Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management

Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management

Arriving by boat from Korea, our first real impression of China was to walk out of the port in Qingdao and find ourselves on a dual carriageway.  Above our heads was another road on a flyover.  The only traffic on the vast expanse of tarmac was a single tiny motorbike powered truck, which despite the abundance of road space did its level best to run us down.

The minimal traffic turned out to be an anomaly, as Beijing’s streets would show us later that day, but the unashamedly homicidal driving was not.  Owning a car is a relatively recent opportunity in China, but Chinese drivers already show an impressive mastery of their lethal potential.

This is not typical Beijing traffic, there are usually many many cars trying their best to squash those who are in tiny tin can vehicles or riding bicycles with no helmet.

Across the road, we were in Qingdao proper, and here there were all sorts of wonderful things to see.  And all the more wonderful after a nice refreshing brush with certain death.

China wasn’t all hulking utilitarian modernity and trample-others-at-will hurry!

This China was something like the China of my imagination.  Bustling streets were full of people shopping, or sat eating on little plastic stools.  At every corner a truck piled high with produce was parked, fruit and vegetables spilling out onto dusty streets, and a brisk trade was done at the tailgate.  At one intersection a crowd clamoured for huge leafy cabbages, at another leeks and apples, at the next oranges.

The impression I got walking through old Qingdao was that this was the real China.  Ancient and bustling, winding streets, simply dressed people slurping noodles on low stools.

The next six weeks would dismantle this conceit entirely.  Not just in its particulars, but in the idea that there’s any such thing as the real China at all.  I still can’t make sense of what China is, and isn’t.  I’m not sure the Chinese know either. Continue reading “Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management”

One year travelling round the world: thoughts on our first trip anniversary

One year travelling round the world: thoughts on our first trip anniversary

Today marks the end of our first year on the road. In 365 days we’ve visited seventeen countries and two sort-of-countries (Hong Kong and Macau), sort-of-visited another country (North Korea), crossed over two more (France and Belgium), and sailed in sight of another three (The Phillipines, Palau and Papua New Guinea). We’ve crossed borders 31 times (33 if you count the Korean MDL), once every 11 or 12 days on average. Gosh.

Seven of these crossings we made by boat, one by air, and the rest overland (or bridge).

Leaving Russia for Japan by ferry: much more exciting than flying!

We’ve been on three continents, and ventured across both tropics and the equator. We’ve travelled thousands and thousands of kilometres — 4000 of them on the world’s longest passenger railway, 3000 by bicycle, and 8000 on board a cargo ship.

We’ve seen the great wall of China alone at sunrise, climbed sacred mountains, had a Russian sauna next to the biggest lake in the world (then jumped in), hiked ancient pilgrimages, floated in hot springs, sipped cocktails on top of skyscrapers, abseiled down a 60 metre waterfall, motorbiked down dirt roads to deserted beaches, learned how to rock climb by ourselves, roamed the temples of Angkor, snorkeled with sharks (plus a sea turtle, a ray, and a conger eel), and been surprised to find scores of whales breaching and splashing their tales, metres away from our boat.

In a sense these moments are what travel is all about, the peak experiences that make you feel truly fortunate to be alive, and to have the opportunity to travel. But they’re not what travel is made up of. They’re one day in 10, sometimes much less. Day to day, travel for us is about soaking up a place, trying the food, drinking the coffee, hanging out in the beer gardens, sitting in a temple watching the world go by. Continue reading “One year travelling round the world: thoughts on our first trip anniversary”

Cold winds on high walls: a walk in Seoul

Cold winds on high walls: a walk in Seoul

I stood trapped, trying to look nonchalantly unconcerned as the strains of Für Elise got louder and louder, attracting a swelling crowd of gawping Korean subway users to my plight.  To pass the time, I affected a consuming interest in the safety poster on the pillar next to me.  Which was in Korean, obviously.

I’d accidentally double tapped my ticket on the exit gate, rendering me stuck inside the barriers.  Subway stations in Seoul are grand, sleek and shiny but rather soulless (baboom) spaces, generally completely devoid of staff.  The only thing for it then, was to press the help button.

Don’t press the help button.

The ticket gate will rip into a spirited rendition of Für Elise, which will get louder and louder (or was this my imagination?) as you wait helplessly for a staff member to stroll the several miles from the nearest manned gate.  People will stare at you.  Your husband, who has managed to exit the ticket barrier without mishap, will slink off to laugh at you from a safe distance.  Help will seem a long, long time coming.

Even if you do manage to exit the barriers in the manner of a person possessing basic barrier exit skills, getting out of a Seoul subway station is not easy.  Look at the places.

Perfectly clear.

When I eventually freed myself, we stepped out into the crisp cold sunshine and began to walk.  Seoul is a dense modern city, packed with skyscrapers and expressways, but amongst them sit scraps of the past.  One of these was our path for the day: the city wall.

In the 14th century a 20 km wall was built to encircle Seoul, controlling traffic in and out, and sealing the city shut at night.  These days the city surrounds the wall, and not much of the original stonework remains.  But several sections have been restored over the years, and now a walking route completes the whole circuit.

Frankly, we couldn’t be bothered to walk 20 km, so we set our sights on the northern half of the loop.  We began climbing through a low rise residential neighbourhood, then on up the wall itself as it rose on a ridge above the city.

Baby faced guards, dressed all in black, loitered in groups at short intervals along the wall, outnumbering hikers considerably.  Signs warned us not to point our cameras in the direction of the Blue House, the president’s palace, which dominated the foreground.

The history of this wall isn’t all ancient.  In January 1968 it was the site of the first shots fired in an incident known as the Blue House raid.

It was January the 21st, midwinter.  Three days before the largest campaign of the Vietnam war kicked off, 18 months after North Korea lost to Portugal in the quarter final of the World Cup, held in Liverpool.

A unit of 31 hand picked officers from the North was sent to assassinate the president of South Korea.  They made it from the border and as far as the city wall, well inside Seoul, before being confronted.

Being outnumbered by uniformed guards adds an edge to otherwise serene hiking.  The wall follows the ridges of four rocky, tree spattered hills.  A tiny sliver of nature amidst panoramic city views.  After a quietly tense hour or two on the chilly, wind whipped ridge, we were forced back down into the city by a break in the wall.  Following the trail at ground level, we found ourselves at a checkpoint.  Here, near the president’s palace, the wall is near complete, reconstructed to provide extra security after the events of 1968.

Entry to the wall section directly behind the palace is strictly controlled.  Passports are required, and registration.  The day we arrived they weren’t allowing entry at all.  But to be honest, we’d had enough of this rather unsettling walking already.

Our pleasant stroll in Seoul turned out to be an introduction to the obvious presence of the sometimes quiet, but still ongoing conflict between the Koreas.  This slight sense of unease, the barbed wire suggestion of impending doom, is not something we noticed further south.  But here, 35 miles from the border, you can feel it.

As we started downhill back to the centre of town, we came to a monument to police officers killed during the raid.


Choi Gyushek, the local police chief commemorated in the statue, was on the lookout for North Korean infiltrators that night.

Camped on their journey south, the soldiers from the North had been happened on by four teenagers.  The soldiers had orders to kill and bury any civilians they met, but they didn’t.  Perhaps because the ground was frozen too hard to dig a grave.  Perhaps not.  Either way they let the boys go, after an ad-hoc lecture on the virtues of communism.  The boys went straight to the police.

So Choi Gyushek had been warned.  When the North Koreans tried to pass his checkpoint disguised as soldiers of the South, he got suspicious.  So they shot and killed him, the first casualty of the raid.

26 South Koreans were killed in the fighting, which spread from the checkpoint as the North Koreans scattered, then fled.  A bus full of civilians were caught in the crossfire.  Several days later, four Americans were killed in the DMZ trying to prevent the remains of the unit from returning to North Korea.  One North Korean officer made it back, the rest were killed or committed suicide, except one.

Kim Shin-Jo was the only officer captured.  He defected, and then he found god.  Back in North Korea his family were murdered for his defection.  In 2010, still living in South Korea, he became a human rights advisor to the government.

But it gets stranger.

The South decided to launch a revenge mission.  Their unit of assassins too, would have 31 members, but they wouldn’t be elite officers.  They’d be civilians, recruited for financial reward.  The chosen 31 were held prisoner on an uninhabited island off the west coast and subjected to such intense training that seven of them died in the process.  Then the mission was called off.

In 1971 the survivors of the training overcame their guards, made their way to the mainland, and hijacked a bus, which was then stopped by the army.

The army approach the hijacked bus.*

All but four of the unit members were killed in the struggle, or committed suicide.  The remaining four were sentenced to death, and executed in 1972.

But it goes on.  In 2003 a film based on the events was released, called Silmido after the island where the unit trained.  The box office takings of Silmido topped 30 million US dollars in Korea alone.  Only two years after this was a government investigation into the incident initiated, the bodies of the unit members, who had been buried in secret, located, and their families officially informed of their deaths.  In 2010 the families won a case for compensation, which totalled less than 250,000 US dollars.

Funny place, Korea.

*Image from populargusts.

Birthday Boat: Japan to Korea by sea

Birthday Boat: Japan to Korea by sea

There are tons of options for getting between Japan and Korea without flying.  Well, four anyway, which is four times more than from Russia to Japan.

Three different ferry companies ply the Hakata to Busan route at various speeds, and you can also get a longer overnight ferry from Osaka to Busan.  (FYI: Hakata is the same place as Fukuoka, where we went to the sumo.  They used to be separate places but they fused, so now both names are used.)

We nearly plumped for the ferry from Osaka, since we finished our trip in Kyoto, but with the Willer Express bus pass it worked out cheaper to head down to Fukuoka on the bus and get a Camellia Line day ferry from there.  Partly it was cheaper because, wait for it, we got BIRTHDAY DISCOUNT.  Hello Korea.  The list price for a second class ticket is 9000¥ each, about £60, but we paid about £40 because we were sailing in the month of our respective births.  Alas, this seems to have been a one year only offer.  It was good while it lasted.

Getting the ferry was fairly easy, if a little labyrinthine.  We booked online, and after one last Mister Donut breakfast, arrived at the port on a city bus directly from Hakata station.  Easy peasy.  They even had a big sign in the port with the timetable and price of the bus into the city, complete with ‘how to catch the bus’ instructions.  Nothing left to chance.

We checked in at the Camellia Line counter, where we had to pay a fuel surcharge (I think this happens with all the ferry companies).  Then, as if Japan wanted to wish us farewell in style, we were directed to one last vending machine.

The 500 yen port fee has to be paid in cash to this bad boy.  Fortunately we had just enough yen left to pay for this, plus a peculiar corn stick from the shop next to the departure gate.

We made the mistake of letting a Korean tour group get ahead of us in the queue to board the boat.  Starvation might have set in during the wait, if it hadn’t been for the corn stick.

On board, we were directed to a rather flashy cabin, with a view out the front of the boat, and only two other inhabitants.  They were very excited that we were from England (saying Britain or the UK generally provokes polite bewilderment), but the conversation sort of died after that, so we had a nap.  The second class cabins are tatami mat rooms with roll out mattresses that accommodate about 12 people, most of them seemed a lot fuller than ours, and windowless.  Perhaps it was the birthday cabin?  Or maybe we got special treatment for being foreign, this definitely happened in Japan and Korea a bit.

We watched Japan disappearing from view in a Russian doll procession of islands, getting smaller and smaller until there was nothing but sea.

Trapped inside because of rough seas and wet decks, after our nap we had ample time to explore the boat.  Unfortunately it didn’t take ample time, there being not all that much of it.  We were tempted by the karaoke booths but they were a bit pricey, so instead we engaged in Asia’s second favourite pastime: taking selfies.  Clearly we weren’t doing it properly though, because a lady intervened and moved us to a gaudier backdrop, while enthusiastically gesturing that we should make a heart with our arms.  Her art direction was better than her photography.


I had a quick onsen, with several Korean ladies who all wanted to borrow my soap, then there was just time to watch the Korean news before we arrived.  As would become a theme, this was quite similar to in Japan (the hosts bowed deeply to their viewers at the start and end), but shinier and brasher, and somehow a little more hard faced.  Korea has all the politeness of Japan, but feels a little sterner.


Soon enough the bright lights of Busan twinkled into view, and we were there.  Another country, and the start of another adventure, this time with more pickles than ever before…

Kumano Kodo: shrines, springs and sore feet

Kumano Kodo: shrines, springs and sore feet

Our Kumano Kodo hike didn’t start that well.

The Kumano Kodo are a network of very old pilgrimage routes in southern Kansai, a couple of hours south east of Osaka.  Kumano is the pre-historic name for this region, which apparently evokes deep mystery for the Japanese — the area is associated with the Buddhist paradise, and the ancient Japanese land of the dead… Spooky.  Kodo means something like ‘old ways’.  Pilgrims from Kyoto followed the route in Imperial Japan, as far back as the 10th century.  There are three ‘great shrines’ on the way, and countless small ones, where various stages of purification ritual were undertaken (and still are).

The Kumano is a world heritage site, the only trail that’s been designated one in the world, except for the camino de Santiago de Compostela, which it’s sort of twinned with.

After eating ourselves silly in Osaka, the plan was to catch a bus a bit of the way along the trail and camp for the night, then start hiking first thing.  Instead, we got off the train in Tanabe to find we’d just missed the last bus of the day, so a night in a nondescript guesthouse it was.

Next morning we were on the bus at first light, clutching pastries and cans of hot coffee from the station vending machine.  We even managed to stow some of our stuff in the station luggage lockers, so our packs were light and our spirits were up.

Getting hot coffee in a can never ceased to amaze me in all of our time in Japan.  It’s one of the things that makes it feel like Japan is there to indulge you.  Travelling here is absurdly easy.  Thirsty?  There’ll be a vending machine within 30 metres or so, and it’ll have coffee.  Hungry?  There’s a convenience store either behind you or in front of you at all times.  (Except in Tanabe, where there will be a butchers or patisserie, but no convenience stores to be found…)  Tired?  Even hostels have oversized, soft, fluffy duveted, fine linened beds.  They also have coffee.  Free coffee.  What we would’ve given for free coffee once we’d been in China for a few weeks.

Getting the early morning bus meant we had lovely soft light as the scenery got lusher and more mountainous.  At first it was just us and a couple of other hikers on the bus.  A river ran by us on the right, and the road was flanked by steep tree covered hills.  We passed tiny three-house places (which had roadside vending machines), and a 12 foot high fiberglass rabbit.


After a toilet stop next to misty early morning fields, the bus climbed higher into the hills, and got busier and busier.  Hikers got on at every stop.  The trail runs fairly close to the road for much of its length, so it’s easy to pick it up at various points.  Clearly we were’t the only ones cheating and using the bus to cut down the mileage.

We only had one day on the trail, so we got off the bus in the middle of nowhere, roughly as far from that evening’s camp spot as we reckoned we could walk before nightfall.

At first the route went along a small road, but soon it veered off into the woods, and became the rocky, winding path that we followed for most of the day.


We met few people — a young Japanese couple, two older Australian ladies, a pair of middle aged Japanese men, and a large group of Japanese hikers in conspicuously new, top of the range kit, suitable for an Alpine expedition.

The path wound up hill and down dale, mostly through thick woodland, with the occasional small shrine or charming bridge to divert your attention.  And everywhere vivid, stunning, autumn leaves.


The water and scoops you can see bottom left here are for temizu, a Shinto purification ritual involving washing your hands and mouth.  But we didn’t know that at the time.  Arthur thought they were for symbolically feeding water to the stone dragons around the shrine…

As we plodded rhythmically through the quiet forest we composed haiku.

I put down one foot, 
then the other foot, on the
Kumano Kodo.


The path was very well marked, to the point that paths other than the Kumano Kodo were signposted thus.


Everything was pleasingly damp and mysterious, and there was a lot of moss, so I was having a lovely time.


After a picnic lunch we descended into a river valley, and were met by some of the overenthusiastic concrete application that’s evident all over Japan.  Often, roads snake along both sides of a river valley, and bridges unite them with bewildering frequency.  Now and again a bridge will boldly jut out to nowhere at all, ending abruptly at the valley wall.  Apparently, this sort of bizarrely pre-emptive construction is partly a result of the way the Japanese political system works.  Representation is still loosely based on the population distribution of the 1940s, despite a huge shift towards urban living since then.  So sparsely populated rural districts have disproportionate sway at a national level, which results in rural areas winning plenty of job-creating investment.


There was one particularly painful incursion on nature where a huge swathe of trees had been replaced by a carpark, which was completely empty, being down a dirt track in the middle of nowhere.


I think in this instance these were probably landslide prevention measures, which is fair enough I suppose, but it’s certainly not pretty.

Further along we found an abandoned village, slowly returning to forest.  Families began to move away during a recession in the 1940s, and 17 households became 8.  A sign by the trail told us that the government deemed this settlement, which was called Michinogawa, ‘unfeasible’, and the remaining families were resettled to a nearby town.  It didn’t say if they went quietly.  The houses still had kitchens, with tiled sinks.


After this the trail joined a road again, and passed through small villages.  There was almost nobody around, but small well tended rice paddies and neat lines of tea plants flanked the road.  We stopped to buy some satsumas (or ‘mikan’, as they call them here), from a roadside honesty stall.  The only things on sale were bags of satsumas, and tubs of pickled garlic.


While we were stopped a rather perturbed looking American caught us up, and asked us if we’d seen his friends, who he’d lost some time before.  We hadn’t, but we gave him an orange.  This turned out to spark a very long run of Karma, in which almost everyone we met in Japan gave us an orange.

Shortly afterwards we got to a cafe, which served coffee made with hot water from their hot spring.


Obviously we had to try this.  It was very nice, though nothing like any coffee I’d had before.  A rich, almost pungent taste, with sharp coffee flavours, but something muskier going on too.  The ladies behind the counter seemed very amused to serve us.  I suspect they don’t get many foreigners in.

From the cafe it was mostly a descent to Hongu, a town that houses one of the ‘big three’ shrines on the trail, and our sort-of final destination.


The shrine was very busy with tourists, but also monks chanting away in the main building.  It felt strange to emerge into the hubbub after being cocooned in the forest all day.


After the shrine we plodded through town to the giant Torii which marks the original site of Kumano Hongu Taisha, the shrine at Hongu.  It was moved up hill from a river plain after floods more or less swept it away.  Then it was time for the last few kilometres to our campsite for the night, at Wataze Onsen.  It was a scramble to get there before it got pitch black, since we’d somewhat underestimated the hill between Honshu and our bed for the night.  I was entertaining visions of snakes lurking in the falling dark, and the shrines that had seemed pleasingly eerie in the sunlight became genuinely creepy.

On the way we passed Yunomine Onsen, which is a little town in a steep river valley, full of steam from the hot springs that bubble forth all over the place. (An onsen is a hot spring bath.)  In the middle of town is a tiny wooden hut perched perilously over the river, which is the only hot spring in Japan that’s a Unesco World Heritage site.  Being there was like going back in time.  It was very quiet, and very misty, as people clopped around in their sandals and cotton yukata.  The sound of splashing water drifted from the windows of hotel bath houses.

A little further up the road we eventually found our campsite, though nobody on it to pay.  A bit of guessing on Arthur’s part secured us a pitch (the hotel next door turned out to run the campsite), and by 7 o’clock we’d made our home and started on dinner.

When we woke the next morning we found the site was very scenic, though it was obscured in darkness and steam the night before.


Dinner was noodles and stuff, which was all well and good, until we realised that we’d left our chopsticks in the station locker in Tanabe.  Our fellow campers got treated to a ‘westerners eating noodles with their bare hands’ show, which I’m sure was hilarious.

Wataze has several hot springs, but the main draw is the rotemburo, which is an outside onsen, apparently the largest one in western Japan.  The rotemburo was utter bliss after a long day walking.  There aren’t many better ways to spend time than lying stark naked in hot water, surrounded by trees, next to a rushing river, watching steam drift by a fat full moon.

Men and women bathe separately, so it was some solitary time for us too, which is really quite nice after two months in each other’s continuous company.

Going to an onsen has some procedure about it.  You undress in a changing room, and leave your things in a locker or basket, then it’s into the shower room, usually through a sliding door, which totally threw me the first time.  Standing naked, helplessly rattling a door which you know should open, but won’t open for you, is a humbling experience.

Showering in Japan involves sitting down.  First you rinse off the little plastic or wooden stool with the shower head, then seat yourself facing the taps, and go about your shower in the usual manner.  At an onsen this is in a big open room with a row of showers along the wall.  There’s usually a basin with the stool, but I never quite worked out why this was necessary — most people seem to use it to chuck a deluge over their hair when they’re washing it, but I find the shower head more effective.  When you’re finished you rinse off the stool again.

Once you’ve had a good wash, you’re ready to get into the hot bath, or baths in this case.

Wataze rotemburo has five baths of various temperatures, the hottest one is hot enough that I could only stand it for a minute or so.  I spent a very happy hour or so milling between the baths, with a Japanese mother and toddler, and I think Grandma, for company.  The little girl was having a great time splashing calmly about in the warm water, but I could hear some more boisterous splashing and laughter coming from the men’s bath over the wall.  I think the dads had more children to look after.

Once I’d dragged myself out of the hot water it was time for another shower (though purists would argue you shouldn’t wash off the hot spring water because it’s good for your skin).  Then I made full use of the free hair dryers and combs, and chilled spring water to drink, while I very languorously dried off and got dressed.  All of this luxury, by the way, cost about £3.50.

After our onsen we wound down further with a vending machine hot chocolate (it was a tough choice — beer and Haagen Dazs were also available), and tucked ourselves up in our tent.  I slept the best I have in years.

Next morning there was just time for an improvised hot spring by the river before hopping on the bus back to Tanabe.  You can dig into the river bank to make your own spring, since hot water springs up from only a foot or so down.  The whole area is volcanically active enough that hot springs pop up all over the place.  Thankfully we didn’t have to dig our own spring (we’d neglected to pack our shovel), and we just used one somebody had left behind.  I think this hot spring au natural experience is pretty popular if it isn’t raining, which it was.

“I hate Mondays.”

Swimwear is useful for this onsen experience, since you’re lying in full view of the whole town.  That didn’t stop the Japanese man who pitched up next to us from stripping off though.  His wife stayed on the dry bank, looking somewhat put out.

Getting back into our clothes without getting soaked by the persistent drizzle was something of a challenge, and we nearly managed it, but not quite.

Luckily the bus driver stopped at a vending machine on the way back, and we got a hot coffee to warm us up.

Life’s hard sometimes…



From Hiroshima we took a local train down the coast, and used our rail pass to hop on a JR ferry to Miyajima island.  It’s a small island close to the mainland, and sits in a bay dotted picturesquely with other small islands, most of which aren’t inhabited.  The ferry only takes 5 minutes or so, and passes between the oyster beds that surround Miyajima, before making an arc past the ‘floating’ torii that the island’s famous for. (Spoiler: it’s not actually floating.)

A torii is a gate that marks the entrance to a Shinto shrine, in this case Itsukushima shrine, which sprawls round the bay behind the gate.  The idea is that the torii is the boundary ‘between the sacred and the profane’, as it’s rather grandiosely put on wikipedia.

To get to our campsite at Tsutumigaura recreation park, we then had to take a bus or walk for an hour along the road.  Mercifully we were just in time for the last bus of the day, at 4.20 pm.  The bus whisked us away from the throngs of Sunday sightseers at the ferry dock, and along the near empty road that winds round the island, passing the odd hamlet, and plenty of wild deer.  Deer are everywhere on Miyajima.

This one kept us company while we waited for the bus.

Deer are considered sacred messengers in Shinto, so they roam unmolested because the whole island is held sacred — it’s been home to a Shinto shrine since the 6th Century.  This sacred status also means trees on Miyajima can’t be felled for their wood, so the island is free from the denuded strips of land that slice through forests elsewhere in Japan.

Once we’d secured our campspot with a rather bemused man at the park office (for £1.70 each!), we pitched up near the other two tents occupying the vast beach-side site.  Our fellow campers were both Japanese — a hiker and a touring cyclist with a fold up bike and a trailer.  We were outnumbered considerably by deer, who watched us with interest as we cooked our noodles in the concrete kitchen shelter.

The next morning we had breakfast on the pier near the campsite, waved both of our campsite friends goodbye as they set off, then packed up to hike up the mountains in the centre of the island, with all of our stuff on our backs.

On reflection, this was silly.  We could have left the things we didn’t need in a station locker on the mainland, and made things much easier for ourselves.  We paid for it for the next week or so with very sore legs and a complete inability to negotiate stairs, but it didn’t spoil our fun on the day.

Miyajima is a brilliant place to hike — little winding paths through forest, and views of distant islands dotting glistening sea at every turn.  Autumn was one of the best times to be there I think, when the maple leaves are beautiful shades of red, yellow and orange.  Autumn maple leaves are a bit of a Japanese obsession, and Miyajima is firmly on the momiji (maple) watching circuit.  Parts of the island were pretty tourist packed, but by hiking we managed to escape the crowds a bit, and see the sites without forking out an arm and a leg for the cable car that runs up to the island’s peak.

Our hike took us through quiet forest, along steep ridges, past huge hilltop rock formations, and to bustling temples perched amidst it all.  Mostly it was very quiet.  On the way up we only met three other hikers: a Japanese family who were very keen to know how we’d found the path (by using the map and regular signs that were posted along the way).  They seemed surprised to see us.  When our route took us past the mid-station of the cable car, the crowd of mostly-middle aged Japanese tourists waiting there were very pleased to see us, all waving merrily, if equally bemused by our presence.

The cable car brought plenty of crowds to the top, but it was quite nice being amongst them — somehow the busyness was fun, and didn’t make the temples feel too touristy.  Also, we could get an iced coffee from the vending machine in the cable car station.

Coffee makes everything better.

Perhaps the atmosphere was so nice because people were mostly being quiet and polite to one another, enjoying the peace, and in many cases worshipping at the shrines.

I’m using temple (Buddhist) and shrine (Shinto) somewhat interchangeably here — Miyajima has plenty of both, sometimes sharing a site, and the two religions have an intertwined history in Japan.  Inexpertly speaking, Shinto is broadly to do with nature worship, through shrines dedicated to various nature related gods.  It was the state religion in Japan before Buddhism was introduced in the 6th Century, and since then the two have become closely related and sometimes combined.

Itsukushima shrine marked the end of our walk.  We didn’t go in because we were tired and hungry, so instead we walked through the town in search of lunch.  It was incredibly touristy, but kind of fun.

The main street near between the shrine and the port is totally packed with all manner of Japanese tat.  We couldn’t work out why there were so many shops selling spanking paddles, then we found this…

Apparently, its the world’s largest rice scoop.

For lunch we had rice and egg, sake, and noodles with oysters.  I decided a while back to start eating mussels and oysters, since there’s an argument that they can’t think or feel, so are more or less vegetables.  (I realise this argument has problems if taken to extremes, but don’t most?)  Also, farming them is good for the sea.

My first oysters were ok, but I’m not sure what all the fuss is about really.  They’re basically like particularly fleshy seaweed.  I was a bit underwhelmed, but it was nice to eat something that had come straight out of the sea 50 metres or so away.

Dessert was a couple of maple leaf shaped cakes that we bought on our way to the ferry, since every second shop was selling them.  They were all making them on complicated conveyor belt systems with various machines to do each stage, which you could see from the street.  Fun to watch, but the end result was a bit meh taste wise.

There was time for one last deer to try and eat us, and we were back on the boat for the mainland.  Next stop, Fukuoka!

Japan by Train


The journey from Sakaiminato to Hiroshima, our first stop in Japan, involves three trains.  First it’s a local train to the mainline, then onto an express train to cross the island, and finally a bullet train to do the last 160 km in 35 minutes.

From the local train we got our first views of Japanese countryside.  Neat little fields of vegetables were tended by people who’d pitched up in the little square vans which are ubiquitous in small town Japan.  Between the fields more square vans trundled along narrow, clean, freshly tarmacked roads, along with the odd pastel coloured square car.  The houses too were square and neat.

Seeing these little fields made me wonder if there was more of a trend for smallholdings here than in Europe, and of families being self sufficient for vegetables.

It turns out that the small size of Japanese farms is partly as a result of postwar land reforms in the 1940s.  Landlords were forced to sell their holdings to the government, for reasonable compensation, and the land was split into smaller bundles and sold on at the same rate to tenant farmers.  Very high inflation in the late 1940s meant that the tenant farmers could quickly pay off their loans, and the former landlords were left with very little for their land.  So the land reforms stuck, and you don’t see large-scale agriculture here as you do in Europe, and especially in America.

Geography also plays a part — Japan is pretty mountainous, so farming is generally only possible on thin strips of coastal plain, and the narrow valleys that cut inland.

In fact, Japan has a very low self-sufficiency rate of less than 40%, compared to 60% in the UK, and over 100% in France, the US and Australia.  (This is measured by the proportion of the food calories consumed that are produced domestically).

I’m not sure how all this relates to self-sufficiency on a personal level.  Fruit and veg in supermarkets are certainly expensive in Japan, though they feature heavily in Japanese food.  I imagine this would either be a cause or a result of people tending to grow their own.

From what I’ve read Japan also seems to be experiencing a bit of a hip-farming boom, with artisan food production becoming achingly cool.  On the other hand, over 60% of Japanese farmers are aged 65 or older, and more than 30% are over the age of 75.  I wonder how the landscape of patchwork fields will change in the next decade or so.  The area of abandoned farmland in Japan is increasing year on year.

Once on the express train, the scenery changed.  Now we were crossing the mountainous spine of the island, and between dark tunnels the train curved gracefully through deep wooded valleys next to clear rivers.  Not rushing rivers though, as the overenthusiastic infrastructure investment that I’d read Japan was marred by was already becoming evident.


97% of Japan’s rivers are dammed or have had their course altered.  As well as concrete lining the banks of the tamed rivers, it crept up the hillsides in geometric blankets, like a huge grey beehive.  These landslide prevention measures turn much of the landscape into a display of engineering prowess rather than of natural beauty.

Soon the landscape flattened again, and we reached the eastern seaboard. At Okayama we bought ourselves some ekibento (station bento) — a neatly organised lunchbox of rice and delicious things to go with it, and waited excitedly for the bullet train.


Boarding a train in Japan is an extremely orderly experience.  On the platform, channels are marked to show exactly where to queue for each carriage, colour coded for different classes of train.  A line forms in each of these channels, and when the train arrives, invariably precisely on time, the doors slide exactly in to place in front of each queue.  Everybody politely waits while people get off, then swiftly boards, and the train leaves, still precisely on time.  This system even extends to the metro.

At shinkansen (bullet train) stations, shiny railings protect the rest of the platform, only breaking at the precise spots where train doors will open.  In between trains, a pair of station workers march smartly along the platform, buffing the railings with cloths as they go.

This organisation means the shinkansen need only stop for for 30 seconds, so you have to be ready to get off well before the train stops, or risk being whisked 100 km or more further up the line to the next stop.

On the train we settled into our comfy seats and tucked into our bento box, which was simple but delicious, and all beautifully prepared and arranged.

This supremely fast and comfortable train travel, complete with delicately prepared food, felt extremely luxurious after Russian train travel.  Not to say Russian trains are uncomfortable, but as we were already realising, travelling in Japan is like being wrapped in a great big, hand-made, hypoallergenic, blanket.  Everything is overwhelmingly easy and comfortable.

All of this comes at a price of course.  Train tickets in Japan are very very expensive.  Buses are much cheaper, but still not cheap, and travelling by bullet train was one of the things we really wanted to do in Japan, so we decided to take the hit and have a bit of luxury.  We’d planned to get a Japan Rail pass to cover our time there, which is expensive (£320 for 21 days), but very good value.

However, we couldn’t because we forgot that you can’t buy it in Japan, and we hadn’t got it in advance.  So, instead, we used a couple of regional passes, which you can buy at railway stations.  First we got a Sanyo & San’in area pass, which lasts 7 days and covers the south western third of the main island (Honshu), down to Fukuoka at the top of the next island down (Kyushu).

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Later on we got a Kansai Wide area pass, which got us around eastern Kansai (roughly in the middle of Honshu) for 5 days.  After that we had to switch to bus, since there’s no single regional pass that’ll get you all the way from Kansai to Tokyo.

You can present these passes at the ticket window to be issued a ticket for reserved seat, or just board the train without a ticket and sit in an unreserved carriage.  For all the journeys we made with the pass we just turned up at the station, reserved a seat at the window if we were going further than half an hour or so, and got on the next train.  The trains are so frequent that we never really looked at a timetable, or worried about booking in advance.

Getting a reserved seat ticket also helps for finding your train, as it’s got the departure time and type of train on it.  It’s very easy to get around stations and read departure boards in Japan (everything’s in English as well as Japanese), but as with everywhere, it can be hard to work out which train to get on if your station isn’t at the end of the line.

So our first journey across Japan was very quick and easy, and we arrived in Hiroshima by early afternoon, to be greeted by one of the few inconveniences that’s common in Japan: rain.

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Skin-soaking, street-slipperying, lush-green-hillside-making, rain.

And, of course, everybody had an umbrella.  Everybody, that is, but us.

Eastern Dream: Russia to Japan by Sea

Eastern Dream: Russia to Japan by Sea

11,000 km since our last ferry trip (Dover-Calais), we boarded the Eastern Dream to sail from Vladivostok to Sakaiminato, Japan.

The boat goes once a week at 2pm, and stops in Donghae in Korea on the way.  It’s overnight to Donghae, and another night to Sakaiminato.  You can book a ticket all the way through to Japan, and you have the option to stay on the boat in Donghae, or get off for about 4 hours and explore the town.  We booked the tickets about a week in advance by emailing the ferry company (DBS cruise) in English, and economy class was already booked up for the second leg of the journey, so it was even more expensive than we expected — nearly 300 USD each.  This was one of the occasions where not flying makes travel a lot more expensive.  But on the other hand, a lot more fun.  (You haven’t lived until you’ve sat in a bar full of Koreans in late middle age politely clapping each other’s karaoke attempts, in the middle of the Sea of Japan.)

Vladivostok ferry terminal is somewhat confusing.  It looks and feels like a small shopping mall, and it’s clear how to buy tickets, but not that clear how to actually board a boat.  We stood for a while watching the door which we thought would eventually open to let us embark, but as the time ticked further and further past when we’d been told to board, we began to worry that it wasn’t the right door after all.  The crowds of people waiting in the narrow corridor were mostly Korean, so we thought they must be going on our boat, but the door we were waiting by said nothing English but ‘Staff Only’ on it…

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We spotted another backpacker, who was Dutch, and equally confused by the door situation.  Comparing trip notes, the time passed much faster, and soon the unpromising door opened, and let us through.

We got through Russian immigration with barely a glare, which was a relief after weeks of panicking that we’d lose our all important entry and registration documents, and be stuck in Russia forever.  Another backpacker on the boat wasn’t as lucky though, and was held with no explanation in a side room until seconds before departure, and then instructed to run for the boat as the gangplank was being detached.

Safely on board we felt a bit giddy — we’d officially left Russia, and nothing bad had happened!  And we were going to Japan!!

We went to the bar to celebrate with Bob (the Dutch guy), and an Austrian who was having a Trans-Siberian holiday.  After asking for Korean beer at the bar (the ship is Korean, so it seemed appropriate), we settled down at a table and were soon presented with a teapot, a bottle of cloudy liquid, and two bottles of clear stuff marked 20% ABV.

We’d ended up with a bottle of makoli, a milky looking fermented rice drink that’s traditionally served in a teapot, and two bottles of soju, which is basically just ethanol and water, and is Korea’s most popular drink.  In fact it’s sort of the world’s most popular drink, since the most popular brand of soju is the biggest selling alcoholic drink in the world.  The makoli was nice, but not exactly easy drinking — it’s flat and sour, and about 6%.  Very similar to proper cider in a way, with comparable farmyard flavours.  The soju was pretty nasty.  Also, doing shots seemed a bit much for two in the afternoon, but when at sea…

The first night on the ship, very little seemed to be going on.  The bar was pretty much deserted, the restaurant closed before we got there, and the Japanese style bath (or Sauna as the signs on board called it) was empty and dark.  The Russia to Korea leg of the journey clearly isn’t that popular.

We stayed up for a while polishing off the vodka we hadn’t drunk on the train, with Bob, the Austrian, and a Russian from our cabin.  Before bed we went out on deck for a bit to see if we could see North Korea.  All we saw were some very distant lights, and a disconcerting number of nearby ships.  By midnight we were tucked up in our bunks.

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This photo was taken before the vodka, honestly.

The economy class bunk room is in the middle of the boat, and has about 70 beds.  It’s very comfortable, with a curtain and a little lamp for each bed, and a blanket and small pillow.  There’s no luggage space though, so we had our bags wedged into the corner of our beds.  Also, we were booked into beds in separate aisles, separated by a wall, for some reason.

There are also tatami mat rooms (Japanese style rooms with straw mat floors and roll out floor beds), but we didn’t specify and were put in the western style room.

Next morning we disembarked, last…


… and had a very brief look around Donghae.  We spent most of the time in a very nice coffee shop, using the wifi to try and work out where the heck to go once we got to Japan.

Donghae was interesting, and about 15 degrees warmer again than Vladivostok.  We were back to autumn, and the trees were back to oranges and yellows, rather than the uniform white and grey of Eastern Russia.  Donghae is a fairly small town, and the first thing I noticed walking through was that, other than buildings, almost all the space was taken up by produce growing.  Melons and squashes sat plumply dotted along roadside beds, and cabbages and chilli plants formed neat lines between houses.

We couldn’t find any fruit or veg to buy though.  We considered nicking a persimmon, but decided against it.  Instead we went to a convenience store and bought the realest food we could find: two boiled eggs, a pack of crackers, a sort of pizza bread thing, some ‘potato sticks’, a sausage, and two beers.


Or at least we thought it was a sausage.


On the boat that evening things were much busier.  We’d also bought some instant ramen, expecting the restaurant to be closed again, but crowds of diners filed past us as we sat on a bench slurping our noodles.  It still closed at 7.30 pm though.  Asian cruise ferries seem to run on a very regimented schedule.

After dinner we took in the show, where the bar staff performed as a surprisingly convincing rock band, then danced energetically for 20 minutes to a mashup including Gangnam style (obviously).  The other (Korean) passengers were clearly enjoying themselves.  Two or three of them even got out of their chairs and stood neatly behind them doing a sort of shuffly dance, arms waving rhythmically in the air.  After the show it was time for karaoke, and a full microphone set up was erected in the middle of the stage/dancefloor that took up half of the onboard ‘club’.  We politely applauded with everyone else for the first couple of songs, and then escaped to the onsen (Japanese communal bath), which had now been filled up.


Safely on separate sides of the boat, we each enjoyed a rather wavey soak, looking out at the boats passing by (slightly too close for comfort while stark naked).

Bed that night was in swanky second class, which was exactly the same as economy class, but with a sink, and only 8 beds in each room.  The rooms were gender segregated, so we were across the hall from each other this time.  My room was nice and quiet, as there were only three of us in there.



And then, overnight, we were in Japan.

This time we were herded off the boat first, and a very nice lady helped us through immigration.  Then a very polite man searched our bags, and those of the four other non-Asians on the boat.  Finally, an even-politer lady took me into a side room and thoroughly felt me up.  Then they let us in.  Welcome to Japan!


In what soon became clear was typical Japanese style, there was a conveniently-timed-free-shuttle-bus from the port to the railway station, where the man behind the counter insisted he didn’t speak English, then was exceptionally helpful for the next 10 minutes, in English.


Rail passes in hand, we got ourselves a vending machine hot beverage, and boarded the train.  We were on our way, and already in love with Japan.