Monday, 18 April 2016

Japan in Pictures

Dear blog-readers

After three or four wordy blog posts, it's time for some pictures. Here are some of my favourites from my recent trip to Japan.

In a small bar, in an area called Golden Gai, we had a few drinks to start our holiday.

At a temple in the middle of a park, near Harajuku, we happened to witness the end of a traditional ceremony. 

In Shimokitazawa these chains of colourful origami cranes took my eye.

Tsukiji fish market is an unusual but incredible sight to see.

A colourful shop shutter, showing all of the stereotypical features of traditional Japan.

In the build up to this trip, I saw one photo many times: a picture of this pagoda, surrounded by cherry blossom trees with Mt Fuji in the background. Well... we made it to the pagoda. Sadly there was no cherry blossom and Mr Mountain was playing peekaboo behind some clouds. Even so, it felt so good to be there.

A few short kilometres from the base of Mt Fuji was a forest full of shrines. It was incredibly peaceful.

At the end of the forest, the trail to Mt Fuji begins.

The modern stairwell inside Nagoya Castle

Taxis queue to collect tourists who have gathered to see the cherry blossom.

Little League at the park in Osaka

Pagoda in Nara at sunset

An aquaduct at Nanzen-ji in Kyoto

Bright lights, late night, big city.

One to show I was there.


Saturday, 16 April 2016

Notes from Japan: Hachiko

Dear blog-readers,

It's one minute to 7pm on a Friday and I'm waiting at what has to be one of the busiest areas of one of the busiest districts of possibly the busiest city in the world. I'm stood by a statue of a dog, named Hachiko, waiting for friends and it seems like half of the people walking around in Shibuya, Tokyo, have met here this evening. "I'll meet you at the dog" or words to that effect must be said by hundreds, if not thousands of people every single day in Tokyo. Whilst every city has a famous meeting place or two, I've never known anything like this anywhere else I've ever been before.

The story of Hachiko the dog is a famous one; not only has it led to this sculpture but it has been written about in numerous books and I'm told that the story was even made into a film. The story of a loyal dog who waited patiently for his master at the station has become something of a modern day legend and this is what makes this meeting place a tourist attraction in its own right.

On this occasion I had arranged to meet my friends at 7:15pm, but I had arrived fifteen minutes early, on purpose. Why did I choose to wait in an impossibly busy space knowing that my friends wouldn't be here for another quarter of an hour? To 'people watch' that's why. And I wasn't disappointed.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of visiting Tokyo yet, I cannot accurately explain how big the city is and how busy it can feel especially in and around the bigger train stations. The enormous pedestrian crossing at Shibuya is a sight to see and witness itself but, in my opinion, it has nothing on Hachiko - which lies metres away from the corner of the very same crossing. 

Whilst waiting for my friends, I saw so many people of all ages and nations meeting at the statue or within a small area area around it. It is fair to say that people meet others there every second. Just imagine that, every single second, couples, groups, families are meeting in this one place. That in itself is amazing. Those waiting, and there are many, sometimes look apprehensive as they consider where their companion is, why they are late and wondering if they will be seen in the crowd. And then... either their phone rings or they hear a shout or see a face across the crowd that tells them their friend, family member, whoever has arrived. Their expression changes from apprehension to relief and to joy. It happens time and time again: almost every second. It's a wonderful thing to witness.

I think I saw people meeting on first dates, life partners reuniting after separate journeys, family members hugging, groups of friends whooping and hollering. Yet still, this wasn't the most amazing thing I witnessed. Because, for every single meeting there was Hachiko stealing the limelight. For every meeting, there were at least two photographs of the dog, or with the dog, in front of the dog, hugging the dog. It was unbelievable. 

Can you think of any other meeting point in the world, where people not only routinely meet there because of it's convenience but also because of their affection for IT? I'm sure there are some, but I can't think of any. Definitely none that are so popular!

That night, in those fifteen minutes, I estimate that Hachiko featured in at least a thousand photographs. And, it now dawns on me, because I was stood literally two metres away, slightly behind Hachiko to the right, that must mean that (unfortunately) I must feature in many of those same pictures. Sorry to anyone effected by this. 

Sure, there must be other landmarks in the world that are more frequently photographed than this, but not many, and definitely not many that are meeting points so fondly regarded by the people meeting there.

I'm in danger of waffling on, but I will leave you with this short story. As I waited, I watched a very burly looking man arrive alone. He made his way through the crowd and stopped, very close to the statue, looking pained from a long and tiring day. Or maybe he was just feeling hassled after weaving his way through Shibuya's crowds. Either way, he had made it. He sighed and finally looked up at his surroundings and then he smiled. He smiled at Hachiko, patted the dog on its head and stood waiting. Grinning to himself. I started to guess who he would be waiting for. Then before I could decide between work colleague and long-time drinking buddy, a dark-haired lady and a small girl shuffled through the crowd. I was wrong  "Daddy!" I guessed the girl might say as she reached him and he picked her up, but no. "Hachiko!" was the first word I heard her say, followed by "Good doggy," and then, now sat on top of her dad's shoulders, she reached over and hugged the dog not once but twice. No photos taken. But lots of smiles. A great sight.

If you're ever in Tokyo, I'm sure you'll visit Shibuya. If you do, go and say hello to Hachiko and observe how fondly he is treated by those meeting there. I am now on my way home from Japan, sadly, but one day I hope to return and I will be sure to pay the "Good doggy" a visit.


For the story of why Hachiko is famous: 

Monday, 11 April 2016

Notes from Japan: Koyasan

Notes from Japan: Koyasan

Until very recently I had not heard of Mt Koya, or Koyasan in Japanese, but it is well deserving to be world famous. For those of you who, like me, know little of this mountain town it is accurate to say that whilst it is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists it is predominantly a tourist destination for those looking to for something not offered in other places: peace and quiet.

To get there I had to take the train from Nankai Namba station in Osaka, where I purchased what turned out to be a very popular ticket - the World Heritage Pass was advertised clearly and sold frequently by the very patient officials at the ticket desk. At just over 3000Y (~£20) it was a bargain by UK standards.

The journey itself wasn't too long, as I had opted for the 'limited express train'; so within an hour of leaving the hustle and bustle of the mega-city that is Osaka my train was winding its way through lush countryside and towards the mountains.

Another hour of breath-taking scenery later and we had twisted and turned to Gokurakubashi Station. From here we took a short, steep cable car ride up to Koyasan Station where a collection of buses were ready to take me and what seemed like a hundred others into town.

Thanks to the World Heritage Pass I was able to use each of these three forms of transport: train, cable car and bus; without spending another yen.  

Upon arriving in town at about midday, I headed straight for my night's accommodation. Although I couldn't check-in yet, my printed Internet confirmation instructed me to leave my bags there if I arrived early. So I did, but got more than I expected. After introducing myself, I was warmly welcomed and shown around. My accommodation for the night was a first for me: I was staying in a temple called Hoon-in. Although the temple is modest in size and facilities, it is more than adequate for any traveller's needs. There was a private bedroom to sleep, a communal eating area, washing facilities and a dedicated prayer room for the morning ceremony.

After my brief tour and strict, but polite, instructions to return in time for the evening meal at 6pm, I used my Koyasan brochure (picked up earlier at the train station) to go on a lengthy walk.

If you are keen on seeing traditional Japanese temples, Koyasan is the place for you. There are many to see and, like I did, you can stay the night in one if you book in advance. That in itself, I gather from overheard conversations, is enough reason for most people to come to Koyasan - the temple stay.

If you're not so keen on temples, then Koyasan also has a few countryside hiking trails to follow. I did both, starting with a forest walk.

In Koyasan, in mid April, it is cold. Colder than the city.  From my walk I could see an electronic sign at a bus stop reading the time and temperature. It was just after midday and 8 degrees but with wind-chill it was much colder I'm sure. Fortunately I had packed my bag accordingly: as well as my camera and tripod, I had extra layers of clothes and a selection of random snacks and drinks from a nearby 'combini'.

After two days in Osaka, I was more than ready for the serenity of the countryside and I was not disappointed. A short forest trail helped me to relax, clear my head and a sign pointing to a "viewpoint bench" was all the invitation I needed to sit down and enjoy some lunch. My forest trail was only about 3km long and by the end of it I was ready to go back towards the town, its sights and the tourists.

Fortunately for me, my visit to Koyasan was on a Monday. I say fortunately because I imagine that the town is flooded with tourists and day trippers at the weekends. Monday meant quiet. Quiet meant lots of opportunities to visit temples, take photographs and go about walking from attraction to attraction without having to weave my way around slow-moving groups of people. It's fair to say I'm not the most patient with those who walk in wide groups filling the pavement and progressing at glacial speed. But, today that not an issue. I was free to enjoy the main sights: the Daimon, Kondo, Chumon and other assorted 'World Heritage Sites' with ease.

The highlight of the whole visit, was the walk I took around the enormous forest cemetery which rests at the edge of the town. Whilst cemeteries are not usually visitor attractions, this was was by far the most stunning I have ever seen. It combines the fascination of Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris with the natural awe and wonder of the sequoia grove in Yosemite National Park. Although I did not do the full two-hour trail from end to end, the parts I saw were stunning and I took many photos of the stupas, shrines and statues that filled the forest floor, illuminated in the afternoon glow that pierced the canopy of giant cedar trees above.

The tourist guide says that at the end of the trail is the final resting place of one of the most important religious figures in Japan: Kobo Daishi. He is the reason for all of the temples in Koyasan and why this is such a popular pilgrimage site for Japanese Buddhists. Whilst I did not see his mausoleum, I did gain a real sense of understanding why this place is so special to so many people.  Although I'm not sure how I feel about encouraging this small town to become more touristy, I do think that if anyone is ever considering coming to Japan then Koyasan would be a highlight of your trip.

My overnight stay in a temple was a completely unique experience to me. The 18 or so hours that passed between my return from my afternoon adventures and my check out in the morning were filled with things I will remember forever. My evening included sitting on a floor to eat a delicious vegetarian meal whilst wearing a yakuta, in a very cold room filled with accents from around the world. This was followed by my very first ever onsen experience. Despite my recent stay in a capsule hotel with onsen facilities this was the first time I had ever taken a dip! Fortunately my onsen bath was a solo experience and I didn't have to sit naked in a bath with a stranger. To follow, I slept soundly on a tatami mat in a fiercely cold room thankful for the heater that was provided to prevent me from freezing. The only downside was that the heater turns itself off every 3 hours, so I woke twice in the night shivering.

The morning that followed was an early one. My alarm was set for 5:45am - which I can tell you is no sort of time for an alarm call on holiday; so that I could wake up, wash and get changed in time for the morning ceremony at 6:30. My trip to the wash room confirmed my suspicions that there were no corridor heaters and that it would be wise to wear many layers to the ceremony. I was right. It was cold and the poor heater in the room did little to warm it. Thankfully the ceremony - though an interesting thing to witness, despite it's lack of 'action' - was brief. Breakfast followed, served once again but the junior monks, and devoured. All that remained was to check out and return to Osaka. Once on the train back to the real world, I immediately missed the small town I called home for the night. Then, after a moment's reflect I wrote, "Until very recently I had not heard of Mount Koya..."

If you're planning on coming to Japan, plan on visiting Koyasan. It's a bit like Nara but much smaller and less busy. Coincidentally, Nara is my next stop.


Saturday, 9 April 2016

Notes from Japan: Osaka

Dear blog readers,

I'm currently very lucky to be on holiday, in Japan! It's just as wonderful as I remember, but not for exactly the same reasons as last time.

Right now as I write this I'm sat in a capsule hotel lobby. It's Sunday morning and I'm hungover. Last night my friends and I went to celebrate Lee's birthday with a 'few drinks' which predictably lead to many drinks and karaoke. We had a lot of fun. Stereotypical Japanese night out, right? Well, from the looks of the hotel lobby at check-out time this morning, I wasn't the only one out last night. Whilst I'm not sure if the others in this room sang their hearts out last night, I can be certain that many of them had a drink... or ten. This is a room full of fuzzy heads, croaky voices and many confused faces.

This rougher side of Japan is one I've not seen before, but I find it oddly reassuring. Enjoyable, almost. 

It shows me a Japan that I think I was aware of but I hadn't witnessed before. Not capsule hotels, I've done that before, but this time I'm much more aware of the people in capsule hotels.

I'm not sure if capsule hotels will truly take off in the UK, but I'm convinced that they would be popular with late night revellers... once they got used to all of the customs that come with staying in one. I tried to list these customs, just now, but found that the list of capsule hotel customs was never-ending so I've deleted it. You can "enjoy" these for yourself if you ever stay in one. 

This capsule hotel is full of Japanese people who are not at work, who are not well-dressed in business suits, who are not (at this moment) 'happy to help'. This is a stale smelling room filled with awful furniture and very many worse-for-wear men.  It's at times like this that I'm reminded that in every culture men and women love to drink, love to celebrate and party and we do it in very similar ways. I'm also reminded that with drink, comes hangovers. They're pretty universal too. It is worth noting that one hungover man may, on his own, be a nice, polite and tidy chap and the same could even be extended to a small group of hungover men. However, when you have hundreds of them sharing small communal sleeping, eating and washing spaces, it is not a pretty sight - or sound or smell for that matter! This fact alone is why there are no photos in this blog post.

Even with this 'unique' experience, why do I find it oddly reassuring as I mentioned above? Well, it's because it surprised me.

This capsule hotel is very different from the one I stayed in on my last visit to Japan, when my friend Lizie and I stayed in the slightly-futuristic "9 hours" in Kyoto. That was an experience much more in keeping with my other experiences of Japan.

Japan is, largely speaking (from my own limited experience) much like that "9 hours" capsule hotel, it is: clean, very well organised, controlled and ordered, full of incredibly polite and helpful people, and just big enough for everyone. It's also very impressive for many reasons.

However, as I have now discovered, Japan is also home to very different capsule hotels with very different clientele: both of which reveal another side to the country and the people.

The hotel I'm in now will remain nameless but it has shown me that Japan is not always clean, not everyone is polite or friendly* and sometimes hotels could do with providing you with a little more personal space.**

Japan is rightly famed for its stunning scenery, incredibly rich culture, wonderful organisation and infrastructure and I will continue to enjoy all of those things. However it is also still rough around the edges, particularly on the morning after the night before. That, I think, is a very redeeming feature. 

I've got just under a week left in Japan and with my eyes slightly wider than before I think I'll take more notice of the imperfections of this wonderful country and enjoy experiencing and photographing them.

With that in mind, I'm off to get some fresh air. I think I'll take my camera!


*Since I started writing this, three men have (separately) been escorted off the premises by police - very quietly and without a scene it should be said. They had very regretful expressions. The men, not the police - the police looked very familiar with this Sunday morning routine indeed.

**Having said that, despite this hotel's faults - mainly caused by housing hundreds of drunken (and often disgusting) men in very close quarters; it is still incredibly well organised. Bravo Japan, Europe could learn many lessons.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Tips for Guilt-free Travel

Dear blog readers,

Some people are blessed with an insatiable appetite for travel and they freely roam with no 'travel guilt' at all. I am not one of them. If you're anything like me, you DO feel guilt and for many reasons, such as guilt for spending money that should otherwise be saved for being a grownup, or guilt for not thoroughly embracing the cheap-as-possible backpacker ways, or even (the one I get the most) guilt for not travelling enough. If you get any of those guilty feelings, you're not alone and help is at hand. Here are my tips for guilt-free travel.

Me, feeling completely guilt-free near the base of Mt Fuji

1. Make lists. Short liststs.

When I say lists, I don't mean extensive, take-you-forever-to-read lists, I mean the useful types that you actually will read and follow.

For example:
- Places you really want to go.
- Things you definitely have to pack.
- Activities you would regret not doing

These lists will help you to realise what is important when you do travel. There's nothing worse than going somewhere with a list of twenty places to go and not enough time to do them. It's ok to have one or two things on your list for each day and you can take your time over them.

When in Chamonix, France, the itinerary for the day had: Visit Ice Caves. We did, it was great.

2. Make a budget with amounts you are happy to spend.

If you can't afford to go on many holidays or adventures, but don't want to scrimp and count the pennies when you do go, set yourself a limit and give yourself a little leeway in case of the unexpected.

The biggest expenses when travelling are:
- Transport
- Accomodation
- Food
- Activities

Not necessarily in that order either, but they are all worth budgetting. However, try to be flexible. If you find yourself spending less on one thing, such as activities, then you can spend more on something else which is a bit more expensive than you thought it would be.

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, is a great example of something you can see/do for free.

3. Sleep

I am not the most experienced traveller by a long way, but I have found that on those days when you are sleep deprived you are not getting the most out of your day. So, how can you plan to get enough sleep when you travel? Here are my tips: go for comfort, avoid sleeping with strangers and plan for naps.

- When booking your accomodation, check out the reviews and see how travellers like you rate the level of cleanliness etc. If the place is comfortable, you should be able to sleep well.
- If you're a light-sleeper, avoid staying in dorm rooms with lots of strangers. There are many stories I could tell about the nocturnal habits of hostel-dwellers but I'll spare you the details.
- An afternoon nap is a great thing, but people (me included) don't always do it on holiday. Why not? A 20-30 minute nap can recharge your batteries. Give it a try.

A little sleep-deprived in Sydney, Australia.

4. Memories (for you) not mementos (for others)

I'm sure it happens when most people go travelling, "I must get so and so a souvenir, so can we do that today?" You know what, most people will be grateful for the souvenir, they will. However, I'm pretty sure they'd settle for a postcard instead. Here's a few selfish tips, no apologies given... this holiday is for you after all.

- Take photos you want to keep and print for yourself when you get home. No matter what your mum says, you don't have to be in every one of them.
- If you see something you would like to buy for yourself, don't justify it to yourself by saying "I'll get one for Bill and Jim too." If you like it for you, get it. Sod Bill and Jim, they can be satisfied with seeing it at your place when they come and visit. And if they don't come and visit, I'm not sure they're the kind of friends you need to get gifts for. Harsh but fair.
- Sack off the "souvenir shopping time" from your itinerary. You'll probably visit shops all the time as you go from place to place anyway. So use the time for something else, for you, for fun. Sorry Bill and Jim.

Chatuchak Market, Bangkok, gives you plenty of opportunity to shop or not shop if you just want to enjoy a touristy experience.

5. Finally, number five, have something in your calendar to look forward to.

To avoid the "it's all over" sadness and the guilt that comes with no travelling enough, try to have more than one holiday/adventure/trip/weekend activity in your calendar.

Two of my closest friends have the most enviable calendar, filled with fun activities and people they are seeing and places they are going. They couldn't do more if they tried. Sure they might feel a twinge of guilt if they are "booked up" when I want to visit, but that is surely a better guilt to feel than the guilt you might get if you never saw anyone or anything ever. So, be selfish, plan ahead and try to have at least one more thing to look forward to. Even if it's a walk in the forest.

Some walks in the forest are completely unforgettable. Like this one in Yosemite, CA.

So there you go, they are my tips for travelling with less stress. Happy travels everyone,


Saturday, 13 February 2016

Here Comes the Sun

Dear blog-readers

It has been a long time since I wrote an entry in this blog. In that time, rainy season has come and (finally) gone in Thailand and I have been back to the UK for Christmas.  Lots has happened, but not much has changed. But, at last, the clouds of January are parting and the boiling hot days of February are here. Here comes the sun!

As I write this it is 34 degrees outside, the sun is shining down on Bangrak (the area in which I live and can see from my pool-side view) and Samui looks glorious.  It's at times like this that I feel completely justified in deciding to stay in Samui for half term.  Many people I work with leave Samui for adventures during this February half term break - last year I was one of them - but this time I'm staying put and I feel good about it. Mainly I feel good because my girlfriend is coming over to visit from London. But also because, when the sun is shining and there is no pressure of work, Samui is a beautiful place to be.

Earlier this week I wasn't so positive about how great Samui looked because, to be honest, when it is grey and dreary here Samui looks bad.  You notice the crumbling buildings, the piles of rubbish, the mangy dogs and everything can look a bit depressing. However in a different light, a much brighter light, Samui looks completely different. Yes, those grim bits remain but now they are easier to overlook.  Now, the sea shimmers and the Big Buddha glistens in the sunlight. This is exactly the weather I hoped for when the holidays approached and - whilst there is still air con and cold water in abundance - long may it remain.

Time lapse of sunset, 12th February 2016

Here's to a glorious half term, happy Spring Time everyone!


Monday, 7 December 2015

Rainy Season Sunsets

Dear blog-readers

It has been a while since I last wrote a blog and this one isn't going to be very wordy.  In fact, it's about the photos. You see, as I sit at the table in my house in Samui I have a very distracting view and between the hours of 5:50 and 6:20pm the view changes every time I look up from the keyboard.

Here is my view right now...

This was my view 5 minutes ago...

This was my view 5 minutes before that...

Here are some of the sunsets I have captured this 'rainy season' and some of my favourites from the past year too. 
Last week

Last full moon - this was actually taken at 5:45am! Not a sunset at all, just a lovely picture.

Two weeks ago. The colours were amazing and using the 'miniature' filter on my camera brings the centre into focus and makes everything else a little blurry.

"Dynamic filter" on my camera does this. The first from November and the other from August.

"Pop" filter on my camera does this.

I guess, it just goes to show that 'the same view' isn't ever really 'the same' at all. Because it is changing all of the time and because my camera is clever in ways I don't understand.

Although I do have a wonderful view from where I sit, I am very much looking forward to seeing a change in scenery when I go back to England for Christmas; and whilst those photos might not make it on to this blog, I wish cherish them all the same.  Happy holidays everyone!