But who am I kidding, I still feel like a child and the Disney Store was like a little bit of paradise… so, yes, what I’m saying is another happy hour was spent skipping (almost) about the isles and cute character displays of the Tokyo Disney Store. If Kiddy Land isn’t looking to hire staff, maybe the Disney Store is…I’d love to work here – all the staff get to walk around with cute stuffed Disney characters on their shoulders. That’s as good as a set of fluffy ears and pom pom on the bum in my opinion. I’m not ashamed to say I bought something there. “It’s for my niece.” That’s the excuse I used and that’s the excuse I’m sticking to.

Late afternoon Akane, Jacob and I headed to Yuki’s work for an early dinner – Yuki works at a really cool authentic Japanese grill restaurant and sake bar, so she finished her shift and the four of us had dinner together. As if we needed more food after all the feasting we’d done today – but it didn’t matter; it was so delicious and a lot of fun. Akane and I reminisced and it was quite funny to look back all those years to when we were in high school.

Saying goodbye to Akane near by the famous Hatchiko Exit at Shibuya Station, I felt sad to say goodbye again so soon but so grateful I’d been able to meet her again.
Together Jake, Yuki and I took the train back ‘home’ where we spent the rest of the evening drinking home made chai and not doing all that much else. It was fantastic.

Our fifth day in Tokyo was spent just chilling out again – Yuki had the day off and it again poured with rain, but none of us were bothered. We were all happy lounging around, cooking, eating, drinking tea, watching Youtube clips, singing, laughing, washing our clothing in the apartment buildings communal washing machine that seems to be ALWAYS being used – we were sneaky and managed to find it briefly empty!…Yesss! We walked down to the shops and bought ourselves some lunch and ingredients for dinner, getting drenched again in the process. It was an awesome day just hanging out with our new friend, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend our Sunday in Tokyo. In my opinion, Sundays were created to be enjoyed in a leisurely way; rain against the windows, blankets, good friends, good conversation, fresh rice cooker bread with butter, chai, royal milk tea, daifuku ice creams, matcha green tea, dango and red bean and Japanese curry and rice for dinner was the perfect way to spend today…

Tomorrow is our final day in Japan. I can’t actually believe how quickly these three weeks have passed. It feels too quick, yet looking back on what we’ve done and what we’ve seen, I’m just so happy. We’ve met some incredible people and done some incredible things. I feel so sad to leave – I don’t want to leave, but I know we’re going out tomorrow with a bang. We don’t fly out until almost midnight which means…

…tomorrow, I’m going to Disney Land!

Castle Japan: 11 – 12.10.2013

The 11th of October marks the half-way point of our Japan trip, and its making me anxious to think that in 10 more days, we have to leave this country that I’ve fallen in love with over and over, more every day.
As well as being the half-way point of our time in Japan, it’s also the half-way point of entire travels: it’s going far too quickly for my liking, but at the same time looking back on our travels in Sri Lanka feels like it happened years ago…

From Nara we traveled onwards by local train to Nagoya, our next destination just a few hours away. Hungry when we arrived into Nagoya station, we knew a Yoshinoya couldn’t be too far away. I stopped to ask the train station ticket master if he knew where.
This little elderly man with a very serious face looked at me for a few seconds, repeated “Yoshinoya,” thought about it for a moment and then suddenly his face turned into a beam of sheer delight. “Yoshinoya?! Gyu-don? Aaaah! Hai, hai,  hai! Go… straight-u. Stair up!… Go…straight-u. Stair down. Yoshinoya!”
Lots of arigato gozaimasus and bows later, we left the cute ticket man smiling and waving at us and headed for our old faithful Yoshinoya for 280 yen gyu-don beef bowls.

Our  first evening in Nagoya was wonderful, spent with our new couch surfing hosts Yuko and Keiji (and their very pretty persian cat Lulu).  Yuko is a really lovely woman with a bright smile and a generous nature. We talked about our plans in Nagoya, and when Yuko mentioned that Nagoya is not so much a tourist destination, I explained we decided to come here because Jacob wants to see a real Japanese castle. With that, Yuko looked puzzled and then explained that, like Osaka castle, Nagoya’s castle is made of concrete and is a reconstruction. Oh…

She then mentioned that there is a very old and very real Japanese castle just an hour or so drive away in a place called Inumaya, and that her and Keiji would take us the following day by car if we wanted. We hadn’t been expecting to have the day with our hosts (it’s been very rare for our hosts to have the whole day off to spend with us to-date), nor did we expect such an incredibly generous offer, but this was really exciting for us. I really enjoy having time to actually spend with the people who are so generously hosting us, so that was a really amazing offer for more than just the fact that we’d get to see a real castle. Yuko and Keiji hadn’t been to this castle either, so it would be new for them too.

Talking more about food and our love for coffee and Japanese food, and about what is ‘famous’ in Nagoya. Apparently it is  Nagoya culture to eat breakfast in cafes and, when you order a coffee, breakfast is usually free!? Yes, I know, it’s a concept our Melbourne-set minds can’t comprehend: you mean, we get given food free with our coffee? Free? As in, we don’t pay for it? How…? Why…?
Yuko declared that the following morning, she and Keiji would take us to their favourite café for breakfast and coffee. Excellent – we desperately need a coffee and are already salivating at the thought.

Our only full day in Nagoya the following day was sounding pretty fantastic already.

We woke the following morning feeling refreshed and absolutely ready for coffee; we were all a bit excited for breakfast (possibly Jake and I were a little more excited for coffee and free food than is normal, but we’ve been traveling for a while and until Japan, coffee has been pretty hit-and-miss and free food has been non-existent.) Who doesn’t love coffee and free food!?
The breakfast and the coffee was pretty awesome and it was really lovely to be surrounded by people enjoying the cafe culture that we love and miss. I guess it was a simple experience but one we’ll remember.

After breakfast, Yuko and Keiji took us to Seto – a neighbourhood close by that is famous for its beautiful ceramics. We first visited the community centre where a fair/community market event was taking place. It was marvelous – we wandered around all the little stalls selling handmade craft items, gifts, foods and home-grown produce. It was a real community; women and children were performing dances, children were painting at a big painting table, there was a little stall where women were teaching people to sew little trinkets with recycled kimono cloth, and everyone was socializing with their friends and community members. Yuko introduced us to one of her friends who was there, and we walked around the stores where people greeted us so warmly. One stall all offered me a beautiful little gift: a set of tiny hand-made Japanese-style shoes made from kimono material. It was so wonderful – a really ‘local’ experience; people were so generous and kind and I wished I could show my appreciation in return.

Yuko, Keiji, Jacob and I spent some time wandering around some beautiful ceramic shops, browsing at the perfectly sculpted cups and tea pots, sake sets and crockery, gorgeous decorative pieces and colourful glazes, insence holders and choppu sticku holders, cooking pots and various cooking items. I wished we had endless amounts of luggage space, money and bubble wrap!… it was tempting until I reminded myself of the logistical issues.

From Seto we traveled by car for over an hour to Inuyama. Keiji enjoys driving – like Jacob – and it was a really lovely drive out there; the scenery along the way was beautiful.

We walked through one of the main streets of Inuyama; a quaint street that headed towards the famous Inuyama Castle, lined with little food shops and gorgeous Japanese souvenirs, ice cream stalls and beautiful houses and buildings in tradition Japanese style. The castle peered down on us from above as we walked up towards it, and it was a spectacular sight.

At the castle entrance we took off our shoes and began to climb stair case after stair case, up and up and up; the stairs were so steep and so slippery, it felt as though everyone there was moving through the tiny space at once to get to the top where we could walk around the balcony area and enjoy the impressive views over Inuyama. Spectacular.
The castle was so stunning and it was really surreal to try and imagine how this must’ve been hundreds of years ago when it was in use. I can’t imagine, but it was still so fascinating. Inuyama castle was a real highlight for us, especially Jacob who had been so excited to visit a real Japanese castle. We had no idea about Inuyama before we met Yuko and Keiji, and to be taken here and experience this with them is something we will always be grateful for.

The weather was perfect today – another blessing – and after our castle visit we were able to enjoy the area surrounding it. We stopped in at a museum that houses several floats used for an annual festival here. The floats were massive and beautiful; how amazing it must be to watch these festivities in all their glory.

Finishing off our adventure in Inuyama, we stopped off at Komeda Coffee – a chain of coffee houses that are famous all over Nagoya area – to enjoy a massive coffee with ice cream. Indulgence at its best, but a “must-do,” we are told. Another Nagoya experience ticked off the list, gladly!

The drive home was lovely; we really enjoyed it. Stopping off at a near-by supermarket, we wandered about the isles enjoying everything in our sight; we love the Japanese supermarkets and looking at all the different products, and were excited to stock up on ingredients for tonight’s “Takoyaki Party” – Sense Keiji was teaching us how to make takoyaki and we were both very eager students.

Our evening was spent preparing and making takoyaki – an evening we thoroughly enjoyed. We grilled so much takoyaki and Sense Keiji taught us well – we hope we did him proud.

We went to bed this evening full of takoyaki and happy after the most amazing day with two wonderful hosts.

Deer Japan: 9 – 10.10.2013

Saying goodbye to beautiful Kyoto and our new friends, we were sad but excited – we were Nara bound with just two nights and just one full day to explore the city. Again we were couch surfing; our fourth hosts in Japan and our first family with children. Megumi, Koji and their two young children Nazuna and Tsubasa are very experienced hosts, and knew how to look after us. Both the children speak very fluent English and are extremely outgoing and energetic; they really seem enjoy spending time with other people.

The two nights we spent with this family were a great experience for us; we spent a lot of time with the kids playing various games, we had some great conversation and shared some absolutely incredible home-cooked Japanese food.

Our one day in Nara went by way too fast and was thoroughly enjoyable. Awake early after another late night (Japanese people seem to sleep a lot later and get up a lot earlier than we are used to!), we were tired as we boarded the train to Nara City station, but as we stepped off the train we were ready to explore for the day.

It was incredibly hot today – 31 degrees – which is very strange for October, we’re told.  Actually, we’ve been really lucky; it’s been beautiful weather and often very hot every day since arriving in Japan (besides the morning on the day we left Kyoto, where it rained heavily for a few hours due to a typhoon some distance away), so the jumper I bought in India to wear in Japan has not yet been of any use….

We began our day by simply walking around Nara city; it was reasonably familiar to me and I could remember quite a lot of the places and directions from my stay there last year which was good. Last time my mum and I were here in Nara we visited a community centre that housed an earthquake simulator and a lot of insightful and fascinating information about earthquake-proof building foundations, which I really wanted Jake to see. Close by I knew of a really beautiful restaurant that served Nara specialties – a type of sushi wrapped in leaves, and a delicate soup with thin noodles. I wanted to find these places at some point today.

We walked around the town which was beautiful in the sunshine and stopped to pet the many sweet deer that were strutting about, occasionally head butting tourists who refused to hand over their deer crackers. Very funny animals that make a very cute sound.

We visited a pond filled with turtles and surrounded by a stunning view, explored several temples, took a stroll through the streets and stood awe struck by the massive 5 story pagoda – built without using any nails!

Walking around the town was just so beautiful, seeing the deer and the people and everyone so happy. The sunshine bought out ice cream carts and little food vendors, and lots of tourists. I loved watching the deer congregating around the little ‘deer cracker’ vendor’s stalls, as if so hopeful they might just get lucky by looking oh so cute and get given a snack.

We eventually found our way to the community centre, and I was so glad we’d found it. We had a look around the centre and both took a seat in the earthquake simulator, which was quite terrifying when imagining how this would’ve been in reality. From there, we sat for a bit enjoying the air conditioning, free green tea and wifi before heading back out into the heat of the day.
Nearby, I recognized the restaurant I’d been looking for and we ended up eating a delicious lunch there, where we met an older Australian couple who were rather funny.

After lunch, we spent some time wandering through the little shops before heading towards  a famous temple, past thousands of beautiful ancient stone lanterns covered with moss. It was shady in the forested area, deers were bleating and it was so serene. In the temple, we came across a wedding taking place and stood for a while watching the brides elaborate hair, make up and outfit being adjusted, as well as everyone else in the wedding party. The photographers smoothed every crease and fold in the material, and combed every hair into place; this precision took a long time but the wedding party looked amazing. I felt a bit guilty standing there photographing them, but a million other tourists were too – I guess they chose to have their wedding in a touristic city, in a touristic area, in a famous temple…

We wandered back into town eventually, and before we knew it it was late afternoon and time to head back to our host’s home to spend and enjoy the time with their family and share another delicious home-cooked Japanese feast.

Our time in Nara was quick, but wonderful.

Memorable Kyoto: 8.10.2013

Today has been incredible, and I’m so excited about the fact that it was all possible because of couch surfing. It was a wonderful chance to spend time with new friends and end our time in Kyoto on a high.

Karim, Jacob and I all woke up feeling pretty gnarly after last nights mammoth ramen; all that oil, fat and salt left us dehydrated and with grumbling stomachs – even Yudai and Hiroki felt a bit rough around the edges. We attempted to remove the garlic taste from our mouths with copious amounts of toothpaste and breath mints and empty our stomachs of those ramen demons; that noodly beast left us feeling as though we’d had a big night out on the booze… in reality, it had been a big night out on noodles, bean shoots, garlic, stock and chunky fat. I’m still not sure what’s worse for the body….

It’s Yudai’s day off today so the four of us are spending it together exploring this amazing city and it’s surrounds. First stop was Doshisha Univeristy – Yudai’s University – where we had the opportunity to see what a Japanese university looks like; in particular, how amazing a Japanese university food hall is. With all of us still suffering as a result of last night’s ramen explosion, we passed on the food and took advantage of the free water.

Semi-hydrated, we moved on from Doshisha and took a bus to Nijo Castle – a UNESCO World Heritage castle that is famous here in Kyoto… and probably in Japan now that I think of it. The castle was very beautiful and pretty spectacular, really. I was certainly impressed, but then again, I’m always impressed by Japanese architecture. It’s pretty awesome.
We spent a while wondering through the castle and the surrounding gardens; it was beautiful and we had a lot of fun taking photographs and strutting about in our little group, even if it did start to rain a little.

Following on from Nijo Castle, we headed by bus to Shijo Street again where we had lunch – wait for it… not at Yoshinoya!… Instead we went to Karim’s budget Japanese food chain of choice, Sukiya, where meals are similar in both price and content to that of Yoshinoya. I ordered the usual beef bowl but was evidently still too full from the ramen to eat it.

Another bus ride took us out of Kyoto to  the suburb of Arashiyama, which is a pretty spectacular place and probably good for at least a half-day visit, if not a full day. Unfortunately we’d arrived pretty late in the afternoon and had just enough time to visit the beautiful bamboo forest area and take a short stroll around the area. Judging from the number of temples and sights to see on the tourist map, the many cute shops and the countless beautiful looking food stalls and eateries, you could really go to town here. If I wasn’t dying as a result of ramen poisoning or on a tight-ass budget, I may have treated myself to some hand-made yuba tofu… or a green tea ice cream… or maybe even a mix of the two – who’s to say?

As a group, the four of us had a lot of fun. There was always something to talk about or laugh about, a stupid pose to be made in front of someone’s camera and a lesson to be learned. We had great conversation and it was brilliant to explore Kyoto with new found friends. It’s fantastic being able to spend time with locals – it opens up this country to us in a completely different way, and I really am grateful for this opportunity.

As the sky turned to dark the four of us hopped onto another bus and traveled back to Kyoto, back to Shijo street, where we visited a traditional Kyoto sweet house and enjoyed more free tastings of yatsuhashi as well as bought a few as gifts.
Yudai took us a few doors down to visit a “plum shop” where we tried sour and sweet plums and plum juice that was oh so delicious!!! Again… if I wasn’t on a budget… Oh Japan, why must you always tempt me?

We walked through Pontocho street – the famous street in Gion – which was lit up and busy with people; the street lined with spectacular houses and traditional buildings, as well as many bars and restaurants with high, high prices. Looking out from Pontocho street over Kyoto’s Kamo River, we watched as couples sat along the banks – somehow leaving the same distance between each of the couples, making it quite a sight to see. It’s quite romantic really, and the sound of the river is beautiful at night…

Eventually night time got the better of us and we headed back to Yudai’s by bus, once again stopping by the supermarket for discounted sushi and instant cup noodle soups. We spent our last evening in Kyoto chatting and laughing; this couch surfing experience has been absolutely wonderful and we have really loved every moment of being here. Yudai has been such a wonderful, generous host and we couldn’t have had a better experience. As well as also having Karim to share it with, making a new friend whilst traveling is always a wonderful experience. It feels as though our travels have been made all the more richer through couch surfing and spending time with locals; whilst I’m sad we have to say goodbye to Yudai, Karim and Kyoto tomorrow, I’m so happy there’s more of this to come!

Ramen Kyoto: 7.10.2013

After too many late nights we were in need of a sleep in, and woke well after 11am. We cooked rice for breakfast/lunch and doused it in soy sauce and kewpie mayonaise – what I would consider a gourmet meal for us cheapskate backpackers.

It wasn’t until around 1pm that the three of us decided we should get a move on and actually do something today! Our plan was to go to the Golden Pavilion – Kinkaku-ji – which is meant to be the most spectacular temple complex in all of Kyoto (and Kyoto has a LOT of temples, so it had to be pretty bloody impressive!)…
Eventually leaving the house, we headed straight for the convenience store to get a coffee, and somehow ended up lost and in front of a supermarket; even better! Supermarkets are cheaper and have a much bigger, better andmore interesting range of foods. [Another “Japan on a budget” tip – buy your food stuff and drinks, if you can, at supermarkets; most of the time they have a hot and fresh made selection of things like sushi, tempura and fried goods at super cheap prices.] I love Japanese supermarkets – they are so interesting and every time I go into one it’s like I’m going in for the first time; I’m always discovering something new.
We walked out with sushi, onigiri, a massive bottle of water, juice, milk tea and cold coffee; the three of us were ready to start our day.

Nearby the supermarket we stopped to eat our food; as it so happened we managed to park ourselves right next to a large public tourist map of the area, and quickly discovered that we were surrounded by temples galore. The area surrounding Yudai’s home is really beautiful; full of lane ways and small streets, beautiful old traditional houses, little shrines and statues, quaint outdoor gardens and old bikes parked next to modern cube cars. Just walking through the streets was a joy, but to discover this area offered so much in terms of beautiful temples, shrines and parks was exciting. The Golden Pavilion was momentarily put on hold.

Finishing our sushi and onigiri, we turned a corner and entered a very large and beautiful temple complex that is the incredibly majestic Ryoan-ji. We spent a long time wandering through the area and enjoying the stunning ancient, intricate buildings and temples, the scenery, a bamboo forest area and silent, perfectly manicured gardens. Lots of sections of the complex were no access areas, but never the less we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, getting lost amongst the massive structures and trees surrounding us.

Moving on from Ryoan-ji, we wandered through the streets and laneways, attempting to navigate our way towards the Golden Pavillion – Kinkaku-ji, admiring the little houses and shops, the streets and the buildings. We stumbled upon tiny temples and historic landmarks and buildings, and almost walked straight past a little home with a very open shop front, before backtracking to take a closer look.

Amongst piles of wood, scraps of materials, work benches and tools, a little man was hard at work building traditional tatami mats. We stood at a distance for a minute or two simply admiring his work space, when suddenly I heard “please come in!”… Stepping into his work shop, the little man was busily measuring up – with beautiful, old looking tools – a tatami mat that looked and smelled so beautiful; it smelled just like Japan to me.
He stopped his work to show us various parts of the tatami – the older style ones and the newer versions, how they are made and what from, the materials used and some of the ways tatamis are layed out in a room – for example, a six, eight or twelve tatami room layout. At one point, we asked a question and he apologized to us whilst he tried to find the answer in his work shop; we had interrupted his work and yet, he was saying sorry to us! Japanese people are so incredibly polite, we were all standing there marveling at the generosity of this man. He was so kind, obliging and welcoming.
When we were leaving, we asked if it was okay to take a photograph of him in his work shop. He insisted we go to the front of his shop, where he untied and pulled down a large material sign hanging outside, offered to take our photographs and posed obligingly for our touristy photos. Amazing – a little experience that I will remember so fondly.

Moving on from Mr. Tatami, we got a little lost amongst the streets and lane ways whilst trying to find our way to Kinkaku-ji. We stopped at an old camera shop where two more very kind and obliging Japanese people assisted us with directions. It was already after 4pm, and Kinkaku-ji was closing at 5pm. We decided to walk there anyway and hope we’d get there in time.

The walk there was nice, and we found our way past more interesting streets and shops, walking up a hill to the entrance of Kinkaku-ji at exactly 4:50pm. We’d made it just in time.
We purchased our tickets and walked straight in; I think maybe we went exactly at the right time because as soon as we walked through the gates and were blown away by the indescribable beauty that is Kikaku-ji, only sharing the view with just a few other tourists. The Golden Pavillion reflected onto the lake, surrounded by such beauty that is so unique to Japanese gardens. We stood marveling at the shining gold structure, awe struck. We took photographs and spent time just standing and admiring the beauty before us. It was truly magical.
It didn’t take too long to walk throughout the complex and gardens; the pavilion being the highlight – it was one of the best temple complexes I’ve seen.

We eventually headed back to Yudai’s home; despite the fact that it had taken a long time to get to the Golden Pavilion originally, it was really quick to get back (we must’ve gone the right way this time…).
Yudai had been telling us about a local ramen restaurant he loved so much, that served a very Japanese, very local, very delicious and very large servings of ramen. Together with his house mate Hiroki, the five of us walked down to the ramen restaurant. My first impression was that this place must be bloody good – we had to queue for around 30 minutes or more to get a seat at this very small suburban eatery. Placing our order and paying 650Y at a vending machine, we took a white ticket each and sat down at the communal table. The place was tiny: the long narrow table surrounded the cooking space in a square shape, in the middle one hard-working man worked as the chef, the cook, the server and the cleaner. All the other men -and there were only men – were eating MASSIVE bowls of overflowing ramen; the amount of food was almost sickening! We ordered “the normal” – deciding to accept the challenge – and Yudai placed our orders with the man who was so busy doing so many things at once. We watched as he added stock, water, sauces and spices, boiled the noodles and added them to the stock, piled on steamed bean shoots and a massive dollop of crushed garlic, and  then… a massive ladle of pure, solid chunks of fat… Oh, good god.

When my normal sized bowl of ramen was served, I instantly thought “this could feed all five of us.” It took a lot of time and effort to get through even the smallest amount of that ramen, and pretty soon we were all struggling. I think the amount of pure fat was the most challenging, but we were all determined to taken on this “challenge…”
In the end though it was just too much; we all (besides Jake) left our ramen bowls full still; we’d eaten so much and barely made a dent in our regular sized bowls. It made me feel sick just thinking about the amount of food other men at the table were consuming…or maybe that sick feeling was due to the influx of fat pumping through my digestive tract. We left the restaurant feeling overly full, heavy, a little bit sick and at the same time, content with this awesome, once-in-a-lifetime (for us) foodie experience. Yudai told us proudly he eats here twice a week; I laughed whilst my stomach cried a little.

Heading back towards home, I think all of us were silent as our digestive systems tried to cope with the onslaught of food and fat we’d just consumed. Whilst waddling and struggling home, we came across a group of people playing with what looked like material hackey sacks – one person standing in the middle holding up a huge pole with a bucket on the top, similar to a basketball hoop. They were all going wild racing to throw these material sacks into the bucket, and I was eager to join in. Yudai asked the group if we could participate and very quickly we found ourselves bracing, ready for a count down from three so we could all go wild, racing to try and get as many balls into the bucket high above our heads. It was difficult to concentrate due to the fact that I was laughing so hard – It was such a random situation but so much fun! I managed to get one in the bucket and spent the rest of my time flailing about with pride and laughing too much. There we all were, late in the night, throwing material balls wildly around with a bunch of very welcoming Japanese people. Fuck Japan is awesome!

Stopping at Family Mart to buy litres of water and cold tea in order to fight the dehydration that was fast consuming us as a result of sudden high salt intake, as well as a good stock of breath mints – considering the amount of garlic we’d just consumed – we were all starting to feel the effects of that mammoth ramen. Bloated and heavy, all five of us flopped onto the couch at home and lolled about, sleepily, occasionally rubbing our disgruntled somachs with sympathy.

Today has been an amazing day, one I will remember fondly. I am so happy to be here.

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.

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.

Agra-essive India: 10.09.2013

What a full on day we’ve had here in Agra; I can safely say that after what we experienced – rather, endured – today, I am never coming back here in my lifetime. The Taj Mahal really will be a once-in-a-lifetime for me.

Our day started wonderfully, we took a tuk tuk to the station (after one ridiculous driver tried to charge us 300 rupees for a 15 rupee ride!) and boarded the one train I have been waiting enthusiastically to take in India! The Shatabdi Express! – once described to me as “luxurious, by India standards.”  It was pretty awesome; we had comfortable upholstered seats, leg rests and the train was clean and spacious. We had room to store our bags above us, a tray table, and staff who served us with a news paper, water, tea, breakfast, candy, buiscuits and chai. Very luxurious, I’ll say. I felt like I was on India’s version of the Japanese Shinkansen, and I was almost a little disappointed that the train ride was to be only three and a half hours – it was so lovely!

On the train, I sat admiring my surroundings and wondering if I’d made the right decision to book us flights to Japan… then I heard a little voice say “Ah-gu-ra?” I turned around instantly, recognising that cute accent. A little Japanese man sat down in the seat behind us, and I had to smile. By the time we exited the train, we had an offer from the Japanese man to show us around Osaka when we arrived, and I was feeling 100% sure we’d made the right decision.Thank you, to who ever sent me that little sign of confirmation.

Stepping into Agra Fort train station, we dumped our bags in the cloak room and were immediately preyed upon by a rickshaw driver. We were cautious – evidently not cautious enough – and tried to shake him, however, he oddly seemed like maybe, just maybe he was being a little less schemey than the rest of them… We took him up on his offer for a days sight seeing, and hopped into the rickshaw where his son was very helpful in telling us what scams to look out for in Agra. He forgot to mention the one him and his dad were running.

We arrived near the South Entrance to the Taj, and proceeded to walk through a lane way packed with shops and touters, all begging and pleading and trying their hardest to hassle us into their shops. I kept my backpack on my front, with my arms hugging it tightly.

We lined up for our tickets, which cost us 750 rupees each (just a little more than the 20 rupees that the locals pay for their entrance tickets) but absolutely worth it.
We were then waved through to the front of the security line, passing through and being patted down by officers before they went through every section of my bag, wallet and possessions. They accepted my bulging pack, but declined my lap top, a tiny torch and a deck of UNO cards entrance into the Taj, so it was back to the cloak room to store my goods. I’m not sure what was so dangerous about my UNO cards, but it was all made clear to me when they said gruffly “Government Policy.”

Stepping into the Taj was exciting! It was crowded with people, but it didn’t matter, we were here and it was incredible! The entrance gate was magnificent in its own right, and walking through gave us a glimpse of what was to come, with the Taj coming more and more into view with every step towards it. I had butterflies!

We stepped through the entrance gate to see the Taj in full view, and it was really exciting! People were everywhere, lots of domestic tourists taking hilarious photos of themselves in strange poses. It was a big competition to get a photograph without several men posing with borrowed sun glasses and arms folded, but we succeeded eventually; I guess everyone wanted a piece of the Taj.

We spent a good hour or so wandering about the grounds, around the Taj and inside it, where we were speechless. It was beautiful, spectacular and just so massive! How amazing it was to be here…
I was left speechless again when I watched a man very obviously and intentionally grab a female tourist’s bottom. Not good.

It was very special to be there, but eventually we left and wandered back through the lane of touters, where I had to yell at a small child to leave me alone, after he followed me for way too long trying to drag me into his 1-rupee per-post-card shop, grabbed my arm and harassed me aggressively almost to breaking point. The Taj Mahal was indeed beautiful, but stepping back out was simply walking into a feeding frenzy.

Back in our tuk tuk, the drivers took us to see the Agra Fort, which we decided not to enter and instead, marveled at from the outside. Seeing as 75% of the fort is inaccessible to tourists and is used by the military, the Red Fort was pretty impressive from the outside without the hefty foreigner entrance fee.

Tuk tuk driver then took us to a chai shop where he assumed we would pay for his drinks, and spent a lengthy amount of time explaining to us in detail, with lots of “true stories” to back up whatever he said, that apparently every guest house with a restaurant in Agra has a network with tuk tuk drivers, doctors and the local hospital, and intentionally poisons tourists in order to get commission from each of their networks, and earn more money from sick tourists who are forced to pay use a tuk tuk to go to the doctors, then to the hospital, then pay to stay extra nights in their guest house recovering… Whilst we’re not sure how true this is, he was very persistent about just one restaurant in Agra being safe to eat at, and ensured us it was in our guide book (it was not). Driving past the place to “just show us,” I was pretty sure that if any restaurant in Agra was actually out to make tourists sick, it was that one, and we gladly declined his ‘generous’ offer.

After originally promising not to, and then attempting to lure us to a Government shop , which I flatly and continually refused, tuk tuk driver must’ve realised we were in no mood to “shop” just so he could get commission. I think he got a bit shitty, as he then declined my request to take us to an orphanage I wanted to pay a visit to, to donate some stationary and colouring books for the little children. He had originally agreed to take us there, but suddenly 5km was “too far,” and just like that, our “seven hour tour of Agra” with the tuk tuk driver was over – just two hours later… Furthermore, when I asked for my 100 rupees change, he refused and basically shoved us out of his tuk tuk, telling me how wonderful his shit service had been and that he deserved that extra 100 on top of the already ridiculous fee, simply for doing not a whole lot.

That bitter taste in my mouth was becoming unbearable, and it was only 1pm. We still had 10 hours to spend in Agra, in the heat, with the thousands of sharks (touters), before our train to Lucknow arrived.

We decided to walk through the train station to cross over to the local bazaar, hoping it would entertain us for a while. Fending off monkeys with my backpack, we crossed over and through a filthy area where dozens of men were urinating and shitting on piles of filth. The bazaar was jam packed and traffic was heavy, congested and dangerous. Wandering about was difficult, and it wasn’t long before we made the attempt to walk back to the near- by fort area, passing cows, dodging rubbish, poo and touters and dogs mating in the street.

By the time we walked to the top of the road, we were hot, stressed and sick of having to duck and weave and dodge hectic traffic and constant touting. We attempted to hail a rickshaw, but no one wanted to use their meter (of course not), let alone give us a price anywhere even near reasonable. 300 rupees for a 1km distance was out of the question. Declining one driver who refused to use the meter, he quickly changed his tune and immediately tried to repair two very obviously severed wires. Whilst doing so, we were suddenly surrounded by at least 20 men who all wanted to know what was happening, and why we hadn’t chosen their rickshaw. One man was particularly aggressive, and demanded we get into his tuk tuk for 100 rupees. Declining him politely, he quickly dropped to 80 telling us that this was the local price. Then again dropping to 70, all whilst I was politely saying no thanks, no that’s too much, that’s not a fair price, no, no, no, please – no, listen – no!…NO!”  He continued to yell “70! Okay! Get in! 70!”, and we were stuck in a circle of men who seemed to be really enjoying the show whilst I tried to escape. I thought it had ended with me screaming at them and pushing through the crowd… but then the aggressive man got into his tuk tuk, drove after us and screamed at us to get in. It officially ended with Jacob screaming – and I mean, screaming (never had I heard him scream before!) at the driver in Hindi to leave us alone. It was an awful experience and left me almost in tears from sheer exhaustion; I was sick of this bull shit and we’d both had enough of the horrible treatment we were receiving from everyone we came into contact with. We walked away in silence, feeling rotten and wanting to get out of this city as quickly as possible, yet knowing we still had hours to go.

Eventually, we found a tuk tuk driver who finally agreed to a price that was only a reasonablye rip-off, rather than just simply ridiculous, but before we could get in to his vehicle, we witnessed a hit and run accident; a tuk tuk on the wrong side of the road smashed into a young boy on a bike and immediately sped off at a ridiculous speed, leaving locals chasing after the driver and running to the boy’s aid. He was fine, but after seeing that and the distress written all over that poor boys face, I was now at almost breaking point.

Our driver took us to a café – but not the one we’d requested; one much closer and more convenient for him. We argued that we did not want to go to this cafe, and a passing cycle rickshaw driver told him where to take us, but not before offering us some “very good weed,” which we declined angrily. I was expecting to have to fight with our driver to get our agreed price, after he drove for several minutes more to take us to the correct café, but it came as a sheer relief when he accepted what we had agreeed upon.

Entering Café Coffee Day – the Indian version of Gloria Jeans or Hudson’s Coffee – we simply needed respite. It was just 4pm, and we still had 7 and a half hours until our train arrived. We dragged our packs up the steps, dumped them by an empty table, slumped into our seats, and did not move from there for another seven hours. Yep. That’s right, we, along with many other tourists, bunkered down and hid from Agra for seven whole hours until our night train arrived.

Whilst whittling away the hours, we spoke with a girl who’d just come from Lucknow – our next destination. Jake and I had heard great things about Lucknow, and were looking forward to a less touristy area with great food! However, had left her with memories that were obviously less than perfect; she’d been quite distressed by her experience there, and she really put fear into me about our next destination… after today’s events, I didn’t feel I could handle anything else distressing… This meant our last few hours in Agra were spent with me worrying about what was to come, and wishing we could just go to Delhi and fly away.

Still cautious about the possibility of food poising, we hadn’t eaten all day, besides our bits of bread, biscuits and tea on the Indian Shinkansen at 7am. Outside the café, still within the distance of our safety net, was a vegetarian street stall cooking up great food and packed with locals. Food we could trust; Jake had some sort of Indian street food, and I ate a piece of naan. That would do.

Around 11pm, we braved the streets and I bartered a tuk tuk driver down from 200 to 50, my first (little) win in Agra. He took us down  narrow bumpy streets and dropped us at the station, just as another tourist got out; another Japanese boy.

On the platform, surrounded by thousands of staring eyes, we and the Japanese boy found another pair of tourists and congregated near them. Then another few tourists found us, and soon we were one big group on a platform surrounded by families on blankets eating and drinking and staring and sleeping and pooing over the rail tracks.

We had sleeper class tickets to Lucknow; we’d taken a few sleeper class trains when we first arrived in India, but had switched to taking  3AC class berths after discovering they were a little safer and nicer, and not packed with people on waiting lists for a seat. This train was really dirty,  the worst we’d come across, and I missed the luxury of having a sheet to protect me from the grime and several sets of staring eyes. I lay awake for ages thinking about India and Japan, whilst attempting to block out the strange noises coming from the train.

I really hoped Lucknow would be as great as we’d originally hoped.