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.