Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thailand 2: Still Bangkok, but with company

Yesterday was the official start of my Intrepid Southern Thailand tour, which meant I'm now sharing my room with a girl from London called Katie, who I actually like quite a lot, so hooray! I don't usually seem to like people, which can be a problem. The rest of the group are a retired couple from near York (v. friendly), an Australian guy (bit ditsy but really nice, has a Thai ex-girlfriend he's been visiting in Bangkok), a Dutch bloke (one of the most scatty people ever, permanently confused, and I'm not sure it's just his grasp of English that's at fault), and two beauticians from Wales... I have a feeling they may get upset at the lack of power points for their hair straighteners, but seem nice enough! I *am* working on ignoring my automatic preconceptions, honest.
They took us on an awesome boat trip today, where we got to feed bread to the fish (and why the hell not), and then looked round the Imperial Palace... again!
I then went off to a dressmaker's shop recommended by our leader to commission a three piece suit and a dress, will come back after the Southern Thailand trip for a fitting, very exciting. Paid a bit more than I was intending but then I *am* on holiday and I think they will look great. I did a little bargaining which got me 20% off but it was far too easy - i probably should have gone much lower. Never had anything tailor made except by myself!
Wandered round a shopping mall and ate sushi, got a Tuktuk back, and will be leaving to catch the overnight train south in about an hour!

Oh yes, and I also went on a guided bicycle tour yesterday, which turned out to be just me and the thai guide, it was really interesting and good fun - we cycled around all the little houses by the canals, over rickety wooden walkways and through crowded streets and canals for about 3 hours. And got another extensive Thai massage in the evening, where I got bent around to a much larger extent than I thought possible!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Thailand 1: Bangkok

After spending my final night in Nagoya with Mike, who seemed genuinely upset that he had missed out on the Sumo (Dan and I were quite proud that we managed to last an entire day of fat blokes in nappies!), I set off to Thailand. Everything went well, got my airport transfer, found the hotel, and spent the day exploring the local area. It turns out that the hotel is in the middle of the worst/best backpacker's ghetto - everyone around here is German, English or Japanese and it's hard not to feel like you're getting ripped off at every corner. Stumbled across the Democracy Monument which is surrounded by huge golden frames with pictures of the King, who appears to be a keen amateur photographer - he is frequently pictured in what looks like holiday snaps with a camera round his neck.
Didn't quite dare to try any of the more mysterious street food yet, so stuck with some tasty spring rolls - and saw what I think was my first ever live cockroach crawl around under another food stall. Had the opportunity to eat any of a selection of tasty fried insects too, but decided to pass on that.
Felt a bit disoriented so bought a second-hand Rough Guide from a shop around the corner, which said to start at the Imperial Palace, so that's what I did the next day. On my way there, got accosted by a guy who told me it was 'Buddha Day' so the Palace would be closed in the mornings. This was the first of three or four men that day who tried the same scam on me, which I'd been warned about several times already. Apparently you get told that wherever you are going is closed, and that they will take you on a bargain Tuk Tuk trip somewhere else instead, on which they then fleece you in some way. What I don't understand is why every single scammer in Bangkok uses the same approach that even badly prepared tourists like me already know about. Surely a bit of creativity isn't too much to ask?
Anyway, I did take some of his suggestions and went to the golden mountain, an artificial hill with a temple on top, which was nice - the view of Bangkok was a bit less than spectacular though, the skyline is not overly pretty. After that, I got slightly lost, first in an area of wood carving workshops, and then on a street where car parks where being made by hand... Found a little park and had some lunch: mystery meat balls on a stick, together with a bottle of coke from a plastic bag - glass bottles have a deposit here so you often get the drink without the bottle, poured into a bag with a straw in it! I made my way to the Imperial palace then and tagged along with a tour. It was incredibly shiny and colourful, and I let the tourguide talk me into buying an overpriced ticket for a traditional dance performance in the evening. That was probably more of a rip-off than those Tuk Tuk drivers I'd been warned about! Then went on to Wat Pho, a famous temple near the imperial palace. The temple contains a massage school, amongst other things, which seemed like as good a place as any to try a Thai Massage, especially because it meant an hours shelter from the rain that suddenly broke. For the record, yes, some of it was a bit painful - you know when you accidentally lean on the muscle in your calf and one strand of muscle slips against another, a very odd and unpleasant feeling? She seemed to do that to me intentionally a few times. On the whole, I really liked it though, and I'll certainly try it again some time. I'm still not sure about the foot massage, that just looks horrible, they poke big wooden blocks deep into the sole of your foot!

Then saw the big golden reclining Buddha, which was absolutely beautiful, and did my first drawing for ages that I'm actually happy about. It does help when your subject is not moving!

There is a big park (more a field really) near the imperial palace, where there was a huge market going on - they sold absolutely everything, from underwear to grilled scorpions to frozen food to mobile phone contracts. Some guys where playing a game where you have to kick a small ball into a kind of basket hung from a line quite high up, using any part of their bodies except their arms and hands. In another corner, people where crowding around a TV showing a political debate. I was reading on the plane here that the opposition party is planning to hold a debate next friday where they are hoping to release information that will topple the current government. The guys in the park where redshirts - I'll have to look up if they are the ones currently in power or the ones supporting the old prime minister who is currently in exile.

Deciding to ignore all the scare stories, I hopped on a TukTuk which took me to the theatre. The ride was short but one of the most fun things I've done here so far! The theatre was big but almost completely empty - there were maybe 30 people in the audience, including at least two older German guys in the company of pretty Thai ladies. Ew. I really enjoyed the performance though, it was the story of Hanuman, the monkey king, performed in Khon, the traditional masked dance, with a few acrobatic elements. The music was a bit grating, but nothing against the Thai narration. It sounded like backwards talking - it's really quite unpleasant when every word gets a lot louder at the end. Haven't noticed anyone actually speaking like this, it must be some stylised theatre voice. The dancing and the costumes were amazing though, and I felt quite bad for the dancers who'd obviously trained very hard to play to such a sparse crowd.

Wandered around a bit more afterwards, and had a pint near my hotel, then slept like a stone!
This afternoon I'm going to do a cycling trip (with Intrepid), although I'm slightly worried that it'll be just me and a guide, that may be a bit awkward. Oh well. And my roommate has arrived today, so will have some company from this evening.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Japan 7: FOOD

So, my idea of visiting Japan was to sit around eating cheap sushi all day. Of course, they weren't particularly cheap, but we did eat quite a lot of them - but there were a few sides to Japanese cuisine that I wasn't expecting. I had made a resolution to stop eating sweets for the duration of my travels because of some unfounded notion that the Japanese don't really "do" sweets. Not true. They don't seem to do desserts as such, but every tiny village has its own beautifully packaged sweet for sale at every train station and souvenir shop. Granted, the majority of them seem to consist of a rice-based pastry with a bean paste filling, but they certainly look nice!

Ok, as my head is rather full of Bangkok right now, some food criticism in brief list form.

The good:
Fresh, reasonably priced conveyor belt sushi (salmo, tuna, mackerel...)
Okinomiyaki - not pretty, and sounds disgusting, but pancakes with beansprouts, noodles, bacon and optional egg filling, covered with sauce and mayonnaise is a very tasty dinner.
Ramen in all forms, fried or soupy, expecially with a side order of Gyoza dumplings.

The bad:
Nato. Fermented soy beans, sometimes turn up inside rice things where you don't expect them. i didn't eat any, but they are extremely stringy and smelly, and taste better than they look and smell, which doesn't really improve the situation much. Very good for you though...
Watery Tofu for breakfast. Nuff said. Again, good for you, and Zen too!
Pickled Japanese Plums. One of these, unexpectedly eaten as an Onigiri filling, killed my appetite pretty immediately.

The indifferent:
Japanese Curry. Apparently very popular, looks thoroughly unappealing and tastes... not very exciting. But ok I guess. Will stick with my British Indian Curries, I think.
Fugu is exciting to eat, but not because it tastes great - in fact the sashimi we had was almost completely tasteless.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Japan 6: Zen, Tofu & Futons

So we picked Nara as the place to try out the "Ryokan" experience, and even though the one we picked had a bit of a 60's look to it (hence being more or less within our price range), it did have a beautiful Japanese garden, tatami mats on the floor, Yukata dressing gowns provided and a generally very relaxing atmosphere.

Nara Ryokan

Otherwise Nara was a little bit of a let-down - sure, there were tame deer who'd head butt you if you didn' give them food, and the huge buddha was rather awe-inspiring, but the rather wet and grey weather meant we didn't really want to stick around. We went to see a fire-ceremony at a temple as well, that people got bussed to in droves, but saw mainly umbrellas. Oh and there was a bit of cherry blossom.

After that, we headed up the holy mountain, Koya-san. Even though it was pretty close to Nara, it took us hours to get there on a number of regional little trains hugging the side of wooded mountains, then a cable car, then a bus on a windy little road. The town, if you can call it that, consists almost exclusively of temples. We found one to stay at and went for a little walk in glorious evening sun, and were then served our "Zen dinner" in our room. The food was maybe a bit of an acquired taste, involving a lot of tofu in different states of sogginess, but looked beautiful and was no doubt very good for us.

Zen Dinner

We didn't do much after that, just tried to soak up the Zen... and we had an early start ahead of us, getting up for the 6 am prayers! There was chanting, fire, incense, gongs, cymbals, we were allowed to make a sacrifice of tea and incense to the Buddha, and afterwards the big cheese monk asked us for tea, chocolate and coffee in his office. We met a 21 year old Zen cat, and I was very surprised when it turned out that the monk spoke perfect German, which makes sense now I've done my internet research. The whole experience was so surreal and pleasant that we didn't even feel fazed by two groups of monks with drums, flutes and dragon masks who were dancing up and down the stree as we waited for our bus later that morning (after another zen meal for breakfast. morning is not the time for tofu and seaweed.)

Getting back to civilisation was a bit of a mission, but we did make it to our Hiroshima hostel (with the comfiest beds so far!), even with a short stop to see Himeji Castle, eventually.

the ghosts of Himeji Castle

(PS: Oh yes - I have a job! Will be starting in Bristol a few days after I get back from Thailand. Am highly excited)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Japan 5: Kyoto

Have been in Kyoto for 4 nights now and slightly reluctant to leave. Apparently Kyoto has what I didnt think existed in Japan: legal restrictions on the height of buildings. This means its much less vertical and feels a lot more human than Tokyo, and of course we feel extremely welcome because of the incredibly friendly people at our hostel. We get served endless complimentary cups of tea and fruit salad, get free hugs when we come in or go to bed. Unfortunately this seems to make this place very popular so we arent able to stay a fifth night and are moving on to Nara tonight, where we will hopefully stay at a traditional Japanese guesthouse (Ryokan).

My favourite aspect of Kyoto is probably the abundance of local crafts, we have seen a number of very exciting (for me) fabric shops - my favourite was one selling little kits to make purses and totes and placemats and baby trousers, each one containing the necessary cute printed fabrics and embellishments and bearing the slogan "I want to make - let's make", which could well by my personal motto. I haven't found any knitting shops, but instead bought a few balls of acrylic and some nice bamboo needles from the 100 Yen shop (these are a godsend) and have made some socks and a hat for Dan, and then started producing little pink crochet flowers to make up for the lack of actual cherry blossom at this time of year (although we may still catch some - i haven't given up on it completely yet).
Of course, even more typical are the incredibly intricate brocade Kimono fabrics with their woven flower patterns that you see everywhere here. I bought a little offcut the other day, maybe I will turn it into a couple of purses when Im back. And I've been unable to resist buying a gorgeous pink Kimono and a red Obi for a bargain price yesterday, particularly because we managed to find one in my size in a random junk shop by the side of the road. Fortunately Dan has offered to take it back to England for me so I dont need to lug it around Thailand!

Kyoto is even more famous for the Geishas that still work here, and we did manage to spot a couple of them the other day, shuffling down a street in the Gion area, and of course for the enormous number of temples and shrines, a small subset of which we visited - including the very shiny golden temple Kinkakuji. The very famous Zen garden we had read a lot about was really quite disappointing, probably less impressive than the one I remember from the botanical garden in Hamburg!

Today, we're off to Nara to see an even bigger Buddha than in Kamakura. Yay!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Japan 4: Peace and Quiet.

Our first glimpse of the more Zen side of Japan was on Sunday after we'd had our fill of pink bows and socks and trendies in Harakuju and went to the nearby Shinty shrine, just because it was there. We stepped through an enormous wooden gate and suddenly we didn't feel like we were in a 20 million metropolis any more. We walked through a park of tall trees for a bit until we got to the shrine (Meiji-Jinto), washed our hands and face at the entrance, and just soaked in the tranquility of the place. It wasn't actually that quiet, there were plenty of tourists there, but the contrast to the rest of Tokyo couldn't have been stronger.

Although we are quite aware of the danger of overdosing on temples and shrines too early, we still made a day trip to Kamakura on Monday, where there is a large Buddha Statue (Daibutsu). We started our tour at a small shrine with a mountain spring enclosed by rocks, where Koi carp were swimming in the ponds. As we sat down to have our lunch, a Japanese lady came and gave us some sweets (yes, we did take sweets from a stranger). They tasted a bit odd, but looked beautiful, wrapped in leaves. We then ended up hiking over the hills to the buddha in absolutely glorious weather, and chatting to a local retired postman who wanted to improve his conversational English.

On Tuesday, after watching a bit of Kabuki theatre (pretty confusing at the best of times, but made even less comprehensible for me as I kept nodding off) and checking out the newest gadgets at the Sony Building, we headed to Nikko, a small mountain town famous for its concentration of temples and scenery. We were greeted by a flurry of snow, and almost decided to turn back rightaway... but the snow made for very pretty views the next morning (after I'd taken part in the one-to-one morning yoga session!). We covered all the temples, in very dramatic rocky settings between big trees, saw the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys, but went back to the hostel when the snow was washed away by rain. Celebrated Dan's birthday in relatively sedate fasion by polishing off a bottle of Sake while writing travel recommendations in the book provided by the hostel (most notably Weston-super-Mare and Swindon...).

We've now arrived in a rather hippiefied hostel in Kyoto and preparing ourselves for even more temples, but this time in a more urban setting again!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Japan 3: Busy Tokyo

We've only been in Tokyo since Thursday, so five days, but things already blur into each other quite a lot. Just as a memory aid, I'll try to write down a few things we did and saw...

Arrived Thu midday, went for a walk around the area but went the wrong way, landing us in a fairly grim area full of random wholesale shops (bubble wrap? fake flowers?), although we did see two sumo fighters on one bicycle, going to an outsize clothes shop. Worked our way back to Akihabara, the 'Electric Town', got dazzled by the sheer quantity of electronics on offer, had sushi at a conveyor belt restaurant accompanied by a lot of friendly excitable shouting, went into a games arcade and found a percussion game to play, marvelled at Pachinko parlours, got more dazzled by more bright lights and lots of girls in French Maid outfits.

Friday it snowed, so we thought we'd hit a museum, but decided not to scrap the plan of seeing the Imperial Palace Garden on the way - slightly bad idea because it was closed and we had no umbrella. Got pretty damp but dried off looking at Japanese modern art, which corresponded almost directly to particular European painters of the same period, at least up to the 50s. Checked out a new shopping centre in Roppongi, very posh, strangely empty. At night went to an indie gig in Koenji, met some cool expats and saw some cool Japanese bands.

Saturday got up at half 4 to go to the fish market, saw fish between 3 metres and 3 centimetres in size, live, dead and frozen, penis-shaped shellfish and crabs that started moving when I didn't expect them to, making me jump and scream like a girl. Had a little nap, went out again to Asakusa Temple, which was highly touristy but pretty, managed to fend off rikshaw people and resisted the temptation to buy plenty of colourful tat. Solved the mystery of the Golden Turd.
Golden Turd
In the evening, explored Shibuya, a bar and clubbing area with more bright lights and the famous 'scramble junction', had some noodles, found the club we'd been recommended by the promoter of fridays gig, saw another Japanese band, then went to a bar called Mod Club (?) and had a few beers.

Sunday, tried to see some buskers in Akihabara that weren't there, tried to see some Cosplay girls in Harajuku that there were only a few of, looked around Tokyos answer to Camden market and bought some bunny shaped socks
Miffy toe sox, but also found a very relaxing shrine on the way.

Monday was an altogether calmer affair, but we did go to the 45th floor of the Government building in the evening for the most incredible, awe-inspiring view I have ever seen - the glittering lights of Tokyo stretching as far as the eye can see.

So, in summary, it's been busy. Our conclusion is that Tokyo is magical by night, but quite grim and grey during the day.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Japan 2: J-Rock

Sushi Boat

Dan has this ambition to meet real Japanese people, which may be slightly difficult as our Japanese is so shaky that we can't even remember what the name of our Subway station is. But we figured that going to a gig might be a good way to see some real local culture, so we found one on the internet at a place called Roots, and even managed to navigate our way there. The cover charge was pretty steep, as everywhere, but we did get 5 bands for our money so it was fairly good value.

One featured a female singer/guitarist in school uniform, which is quite possibly the coolest look in the world. Dan took a picture which i may add later. My favourite of the evening was Praha Depart. Later things got pretty rowdy as the music got more dancey and a group of very large scandinavian blokes decided to take over the joint by forming a testosterone-heavy moshpit. We ended up talking to a few expat blokes including a guy called Ian who had put on the night and who invited us to come to another event the next day. It was hard to tell where any of them were from as they had assumed a sort of uniform expat accent, but possibly Canada and Britain.

Saturday night we explored Shibuya, which has one of the most famous pedestrian crossings in the world, as well as a wealth of Bars, Karaoke venues, shops and restaurants. After a few detours we managed to find Home which turned out to be a tiny little place that was about to close, but we managed to catch the tailend of the last band (called Candles, we think) who were an the more electro-poppy side and got the audience joining in a little choreography/clapping routine. It was every cliche about Japanese music confirmed in the best possible way.

Hopefully we'll get Ian to recommend us some more venues and people in Fukuoka - this is a pretty fun way to feel like you're connecting with Japan, and it's not such a big deal if you can'tunderstand the lyrics.