Monday, 7 September 2015

Discovering Iran #1

Iran has tickled my curiosity, and during the last few days before leaving Norway I could barely believe that I was actually going to come here. Ever since we started to fly to Izmir through Istanbul I’ve always noticed the Iranian women put on their headscarves in the passport control line at the Ataturk airport on their way back to Iran and it has always had me wondering what it is like in the country where these women come from.

So now that I got the opportunity to visit I had to use my chance, and so far I could not be happier!

I hardly did any research before going except for simply buying the Lonely Planet Iran book. I also  check ed a few essentials on tripadvisor including the dress code for women, whereupon I was reassured about foreigners not being expected to wear traditional clothing such as the chador (“tent” in Farsi) which basically covers the body from head to toe like a cloak. I was convinced that covering my hips with a tunic would be essential, preferably down to my knees and wrists along with bottoms that go down to the ankles
 In reality the local people really can’t be bothered with the way you dress as long as you put your veil on and avoid imposing your cleavage onto everyone else. The many times I’ve seen a police officer in the eye with my veil halfway wrapped around my head has caused no problems whatsoever, so the rules of dressing are pretty easy to follow really. That being said I was obviously overly self-conscious about my hair showing when I put on my scarf for the first time on the plane as we were descending for Tehran. The intense gaze of the lady at the passport control counter was not exactly helping either (but I got through without problems and would dance of joy as I went down the stairs to pick up m luggage if I could! [more on how women should behave in public will follow])  Now after almost two weeks it has actually become a routine to pick out the scarf that will colour-coordinate well with my outfit of that day, though I still ponder on the symbolism and meaning of wearing it every day…

So at the airport in Tehran I waited for my suitcase for a solid 30 minutes until sometime around 2am and made conversation with a girl around my own age straight away; originally Iranian living in Brussels on her way to work on some filming project in Tehran if I remember correctly. She gave me her phone number along with a warm welcome to Iran and the opportunity of meeting up for tea during my stay here.
Then as I walked through the arrivals hall I was almost immediately met by a girl asking if my name was Nil followed by her mother giving me a huge bouquet of flowers and offering to take the luggage I was carrying in both hands! This was my contact person Camellia who I’d been in touch with a few days earlier. Her lovely mother found me a place to exchange some money at the airport before heading towards the city in their car. The first thing that struck me on the highway was the license plates with Farsi numbers looking like they’d been typed with Comic Sans MS. Took me a few days to take these seriously…! And I’ll get back to the traffic culture and what the Lonely Planet guide has to say about it later!

Arriving at the student dorm was slightly confusing and Camellia’s help was absolutely essential as I soon came to realize that English speaking people over the age of 35 can be hard to find and that the security guard fell directly into this category. At last I was placed in a dorm room right before 4am was, to my surprise, me by a girl who happened to be Turkish. Slightly confused though very positively surprised, Sule welcomed me and showed me the vacant bunk bed above Heba, a Palestinian- Syrian girl who was spending the night at a classmate’s place when I arrived.

Sleeping like an actual rock that night I apparently  managed to ignore several attempts at people trying to wake me up for various reasons such as telling me that I should transfer to another room, needing to wake up to organize my student ID card as well as food-card for picking up lunch and dinner in the dorm canteen. Then my second contact person Elham (who actually managed to catch my attention) came to my room to introduce herself and let me know when I could start to attend the surgery ward at the hospital. I was so knackered that I completely forgot half of what she told me and went directly back to sleep and woke up again in the afternoon and found Heba sitting on the mat on the floor eating something that smelled pretty delicious for lunch.  
So the rest of the afternoon was spent on the floor getting to know Heba and Sule, eating whatever was available for lunch and drinking tea, because that’s what you do in Iran- you invite people for food and tea in your house, on your Persian carpet if you have to, and share everything with your guests. When they politely decline you insist that they must at least 2 or 3 times, and that’s what we call ta-arof, which is a big part of the Middle Eastern culture.

Later that evening Sule and I went out to meet some of the other incoming students. Being completely unaware of what we were going to do I barely managed to run down to the shower room for a quick wash before heading towards the boys dorm (as guys and girls are obviously not allowed to stay in the same student housing complex). After the grand round of handshakes and exchanging names we headed towards Park Laleh; a lovely park with high trees, fountains and paths to get lost in, almost like a maze in certain places. Here we met even more students, both incoming students (or just “incomings”) like myself and other Iranians.  The group thus kept getting bigger and I started to get the sensation that this is a perfectly standard Tehrani situation. You gather all your friends together with your friend’s friends and hang out altogether in big spaces taking selfies and hanging out before heading somewhere to eat. And that’s basically the definition of a good time.  I’m in awe at how friendly people are here, and also really enjoying that food is such a central part of the culture and always regarded as a reason to get together.

So naturally most of us decided to go for some nighttime dining and I got in a car with 4 other guys to a place I later found out was called Ab-o Atash Park (water and fire park). We met up with the rest eventually and had a long awaited Kete Kabab in the food court. Iranians love dining out late at night and finding a table to fit all 10+ of us was close to impossible but a little bargaining with the staff by our Iranian friends solved the problem eventually.

  After walking around the very impressive bridges connecting the park to a forest on the other side of the highway we went back to the dorms. I switched rooms because another incoming student was going to leave the next day to even out the numbers in each shared bedroom, so my new roommate was a really lovely Tunisian girl called Balkis and Nastaran from Tabriz (Iranian medical student now working as an intern). By the time I came back to the room there was a crowd of girls sitting on the carpet as Balkis had sliced an entire watermelon for everyone! Sule and I joined the circle that was formed around a large plastic sheet to protect the carpet from the fruit juice and we chatted into the night. I had a really fantastic first 24 hours in Iran and looking back at it now it’s amazing to see that the experience has only gotten better and better!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Japanese Adventure -8

This is kind of funny as the day I'm about to write about was mostly spent writing another post further down on this page :) 
We split up during the day and I went to Harajuku on my own to find a cafe to sit down for a few hours to do some blogging. I went down Takeshita street again and wandered around the area quite a bit until it literally felt like I was drawn into this building that looked like a wicked mirror/portal with escalators leading into super shiny walls so I just had to enter. I noticed there was a Starbucks at the top of the building and thought I couldn't be bothered to find a more charming place at that point. The building was one of the several fancy department stores we'd walked into before with jewelry, watches and polo shirts being sold next to an ice cream shop with a couch with the Japanese version of a teddy bear's face on it. Again, "cute" is not sufficient to describe this culture!

So I sat down next to the rooftop terrace at Starbucks for almost 4 hours just chilling out, writing and reading until Michael came by and we went to Shinjuku to meet up with Trond for dinner. The late night activity was going to be an epic walk through the skyscraper-jungle and making our way to the Park Hyatt hotel which starred in the film "Lost in Translation".

As I've mentioned before I'm not much of a hotel-goer and I tend to feel intimidated by the atmosphere. You can imagine how underdressed I felt in my jean shorts and vest top as we entered the shiny elevators that took us to the 42nd (or was it 47th? I can't remember.. oops!) floor where the doors opened straight into an amazing space that was one of the hotel bars/lounges. We were seated by a table immediately and I just had to run to the bathroom to make myself feel at least a little bit more comfortable in my own skin. It's a stunning hotel, that's for sure! The bathrooms elegantly equipped with simple vanity seats where I turned my silly updo into a nicer braid and splashed some water in my face to seem a little bit more groomed. The Japanese waitresses and hotel guests would be too polite to make any remarks on my looks anyway and it was probably just me being self conscious; it's not like the guys put on their finest shirts for the occasion either. A group of flip flop-wearing backpackers sitting next to posh moneymakers was a cool paradox I could live with for a night :) I have to admit I really enjoyed it at the end once the initial sense of intimidation had passed. It was almost as if the ambiance of the lounge slowly sunk in along with a sense of calmness. We were able to move to a free table right next to the panorama window and my oh my what a view! Fair enough, we had delicious drinks- I cannot even remember the white wine-based cocktail I had which was so tasty, and even some cakes and whatnot... but THE VIEW! I have a sloppy photo of it further down and it's a joke compared to what I kept staring at nonstop for half an hour. Cocktail-sipping with the lights of Tokyo in the background was a JOY and next time I visit Tokyo I will save up and STAY AT THIS BLOODY GLORIOUS HOTEL no matter how uncomfortable it may initially make me feel. 

Going down the elevator was almost a little sad. Needless to say I've started saving for my grand stay at Park Hyatt already- if not in my bank account then at least in my mind! 

The Japanese Adventure -7

Optimistically we wanted to cover three parts of town in one day- going from north to south on the east side of Tokyo: Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya. What happened in reality was more like running in the rain (street flood?) from Shinjuku to Harajuku, spending most of the day here before heading to Shibuya in the afternoon.

Shinjuku is supposed to be the transport hub of Tokyo, and we did indeed arrive here on our first night. We didn't get to explore the area very much as we were starving as we came out from the metro in the morning and headed to the first sushi place we could find. It was one of those places with a conveyor belt from which you pick up the sushi that arrives in front of you and pay for your stack of colour coded plates at the end. Genius concept- why don't they do this for all sorts of finger food in the rest of the world? (or maybe they already do, in which case I'm either an ignorant fool or I've been blinded my whole life...) 

When we went back out it was as if the clouds had exploded and while the guys were trying to be real men getting soaked in "a few drops of rain" I was very happy about being able to hide under my umbrella (which was used as a shield for sunlight as well during this trip). We decided to walk towards Harajuku. Michael, using the compass app on his phone to point us into the southern direction, was guiding the way and I followed like an entire flock of sheep. We got distracted on the way and peeked into the odd toy store and Lawson or 7/11 shop to load up on coffee. On one of the coffee-missions at a Lawson store I asked the clerk to help me with the ticket machine (which is all in Kanji/Japanese letters) so that I could try reserving places for us to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum because you need to book this in advance before arriving at the door. Trying every single time slot for our entire stay in Tokyo we were not even able to get a spot for *one* person to enter the museum. Chika (one of the girls I met in the onsen in Kawaguchiko) told me later that you need to book this a month in advance to be guaranteed a spot, so now I know what to do straight after booking my ticket to Japan next time! 

After getting the directions wrong, finding street maps eventually and getting completely soaked in the rain (I was no longer the only person with an umbrella :p ) we were slowly approaching Harajuku and Takeshita street! This is where the cosplay girls and boys hang out. I watched a documentary once showing how young Japanese students bring their crazy outfits to school and change into them in the bathrooms once the school day is over, put their uniforms in their bags and head to Harajuku to show off their "wicked style" (ref: Harajuku Girls by Gwen Stefani). Coming here during the weekend we were hoping to see heaps of stylish youth, but there were way more tourists than school girls with cosplay outfits. The heavy rain maaaay have had to do with it, in addition to the school holiday. But we still merged into the crowd and had a blast walking down Takeshita street. We ate stuffed crepes (strawberry cheesecake/brownie/apple cinnamon.. mm mm mmmm!) and bought mystery boxes, browsed through the shops with Harajuku teen fashion and had a great time even in soaked trainers. At the bottom of the street I found a Birkenstock shop and bought a pair of flip flops to escape from said trainers for a while. Then we went back to the Harajuku train station, having another stuffed crepe and pearl milk tea on the way, where we got tickets to go two stops south to Shibuya. 

Shibuya is where the Tokyo nightlife is at. If you ever see Tokyo on the news and they screen this super busy junction with crowds of people crossing in all directions then it's probably the Shibuya crossing. We had ramen noodles for dinner and continued walking around in the rain. Shibuya is also the definition of "neon jungle". Photos of this phenomenon doesn't do it justice, all I can say is NEON.EVERYWHERE. and you might be able to understand.... the whole place is just one big illuminated blob and at one point you can't even tell if it's afternoon or evening. The Black Eyed Peas' music video for "Just Can't Get Enough" finally became real to me as I walked down one of the narrower (which is still by no means "narrow" by my standards at least) streets and smaller junctions.

It started raining again like nobody's business so we found shelter under a shop entrance where the guys were window shopping for suits and spent quite a while browsing to the point where I was not sure whether they were still inside or I'd missed them walking on to another shop in the pouring rain. So once they managed to leave we found a super narrow bar at a street corner. There was a wide selection of bottled beers and I tried a lemon beer which was actually quite refreshing. It seemed like the bar was taking advantage of its corner position with windows looking down at the Shibuya crowd so we decided to go upstairs and do some people watching. Meanwhile we were trying to organise a meetup with a guy from Couchsurfing who was also visiting Tokyo. One drink let do another and this time I tried a bottle of sparkling sake which was also surprisingly good!

We met up with a Canadian guy not long after and decided to try the infamous Asian pastime that is KARAOKE! Our expectations of what this was going to be like were quite different from the reality that we were soon to discover. You go to the reception of a karaoke parlour and book a room for you and your group of friends, then they take your drink orders (which seemed to be unlimited at the place we went to) and show you your room that you can stay in for a designated amount of time. We tried it for 30 minutes and thought it felt a bit weird sitting on a couch and singing among ourselves- it was almost like putting on singstar at home. Our drinks arrived, we had a few mouthfuls and left the cigarette-scented room ten minutes before our time had ran out. Oh well, at least we gave it a shot! So we left the karaoke building, spent the rest of the night at different bars and had a good time :)

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Japanese Adventure -6

Our first full day in Tokyo was spent in the Akihabara district, also known as the electronics district/geektown. This place is noisy, full of flashing lights and regarded as the equivalent of Mecca for people who have an over average interest in manga, anime and video games.

As we walked into the main street we peeked into a tall and interesting looking building. We soon realised that we had walked into our first slot machine house. It was like being at a disco- we literally could not hear each other speak, and I still don't know if this was due to the noise from the ventilation system or if the ongoing sound came from the machines running at top speed; it kind of sounded like what it would be like inside a tumble dryer I think.

Not a single seat, i.e. slot machine, was vacant and there were rows upon rows full of Japanese men playing games while watching anime on the top screen of each machine. We're guessing this is how the average Japanese business man who works within metro-distance to Akihabara spends his lunch break.... The trays were full of 100 Yen ($1) coins and they were all in some sort of trance with mechanical hand movements tapping on the buttons and scooping up handfuls of coins to be fed back into the machines with their eyes stuck on whatever anime show was being screened.

I'm still trying to understand how these men can handle being surrounded by ULTRA SUPER CUTE music, people, animals and toys all the time while staying serious and focused. I just go:  look it's all so cuuuuute. wiiii look! look! look! la-la-la-la-CUUUTE *.*  *bangs head into wall* (whenever I see a Japanese kid, Hello Kitty or Pikachu wearing baggy pants.... I also point or stare uncontrollably at everything I see. Awkwaaaard.....)

We walked further up on the escalators in said building and the slot machines were almost strangling us; by the time we came to the third floor we couldn't take the noise anymore and went down. Interestingly they don't let you take photos at most of these places- sometimes even inside the shops in Akihabara. We were being sneaky nevertheless and I've got at least one shot of the row of Asians playing on the video game machines further down.

So, the rest of the district was quite repetitive in my opinion (although Michael and Trond may disagree). It's basically all about shopping. Action figures is a big deal. I think Trond got a few of his favourite anime characters in *nice* outfits for a few thousand Yen ;)
We also tried to find anime DVDs with English subtitles which was easier said than done. They have no idea what you're talking about, and IF they do, all you get is: Engrishuuu subtitruuu? Nooo nooo *crossing arms together indicating "no" with a complementary sad face* ...which I guess is fair enough :p

This was also the day we incidentally found a CAT CAFE!!! It was probably the most happily spent 1200 Yen ($12) during my stay in Japan. We got to stay in this super clean and well kept cafe for an hour along with 10+ cats! It's like being in someone's house as the surroundings are very home-y. Once you buy a small cup of dried fish and start feeding the cats they start flocking around you and even get a little competitive as they wake up from their daytime nap. One of the hooligans even scratched my leg, but that's feline love, and I can only accept such behaviour when it happens.

While walking around for hours and browsing through 7 story buildings with dolls, wigs, anime, manga, hentai, DVDs, Blue Rays, arcade games, another bunch of slot machines etc without really finding anything except the odd Hello Kitty doll appealing to me I finally found a video game shop to drool in and actually bought a GAME BOY COLOR!!! AAAAaaaahhhhHHhh! And I found TMNT and Super Mario games to go with which altogether was a bargain. Moahahahaha! I was the happiest kid in Akihabara for a split second until some other lucky bastard probably got what he wished for from his super cool Japanese daddy-o down the street.

We had some delicious sushi, miso soup and sashimi salad that night, then dessert somewhere else before Michael went home. Trond and I (mostly Trond) stayed out a while longer playing arcade games and spending a bunch of 100 Yen coins on amusement lasting less than 10 seconds. We actually went to these 5 storey buildings full of monetary drains and tried picking up items behind a glass wall, with hopes of winning all sorts of crap (action figures, Hello Kitty keychains, handfuls of Kit Kat, you name it) with no luck at all! It was fun though, until we realised that our money was more worthy of the vending machines in the alley nearby which actually granted us with amusing drinks. I found one of my all time favourites called "Happiness!" which is a peach-pomegranate drink and sipped it slowly on our way back home ^_^

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Japanese Adventure -5

The guys left the hostel right after 6 in the morning to catch a train to the 5th station up the mountain and were to climb to the summit of Mt. Fuji from there. I on the other hand took my time, brought all our stuff down to the storage room and had a slow breakfast in the common room before checking out and going out for a day trip on my own around Kawaguchiko.

I was given discount vouchers and advice about how to spend my day so I decided to go for a walk to the other side of the lake and took the ropeway up to an observation platform where I got a great view of the lake and on a clear day I'd also have gotten a good view of Mt. Fuji. Even after spending an hour waiting for the clouds to clear I realised that nothing would happen for a while. So I just took a couple of symbolic photos in the direction of the mountain covered by fog and ropeway-ed myself down to lake level again.

From here I made my way through souvernir shops and countless racks of "hello kitty" phone bling until I finally found Ide Sake Brewery. The hostel made a reservation for me to take a guided tour of the brewery and eventually the lady who owns the brewery came out to take me along as I was the only person who was going for a tour that day. It is a small-scale brewery and from what I gathered, it is the only brewery that uses the water from Mt. Fuji! She told me all about the brewing process and how they utilise every part of the rice casks to make crackers and use as flavouring in other foods as it contains lots of nutrients. I tasted three different kinds of sake from the brewery; they were all silky smooth and tasted nothing like the sake I have had at Japanese restaurants outside Japan (not even the sake I'd had elsewhere in Japan...)
Needless to say I bought three bottles of sake in different sizes to take home and one each for the guys who were away climbing :)

I walked back to the hostel with two huge bags full of booze and having wandered around for the whole day I was ready for an hour in the onsen before meeting up with the guys. The bath was a bit more crowded this time and I met two girls, Chihiro and Chika who are really lovely. We chatted for a while and it turned out that they had travelled from their hometowns to climb Mt Fuji the day before and were staying in the same hostel as us. We made our way back to K's house right before Trond and Michael and I had to leave for the bus to Tokyo. The guys were exhausted and sun burnt like nobody's business even on this cloudy day, each with bright red necks and Trond being the impersonation of Rudolph himself.

So after what seemed like the longest walk ever to the bus station we got on the right bus and were dropped off at the Shinjuku bus station two hours later. From there we got a little lost in what is known as the "world's busiest transport hub" before finding the right subway line to the Kikukawa station where we were met by Mr. Kamo who took us back to his flat where we were going to stay for our remaining time in Japan.

After organising our mats and floor beds we went out for dinner at a restaurant where you purchase your order from a vending machine (not a new concept) where the entire menu is written in Kanji/Japanese script and the only way to decide what to get is by looking at the price (fun!)
This way of ordering food became quite the norm throughout our stay in Tokyo- aka vending machine heaven!

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Japanese Adventure -4

Did you know that Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan? Before that the capital used to change according to the hometown of the current emperor. We arrived by train from Kyoto (about an hour with the super fast Shinkansen ;) as usual and spent half a day walking around the deer park. The deer are indigenous to the area and move around freely. While they are not kept in captivity they have gotten used to the people visiting the park and are actively approaching everyone for food. We bought biscuits to feed them and a bunch of deer flocked around us immediately. If you try hiding the biscuits in your pockets they'll start searching for the smell and bury their faces into your clothes. They even ripped up a map I had put in the side pocket of my backpack so I now have a nice bite mark as a souvenir...! Endlessly cute though, I have to say. They just stroll past you as if you're one of them and it's like being in a zoo without cages. The males were particularly calm and were majestically sitting around and even seemingly bowing to us at times. We're guessing that the Japanese deer have acquired some Japanese manners over the years.

On our walk we also came across a really beautiful Japanese garden. A lovely woman came up to us and gave us a short tour with some interesting information about how the gardens were designed and constructed back in the days. There was also a house used for hosting tea ceremonies. Being a cherished traditional custom, the tea ceremonies were held in houses which have main doors that are small and located quite low so that everyone would have to kneel down and crawl to get inside the house. This puts everyone at the same level when attending the tea ceremony, whether they are samurais, royals or of a different social background. The lady also pointed out that the Japanese garden is designed to look very natural even though it is entirely man made (well, maybe "put together" is more appropriate to say). They are really good at creating small intimate spaces within the greater area that you will not necessarily be able to spot from a distance, only once you start walking around in it. Great use of stones and small bridges to connect pieces of land together and trees and bushes that make small "rooms" within the garden and create a landscape with several layers that gives it great depth. I also love the asymmetry of the design which makes it look so natural and not man made at all, which according to the lady, is exactly what the Japanese are going for.

We strolled around taking pictures and spotting the fish in the ponds. I wish I could have cut out and pasted the whole thing into my dad's garden back home.

 Finally we saw what *used to* be the biggest wooden building in the world- a temple that houses a huge Buddha statue. It seemed like a big deal, and sure it is pretty impressive to fit a massive metal sculpture inside a wooden temple, but I was having a really slow and achy day so most of all I just wanted to get back for a final deer-petting before heading back to the station. The weather that day was not exactly helping either and my umbrella came to good use as a shield for the sun.

 Back in Kyoto, we went to Gion for dinner at a restaurant which seemed to have only one option on the menu- a folded okonomiyaki slightly different from the one we had in Hiroshima. We got served in less than two minutes after ordering, ate and took a bus towards an area where one of Kyoto's best "onsen" was supposed to be.

Onsen is a Japanese hot spring/bath where you go for a thorough body wash before hanging out in the different pools/baths and saunas/steam rooms, depending on what is available at said onsen. Some have outside areas as well and these can in some cases have beautiful views to enjoy while you're sitting in a tub... Basically! Onsen is very popular in Japan and smaller, less extravagant bath houses were previously found in almost every neighbourhood especially in Tokyo when houses were very small, often lacking bathrooms. Men and women are in separate areas as you need to strip down to enter, and as I said earlier, you can only go into the pools after you have washed at one of the shower cubicles where they usually have shampoo and soap available as well. There are additional rules too; some places don't let in people with tattoos for instance.

So we tried really hard to find this specific onsen that Trond had read about and probably walked around for half an hour after the really long bus ride from Gion, still pretty lost and unable to find the correct street. I was really restless and tired at this point and left the guys who took a taxi to find the onsen. I had some postcards to finish off anyway so went to a cafe downtown to write these instead.

 The next day we were on the road for the entire day. Our rail passes expired that day and we managed to catch a train from Kyoto to Mishima where we changed to a bus which took us to Kawaguchiko, one of the five lakes surrounding Mt. Fuji. We checked into K's house, which is the most amazing hostel I have ever stayed in and I strongly recommend the Mt. Fuji branch to everyone! The staff picked us up from the bus station 10 minutes after we called to say we'd arrived, spoke excellent English and were really helpful in every way. We had booked a private room and slept on Japanese style (tatami) mats covered in crisp sheets. Really comfortable considering we were still sleeping on the floor. The guys were going to climb the mountain in the morning and got some advice from one of the guys in the reception too, who'd probably climbed it several times before. We has pad thai for dinner at a thai restaurant down the street and went to the neighbouring onsen for a bath. This was my first time and for most of the time I was the only girl inside, probably because we came quite late. The outside area had three huge tubs with water constantly running into it and after washing and staying in the hot jacuzzi for a good 10 minutes I stormed outside to cool down in one of these tubs while stargazing and making sure I did not fall asleep and sink into the bottom of the tub. The surrounding garden was also really pleasant and lit up with some fairy lights in one of the trees, feeling kind of magical. I slept like a baby that night!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Japanese Adventure -3

The following day we were headed for a day trip to Hiroshima. Having calculated that the train ride would take less than two hours we had a somewhat lazy morning and eventually made it to the train station, only to find out the hard way that the journey took 3 hours instead....

 We jumped straight on to a tram when we arrived and started looking for Okonomi-mura, a popular place to try the local Hiroshima specialty called "okonomiyaki" which is basically a huge ass pancake filled with vegetables, noodles, eggs and all sorts of other things both over and under a thick batter that is tossed around in all directions on a griddle before ending up on your plate! The chefs were cheeky and playful almost putting on a show for us as they were cooking. We were watching them from the sidebar and it was a really fun experience! The Hondori shopping street was also a haven of fun, almost like an amusement park with its arcade game shops and colourful shops. I found a vintage shop where I got a pair of old Japanese style teacups for the ridiculius price of close to nothing and a bunch of postcards to send home to all you people! Losing track of time in Hondori we ran to the Peace Memorial Museum in time before closing. Outside they were preparing for the peace memorial ceremony to take place on the 6th of August (2 days after our visit; shame we could not be there to see the marking of the 69th anniversary but oh well). Apparently they send paper lanterns in different colours down the river to commemorate the souls of those who died. I found the museum to be very touching. Maybe not as overwhelming as Auschwitz, but it still made an impact and I noticed how little I actually knew about the world's first atomic bomb attack. The museum had first hand accounts of the events, lots of stories of school children and burned/melted items from the area including glass bottles and roof tiles moulded into the strangest shapes from the heat generated. Ripped school uniforms and broken toys, lunch boxes with burned content and watches that had stopped at 08:15 were only a few of the exhibits. Walking around the museum island and on the bridge that was the target of the bomb was so surreal. The epicenter was a few hundred meters away from the target and the impact completely flattened the immediate surroundings of a few kilometers if I remember correctly. The ruins of the industrial promotion hall is still standing in the middle of the city and is one of the few buildings that partially survived the attack (everyone inside died). It has been thoroughly preserved and it is mind wrenching to think that the area around the river was a mere surface of dust and sand less than a lifetime ago. Stepping around here on a gloomy, rainy day in August naturally complemented to the general mood.

We were completely soaked by the time we made it to the train. The comfort of the Shinkansen trains are exceptional though, so we had yet another smooth ride on the rails and made it back to Kyoto that night. The next day we picked up a big mac menu each and walked around the Imperial Palace Park. It covers a huuuuge area and parts of it were more like patches of small forests. It smelled of flowers, especially lily of the valley, and I got an instant attack of mosquito bites before putting the repellent on in the forest-y parts. Birdsong and butterflies were also present. After consuming the McD breakfast (guiltyyy) we walked on to see how big the spaces within the garden were. Large areas of gravel stones lined by benches separated the greenery where the odd woman was practicing tai chi and/or dog-walking. You could also see stripes/paths in the gravel made by people biking. That just goes to show how organised Japanese people are; they go out of their ways to keep things neat and orderly to the point where "one does not simply bike outside the path made by a bicycle before you". At the south end of the park there was a really nice carp pond and a very picturesque Japanese garden (basically the highlight of this sight). To my amusement the pond also contained an army of turtles and I spent a ridiculous amount of time photographing and filming them swim..... So cute! We walked from the park to Gion to see the area during daytime. It was the hottest day yet and hardly any wind to cool us down as we walked. Luckily we found a way down to the riverside, took our shoes off and crossed the river by foot! Feeling slightly refreshed we continued ahead and bought drinks at every other vending machine. We were on a slightly tight schedule that day because we were going to visit the city of Kobe in the afternoon, so we rushed down Gion and towards the end of our walk we actually found two things we were looking for in the first place: the alleged "most beautiful street in Asia" (which was indeed really beautiful, though probably even nicer during the cherry blossom season) and another shop selling all sorts of kitchen utensils including knives! I bought a standard kitchen knife suitable for meat and vegetables and Trond got two, one of which had a really fancy blade with engraved patterns and whatnot. Utterly happy about our purchases we headed towards the train station and caught the train to Kobe.

We had two things planned for Kobe: seeing the world's longest suspension bridge and finding out what the fuss around Kobe steak was all about. Michael was super excited about the former, and I have to say it was in fact a pretty cool sight. It was a foggy day and you could see the bridge disappearing into the clouds. Checking the box we headed back to the station and specifically to the restaurant that was our top choice for tasting Kobe steak.

 Having to wait for 45 minutes for three spots to clear up was not an issue once we entered the restaurant as we had no idea about the spectacular meal we were about to have. A Danish couple sat next to us and gave us a few tips about what to choose from the menu. Following their advice we got a few different types of meat cuts and shared everything. Again we sat right next to the griddle with the chef in front of us cooking away like a pro. The meat arrived from the back like a royal guest laying on a wooden plate, looking absolutely delicious even raw. I can't really describe this meal without sounding like I'm exaggerating. Calling it a meal would be an understatement, it was more like an acrobatic show seeing how the meat was cooked in front of us. The chef told us to use certain seasonings for certain meat cuts and vegetables and divided it all equally onto our plates as he finished cooking everything in a specific sequence (i.e. All the components were not served at the same time. We got the sirloin steak first, then some vegetables before the tenderloin and finally the fried rice). All parts of the meat was used in some way- even the fat and remaining pieces of meat were made into a rice stir fry sort of thing at the end. The steak, chopped into bite size pieces literally melted in my mouth. The sides were also delicious, but oh dear the steak was extraordinary. If you're ever in Kobe (let alone in Japan) you'd be a fool not to try this. Priciest meal I have had in a while, but it was worth every Yen that I spent. We were the last people to leave the restaurant and just kept going on and on about the amazingness of what we just ate until the waitress kindly asked us to leave in the most patient, polite, Japanese way.

At the train station next door we came 2 minutes before a Nozomi train was about to leave and even though our rail pass did not cover this train type (the fastest Shinkansen train), the guy behind the counter gave us tickets just out of the blue and said we should "RUN". And so we did! Thanks to that guy we were able to make it back to Kyoto in super express speed and crashed in bed with a food baby each in our bellies *still dreaming of Kobe steak*.

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Japanese Adventure -2

We got up at a reasonably early hour to explore a few sights in Kyoto. We had a few things planned including walking in the bamboo forest, seeing the golden pavilion and geisha-spotting in the Gion neighbourhood (one of the older districts of Kyoto).

The bamboo grooves in the Arashiyama district in Western Kyoto were indeed magical. The guide book says that its ambience cannot be photographed, and while I did my best to get a few good shots I think it is in fact true. The photo taken with my phone below is really poor...
We walked a bit around the hills before ending up in the groove as well and got some scenic views of the mountains and rivers.  we then ended up in the small village where we grabbed something to eat and tried the Japanese version of soft ice cream for the first time. I got one with a fusion flavour of half black tea and half green tea. The ice cream itself is most likely made of soy beans  and has quite similar consistency to the ice cream you get at mc donalds. I have gotten used to the green tea flavour in almost every way by now; kit kat, cakes, drinks, gum, you name it and they've probably got it!

We caught the subway to the golden pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji in Japanese, and were prepared for a 20 minute walk straight north from the station. While 30 and 40 minutes swiftly passed by as we walked and we still had not managed to spot the entrance, we started getting confused. And since I was the one who really wanted to see this place I started feeling a little guilty making the guys walk into the unknown for one hour (my sense of direction is not the best either, but it didn't initially seem all that difficult to walk straight up a pretty straight road  before taking a left turn!) It was however a really pleasant walk and we ended up seeing real Japanese neighbourhoods, with modern homes fusing nicely into the natural surroundings with a nice stream of water flowing on one side of the road. As we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a forest trail we decided it was time to ask for directions and an old man indicated that we should go back for quite a while before taking a right turn. We asked again at what we imaginatively assumed was a retirement home and the elderly confirmed that we were on the right track. Finally we made it to the entrance and after raiding thriugh the vending machines for drinks and ice cream we headed in and saw the BEAUTY that is the Golden Pavilion. It is nicely located next to a pond with greenery all around and as the tourists have to wander around the pond, the photos come out nice and serene as if nobody else is there. In fact it was reasonably quiet as we were walking around and I'm so glad we were patient enough to keep looking for it.

We took a bus back to the center and decided to walk to Gion ( the old, Geisha district in Kyoto) only we ended up walking in the exact opposite direction for almost half an hour. Incidentally we found a shop selling Japanese knives and suddenly got really excited as both Trond and I wanted to buy knives to bring back home. We did not end up  buying anything here though but kept the place in mind and took a taxi back to Gion instead!

Gion is mystically lit at night and kind of feels like the Crash Bandicoot game where you ride through the Asian (probably Chinese but whatever...) town at night. Lots of lanterns and small lights illuminate the trees and small wooden houses. We were on the lookout for one of the remaining ~250 Geishas (actually called maiko and geiko in Kyoto depending on their age/maturity) in Kyoto but were not lucky enough to spot any; only an abundance of "tourist geishas" who pay to get dressed and made up in pretty kimonos/yukatas and walk around town like that for a day. Unlike real Geishas they are very much up for being photographed- or so the guidebook says anyway :)  I only took photos in Gion with my dslr camera so I will put these up later.

I just have to make a final mention of our last meal that night. On our way back to the guest house we went to a sushi restaurant and tried proper Japanese sushi for the first time altogether. We were seated at a table with an iPad, got the menu with photos displayed in English and sent off the order electronically. Genius! ...even for someone like me with sporadic techy handicaps :p

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Japanese Adventure -1

Japan has not been on the very top of my list of destinations to see within the next five years or so, but when my friend Trond was planning a trip to Asia after his graduation I quickly played the "why not" card without much further do and put aside other potential vacation plans for the summer.   We never really sat down to plan the trip and so the last week before leaving the research started for real and still has not stopped to be honest as we are going by a loosely sketched plan. I think it has worked wonderfully so far! With sketchy planning comes a bunch of unexpected events which I think only adds to the experience.

I arrived at Narita airport after a looong time on the road/up in the air. I had a really long layover in Copenhagen so decided to travel to the city to have a look around and met up with Mads for lunch. I plan to do the same thing with another friend on my way back. long layovers = great way to catch up with friends! From the airport I went straight to a hotel closeby  that my mum dearly asked me to book for a smooth transition after the long travel. While waiting for the shuttle bus I met a Japanese family who greeted me in the friendliest way possible. After a 5 minute chat with the family of five, my bus arrived and when I got inside and we started moving, I politely waved back to the 10 cheerful hands that were frantically wishing me a safe journey in Japan. I think I kept smiling to myself for a few minutes thinking "what a wonderful first impression" of the people in this country.

I'm not much of a hotel-goer, in fact I prefer sleeping on other people's couches, but I have to say that swimming in the pool before eating a sushi roll and going to bed in the crispest white linen was the best therapy to start the next day without feeling excessively jetlagged. After stuffing  myself with the buffet breakfast with both western and Japanese dishes I went back to the airport to meet Trond's friend Michael who was also joining the Japanese adventure. So day 2 began with more planning,  acquiring our 1-week Japan Rail Passes (JR pass), de-jet lagging (i.e. napping) before we checked in to a hotel in central Tokyo where we spent the night before meeting Trond the following day.

After a lot of running around we eventually found Trond in the morning at Tokyo rail station. Once his JR pass was ready to go we jumped on to a train to Nikko, a small town of temples and shrines north of Tokyo. From the train station we took a bus to one of the entrances of the World Heritage Sites around the Toshu-gu shrine. We saw various sights at this complex including sculptures and ornaments that are famous icons in Japan. A few of these include a wooden reliefs of Nemuri Neko (sleeping cat), Shinkyusha (apparently the first illustration/carving of the three monkeys covering their eyes, ears and mouth representing the Buddhist teachings of 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil'),  and two elephants carved by an artist who was only told what they looked like as he had never seen an elephant before in his life. d the tomb of Ieyasu, a Japanese warlord.  Hardly any signs or descriptions were  in english so Trond did the tour guiding by reciting his english audio guide. We carried our backpacks around this site and while it was a tough climb up the endless stairs to reach Ieyasu's tomb, the audio guide confirmed that Ieyasu indeed wanted his tomb to be located high up so that those who intended to visit were to climb the stairs slowly and steadily,preferably carrying a heavy burden on their backs ( probably doing some reflecting in their minds while climbing up?) So I believe we did the wee hike in the most appropriate way indeed! On our way down from the hill back to the train station we saw the reconstructed red bridge where the Buddhist priest who established the hermitage of the monks in Nikko is said to have been carried across the river by two giant serpents (according to the Lonely Planet guide book anyway :)  in addition to this little account, I really enjoyed the clear water and serene sound of the stream before we walked down towards the train station to continue our journey back to Tokyo where we changed for our ride to Kyoto.  

A five-hour train-journey later we gave the subway a shot to make it to the guest house that was located a pretty long way out from the city centre. It turned out that we had to walk for a few stretches in between changing subway lines to get to the right station which was not that tempting having carried those backpacks around for an entire day already, so we found a taxi and tried explaining where we wanted to go. The communication barrier was now really obvious but the driver was the sweetest man on earth nonetheless. He drove in the general direction that we were going to go and once he found the closest subway station to the guest house he went out of his way to find other Japanese people on the quiet suburban road (quite late in the evening) who could explain the remainder of  the way. He called on a couple who came towards the taxi and Michael took out his laptop on the trunk of the car so we could show them a tiny map. They found the right direction eventually on their smartphones and even offered to walk us to the guest house. We politely rejected their offer as it was ridiculously close by. The taxi driver, eternally happy to have driven us to the correct place, probably did a happy dance in his head and thanked the couple a million times.  

So we made it and checked in to a pretty basic room with two bunk beds. The guest house lady seemed a bit sketchy to begin with and had the weirdest little gadget that she  used to accept credit card payments that was connected to her phone! Weirdness level: JPN right there...! (curiosities about Japan should be an entire blog post on its own....) We went straight out to get some food and the son of the weird lady took us to a restaurant nearby for some ramen noodles. The waitress was the cutest little human being and the guys both fell in love with her within seconds. The same way I fall in love with every kawaii (i.e. cute) child I see in Japan, which is also worth an entire blog post!