Seoul food and K-Pop (Gangnam style)

Seoul food and K-Pop (Gangnam style)

Seoul’s attractions aren’t all tinged with the peninsular’s recent fractious history.  There’s plenty of stuff to see that doesn’t have a Korean war story, or at least not one that’s made it onto an information board.  Exceedingly tall men pretending to guard the old imperial palace for example.

We happened upon the changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung, a royal palace dating from the 14th century, and heck these guys were tall.  Maybe they had platforms on.  Actually, I wouldn’t put it past faux-guard recruitment to select the tallest, scariest looking applicants, a similar thing goes on with the for-real guards of the border with the North.  But more on that next time, I’ll try to not mention the war for now.

There are plenty of atmospheric backstreets to wander too, away from the pomp and ceremony, particularly to the south and east of the imperial palace.  As ever, in a way, the most interesting parts of the city are the everyday, lived in bits.  I find reading about the history of a place intriguing, but when you’re actually there walking about, the places where something extraordinary once happened are rarely as absorbing as the places where something ordinary is happening right now.

One of our favourite ways to see and feel the everyday beat of a place is to eat.  All of the foods.  Our best Seoul food experience was at Gwangjang market, a buzzing, loud, pleasingly gritty, covered market.  The centre of the market is packed with stalls serving up all sorts of Korean delights, to customers squashed together on benches along the many counters.  It’s particularly famous for its mung bean pancakes.  At last, a vegetarian Korean speciality!

The famed pancakes are on the left, and they were crispy, greasy perfection.  In the middle is pig foot.  Order one and they’ll chop it up for you and serve it with kimchi and dip.  I had seaweed wrapped vegetable rice rolls, which were fresh and tasty.  Sounds like sushi?  Don’t call it that in Korea (Japan’s not too popular here), it’s called gimbap, and it’s completely different (it’s not).

And if you tire of aimless wandering and streetfood grazing, there’s always Lotte World.

Lotte World is Korea’s answer to Disney World, except really small, on an island in a river in the middle of the city, and under the flag of a multinational conglomerate better known for its supermarkets and chocolate.  Having a Lotte as a good friend, we were particularly excited to see this.

These pictures just skim the surface of the Lotte related fun available in Seoul.  There’s the Lotte department store, the Charlotte theatre, Lottemarts for your grocery shopping, Lotte chocolate to snack on, and for your fast food needs, Lotteria.  (Try the mozzarella burger, it’s literally a burger sized piece of breaded mozzarella in a bun, with burger toppings, including cheese.  Seriously.)

If you fancy papering a wall of your house with pictures of stuff that says Lotte on it, Lotte, you know where to find us.

And then there’s Gangnam, Seoul’s wealthiest district.

You may be familiar with the popular music title Gangnam Style, or at least the horse riding dance that goes with it.  Here is a potted summary, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The phrase “Gangnam Style” is a Korean neologism that refers to a lifestyle associated with the Gangnam District of Seoul.  The song and its accompanying music video went viral in August 2012 and have influenced popular culture worldwide since then.  By the end of 2012, the song had topped the music charts of more than 30 countries including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, and the United Kingdom. As the song continued to rapidly gain popularity and ubiquity, its signature dance moves were attempted by many notable political leaders such as the British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. President Barack Obama, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who hailed it as a “force for world peace”. On May 7, 2013, at a bilateral meeting with South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye at the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama cited the success of “Gangnam Style” as an example of how people around the world are being “swept up” by the Korean Wave of culture.

K-Pop (modern Korean pop music) does seem to be slowly but surely taking over the world: its hyper-upbeat, hairgelled tones have already conquered most of Asia.

So, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit Gangnam.

What we did miss, because we didn’t know about it, was the Gangnam Tourist Information Centre.  Sounds dull, right?


Turns out you can play K-Pop dress up there, with props, and sets.  Sets!  Our friend and fellow travel blogger Emma visited the Tourist Information Centre a few days before we were in Seoul.  Read her take on it, but in short this is what we missed:

Oppa Gagnam style.


So, oblivious to the fancy dress opportunities at our fingertips, we just gave Gangnam a flying visit.  In other words, we went, we saw, it rained, we left.  In summary, there are a lot of shiny tall buildings.  On our five minute walk we passed a man begging, knelt prostrate with his forehead to the floor, as seems to be customary in Korea.  50 metres further on was a very expensive, very empty steak restaurant blasting It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year out to the street.  Getting back onto the subway with us was a family with a six or seven year old girl wearing a pink Harvard jumper.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.  The song is essentially a piss take of the Gangnam lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, and the copycat spending of people who aspire to that lifestyle without the income (or more likely trust fund) to support it.  I read an illuminating article about the subtext of Gangnam Style, which quotes a Korean joke about women who live off instant noodles so that they can be seen drinking hideously overpriced coffee at Starbucks.  Hence the boast in the song that goes something like ‘I drink my coffee in one gulp, while it’s still boiling hot.’

Who knew doing the horse dance had so much meaning?

Actually, eating instant noodles doesn’t have the same ‘slumming it’ connotation in Asia as in Europe, it’s more like having a sandwich.  We had instant noodles for lunch our first day in Seoul, eating standing up at the 7/11 noodle making counter.  A very authentic Korean lunch.  Mine were pizza flavour though, because (surprise surprise) none of the Korean flavours are vegetarian.  Over the course of this trip my reluctance to eat instant noodles has utterly dissolved, in fact I’m eating some as an afternoon snack as I type.

But still, eating them every day, for Starbucks?  It’s not even good coffee.

Daejeon: food with friends

Daejeon: food with friends

In Daejeon we ate.

A weekend of food with friends was a lovely interlude in our trip: the first, and so far only, meetup we’ve managed with friends from home.  We came to visit Jason, a school friend of mine who’s been living in Korea for a couple of years, and his girlfriend Julie who we hadn’t met before.  It was so nice to just chat and catch up, mostly over delicious food of various sorts.  We kicked off with the aforementioned beer, real beer!  Then a birthday dinner, involving soju, followed by cake and coffee.

We more or less switched off for the weekend and enjoyed being ferried around to various scenic spots and tasty food and drink opportunities.

Our main scenic excursion was a little walk amid the mountains with a temple to ogle along the way.  Lots of heavily equipped hikers passed us, dressed for an Alpine assault despite the diminutive size of the surrounding peaks.  Korean hikers clearly don’t like to leave the house without boots rated for ice climbing, the latest 50 litre pack (empty), a $400 waterproof, trousers with more zips than a magic roundabout merch store, and a pair of retractable walking poles with lasers hidden in the handles (just a guess).  Every group that passed us was highly entertained by Arthur’s shorts.

I definitely recommend building some visits to far-flung friends into your travels.  It was like coming home for the weekend.  There’s something odd about spending all of your time in temporary places with temporary people.  A couple of days in a place with somebody who lives there, and has a life there, is refreshing.  Couchsurfing has this benefit too, but staying with friends there’s the extra anchor of seeing somebody who’s known you for 10 years, not 10 minutes.

Also, your local friends will know all the good eating spots, like where to get desserts that are bigger than your face.


We had coffee, bubble tea, afternoon tea, and ginger tea.  And outside our Saturday lunch spot we were mobbed by puppies and chickens.

As we were leaving a man came in with a crate of cabbages and left with a puppy.  The barter economy is not dead here.

And then there was Korean BBQ, topped off with ice cream, DIY rice paper rolls, and brunch, glorious brunch.  Best meal of the day.

And, I didn’t accidentally eat ANY meat, ALL weekend.  High five?

Having Julie’s linguistic assistance made veggie Korean eating infinitely easier.  No mean feat.

Thanks for a wonderful time guys, hope we can catch up soon.  Brunch maybe?

Busan: streets, treats and secret meats


Arriving in the dark meant we were greeted by the bright lights of Busan, somehow different from those in Japan.  For a start, I suppose, a sparkling skyline is really only found in Tokyo.  Most Japanese cities are pretty low key, even when they’re not low rise.

Busan is not low key.  It’s Korea’s second largest city, a busy port, seaside resort in the summer, and full of buzz even in December.  The skyline is a uniquely Korean mix.  Part Japanese-style high rise patchwork: vertiginous compartmentalised buildings, countless small windows glittering, and part Chinese-style grand flashing gesture: technicolour illuminated bridges and vast glass faced monoliths.  Below the skyline hints of Russia were back too, in a renewed popularity for shiny tracksuits and 90s fashions, and a visible military presence on the streets.


We had one night in the city, so we chose a hostel on the edge of Chinatown, which is near the train station and the port.  It was a five or ten minute walk from the port to the train station.  Asking people in the port for directions caused utter confusion: everyone assumed we were looking for the bus to the train station.  Eventually we figured it out, and overtook the bus on foot, despite the gale force wind trying to blow us back out to sea.  We stayed at INSIDE Busan, a funny little hostel housed in five custom built mini buildings grouped around a courtyard.  It was a nice change, and a fitting intro to Korea, to stay somewhere with some interesting modern architecture.  A big contrast from mostly-old Japan.

Dinner was also a fitting intro to Korea:  I utterly failed to order anything vegetarian.  Picking tiny pieces of pork (not mentioned on the menu) from my black bean noodles attracted even more staring than we were already getting for a) being white, and b) getting noodle sauce all over our faces.  Korean food is saucier than Japanese food.


I did sneak a couple of mussels from Arthur’s seafood noodles, which were delicious.  Mussels beat oysters for me, though the rich, sharp, spicy sauce may have been the clincher.  Also delicious were the pickles, which come with every meal in Korea, and are replenished for free if you like.  This first meal just came with the jolly yellow ones, but often you get seven or eight different types, which are almost a meal in themselves.

I feel bound to mention at this point that these pickles are traditionally made using fish sauce among other things, so they’re unlikely to be strictly veggie.  It seemed churlish and somewhat futile to avoid them when every meal was a challenge to not order meat, and then eat round it when it came anyway.  You can call me a hypocrite if you like, because I am.  Also, did I mention they’re delicious?

Next up on New Experiences On Our First Night in Korea was a night cap: apricot soju.  We’d had soju before, during our brief brush with Korea on the Eastern Dream, but this version was sweet and borderline palatable, which was new.  (To recap, drinking regular soju is comparable to being punched in the mouth.)  The apricot version didn’t have the depth of something like sloe gin, but it went pretty well with a chocolate truffle and a game of bananagrams.

Next morning I woke up older, so Arthur made me eggy bread and coffee.

Chinatown got me ornamental cabbages for my birthday.  (Potted brassicas had been cropping up, as it were, since the Russian-Estonian border, but these were particularly good ones.)

As the birthday celebrator, I also got to choose the morning’s activity, so we went for an artsy wander round a part of town known as Gamcheon Culture Village.  To get there we took the metro to Toseong and walked up the hill (use exit 6 and take the first right).  A handy map board just outside the station helped us on our way.


There were also some signs directing you along the route, but I think we lost them somewhere and started going rogue instead.


Basically we just walked around and looked at interesting things, and it was lovely.  Crisp cold, but the sun was shining and the air was clear.  We spotted some plants drying in big round trays on a roof, fish curing on a washing line next to them.  And by scrambling up through some tumbledown allotments we found a lantern bedecked shrine nestled into the cliff face, complete with broom to keep it tidy (of course).

From the shrine we kept climbing, and eventually reached a view out across the bays that Busan is ranged around.  To get a proper vista we had to fight our way through several metres of trees and thorny undergrowth, then climb up a large pile of rocks, but it was totally worth it.

Apparently Gamcheon is known as ‘the Santorini of the East’.  I’m not sure if I’d read this and it sculpted my perceptions, or if I independently came to the same idea, but the little brightly coloured houses flowing down the hillside to a narrow bay did bring a Greek island village to mind.  It’s doing it a bit of  a disservice to say that, because of course it’s nothing like Santorini really, but beautiful in its own more down to earth, urban, Korean sort of way.  I think Koreans are keen on it because it’s old, small scale, and a bit rough around the edges.  Definitely a contrast to the smooth, shiny city centre.

On the way back we saw some of the street art that gives the ‘cultural’ bit to the cultural village, as well as some of the more run down areas.  Gamcheon was previously a bit of a shanty town, and the arty side of it comes mainly from a 2009 scheme to regenerate the area by introducing cultural projects and attracting tourists.  I think it’s worked quite well, you get the impression that the unique windy streets atmosphere of the place has been preserved rather than sanitised, though more money is coming into the area.  We saw a fair few hipster family sorts milling around the shops and stalls.

There are lots of other things we could have done in Busan: a sea cliff temple, city viewing tower, parks, museums, an aquarium, or the world’s largest department store (dear god).  I’m really glad we (I) chose this, it’s an interesting side to the city, and I had a great time wandering about in the fresh air.

We could have stayed a lot longer I’m sure, but we had a train to catch, so back to the station we went.  We’d booked online the night before to be sure of a seat to Daejeon, a little over two hours away.  They have a system where you’re booked onto the train, but you don’t get assigned a seat until you pick up your physical ticket at the station, so if you arrive at the last minute as we did you might end up standing.  Fortunately we got seats, but they were a few rows apart.  We just had time to grab some lunch at Paris Baguette, a fancy European style bakery/sandwich shop, before we boarded our train.  This was definitely a birthday treat: it was well over £10 for food and coffees.  But yum.  Also I didn’t feel like picking meat out of my birthday lunch, which was the only alternative to my delicious tomato and mozarella ciabatta sandwich.  I’m sure we took a photo of this, but I can’t find it, so instead, here are the beers we had when we got there.

We didn’t drink all of these, sadly.

More on these (and loads of other delicious stuff) next time!

Kyoto part 1: black sesame, beauty and a beer


Everyone raves about Kyoto…

Pretty much whenever I asked a fellow traveller “Hello fellow traveller, what was your favourite place in Japan?”  They would say something like “Gosh, that’s a tough one Kirstie, but I would probably have to say Kyoto”.  (I think it’s best if you imagine this exchange is occuring on Blind Date.  I’m Cilla, obviously.)

Having been there, I must admit this wouldn’t be my answer.  Hakone, Tokyo or the Kumano Kodo would be.  You may say I can’t pick three, but hey, my blog, my rules.  I’ve gone mad with power.

Somehow I found everything a bit too clean and packaged.  Shiny shopping streets with Christmas lights twinkling away, perfectly manicured temples and gardens, plenty of tourists.  Everything was just a bit too nice.  Not to knock it though.  I mean, we had a nice time during our two whirlwind days there, and more importantly, we ate.  A LOT.  In fact, on our first day that’s all we did.

Sandwiched between luggage storage trouble after the train in from Nara, and a night bus out to Tokyo, Kyoto part one was really only a half-day adventure.  It was raining, so we gave up on seeing the temples and gardens the city is famous for, and instead focused on on the covered arcades in the centre of town.  One of these, Nishiki, houses a food market…

We spent a very happy few hours slowly making our way down the arcade, looking at all the weird and wonderful things on offer, buying snacks and tasting samples as we went.

Those slimy looking things are uri (a cucumbery squash) pickled in sake lees (the yeasty residue from brewing).  We tasted some in Nara when we went to a sake brewery, and contrary to appearances they’re actually very nice.

There weren’t too many veggie snack options, so I mostly had sweet treats.  Poor me.  This meant glutinous rice balls, a chewy rice-dough snack that’s usually stuffed with or coated in something sweet.  We had barbecued ones served with ginger syrup, warm and soft with tasty crispy bits, and black sesame ones stuffed with sweet black sesame paste, yum.


I did find one savoury veggie option: a cucumber on a stick.


The sign proclaimed COLD!! CUCUMBER ¥100 IT’S verry nice!  And it was.  It was genuinely just a cold cucumber on a stick.  Fair enough.

Arthur had more luck with interesting eats.

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That is an octopus with an egg in its head.  Genius.

Once the market began to wind down it was time to think about dinner.  We wound up in a casual, mismatched furniture sort of place, above a vintage clothes shop.  The menu was veg heavy and they had organic beer, you know the kind of place.   I had a fusiony salad plate with tofu patties, and a black sesame ice cream milkshake, which is the best thing to have happened in the history of good things that have happened.  Arthur had a curry and a beer.  Yum, yum and again yum.

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The milkshake was so good that the keyboard just started typing in Taiwanese in excitement, and I didn’t get round to taking a photo of it.  It was kind of grey.

After dinner we wandered round some of Kyoto’s older streets in the rain.  It was raining so hard that a man popped out of a restaurant and insisted we take his umbrella.  His fancy, black, giant, wooden handled umbrella.  We tried to protest but he was having none of it.  This very polite and good natured, but rather desperate, debate went on for several minutes, and ended with him pressing the umbrella into our hands and backing off bowing.  We bowed lots too, and took our new umbrella with us over the river, to Gion.

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Not the umbrella.

Gion is the best known geisha district in Japan, so I suppose in the world.  You may know it from reading (or watching) Memoirs of a Geisha, which is set there.

Geisha are called geiko in Kyoto dialect, and trainee geisha are maiko.  These terms mean something like ‘child of the arts’ and ‘dance child’ translated literally, while geisha means ‘person of the arts’.

I was surprised to learn that there are still practicing geisha in Japan.  Though there are far fewer than in the past, it’s still a world that’s very much alive, albeit exclusive and illusive.  Gaining access to an evening with a geisha usually involves an invitation from somebody already part of the circle, and also a very large amount of money.

Geisha work mostly at evening parties in traditional tea houses, playing instruments like the stringed shamisen, dancing, and generally providing civilised company.  Not selling their bodies, a rather pernicious misconception, which may have resulted from women calling themselves geisha selling sex to American GIs in the years after 1945.  The Americans couldn’t tell the difference.

I was intrigued to see Gion, though I thought it would take a lot of imagination to see it as in years past, with geisha hurrying between tea houses and wealthy patrons clambering into cyclos after an evenings entertainment.

There I was wrong.  It was rather more subdued than all that, but isn’t everywhere dampened by rain?  The rain even made the whole experience a little more movie-dramatic, after all it was heavy enough to drench you in seconds, which only seems to happen in the movies.  More importantly, the key elements were still there.  The narrow two-storey tea houses, dark wood and traditional Japanese split curtains hanging in the doorways.  The hushed street that you could somehow feel was alive with merriment, behind its closed doors.  No cyclos in sight, but we passed two groups of men in suits exiting tea houses into waiting taxis.  As they exited the (female) proprietor came out and bowed deeply to her customers.  I mean touch your toes deeply, and she remained thus positioned until they were safely in their cab.  The second time she was accompanied by several other members of staff who looked like waiters, and joined her in her back breaking bow.

But that was not all.  As we turned back towards the station side of the river, and our night bus to Tokyo, a kimono clad lady ducked out of a tea house in front of us.  Beautifully dressed, hair fixed elaborately, clutching a cased musical instrument, and clearly in a rush, she was unmistakably a geisha.

I felt like a twitcher who’d spotted a beautiful, famously shy, and critically endangered bird.

Also, like a bit of a creep for staring.

I didn’t try a photo, apparently snap-happy tourists have been bothering geisha in recent years, and who wants to be paparazzied while commuting?

So we slunk out of Gion with no souvenirs, but rather overwhelmed by our luck.  And then, as a finale, we had a beer.

Our friends from the stand-up bar.  We think his other daughter (the lady’s sister) is married to a Scottish guy and lives somewhere in the North West of Scotland.  Maybe.  We had slight language difficulties.  They were very nice anyway.

Stay tuned for Kyoto part 2, in which gold glistens, we jump in the air, sushi is conveyed, friends reunited, and time is spent appreciating the space between the rocks.

Tokyo part A: tuna, tea and tumult (in which our hero goes to market)

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After two months of living in each others pockets, it was time to spend a day apart.  Well, perhaps not a whole day, maybe ten hours?

Travelling with one person for extended periods of time is a particularly intense examination of your relationship.  After all, when else in life do you share almost every waking moment with someone, without the time apart afforded by jobs, hobbies, separate friends?  Even when you happen to be married to your travel buddy, this is highly unusual.  Indeed, at home we deliberately kept some separate interests, if nothing else just to give us something to talk about!  Along with our different work schedules (Kirstie’s Monday to Friday, mine…ahem…variable), this enabled us to successfully avoid seeing each other sometimes for days on end.

Whilst divorce was never really on the table, nevertheless we both felt like we needed some time apart to decompress, and bitch about each other to random Japanese people in dingy sake bars (the fact that they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Japanese being a useful aid to privacy).  Due to time and price constraints in Japan, this was scaled back from two full days in separate hostels, to one daytime (with a meeting in the evening to pursue our most important shared interest…beer).

Tokyo, bounteous Tokyo, provided the perfect venue to begin my day of flying solo: Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market.


Apparently this market has its origins in 16th century traders from Osaka selling their off-cuts after delivering fresh fish to Edo castle, having been invited there by Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate and seemingly a seafood conoisseur.  After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the city council of what was now Tokyo decided to replace 20 severely damaged private markets, including the old Tsukiji market, with three municipal markets, and Tsukiji as it is today was born.

Tsukiji is home to a large wholesale area, including an auction area, an even larger retail area, and a periphery with sushi restaurants, a vegetable market, and innumerable small shops selling tourist tat (though somehow still in a classy Japanese way).  The auction area is the main draw for many tourists: watching the frantic, polite, ordered bidding process in the daily tuna auction features highly on many guidebooks’ top Tokyo sights.  To see the tuna auction, it is recommended to arrive at the market not long after 3am, as visitor places are strictly limited to 120 people per day so as to not disrupt the work of the market.  The actual bidding takes place from 5:25am to  6:15am, so this involves a lot of waiting.  Once inside, visitors are treated to an obscure ritual of mysterious hand gestures and arcane tuna wisdom, with the frozen tuna (weighing up to 300kg) being sold off to market wholesalers, restaurants, national chains, or anyone else with a special license.  Price equals prestige (in press and public perception), so overpaying can sometimes make good business sense. In January 2013, in the first tuna auction of the year (which is particularly prestigious), a new record was set when a 222-kg tuna sold for around $1.76m to a prominent sushi restaurant chain (not Yo! Sushi).

3am is very early, and I wanted to have some beer the night before, so I had to ‘research’ all this info.  I went around 9, when the wholesale area had largely wound down, but there were still lots of oddly shaped sea dwellers hanging out in poly boxes in the retail zone, as well as a good deal of tuna slicing (mostly with bandsaws).  Trying to avoid getting run over by the super-stealthy electric buggies that flit about the market, whilst dodging fish-water as closing sellers hosed down their stands, was about as dirty and disordered as Japan ever got for us.


Of course, there had to be sushi.  If you really want, you can queue round the block for sushi within the market complex, as recommended in all the guidebooks.  Queuing is something of a ritual in Japan, as previously noted, frequently precisely controlled by painted lines on the ground, telling you exactly where to queue for your train, bus, etc.  Maybe the waiting adds to the final experience?  As a Brit abroad, you would perhaps expect me to enthusiastically join with my Japanese comrades in pursuing this noble art.  But why, when you can go less than a block away, and have some of the freshest sushi you are ever likely to get, freshly-assembled by grizzled sushi veterans, without queuing?  It was fine.  By which I (and they) mean delicious…

The ordered chaos of the market (emphasis on the order) was echoed by my experience at Shibuya crossing that evening.  When you think of Tokyo, you probably think of Shibuya (helped by it featuring in literally every movie set in Tokyo for any length of time, excluding perhaps period costume dramas).  Bright lights, busy pavements, manic yet polite and perfectly synchronised, like urban ballet.  Everyone waits for precisely two minutes while the traffic lights cycle through, then suddenly all the cars are stopped, and it begins.  In contrast to Kirstie’s experience the next morning, when 8am was far too late for any sort of on-the-way-to-work rush hour, at just before 6pm the crossing was rammed with shoppers and commuters.  This isn’t even quite peak time.

This is frequently called the busiest crossing in the world.  Apparently, up to 100,000 people use it per hour (that’s 3333.33 people per crossing cycle), and the Starbucks with a 2nd floor view of the drama is their highest-grossing store.

Between my early-morning fish fest and my early-evening crossing fun***, there was just time to go back to Harajuku to eat another massive crepe, buy a ceramic lucky cat, and drink a bubble tea.  If you’ve managed to avoid this so far, it originated in Taiwan, has engulfed Asia and will soon conquer the world.  Be afraid.  It’s delicious.


The more astute amongst you may have noticed Kirstie and I ended up doing somewhat different activities on our day apart.  It turns out, we do have quite different interests, but at the end of the day we still enjoy each other’s company.  It was a refreshing change, but we haven’t actually taken a full day apart since.  Oh, and I can’t remember where the tumult was, in case you were wondering.



After our day of touristing in Himeji we headed up to Osaka, but then promptly left again to our hostel in the suburbs, which was really more or less in a separate town (Sakai).

Osaka’s a big city, and that’s pretty much all it’s got to recommend (or disrecommend) it. The other travellers we met there had spent their time shopping, going to the aquarium, and visiting the castle.  We didn’t fancy any of these, so instead we had a catch up day hanging out in the suburbs, doing laundry and eating ice cream in the sun.  Bliss.


Washing our clothes at a Japanese launderette was entertainment.  We’d laughed at a guy in our hostel who thought he’d accidentally scented his clothes instead of washing them when he went there, but then we very nearly at least half-fell into the same trap.  The first challenge was finding the place, since the sign was in Japanese and it was set back from the street.  This accomplished, we then had to figure out which machines were washers and which ones driers.  The relative prices told us this: the driers had a price for five minutes (it turned out), which was way too cheap to be a wash price.  This hurdle successfully passed, we looked around for a machine dispensing washing powder.

There was one dispenser type machine on the wall, which must surely have been for this purpose.  We stuck our money in, pressed the button, and got a tiny pink cardboard box, about the size of a couple of packs of chewing gum.

Inside were two flat, slightly sticky sponges, that smelt strongly of flowers. At first we thought this must be some crazy new-fangled, super-compressed Japanese detergent.  We chucked a sponge in the machine with our clothes, but then had second thoughts. Surely this tiny little sponge couldn’t wash all of our gross travel worn clothes?  After some intense discussions, and some highly interested looks from the Japanese people doing their laundry, we decided these must be things you put in the dryer with your clothes to make them smell ‘nice’.  You couldn’t buy detergent at the launderette, but you could buy these.  Oh, the mystery.

Arthur went to the supermarket to buy some real detergent, and I sat in the sun minding our laundry, which I’m sure was totally unnecessary since stealing seems not to have occurred to Japanese people.  There are shops in busy train stations where the merchandise is displayed round corners, so that the shop keeper wouldn’t have the slightest idea if somebody was emptying their fridges.  Or perhaps they just have some robotic anti theft system.  They’re very keen to make sure nobody can be unjustly accused of stealing though — more or less whenever you buy something, the shop assistant will stick a little sticker on it to show it’s been sold.  Perhaps an unjust shop-lifting accusation would be enough to destroy your honour for life.  They do take reputation very seriously here.

I amused myself while waiting for Arthur to come back by examining the shoe washing machine tucked into the corner of the room.  Amazing.

So doing laundry turned into more or less a full day activity, with all the back and forthing we did, but we had a jolly old time.

Our hostel was a tiny place in an old (by Japanese standards) house.  It’s called ‘Drummer’s Dream’, and is run by some crazy musician types, who are constantly banging out tunes on any passing piece of furniture.  I loved it.


The front door was a slightly rickety dark wood sliding screen, which we slid open to step into the compact social space downstairs.  There was a little table with stools around it, a raised tatami mat area, and small galley kitchen.  The tatami room had 7 or 8 prettily patterned cushions arranged around a low round table, and that was it. The kitchen was stocked with robust but delicately glazed Japanese crockery: handleless cups that fit perfectly in your hands, and elegant little bowls.  Designy versions of the traditional cotton fabric towels you see all over Japan hung on the wall by the sink.

Out back was a little bathroom annexe, wrapped around a tiny verdant courtyard, and tiled with round flat stones in bright blues and greys. Up some exceedingly steep stairs were two dorm rooms, boys and girls, each with six beds.  And that was it.  I wanted to move in.

It wasn’t the last time I felt this urge in Japan.  These people know how to make a home.

Eating was the only other thing we really did in Osaka.  Apparently Osakans are famous for stuffing their faces, so we thought it was only right to follow suit.

Apart from the ice cream, we ate a lot of onigiri and convenience store sushi for our lunches.  This stuff is cheap by Japanese standards, and a million times better than the equivalent stuff back home.


We also went for dinner at a pork cutlet place round the corner.  I couldn’t really eat anything but rice and salad, but the fried stuff looked delicious, and the atmosphere was great.  A proper rowdy local place, though it cleared out considerably when we got there.  This may have been something to do with the amount of whiskey one of the guys we were with had necked before dinner.


We hung out with two Welsh guys, an Australian girl, and a German guy in the hostel, mostly discussing the aspiration of one of the guys to find a Japanese dolphin trainer to marry.  I asked him if any sort of animal trainer would do, but apparently it has to be sea life.  I expect they’ve got magazines for that in Japan.

Our final meal in Osaka was an all you can eat buffet.  We ate so much that we missed our train, which meant we missed the last bus to where we were headed.  Needs must.


It was a good opportunity to try loads of different Japanese foods.  I especially liked the desserts, most of which I had no idea at all what they were.  They were all various pastel colours, and of indeterminate (though very nice) flavour and construction.

The buffet had a great view over Osaka’s high rises, and the huge ferris wheel near the train station.


Afterwards we were just about able to roll ourselves 30 metres down the road to the train station.  When the train-after-the-one-we-meant-to-catch pulled in to the station, we got to observe the world’s quickest and most efficient train turn around.

Once everyone had got off, a smartly attired cleaner approached each door.  Each person whipped through their carriage picking up rubbish (there wasn’t any, obviously), and turning the seats around.  Physically turning them around to face the other way, so nobody would have to suffer the discomfort of travelling backwards.  Brilliant.  Once each person had finished their carriage they got off, bowed to the train, and waited neatly for everyone else to finish.  Then somebody with a walky-talky got off, made some sort of signal, they all bowed together, and stepped aside to let the new passengers board.  It was all over in three minutes., and we were on the train again!

This time for an unscheduled stop in Tanabe…



This is the toilet in our budget hostel in Hiroshima.

It had a heated seat (variable temperature), two bidet functions (which you can probably see illustrated on the control), and a button for playing a flushing sound effect.

There are no bog standard toilets in Japan — you either get one like this with bells and whistles, or a squat toilet.

Either way it will almost certainly be spotlessly clean.  Japan is the cleanest place I’ve been, I don’t know how they do it.  I think perhaps untidyness is not very Japanese, so there’s not much mess to clean up in the first place.

In case the floor is dirty in the bathroom (which it never is), toilets in hostels and guesthouses come with a pair of bathroom slippers.  Before entering you step out of the general slippers which you’ll have been provided with, and into these special slippers, making sure not to let either pair cross the threshold.

Generally places like hostels, restaurants and museums will have the fancy toilets, while you’ll get the ‘Japanese style’ ones in more old fashioned guesthouses and some (though not all) public toilets.

The squat toilets are referred to as ‘Japanese style’ because they used to be the norm, but the snazzy ones seem more Japanese, and more common, to me.  Apparently there’s recently been a push to install new toilets in elementary schools, which generally have ‘Japanese style’ ones as they were mostly built in before the 1980s.  Most school buildings are old because there’s no need to build new ones, since Japan’s population is declining.

I read that children starting school are afraid to use the squat toilets, which they’re not used to, and so avoid going.  Apparently more than half of parents ‘train’ their children before they start school, by taking them to old fashioned public toilets to practice.

After staying in our hostel for one night we had to do a frantic search for accommodation, because everything was booked up.  This was our first lesson in how to travel in Japan —plan ahead, especially at weekends.  We ended up in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse, which was right in the centre of town.  It had a squat toilet.  It also had an 11pm curfew, which we had to run back to make.

This was a pretty basic ryokan, but it had all the key ingredients: tatami mat floor, big soft rolled up beds with voluminous duvets, a low table with tea and teapot, Japanese style bathroom with sit down showers and a soaking tub, and yukata (cotton kimonos).

We asked for breakfast for the next morning, and the owner apologised that it was only Japanese style, which obviously was what we wanted.  It was delicious.


We had rice, salad, fried eggs, pickles, seaweed, fermented beans (much nicer than they sound), tea, and in Arthur’s case miso soup.  The owner even made me a little dish of pickled seaweed instead of the seafood stick that Arthur had.  And as with almost everywhere we ate, it was all presented on beautiful, interesting crockery.

Hiroshima was mostly about eating for us, it turned out.  (Though we did eventually make it to the Peace Museum, more on this below.)  The wet weather meant we couldn’t explore much on the first day we were there — the rain was so heavy that you were soaked to the skin in seconds if you walked anywhere.  Even with a brolly your legs got soaked in a minute or two.  So we confined ourselves to the central area of town that’s mostly covered arcades, did a bit of vintage shopping for a new shoulder bag, and ate.

Lunch was okonomiyaki, which is a pancake layered with egg, noodles, and other delicious things, cooked on a hotplate.


Again, it was delicious.  Nothing like the Japanese food I was familiar with — salty and slathered in sauce, and even slightly greasy (for Japanese food, anyway).  I had iced tea with mine, and Arthur had a cold sake, which came with a beautiful ceramic cup (of course).  The lady who cooked it seemed genuinely thrilled that we wanted to take her photo.  Or possibly highly amused.

After three or four hours of very strenuous bag shopping and soaking in the ryokan bath, we moved on to dinner: tsukemen.

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It was delicious.  Like, really, really delicious.  Fresh and light and flavoursome and crunchy and rich.  Perfect with an Asahi in a freshly frozen glass.

And none of this stuff was expensive, at least not by European standards.  The okonomiyaki was about £3.50 each, and the tsukemen (from Bakudanya on Fujimi-cho, you should definitely go) about £4.  A large beer will typically be about £2.50 in a casual restaurant, tea can be less than a pound.

Tsukemen is basically a bowl of cold noodles and other bits, which you dunk into a cold broth thick with sesame seeds, then eat.  In this case the noodles came with cabbage, spring onion, cucumber, and sliced cooked pork.  I palmed my pork off on Arthur.  (Not a euphemism.)  After some enthusiastic dunking I decided the broth probably had meat stock in it, so I didn’t drink it at the end and Arthur got that too.

I found that a relaxed attitude to accidental meat and fish consumption is needed in Japan, at least if you want to sample local specialities, which I did.  It would be extremely difficult, and dull, to only eat things you can be sure are vegetarian, so I just did my best and avoided things that I was sure were meaty.  (N.B. Miso soup is almost never veggie.)

Eating out in Japan is pretty straightforward, but trying to get something loosely vegetarian can be a challenge.  English isn’t that widely spoken, and English menus aren’t often available, at least if you want to eat cheaply and at more local places.  This generally isn’t an issue, because there’ll usually be a picture menu, or more often, models in the window of what the place sells.  Alternatively, ordering will be done on a vending machine, which rarely has pictures and never has English.  This is really easy if you don’t care what you eat, you just need to make an educated guess about which buttons are main courses, and which one is beer.  It’s a bit trickier when you’re trying to order something veggie.

After dinner we had a couple of drinks.  First some very pricey but extremely good craft beer (or ‘beer’ as it’s known in Britain), then on to a bar in a super cool concrete box for another beer, and in Arthur’s case a Japanese whiskey.  The razor sharp hipness of the building the second bar was in was pleasingly blunted by one wall showing early 90s music videos.  While we sat at the bar the owner quizzed us about our music taste and then laughed at us.  We laughed back at him when he rather inaccurately guessed that we were on honeymoon.

On our second day in Hiroshima the sun finally came out, and we managed to see a bit of the city, and get to the Peace Museum.  Although, before we went in we stopped at an international food festival that was going on outside…

The museum walks you through the day the bomb fell, and the aftermath, in generally thoughtful but occasionally gruesome detail.  I found the mannequins of victims walking zombie-like to keep their arms, skin hanging off, away from their bodies, tasteless.  Sometimes words do a better job.  On the other hand, the objects on display were horrendously illustrative without verging on the theatrical.  Outfit after outfit with the back totally burnt away by the blast.  Burnt, mangled lunch pails and spectacles.  Glass bottles fused together in the heat of the fires.  Fingernails that had grown black and twisted afterwards.


Another really successful exhibit was the large model of the city, with a red orb hanging over it showing the fireball at the moment of the blast.  Somehow this brought home the horror of that moment, even having read and seen plenty about it before.


I suppose seeing it shown like that, so close to the point you’re standing, gives it immediacy.  Being right there makes a difference.

On the way out of the museum you pass a stand inviting you to sign a petition for nuclear disarmament.  Hiroshima, unsurprisingly, is at the centre of a global movement towards nuclear disarmament called Mayors for Peace.  The mayor of Hiroshima in the early 1980s started the organisation, which member cities join to show their support for a beginning of negotiations towards nuclear disarmament.  There are now nearly 7000 cities signed up worldwide.

Around the museum is a park, with various memorials.  One of these is the Children’s Peace Memorial.  The memorial depicts Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima girl who was two years old at when the bomb went off.  She seemed to have survived unharmed, and appeared healthy for several years, but died of leukaemia aged 12.   Around the statue hang chains and chains of tiny brightly coloured origami cranes, folded by children from all over the world.

The story goes that while dying in hospital Sadako Sasaki was told by her room-mate the Japanese tradition that folding 1000 paper cranes will grant you a wish.  She managed to fold 1000 shortly before her death, but her wish (to stay alive, or for nuclear disarmament, depending on who you ask) was not granted.

Something I didn’t know before visiting the museum was that a high proportion of those close to the hypercentre were school children, who had been put to work that morning creating firebreaks in the city centre.

Of those less than 1000 feet from the point where the bomb, ‘Little Boy’, exploded, 93% were killed.

Other memorials dot the park too, and across the river is the shell of an exhibition hall.  Now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome, the hall was the only building left standing near the hypercentre, and has been left as it was, in memory.

The whole park and museum complex is really well put together, definitely worth going.  I guess it’s the main reason we went to Hiroshima, though it turned out to be a great place to visit generally, by which I mean it had lots of delicious food to try.

Not ones to let catastrophic human suffering distract us from stuffing our faces, we even ended our Hiroshima trip with an ice cream in the sun.  Which is the point of peace, really.