A Travellerspoint blog

Japan - Going loco down in Kyoto

by Kt

So, our whistle stop tour of Japan began with Kyoto. We only had a couple of nights so we were going to have to pack in as much as we could.
It didn't get off to a great start. We got to Kyoto station in good time (of course the train wasn't late, this is Japan) and with a bit of confusion, found the train we needed to get near our accommodation and we set off to find where we were staying. I knew that it was going to be a bit of an odd one, in that you turned up to a location and then someone had to meet you to take you somewhere else 10 minutes away, so we were prepared for a bit of fun.
The maps were useless and we were really confused as to where to go, but, being in Japan, a lovely lady cycled by and knew where we would be looking for so directed us down there.
We were surprised to find that the note on the door simply said phone this number or come find someone at a location defined in another bad map. Firstly, for foreign tourists this is no good - our phone's don't work on the Japanese network. Secondly, when we found the place, we'd actually passed it on the way, so it was all a bit odd and annoying that you didn't get sent here in the first place. Especially tiresome considering we had some heavy bags with us - thank god we'd dumped off one rucksack in Tokyo. The lady was very sweet and she just walked us back up the main road (that we'd already been up half of) and then dropped us off with another lady who took us to the apartment. This all worked out as well over an hour of faffing - not even close to a 10 minute walk, we were knackered!. Oddly this one was booked through booking.com. I would have expected it more if it was airbnb.
But we got there in the end and had another cute little studio. We even had a fantastic pair of slippers each to use. I think you can agree they make up for all the hassle.


Much of the day had disappeared now, so by the time we got sorted and headed for town it was getting pretty late. Already we were finding Kyoto a little tougher to negotiate than Tokyo, simply because things weren't as slick and modern. The train tickets took a bit of working out, but once you got it sussed you were good to go. I rather liked the Kyoto metro, it was a bit older and had a kind of retro feel with green velvet and chrome.


The train took us straight into the main shopping area of town. We got out of the train station into the basement of one of the departments stores. Many Japanese department stores have a food hall in the basement and they are a sight to behold. I have never seen anything like. I so want to come back to Japan with a bit more money and spend a week buying something different each day from one of these food halls. And all the food is so utterly beautiful.

The west side of the river, where we were is quite modern and is mainly a shopping area. The river is very wide and it really opens up the space. Despite the cold people were sat by the river - lots of couples especially.
You can also quickly see a contrast with Tokyo, in that there are some stunning old buildings.


There's a little area of alleyways that I'd be warned not to eat at as they were crazy expensive but it was lovely wandering about having a nose and you were sheltered from the freezing wind which was biting.
We went for a quick drink, to plan our next move (never a good idea) and spent some happy hours chatting to an aussie guy who lives in Kyoto and a Japanese DJ who had lived in Perth. I now have some hot tips for some Japanese music.

When we left the pub (ok, I confess, it was a Hub - but better the devil you know!), it was pretty early - about 9ish, but we soon discovered that Kyoto restaurants mostly shut down quite early. So, we didn't get to go to the sushi place I was after, but the restaurant we did go to was fan-bloody-tastic!
It was in the undercover area where much of the Kyoto shopping is in but was decorated in a kind of relaxed and trendy yet somehow traditional style. I wish I could leave it as a recommendation but so many restaurants don't show their names in English. If anyone did want to know, I could direct you pretty easily (I never forget the location of a good restaurant). By this point we knew to give anything a go and went for a rice bowl covered in sashimi and fish roe. Divine and also filling. I never thought I'd say it, but the taste of fish roe that's popped onto your rice is sublime.
So we ended our first night in Kyoto well fed and watered.

The sun is shrining
The next day was a true blessing weather wise. It warmed up considerably and was beautiful blue skies all day. Exactly what we needed for a day of full on exploring and it was great that the bitter wind had gone.

We got a couple of trains down to south Kyoto to go to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. You literally stumble out of the station straight into the shrine which is handy. It's a huge site, though you can't tell that straight away. The shrine is mostly famous for it's many, many, many torii orange gates.
These stretched all the way up the mountain and it takes a few hours to do the trail at pace. We'd already been at the place a couple of hours when we reached a sign saying '40 mins to the top' sign so we decided that instead sitting in the traditional wooden cafe, looking down the mountain with some hot sake was the way to go. I am a sake convert I must say and hot sake really is the business on a chilly day and especially when nursing a chesty cough as I was. The best medicine indeed!




Bell ringing is part of the ritual at most shrines we visited, as is throwing the money. There was also some ceremony going on here where they were playing the most incredible traditional music and doing some chanting. It was interesting how different it is from the South East Asian temples I'm more familiar with.


So Inari, in the name of the shrine, is the god of rice and foxes are believed to be his messengers, hence the statues and also the foxes faces which people decorate and tie on as offerings. People had done some really impressive and cute drawings - lots of anime style of course.


The shrine is actually a complex with various buildings and areas sprinkled about - there's a bamboo forest, some housing and when we walked back from round the west side of the complex we came across a little garden full of peach and plum trees which delighted me, as at this point I thought I was going to miss cherry blossom season.


The railway children
On our way back into Kyoto we had to change trains at the main station. Although we'd been through here before we hadn't really notice what an amazing building it is. The main atrium area is stunning. You can also go all the way up to the 11th floor to the Sky lounge, where they have a lovely terrace called the 'Happy Terrace'. *Sighs* you have to love Japan.



As we left the main terminal building in search of our connection we were accosted by a bunch of young school kids, maybe 8 or 9 years old. They came up and asked us if we had the time. We thought they wanted to know the time but they wanted our time to chat to them as they were out with their teaches on a tortuous trip out to talk to English speakers. They were so sweet. Mark, cheeky bugger, said well only if you can tell us where the station we need is. They were pointing downstairs and Mark was then 'you can take us?' - bless their cotton socks they nodded enthusiastically and started to lead us down till their teacher had a heart attack and was like 'no, no'. Then the teacher had a change of heart (once it had recovered) and obviously decided it would be interesting for them, so I started down the steep escalator with the kids following me like the pied piper, only to more cries of 'no' - the kids aren't allowed on the escalator - we were leading these kids astray big time!! Anyway, they sweetly escorted us through the shopping centre just outside the station, to the appropriate place and even helped us buy the right ticket. In return we talked to them on the topics that they'd pre-planned to discuss with their days subjects. I think a fun time was had by all. Such a bunch of sweet and charming kids!

Food interlude
Once in town I managed to locate the market I'd been recommended and that was truly to die for. Apart from the fish eyeballs - I could live without them maybe. This is clearly where people go for their quality ingredients.


After seeing all the quality goods in the market we stopped off for a cheap junk food experience in a First Kitchen.. I'd seen these about Kyoto and was intrigued. This was again a Japanese twist on Western food and was cheap and cheerful. They have really nice toppings on burgers - i can't remember exactly what but something like brie and mushroom. However, they did have the one thing in my entire Japanese experience which I found unpleasant. With your fries you choose a topping. I went for cheese thinking of cheesey chips (mmm - the best english pub food!) but in fact what you get is a bag of fries which you shake, thus coating your fries in a dust of your choice. The cheese dust on fries basically tasted like crushed cheetohs. It just wasn't working for me. But, although mid afternoon this was essentially our breakfast so we were starving so the food was gratefully stuffed.


Old kyoto

We crossed over the bridge for the first time and as we headed east you could see the nature of the place changed slightly. There were lots of tea shops, Japanese sweet shops and high quality souvenirs. We turned down into the streets of Gion, the old temple and Geisha district. The streets here are surprisingly quiet with all wooden buildings and the odd amazing looking yet discreet restaurants. We did actually see a Geisha here, who quickly scooted between buildings. She walked alongside us for a while but there was no way I was going to photograph her in this quiet, private environment, it just seemed wrong but I was super excited to having seen one as I know it's not a guarantee when you visit.


By this point I was starting to fall for Kyoto. It's delicacy, it's prettiness, personified by the Geishas. As we carried on past Gion, through an incredible temple and further east I just got further gobsmacked by how delightful Kyoto was. Touristy, indeed, but done in a very class way which is very rare and difficult to do. There were the human rickshaws, even female ones here - how fit???


The narrow streets are filled with charming shops selling all kinds of treats. Lots of Japanese sweets - this is the souvenir of choice for the Japanese it seems, specialist Sake shops and shops selling things from the Studio Ghibli films. There was also lots of ornament and craft shops, but of things you'd never seen before, rather than the usual tourist tat. .


While wandering this lanes we came across a group of Geishas (do they have a name I wonder - like a muster of storks or a rabble of butterflies). They, strangely to watch, had their camera phones out as they were taking a picture of a dog in sun glasses and a hat (of course!). As they were taking photos and seemed relaxed and almost giggly, Mark asked if it was ok to take their picture which they were more than happy with.


Here's me taking a photo of Mark, taking a photo of the Geishas.

And here, rather fabulously, is the dog with glasses which had caught, quite rightly, their interest.


The shrine with a huge buddha that we stumbled on, was unfortunately shut, but it was still a sight to behold, looking down over you.


As the sun went down, there were people scattered about on the higher ground to take sunset shots over the old city and also this temple was very popular. It's obviously a big thing in Japan, everyone wanted their shot of it.


Mark even made a friend....


Just when I didn't think anything could get any more lovely, the sun went down, and some young piano music prodigy started playing as a back drop to the light festival they had around the park we were in. Seriously? Disney counted have made it more enchanting. I had adored Tokyo whole heartedly and hadn't expected Kyoto to blow me away so much but then they are very different places so I don't think it's even possible to compare, but I was smitten.



Everything is lit up beautifully at night, not just for the festival, from the temple lanterns to the big tree in the park.


We walked back in the dark through streets we hadn't yet been down to cross over the next bridge along from where we'd come over on earlier in the day. That's one of the nicest things about Japan being such a safe place, you're freer to explore, even if it's dark. There were lot of interesting buildings and quirky shops and although quiet at the later hour, just full of atmosphere. We even saw the narrowest and strangest public toilet I've ever seen.

We stopped for a quick drink and a sit down - we'd been on our feet most of the day and were properly knackered. This poster in the pub amused me - oddest mixture of ideas I can imagine.


We were plenty early enough for a good dinner experience but we were a bit unsure what to go for. The place we'd been heading for which is where you choose your meat and have it cooked for you, was closed, which was a bit gutting as we'd been told it was amazing.
In the end we opted for the Watami Cafe for an Izayake style meal.
You take your shoes off on your way in and put them in lockers. You then get slippers (always love that) and go and sit,virtually on the floor, but there is a little step, with your legs under a low table. There was soothing music playing in the background and the lights were dimmed.
We then ordered lots of small dishes - some tender beef, an octopus and leek pancake, some dry noodles which softened when you put them in the sauce. I also had the BEST ever pudding. I really thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I'm not sure of the description exactly as the menus weren't in english but it tasted like a Green tea trifle. Not a combination you'd think of but fabulous!


That pretty much ended our Kyoto experience, we packed a fair amount in, in our short time but I so wished we'd done more and definitely would have loved to have stayed longer. It's also somewhere I'd really like to do on a bigger budget. There are some really interesting places to stay and the full formal meals at many of the restaurants are pricey but would just be so worth it for the experience as well as the food. It's such a special place but it doesn't take itself completely seriously and is nice and laid back too.

A few random observations and notes:


We saw a lot of young girls in Kimonos, much more than we'd seen in Tokyo so we thought perhaps the young girls wore more traditional dress here, which did seem odd. However, we learned that actually it's a bit of a tourist thing - the Japanese girls coming from Tokyo, or elsewhere in Japan, or even girls of Japanese heritage from the USA, rent the Kimonos for the day to wear around - it's kind of a Kyoto experience. You quite often saw a young girl dressed up but her boyfriend in his jeans and tshirt. We even saw one boy dressed up but he looked pretty unimpressed with the whole experience, bless him!!


I saw this offering at the Irani shrine and thought it was some kind of juice but later discovered it was Sake. You can get this in the usual 7'11 and I gave it a try. It's quite nice and good for sake beginners I think as it has a bit of sweetness to it. It's funny drinking alcohol from a carton with a straw!


Vending machines
Around the streets of Kyoto we saw a lot of vending machines. In fact there's a lot of vending machines all over Japan but although cigarettes are common in other countries, seeing beer in a vending machine is funny. Apparently there are even vending machines that will send you a chilled bottle of wine and a couple of glasses. God, I love this country!!!


Salami with cheese
Japanese food's not always as sophisticated as you would think but they just KNOW - this is a well tasty on the road snack/emergency breakfast!


I have no idea what this character is supposed to be but saw this little fella all over the place:


Kyoto is where my love of all things matcha became obsessional. Mixing to of my fave things - i so want a light up green tea ice cream.


A couple of tips for travellers:
- There's a large post office on your left when you walk out of the main Kyoto station where you can get cash with a foreign card.
- The trains don't run that late and are not as frequent as in Tokyo but are of course on time.
- You need to work out on the wall charts which station you are going to, and it will show you the cost and you buy a ticket for that amount.

Posted by KtandMark 09:48 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Japan - Everything is Tokyo-K

by Kt

Prepare yourself for a lot of me waxing lyrical as I simply adored this country. From the moment we arrived to the moment we left I never got bored, was enthralled and have since pined for it. It is my kind of place on so many levels. So much went on and there were so many things I found interesting or fun that my Japan blogs will probably be all over the place, especially as I can't remember the order of everything but will try to organise in understandable ways.

So, here is how it started, straight in at the deep end in one of the most populated cities in the world (possibly THE most), Tokyo....

We had a feeling things were going to be different on the plane. It was so quiet. We were probably the loudest people on the plane and we're not exactly loud people (when sober at least!). There was yummy Japanese food and the whole Tokyo air experience was a true delight.

My first experience, having landed in the country, after passport control, made me smile. Walking to the toilet, as I passed the entrance area there was a recorded message in Japanese and English telling you where to go for the male and female toilets (you couldn't have gone wrong to be honest via the signs and fact they were right there). Then I had my first experience of Japanese toilet buttons. Standard on most public toilets in Japan and many in hotels and even homes - the buttons consist of back and front spray (don't feel I need to go into any further detail). There's also a dryer and my personal favourite, the sound button, which plays loud flushing noises so you can be discrete. I believe some places play tunes, but I sadly never had the pleasure of one of those. Best of all, in the spring cold weather we at first encountered - heated toilet seat. Oh the joy! I do not know why everywhere in the world doesn't implement these toilets. I never got sick of them.


We were kind of apprehensive about Japan in the sense that we knew that very few people spoke English and thought it could be really hard work. Being very spoiled as an english speaker it generally means getting by travelling everywhere is a bit easier. We quickly learned that Japan's efficiency and willingness to help pretty much wipes out any language issue.

We zipped through the airport, obtained a suica card (similar to London's octopus/Hong Kong's octopus) for the Tokyo transport network and quickly found ourselves on our first train, nearing rush hour. Having heard about the crazy train system and the 'white glove shove', where it's so busy, station staff help you on by shoving you in basically. We thought we were going to be pretty unpopular with our big old rucksacks taking up much needed space.

We had a middle aged guy start to chat to us on the train (this is very unusual we learned). He was very sweet and had been in the navy, hence his English. He chatted to us about having been to London and Liverpool back in the day, how he was a Beatles fan and had seen Emerson, Lake & Palmer and even Pink Floyd concert at Berlin Wall. We struggled understanding him and he apologised that he spoke American English but that wasn't our problem, it was that he was talking to us through a medical mask. Even more prevalent here than Hong Kong and all well and good and understandable, but tricky when trying to understand anyone. Anyway, he was a real sweetheart, offered us advice on the train and I was quite touched by that encounter so early in our trip.

When we had to change trains, rush hour was setting in and we did get swamped by a sea of people, but it was fairly easy to work out and the train wasn't a complete crush. We ended up at our destination about 3 hours earlier than I had expected simply due to the lack of waiting and confusion you normally deal with when first arriving in a country.

We had airbnb'd our first 10 days and had a little studio flat, right next to Ōtsuka station on the Yamanote line. It was kind of coincidence, but I later realised that for tourists, especially first timers, being on the Yamanote line is a huge advantage.

The studio had a small kitchen, which was basically a sink, a few cupboards, a microwave and a hot water machine. The bed was futon style - no frame, but floor cushions. We discovered over time that this style, size of place is very common in Japan where space is often at a premium. It didn't feel cramped at all. I think the only thing is being on the floor all the time. I had a really bad cough while we were there and sleeping so low is hard for that.


My favourite things, apart from the location, was the bathroom which was kind of like a prebuilt pod. Again, we came across these elsewhere and are obviously a standard building fixture.


The other thing I like was the sound of the station. Admittedly not everyone's cup of tea, but we were right next to the tracks so you could here the trains and the announcements. I'd lived next to stations before but the trains are pretty quiet here and there's no building shuddering, like we used to encounter in a early 1900s building next to the tracks. It was more of a gentle swoosh. Also, each station plays tunes to tell you trains are coming. They have obviously been designed to not be irritating and they really never did. Some of them, like in Ebisu were quite comical/fairgroundish. And lastly, you had the pre-recorded announcements of the station. Ōtsuka would be pronounced more like Otska. The voice, tune and woosh of the trains ended up somehow coming across to me as utterly relaxing. I wish I'd recorded it to use when I have trouble sleeping elsewhere. I can at least close my eyes and think about it to feel soothed.
Oh and speaking of the trains. They are always, always on time. It's bizarre. I've never experienced the like. Apparently if a train is late (never saw it), you can get a little slip from the guard to show to your employer to prove that you are late because of the train. And I'm not talking about that they turn up roughly at the right time. They turn up and leave at exactly the right time. This makes getting about so much easier. The train network is quite complicated at first look as there are many lines, owned by different people so you often have to swap about (it makes the London underground map look like a hangman drawing), but the fact things arrive when they say they will, makes things a heck of a lot easier.


Our first night I didn't really know what to do, Tokyo isn't really made up of tons of tourist sites, but more different areas to explore. We ended up sleeping for a bit when we first got in and as it was getting dark about 6, didn't want to go somewhere difficult to navigate in the dark. Decided on Shibuya just because it was the main place I'd heard of. We would go back to Shibuya a fair few times before we left. It's a great area for shopping, eating, drinking and people watching.

The first thing you get when leaving Shibuya station is the Hachiko statue. You may have seen the cheesy (sob-fest) Richard Gere film about a dog who's would greet his owner, a professor, at the station everynight. The professor dies but Hachiko still turns up everynight for 9 years until he dies. I watched the film on a flight years ago and balled my eyes out, so knowing this was the station I was rather excited to see the Hachiko statue. I never managed to drag Mark to the museum of Nature and Science where the actual Hachiko's body is stuffed. Definitely next time!


The statue is a great meeting spot and this area is fantastic for people watching. Far from the suburban, almost rural station it was back in the 1920s, it is a crazy vibrant place today. The Hachiko crossing outside the station is one of the craziest with zebra crossing in all kinds of directions and is very famous. If you watch footage of it, it looks like it would chaotic, but no, this is Japan. It works. The lights change, people cross in the various directions and in order and it's all straightforward.



Our first dinner in Tokyo and we decided to give the vending machine thing a go. We loitered around the machine outside the restaurant, trying to work out exactly what to do, but someone quickly came out to explain. We chose a ramen noodle soup set. You select the button you want, put the money in (it never rejects notes - always works) and then you hand over the ticket when you walk in and take a seat. This place was setup as a big counter around the central cooking area. I'm not normally keen on sitting at counters. This is for a couple of reasons - one is comfort. Due to my height, sitting on a stool often means I'm kind of dangling and is a pain, especially when eating. Secondly, counters facing in often means bar or restaurant staff or the person next to you will talk to you. Sounds anti-social but not when I'm eating ta. But this is Japan (I will say this a lot as this did become my mantra). The counter stools are super comfy with a step for shorties feet and nobody talks to you. You realise actually that Japan is really good for lone dining. I certainly wouldn't have any qualms eating anywhere on my own now. It's all about the eating and everyone let's you get on with it.
We realised during this meal that we had a preconception of Japanese food being light and small, like it so often is in South East Asia. With Japan being known for their health and longevity and portions in UK Japanese restaurants being so small. Well this is way off. My god these people can eat. Huge portions with hearty sets often containing noodles and rice. Took us a while to adjust from eating such small portions in Thailand, but adjust we did. Of course everyone isn't eating masses all the time but it was, as I say, something we were surprised about.


We also first encountered the shouting that goes on in many of these joints. When you leave, the kitchen staff shout something at you. It's something along the lines of 'thanks for coming' but goes on a bit longer, generally when you've already walked out of the door. The rest of the time, you barely hear a pip out of them. You learn early on there's no need to politely wait for them to finish. You'd never get anywhere.
Our first meal, which was centered on the hugest bowl of ramen, with a bowl of rice and a plate of gyoza on the side, was utterly divine. This was a lot of food, free unlimited water (which they top up continuously) all for £7. Who said Japan was expensive?
The strangest thing about this place (which wasn't a one off as it was the same when we went back a week or so later) ... they placed Nora Jones on constant loop. And not just Nora Jones albums. Nope. The one song, 'Don't Know Why'. It's clearly their thing. There's lot's of things in Japan.


Love Hotels
Another thing you find around Tokyo, and there are a far few of in Shibuya, is Love Hotels.
There's a small area called Love Hotel Hill which I dragged Mark about trying to find, while he moaned that he was freezing to death. It was worth finding though and is right in town near the station. These are simply hotels that charge by the hour, but not in a sleazy kind of way, more in a, lot of couples have no where to go to get any privacy, kind of way. Because of the discreetness about this kind of thing in the culture, there is minimal contact with staff, so you don't have to be embarrassed. In fact in many of them you don't have to see a soul and can check in using touch screens.



Sadly, for me at least. Love Hotels have drifted away from the cheesy themes that they had become famous for and are now leaning towards slightly more tasteful rooms. I was gutted as wanted to find a crazy themed room but they all seemed a bit boring. Mark decided he'd actually like to go in one as it meant he could get warm and have a lie down.


Ikebukuro is an area, only a few stops from us that we explored on our second night.
I found my first Hello Kitty shop, which amazingly I go to have a good browse in, devoid of Mark's moaning (purely because it was freezing out and was toasty in the shop)


We had a potter around the Sunshine City complex which had some cool shops and a great display on stage of drumming, Taiko, by some kids who were pretty blooming tight. There is a game in the arcades based on this drumming which is huge there - Taiko Drum Master. It took us ages to find one to have a go on. I thought Mark would love it but I wouldn't really be that interested but actually it is incredibly addictive and fun.
You have 2 sticks and a big central drum. You pick your tune and level (you have to just guess as it's all in Japanese) then you follow the tune/rhythm. The different symbols mean you hit the drum in different ways in different places. It's great to see someone really good at it and it's quite physical so is knackering after a while. I would love to do it again - was gutted we left it so long to discover it. Mind you, you need to find a quiet place to do it, in a busy arcade the Japanese kids will watch you fascinated - they've grown up with it so are obviously really skilled and your rubbish skills are going to look really lame. Though I must say Mark, who obviously being a musician has good rhythm, was pretty good.

Here's a bit of footage of Mark having a go:

Here, we first encountered Pachinko. I had never heard about this before going to Japan and it is something I will never truly understand. But then I never really understood the whole pokeys thing in Australia either. Pachinko is a kind of arcade game, played with lots of silver balls - cross between a fruit machine and pin ball which the country is obsessed with. You are no officially allowed to make any money from the game but apparently you exchange your balls (the silver ones) for vouchers which you then can exchange in a shop somewhere up the road for prized. If you pick the mystery prize it's money. Or something like that. It sounds like it would be an underground thing, judging by this description but that couldn't be further from the truth. The Pachinko parlours are huge and they are everywhere, including very salubrious neighbourhoods.

The noise in one of these places is deafening because of the sound of the balls, there is an eerie light, the air is thick with cigarette smoke and yet you'll have little plastic whales to hold the pachinko balls. Can't get my head around it at all.


We ended up our evening in Ikebukuro visiting two places which would become 'go to's for us during our stay.

The Hub is a British themed bar/restaurant you find all over Tokyo and other cities - generally found in the basement. We were attracted most of all by the sign outside which indicated cheap prices and all importantly - no service charge. A lot of bars don't charge you to go in but you have to order a food snack for which they'll charge you so essentially this can get expensive if you want to do a pub crawl but which also we were a bit wary of, as it wasn't always obvious. So, the no service charge sign would often draw us in if we wanted a quick drink and a sit down.
But don't get me wrong, it is British themed, but it is not like an Irish or English bar you will find most places in the world. This is all totally Japanese and most of the clientele is Japanese and the twists on English food and descriptions in the menus alone are fascinatingly Japanese. This first night they had on the baseball which they go crazy for in Japan. The place was packed out with groups and couples - it was not a local game but Japan versus.. Brazil I think, but I could be wrong. So the only thing remotely English is the decoration - oh and some things on the menu but watching fish and chips eaten with chopsticks is a joy (and it is something we do ourselves at some point). We also discovered, in the Hub, the delightful snack of deep fried spaghetti. Now I'm not sure if it's cooked in water first or just straight in the oil, but then it's sprinkled with salt and makes the most moreish snack.


After a drink or two in the Hub we headed out in search of food. We again opted for a machine style choice. This one had no english but there was pictures so we just decided to guess. This ended up with me getting a cherry lobster tempura cake on top of soba noodle soup, which was to die for!! This place was an absolute gem and also was the cheapest place we encountered. I've no idea the name of the place as was only written in Japanese but we found another 2 - one in Sugamo an one in Akihabara. They also do another tempura cake with pink ginger and spring onions as well as a gorgeous curry and the best katsu out there. I worship this place. A really low key place - you sit around the edges rather than a counter. You get unlimited cold or hot water and they of course shout at you when you leave.



Yoyogi Park and Harajuku
Our first sunday in Tokyo we headed to Yoyogi park as had heard it was a hive of activity. It definitely was but the bitterly cold temperatures had kept many away. The park is massive and we just scooted through the bottom area. The trees were very bare, though a few buds on plum trees were coming through. There are groups of people practising dancing and singing and various other activities. Like many other asian cities we've been to, where space is a premium, the parks are a great place to come to for groups.

We warmed ourselves up with a snack from a mobile van. This was basically rice wrapped in beef with cheese and mayonnaise. Sounds gross but was lovely - and very warming.


On the corner of the park we got to check out the rockabillys - they have their own name but rockabilly kind of suits for want of a better description. They dress in 50s style and dance Sundays away on the south eastern entrance of the park. They were a little lacklustre on that first sunday but when we came back a week later when the temperatures had increased dramatically, there were a lot more of them jitterbugging about. I don't think it's particularly true to any style. It was quiet alarming at one point to realise they were dancing to Jive Bunny - clearly not purests!



Just around the corner from this end of Yoyogi is Harajuku.
Harajuku is an area loved by teens and young people for it's amazing shops full of crazy fashion. Takeshita is the main street which is super busy on a weekend but is full of amazing shops.


This is where you'll find people dressed up to the nines in their Cosplay outfits. This is basically them dressing up as their favourite anime/manga character.





I just adore the style here. It is now my mission to somehow come back to Japan just to shop.


We walked along and eventually reached to Omotesando Hills area where things got pricier but just as interesting for people watching.
Or dog watching...


And as further proof how much those pooches are love, we enjoyed watching this doggy photography studio in action.


We came back to Yoyogi with Derek, who was a guy Mark used to work with and is now a firm friend and my Japan guru. He had lived in Japan for a year, having already spent a bit of time there and also had a Japanese girlfriend so had all kinds of interesting insights which I just couldn't get enough of, like an excited kid. I loved hearing about all the oddities and contradictions. Some things had historical reasons which made sense, some is 'just because'. I also grilled him on acceptable behavior as was so worried about offending.

We went to the shrine in Yoyogi, which is near the centre of the park. On the pathway you pass a bunch of huge sake drums. As we went to other temples, you see Sake is a big part of temple culture.



We then went, via a number of different trains, to an area called Asakusa. This had an amazing shrine which had a pathway flanked by lots of stalls selling lots of touristy stuff but most of it nice quality but if it was tack it was the best tack!! I was kicking myself that we couldn't buy loads as we had to journey on with just our rucksacks. Mark got very into the chopstick selection. The shrine was amazing. There is some shrine etiquette which involves washing your hands before and throwing money, clapping twice and bowing. There is also sometimes a bell, on a long rope, to ring.
There were lots of school trips here and even the teenagers look quite adorable in their school uniforms.


After the temple we caught a bite to eat, which was quite fascinating. We went to a kind of western eating joint as they are cheap as chips. They are kind of like a Poppins or a Wimpey from the 80s. Everything about the place is quite 80s in fact and we found that with lots of these western style places, especially in the suburbs. The food is western food to Japanese tastes so is nothing that you would expect but of course, being Japan, it is incredibly tasty. And amazingly priced to. Western style food everywhere else we'd been cost a fortune so it seemed strange at first that the Western style is cheaper than Japanese style. Of course we quickly realised this is due to the quality of the produce used in Japanese food.


After stuffing our faces we headed back over to the west of town to Shinjinku. Shinjinku station is one of Tokyos main train hubs and it is quite mental and confusing. Knowing which exit you need is key.
The area is great for shopping and also for food and drink. It has the sleaziest drinking holes in Japan which aren't really that sleazy. But there are places you don't want to end up in. There are bars which basically don't want your custom - they like their regulars, but rather than turn you away (which wouldn't be polite), they will let you in, let you buy a drink/food and will then give you an extortionate bill which you will have to politely pay or you may, politely, pay the price. V strange. You hear stories about these places, but to be honest, they tend not to be the kind of places first time tourists head for anyway. I suppose it's similar to the pubs in the UK that don't like strangers. There they'll just stare and glare at you until you feel so uncomfortable that you leave - at least you don't have to pay a lot for that privilege though!



Derek, much to my excitement, gave us our first experience of a 100 Yen store. These are a bit like pound shops but they are big news here. People shop in them for all kinds of everyday stuff from food, to shampoo to detergent to all kinds of odds and ends. It kind of balances things out. Supermarket food and specialist things can be incredibly expensive, but quality is essential in Japan but for the every day bits and pieces people look for cheap prices so these shops are integral. They also have all kinds of interesting objects.


We had our second experience at the Hub - there are at least 2 in Shinjuku. One of them is pretty big but gets very smokey. We also discovered Happy Hour at the Hub. In the end it wasn't much use to us as we tended to have beer and wine but if you wanted spirits or cocktails it was a bargain. I basically had a pint of G&T for bargain price. This is great for a place with fairly expensive booze. Though strangely, most places, wine is cheaper than beer!

We later ventured out for a wander and met a guy on the street who was trying to get people up to a roof top bar. If this was anywhere else in the world I probably would have run a mile - but this is Japan! So we followed this guy from Nepal up in the elevator (this entrance was like a multistory car park) and ended up in this rooftop bar (though it being winter, had the outdoor stores covered with plastic roofing) and had a jolly little experience - an englishman (and girl), a scotsman in a Middle Eastern bar, drinking Japanese beer, eating edamame while some serious gangsta hip hop blares out.
We then ended up in a different Hub which is opposite said roof top bar. Derek had to (literally) run to get his last train. And we pretty soon called it a day and headed home too.


Chiyoda is just outside of the main Tokyo station and is home to the Imperial palace, which we kind of skirted around and this amazing park.


Having not been to a city with big scale galleries for so long, I was after going to Momot (Museum of Modern Art Tokyo).
We'd left it a bit late in the day as usual, my cold had me sleeping a lot, as was feeling pretty rotten and Mark, well Mark just didn't want to get out of bed and be dragged around!

It was a great place with lots of interesting little touches. My favourite thing was they had an exhibition on about the 1964 Olympics and all the branding (not that that word existed then) for it. From brochurs, to signs for the men and ladies rooms. There were the different fonts used and designs for cigarette packets, which of course seems crazy now. Though having been to Japan, where everybody smokes, maybe not so crazy. It was a bit of a retro geek fest for me. While Mark was very taken with a video of a performance art piece involving people chucking around cardboard boxes.

Electric Town
Electric Town is part of Akihabara and is where you can find tons of electrical goods, selling for great prices.



It is also an area popular for anime and manga and Maid Cafes.

Maid Cafes
Part of the the reason for going to this area was I wanted to visit a Maid Cafe and being a girl I wanted to go to one that was not too odd or full on for me.
Maid Cafes are essentially innocent places, but with an odd edge to them. They came up from the idea of somewhere for young men to go to get something to eat/hang out where him, being too shy to talk to girls, will get some female attention. Not in a lapdancing/strip joint/hostess club kind of way but by being served and talked to by giggling girls dressed in not so much skimpy outfits as themed ones. Though they are often skimpy in skirt length, that's something not seen as kind of risque there as you'll see really young kids dressed like it - it's just a look!
So we were going to Mai:lish cafe which is one of the first ones and has a victorian tea room style theme to it and the maids are supposed to be a little bit elusive/standoffish with you - ideal I thought. Understandably they have some rules, one of which is you can't take photos in there - any shy guy going in there doesn't want to end up on some tourists facebook. It's theme was a bit loose other than the maids had long skirts and there was tea and cake (very good tea and cake I might add). There was twinkling piano music in the background. Mark sat cringing through-out which I found quite amusing but it is a very odd concept - someone being kind of subservient and giggly.



There are lots of new variations popping up all over the city. There is butler cafe's for girls and there's a kind of maid's princess cafe for girls where you go in and get treated like a princess and they tell you you're pretty. There's even a maids cafe in the big shopping centre, DiverCity, in Tokyo Bay which is all very innocent and all about girliness and cute deserts with hello kitty faces - I so wanted to go in there but Mark was too traumatised by his last experience. The giggling freaks him out :)

There are huge signs all over Electric Town for the cafes and girls on the street (freezing their backsides off) trying to get you in - in a very not in your face, polite Japanese way - mainly by standing there looking cute.


Pet cafes
In similar, only in Japan, way, there are a bunch of pet cafes sprinkled around the city. We saw a few in Akihabaru, Harajuku and Shibuya. This is basiclaly because people live in tiny spaces so can't have pets. So you pay to go to these cafes to hang out with the animals. You can sometimes give them food, but that's controlled and it's mainly love that you give them. They are very strictly controlled in terms of the hours and by all accounts the animals definitely come first. I wanted to go to the rabbit one but we never had a chance.



In Electric Town and in Shinjuku we would often see, at night, a hummer driving around, music blaring, towing a truck with these two big contraptions on. Apparently it's some kind of thing you can go to and become a machine. Never quite figured it out.



We went to Ebisu to go to the Photography gallery. This was a fairly slick looking area that was mostly owned by one of the big beer companies so there were beer ads everywhere. We got to the photography gallery, only to find we couldn't get any money out anywhere in that area. We were being declined by all the cashpoints and this is where I learned a big lesson that you should really check these things out wherever you. I do in most countries, but Japan being technologically advanced you don't think it would be a problem. But it is. There are few cashpoints who will take foreign cards. 7'11, Citibank and Post Office - that's about it. So we have not internet so we don't know where to locate any of these so we are stuck. In the end we decide to go back to where we last got money out. This was when we were out with Derek in Shinjuku. When you're out and about with someone, it's easy not to take notice of your surroundings but I remember Derek saying he had trouble with this station and I specifically looked at the exit we went out of. So we jumped on a train back to Shinjuku, I found the right exit and from there was able to remember where to go (one of my few special skills). By this time it was too late to do much as so much shuts by 5 in Tokyo so we just went to the Hub where they had baseball on again. This is when we first partook of the deep fried spaghetti. Then we called it a day. Failure day.

We made it back to Ebisu the next day and the gallery was ok, but it really does depend on your taste and the exhibition they have on - Mark was a bit underwhelmed.

Who is that masked woman?
By this time my bad cough was getting worse and worse and didn't mix well with crowded trains. Coughing fits are frowned upon in a place where people wear masks so much (to keep germs in and out). So I gave in and wore one. And I liked it. A bit too much. I became a little attached to my masked and never felt stupid because no-one bats an eyelid. Don't know why everyone doesn't do it on public transport. It's like a little cocoon for your face - a bit like wearing shades, it's like you've got something to hide behind. Which probably explains it's popularity in Japan. And I hate having my photo taken but don't seem to mind when have a mask covering most of my face - when of course I should mind the most as I look quite the loon outside of Asia.


Nakano meguro
I wanted to check out various neighbourhoods in Tokyo as I think rather than just the more touristic ones, it's a great way to get a vibe for a city. So we went what is described as 'further afield' in my guidebook, which actually was just a few stops from Shibuya.
This neighbourhood had a free sculpture park which sounded interesting but we fell foul to the usual Tokyo problem - getting lost. Signposting attractions isn't a big thing here and matching things up against pre-downloaded google maps is tricky as most things are in Japanese. The biggest tip I would give to anyone visiting Japan is get a paper map - it's tricky enough even with one, and without it's even harder. Even the Japanese have admitted that they struggle finding things often. Their addressing system works in numbers, I won't go into it but it is based on prefecture, area then building number, so can be something like 32-6-4.

Anyway, we eventually, after much walking, we found the sculpture place. It was laid out over a few streets and was attached to a small shrine. It was up high on a hill and on the beautifully sunny day we had, the views were nice.


Having sussed out where we were, we decided to walk back a different way and we had an interesting (ok, just to me) walk through the suburbs of Tokyo. There were large blocks of flats, but spread out more and a lot more stand alone properties, some fairly large, well for Tokyo. The architecture was all over the place, mostly modern but lots of cute buildings. We passed a park along the way which had tons of bikes parked up with kid seats. Seemed like everyone their had them, but oddly that must have meant they all had the one kid.


The area itself was a quiet neighbourhood. There is a little river running through it though that seemed to be only a dribble at the time. I was so taken with Tokyo at this point I was eyeing up everywhere we went for potentially living in! I do have a tendency to do that when I like somewhere (Melbourne, NY - I have lots of arguments with myself about where would be best location - pointless but I often lose sleep!).

Not ashamed to be a Tourist
We needed to sort out our rail passes - exchange our orders for real tickets so we decided to head to Tokyo station, the main station in town.
It was all really straight forward, if anyone needs to do this. You find the right kiosk, you hand over your exchange order and passport and they give you your pass. The pass then doesn't take affect until the first time you use it, when you need to get it stamped. After that you just show it to the guards as you go through.

While in this area we decided to pop to the Tourist Information place to get some maps (finally!) and details for Kyoto and Hiroshima.
For total sod's law we couldn't find the bloody thing. They had recently moved. It's now in an office fairly near Tokyo station so we did a wasteful full circle trying to find it. It's definitely worth going to, they have load of useful info there and are really sweet and helpful. We even went upstairs to their little cultural centre. It's a new thing for them and I don't think they're really used to it, but they were really nice and keen to help. English not being spoken so much, we found 2 of the 3 young staff up there had lived in England. They had traditional Japanese games, caligraphy and various bits and pieces going on. I don't usually partake in that kind of thing but they were so sweet and wanting to be helpful, that I did decide to try on a Kimono. Wow that thing is pretty heavy and it's amazing actually, it's almost like a corset, it makes you have good posture.


Vampire cafe

Tokyo station is not far from Ginza and I had a plan, that I hadn't told Mark about, to try to go to one of Tokyo's themed restaurants. It's was friday night so I thought, having not booked, that getting there at opening time (5pm) might give us a shot. There are a ton of themed restaurants in Tokyo - from Alice in Wonderland, the Lockup and Alcatraz (both jail themed), as well as Ninja theme, I wish I'd had time to go to more of them - I particularly fancied a Ninja leaping at me.

We had a wander around Ginza for a while. This is quite an expensive area, but it is also really interesting. It has lots of specialist shops - Kimono's (and the funny wooden flip flops that go with them), Chopsticks, Cameras, all kinds of food. They had some divine looking restaurants too.
We got to the Vampire Cafe and I was right in that they managed to fit us in before the first evening booking.


The place was suitably decked out. Very dark with red lighting, a screaming noise whenever you entered it from the lift.
There was a large coffin in the middle of the room and you get to eat in a velvet curtained booth. There was also a retro horror film-esque organ music.

I had a weird and wonderful cocktail and we ordered the 5 course set meal. It's definitely not about the food here, but being Japan the food is of course good - they don't do bad. The food was presented in fun ways, with bat and teeth shaped things. Oddly, our fish course was fish and chips (really good fish and chips mind) which we ate using chopsticks!



Tokyo Tower
Tokyo Tower is basically a bigger, orange copy of the Eiffel Tower. That's the kind of thing they do there, and Iike it. There were other places to go, like the new sky tower and the government building in Shinjuku which was free but I wanted to go to this place most as it was a bit cheesy.


It's much of a muchness city view wise - a bit too cloudy for a chance of seeing out to Mount Fuji, but was a fun experience, the other tourists there were mainly Japanese and they were having a whale of a time and their giggly enthusiasm, as smartly dressed middle aged folk, was a contagious.
The Tokyo Tower mascot - well words fail me on that one.


Ueno Park

This is such a lovely place and is a park that comes alive at weekends - families, couple, friends alike, all out enjoying it. The weather had turned at this point and was generally warm and sunny.

Mark got to enjoy a bit of street performance while I went in search of cherry blossom (no luck at this point). The place is pretty big and separated into various sections. There's a zoo, a few museums and a lake area which has a strange marshy thing going on.


The street food in the park was amazing. We picked a bunch of stuff having no idea what it was and were rewarded well.



A walk through some older style streets from Ueno park, in the direction of Asakusa, we reached Kappabashi-dori. This is a street which sells to the restaurant/cafe trade. As well as things such as industrial kitchen equipment, knives, coffee beans, signs and chopsticks, this place has lots of shops selling the display food, so synonymous with Japanese food. I love this stuff so much and would love to have bought so much of it. I have no idea what I would have done with it but I still plan to have a good collection at some point.




Everything from drinks, to sushi, noodles, soup, even junk food gets the treatment.



Back to Yoyogi

On our last Sunday we went back to Yoyogi and discovered a whole other (massive) side to this park. When you go to the north side of the park, it is like going for a walk right out in the countryside. It's huge and beautiful - there's birdwatchers and people having picnics in little enclaves. Couldn't believe this was in central Tokyo.


We actually ended up getting lost and going around in circles - fantastic exercise, but it also meant we stumbled upon (more than once - we really were going round in circles), the shrine we had been to previously with Derek and, it being the weekend, we were treated to watch the traditional weddings that were going on there. The brides and grooms parade through the shrine covered by a red umbrella and it's really gorgeous to watch. How do the Japanese make shuffling look graceful?


We enjoyed the dancing rockabilies (more in number in the good weather) and ignored the English guy giving out leaflets about mind control!?!?

Bullet Train

With sorry hearts, but safe in the knowledge we had a few days in Tokyo at the end of our Japan trip, we had to make our way to Kyoto. We left one of our rucksacks in our Otsaka apartment, thanks to our lovely airbnb host who said he'd look after it for us, so less laden down than usual, we headed for Tokyo station to get our first Shinkansen bullet train.

These trains are really incredible. They are so beautiful - designed at a similar time to concord I believe and certainly with similar styling, they not so much arrive as shwoosh into the stations. When you are on them, it's comfortable, quick and the tilting is bizarre but feels very safe. The most delightful train travel I have ever and surely will ever experienced and all in this slick, white, sexy shell (although they've got a gorgeous new red one they've just launched).


This was our rail pass which was very un-technology based - if you lose this card, you're screwed, even though it costs a lot. But at least it's pretty and I can't bring myself to part with it.


We were on the wrong side of the train to get a good view of Mount Fiji on the way to Kyoto but Mark did spot it and we did see it from afar. We had snacks, you could buy hot drinks and best of all the guards bowed every time they entered or left the carriage. There is nothing not to love on these amazing bullet trains.

Posted by KtandMark 16:48 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Thailand - Going coastal & catapult chicken in Bangkok

So we left Chiang Mai, with the added excitement of our taxi driver reversing into a bus outside Margaret and Don's hotel. Luckily it didn't delay us, just baffle us, and the days travelling went really smoothly. We flew to Bangkok then was met by a driver with a mini van who then drove us the few hours south to Hua Hin. It was really a great way to travel. Cost effective when there's 4 of you, probably not so much if there's only 2. Would definitely recommend Oriental Escape for anyone who's nervous about travel in Bangkok or who wants a simple and safe way to get from a to b.

Hua Hin

We returned to Hua Hin as we were trying to find a beach resort so Margaret and Don could enjoy that side of Thailand. Most of the other beach resorts that we could reach were either on the seedy side or really awkward to get to. Hua Hin is a couple of hours by car from Bangkok and is a popular resort with the Thais and having been there before, we had more of an idea of what we were getting.


It's definitely a pretty place down by the sea with the various piers you can sit on to drink and eat. It's got an old side to part of it which are quite characterful. Though of course it has modern and cheesy parts like anywhere - burger king and girlie bars. But in Hua Hin you can easily avoid that side.
We stayed right in middle of town, whilst Margaret and Don were out at a resort further out of town. We realised that actually being in town was not that ideal as food was more expensive and generally not as good. It's a funny place Hua Hin. Most of the seafront is taken up by hotels and apartments so although it has a beautiful white sandy beach, you can't really use it unless you're staying somewhere with access. The small patches of private beach have so many loungers on it you'd be practically cuddling the person next to you. Seeing as that would likely be a lobster red, half naked, rotund old german guy - not ideal.

Our guest house was german or swiss run, wasn't sure which and was ok but a bit odd. The guy who runs it just sits around all day as does his grumpy Thai wife. There's a large young lady with a moustache who cleans the rooms and who I managed to bond with a little over our time there by giving her big smiles whenever I saw her which she reciprocated enthusiastically. They were all so miserable there and I figured she needed a bit of niceness.
Now our room was big and (must be the german efficiency thing) had everything we needed - lots of plug sockets in convenient places - you have no idea how rare this is! But we didn't have a top sheet and when we asked they gave us a blanket. Ok. Bit odd when it's over 30 degrees C out there. But the thing that was really terrible was that after cleaning the room sweet moustache lady would stand in the doorway and spray air freshener into it for a good 20 seconds. I have witnessed her do this on another room. The result being, when you return to your room you open the door to a chemical bio-hazard. I'd have to sit out on the steps outside the room for 10 minutes while it de-toxified (thank god we could open the windows there).

We were lucky to catch some of the Chinese New Year celebrations which had fire-crackers going off quite terrifyingly and then lots of lights and cheesy singing. Unfortunately we literally did stumble on it on the way home and Margaret and Don had already gone on their shuttle bus home so missed it,


Eating or drinking at one of the pier restaurants was always nice as it would be cool and really atmospheric.


After a couple of nights eating down by the pier, we tried up by the night market, which had a totally different vibe to it and was a great people watching spot. The food was pretty expensive so generally just drooled over the amazing lobsters on offer.



It was Margaret's birthday while we were there so they invited us up to their hotel for dinner which, her birthday being Valentines day, had a special menu and was all dressed up. We went early to enjoy their access to the sea and their swimming pool which was a real treat having spent much of our time holed up in our guesthouse. The sea was lovely as was the pool area. The hotel were very sweet and delivered her a cake. Rained on our parade as we had brought a little incy one with us - it looked like the cake's poor cousin. But we did have everlasting candles which is ALWAYS funny and we did have to laugh as the cake they made said to 'Mr Hatter' on it.


We had a fun meal with some good music and even dancing by the sea.


Our absolute saving grace in Hua Hin was a little cafe we discovered called Homestyle Hua Hin which had been opened by a lovely lady who had quit the rat-race of Bangkok to open her cafe by the sea. In a place full of mediocre, overpriced and bad-attituded (I know that's not english) restaurants in Hua Hin, this really was a diamond in the rough. She gave us a few things to try as well and we learned about a great Thai desert to take the edge off after a hot curry. She also does the most amazing wholemeal roti which we had every single time. Her Khau Soi, Mark's favourite Chiang Mai speciality, was incredible. She'd apparently studied (chemistry I think) at Chiang Mai which is why this was part of her repertoire. This, without doubt, was the best one I'd ever tasted.
If you're ever in Hua Hin, find this place, it's a treat.



Bangkok is great and annoying at the same time. There's so much available there - but it's hot and a bugger to get about.
The traffic is just mental. I don't know how anyone every got anywhere before they built the sky train. I'm a big fan of the skytrain - it doesn't cover a great distance and certainly isn't a proper public transport system for the city but it does get you further afield cheaply, quickly and in amazing air conditioning.


We stayed in the main shopping area of Bangkok, mainly because we'd stayed nearby before and don't really know any other areas. It's pretty full on staying here - it's crazy busy. The main downside I would say is that there isn't a great deal of cheap decent eats about the place and certainly no where to have a quick cheap drink. Now that I've spent a bit of time in Bangkok I definitely know better areas to stay for next time where you're close to things but yet get some peace and quiet.

Lizards in Lumpini
Lumpini park is a short walk away from where we were staying. However in the heat of Bangkok, a short walk like that is very hard going. Luckily it was worth it as not only is it a lovely park in the middle of the craziness, it is cooler there than on the streets and best of all it's full of massive monitor lizards.
We'd gone in search of them and hoped just to spot one so were surprised to find one almost immediately - there are quite a lot there so you can't really miss them. They can be quite camouflaged, I nearly stepped on one that was blended into the lake edge.


There's always something going on in Bangkok and something to look at. There were amazing decorations and lights setup for chinese new year.



There are also lots of mini shrines setup in the main shopping thoroughfares.


When we left a massive street art festival was going on - we were gutted to not see the finished results - it's the amazing street paintings which create 3d like effects and they had some of the best artists in the world there for it.

I wanted to find a Vietnamese restaurant in Bangkok as, it being on of our favourite places, I wanted to share just a tiny bit of this with Margaret and Don as we weren't able to take them to the country itself. Siagon Recipe restaurant is really good and a lot of food for good prices too. It's not in the thick of things, you have to make an effort to get to, but it is in a pretty afluent neighbourhood so it's cool walking round there - you can find it off Soi Sukhumvit49. The bun cha was amazing.


Flying Chicken Restaurant

Now I had to drag everybody a bit further out of central Bangkok for this one and we had a hairy moment when we got off the skytrain to realise there was no where to get a taxi and we were in the middle of nowhere. Luckily we were on a busy dual carriageway so, slightly ropey as it was for him to stop a taxi did come over to get us. We then had to try to explain to him where it was. We had assumed that there would be local taxis and everyone would know about this place but I think this guy was passing through. We kept saying chicken (later realising that Mark knows Thai for chicken but hadn't thought to use it). I'd come prepared with telephone numbers etc so he phoned them up and as he dropped us off outside with the huge statue of a cockerill outside, the taxi driver just laughed and was like "ahh CHICKEN!!!".

So, the Flying Chicken restaurant (Ka-tron) does what it says on the tin and then some. If you order the flying chicken then you will get a whole chicken, but only after it has been lit on fire, fired out of a catapult and caught (if they are successful) on a spike on the head of a unicyclist. Yep, you read that correct. Fantastic eh? It was honestly such a blast, one of most fun things have done in Thailand.


Mark had a go at catching a bake potato on his head, with the spiked helmet on, I might add, and without the unicycle. He was rubbish!

They had the perfect setup for a photo - this unicycle is on a pole which they stick into the ground and so you can sit on it perfectly balanced for your photo shoot - genius!


The pictures don't really do it justice - check it out on Mark's youtube video which also has other crazy Thai footage from our last weeks.
I particularly like the bit where they're throwing potatoes at Mark's head and I can be heard shouting "I hope it hits him in the face" and "Man-up". Aren't I the BEST girlfriend? ;)

So, as we bade farewell to Margaret and Don, we welcomed our friend Elena from Singapore. She had met us in Phuket in our first week in Thailand so it seems fitting she'd meet us for our last.

She was staying in a serviced apartment about 15 minutes walk from us and from the moment she arrived we basically bummed around her flat having lazy fun. We were knackered from all the running around we'd been doing and she was just back from travelling half way round the world so we were all happy to be sloth like. Well Mark and I were sloth like, it's impossible for Elena to be, or if she was she'd do it in heels!!

We discovered the freezer worked a little bit too well in that when we took a bottle out of the freezer and put it in the icebucket, the ice set on the bottle and didn't defrost for ages. Was quite fascinating.


We took the opportunity to use the apartment and it's proximity to some good supermarkets to have a couple of great feasts with much non asian contraband involved - mucho meat and cheese.


There was a great view from the apartment and we spotted that there was a tennis court on one of the buildings roofs.


We did venture out, but not far up the road to the most amazing restaurant that Elena and friends had stumbled upon a while back.
Gaggan's was setup by a chef who used to work at El Bulli so when Elena asked if I'd like to go I confirmed by jumping up and down excitedly. I love travel eating and discovering food that way but I have always loved a good restaurant and have really missed that part of my old life.
So the setting was divine in a colonial style oasis down a side street, all beautifully lit with a lovely atmosphere.
The food is described as 'Indian progressive' - using indian flavours with various fine dining and moleculary techniques. We went for the 10 course taster menu. Who wouldn't?

The first thing that really blew my mind was the lamb burger. Take a look at the picture below. The pink thing which looks like a macaron? That was the lamb burger. The outside melted in your mouth and although your brain was telling you that it should be something sweet, the flavour engulfs you and you can kind of taste seaside type lamb burger - ketchup and mustard. Tastebud-tabulous!


Other course included oysters with foam, mussels, a soft souffle in an egg shell, soup, tempura style chillies, a chick and egg combo with an egg somehow poached in a sauce - another mind blower.
We also ordered a coriander tandoori chicken which was an amazing mix of Indian and Thai flavours.




The main course was a curry with various style naan breads. Never had anything like it. Also, having not had a decent Indian curry since we've been away, it was a most welcome flavour of home. Our dessert was an ice-cream type thing (I think they might have used the old liquid nitrogen for this. It was a little hard so the quite mad and delightful maitre'd broke it up and started to spoon feed us. Sounds odd but was very funny (and we'd have a very few at this point).


My absolute 'clap hands like a child' moment came with the course which had a glass dome containing smoke, the aroma of which adds to you detectible delights. Always wanted to try one. Comes from watching too much Heston.

Our second best bit of fun, after the meal, was the amazing 'lobby cam'. One of the channels on the TV showed live footage from the reception, I guess so you can see who's coming to visit you etc. In our fragile states and for lack of any other entertainment, we ended up quite addicted to watching this. Most of the time nothing happened. It got exciting when someone came in to look at the cakes. Nothing would happen for ages then suddenly you'd get 3 checkins at once. Oh the excitement. And the guess the nationality game was fun too. Forget Big Brother - Lobby Cam is the way forward.

So after sending Elena on her way and a bit of last minute shopping, so ended our time (almost a year) in South East Asia.

Posted by KtandMark 11:35 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Thailand - Elephantastic & Bye Bye Chiang Mai

by Kt

So after spending many, many months in Chiang Mai it was finally time to leave for good. After months of a very quiet life, doing online work and ticking by, our last couple of weeks in Chiang Mai and in fact Thailand were a whirlwind of activity and craziness.

We took advantage of the fact that dental work in Chiang Mai is both cheap but also of a really high standard. Lots of people fly there specifically to have dental work as it can be cheaper than doing it in their own country. The dentist even had a little coffee shop at the front and a fish tank in the shape of a tooth. You can't go wrong with that can you? I was really impressed and for the amount of work we had done (well Mark mainly), can't believe the cost.
Having never had a filling as an adult, I didn't really know what it would involve when I was told that I needed one and I'm still amazed now you can't see a thing. Good job amazing dentist lady.

I was very put out that the most amazing restaurant and bar opened in our last couple of weeks just down the road from us. Bam 7 has korean food, good wine and amazing seating - all mid-century design and comfy as hell. They have cool live music too. Their menu was also a cook book. A really interesting, creative and cool place - was gutted it had not been there the whole time.

Social interaction and that
After over a year seeing no-one from the UK, we saw 2 lots of people in the space of a week. So nice to hit the town, not just the 2 of us.
First up Dawn and Mark had been hopping around Thailand and Chiang Mai was their last stop before heading home. I have been away with Dawn a couple of time and we are good socialising (read drinking) buddies, and after months of abstinence I was very much looking forward to it.
We only had a couple of days, but we managed to go to a few classic Chiang Mai places - Ginger & Kafe and the River Market and put ourselves about a bit. Dawn was hobbling around having sustained an injury at the Thai boxing in Koh Samui. No, it wasn't in a fight, she just fell over on the way out!

I gratefully received a massive pack of Yorkshire tea, as well as some green and black, the dark chocolate one of which I was so looking forward to, but Mark polished off when drunk. Not impressed would be the understatement of the year.


One of the nights we went into town to meet up was particularly fun as, in a tuk tuk on the way, the heavens opened and we were completely drenched by the time we arrived at their hotel. We then had to stay in for a while as it was blowing a gale outside. The glass panes of the hotel were shaking. When we eventually went out the streets around us had flooded, but luckily the River Market, which I'd intended to take them to was not too far away and luckily they had enough backup lights and candles to deal with the power cut the storm had caused. So the 4 of us had a romantic evening.


We also shared a Thailand first with Dawn and Mark, in that in the nearby, slightly seedy, drinking area we got to see a dwarf thai boxing, watched on by ladyboys with dancing chihuahuas (don't ask). We also experienced the worst toilets of the trip in a gay bar near their hotel. Made rural Laos look positively civilised! It was a great couple of days and for some reason, I don't seem to have any photos. Probably a good thing.

Crossing over with Dawn and Mark briefly, we also had Mark's mum, Margaret and her partner Don, over for a longer visit. They were staying slap bang in the middle of the old city which definitely turned out to be a great idea as they got to walk all over exploring all the Wats and wonder inside the city walls. Much to my delight we got to take them to various other Chiang Mai places as well as going back a second time to Ginger & Kafe and the River Market. Had to get my moneys worth before we left! It was great ordering things to share too - getting to try anything that we hadn't gotten around to.

I also got a load of these. Happy days! I had marmite on toast everyday for a week.


It was nice to introduce everybody to our neighbourhood as well - to see where we have lived most of this time and to see the difference in where we live as compared to the touristic old city. And of course to visit the crazy garden haven of iBerry ice-cream shop.


Margaret and Don timed it well as there was a week of celebrations for the flower festival. There was lots of things going on at the gate and they got to see a parade on one day. There was a show on one night with all the kids performing dances and best of all little comedy sketches. The cutest thing ever!
They were also there long enough to enjoy a sunday night walking street and all the tasty treats that involves. And shopping - boy did they enjoy the shopping.


One of the things we knew we wanted to do before we left, and decided to do with Margaret and Don, was an elephant experience.
Now, there are a lot of elephant experiences available in Thailand. There's elephant shows, there's still elephants traipsed around the streets of cities (thankfully at least banned in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, though we have seen a baby elephant on the streets of Phuket). The main thing you get up in the Chiang Mai countryside is the outdoor elephant experience. Most of these places offer elephant riding of one description or another. To be honest, when we first went there I wasn't really aware this was a problem. I suppose you see pictures over the years of mahoots on elephants and of people riding them on safari or royalty even in India. However, I wanted to make sure that I went to the most sound and decent choice and upon looking into this I realised that actually riding on elephants might be a bit of a dream for people but it's certainly no dream for the elephants and some of the elephants are treated very badly - either just by not being fed enough, worked too hard or in even more unpleasant ways. Without doubt the Elephant Nature Park has the seal of approval as a place that puts the elephant first. In fact, it's not really about the tourist at all, it is a rescue centre and I'm sure if they could get by without the tourists they would, but it's a happy bedfellow to get people to come and experience the place and pay towards it's upkeep. In fact, lots of people stay for a week or more as volunteers and pay for the privilege. I think there is one other elephant place in the area which has the thumbs up, the rest are just not ideal and it's more about the money than the animals. So if you visit, please do your research as it really, really does matter.

The woman who runs the place is, as Dawn, who'd visited the week before us, quite rightly says, inspirational. Lek came from a small village, where her grandfather was the local medicine man (for want of a better description). She has an affinity with elephants and made it her life's work to rescue them.


She has animals from all over at her place - some rescued from Burma (where they still are used for work - this has been banned in the rest of South East Asia) and some from Cambodia where they'd been injured by land mines. If she hears of an animal in trouble, she does what she can to get to it. They even provide healthcare for all the elephants in the area (unfortunately helping the cheap owners who use them to make money from tourists but who won't look after them properly). She also has a massive kennels on the property where they have hundreds (if not near thousands) of dogs, most of whom were rescued from the Bangkok flooding a few years ago.

So what to our 'experience'? Well, it started badly. We decided not to take much with us and so we locked up most of our money and cards in our backpack cage, only to realise we had also locked in BOTH keys. It was at least both our faults which I think prevented murder. In the end we realised we couldn't do anything about it until we got home so we just got on with the day. However, we were not particularly welcoming (and key fiasco or not this would have grated) to the ladies on the mini bus with the ukeles. Luckily we had a video for much of the journey so they stayed pretty quiet, though somebody was trying to play along to the theme tune I believe until Mark gave them a dirty look.
I won't mention this group of woman again, so as not to focus on the negative of what was an amazing day, but ukele lady and her friends were a pain in the backside. Very loud and look at me-ish. They'd get in everyone else's way and their photos of their experience was the priority of the day. And as for the ukele playing and loud singing during break times. Seriously - this wonderful place was peaceful and there were people sat around in various areas contemplating life the universe and everything - only to have this peace ruined by these dappy mares. I think the icing on the cake was on the way back when one of them said we should all put in money to buy a ukele for our guide (who she'd already explained to that her $100 ukelele was entry level back in the USA to). She did this in front of him and there was an awkward silence where at least one of their party suggested that perhaps it was up to the individuals and they should talk about it later. The worst thing about this was the guy was in the van with us and can here all this. Now if there's one thing you should learn about Thais (particularly men) before visiting their country is that they are proud and that losing face is the worst possible thing for them. This guy was clearly not pleased and I don't blame him. My blood was boiling. I mean he wasn't exactly poor or anything anyway - he has a good job that he clearly loves - how patronising to assume he couldn't buy himself such a luxury if he wanted. These weren't young people by the way - it was a group of older ladies who should flipping well know better. It did remind us why we don't go on trips very often!

Anyhow, now that I vented about the bad manners of our other group members, I can assure you that nothing so banal could detract from the amazingness of this place.
The grounds are huge, set between the mountains, jungle and a river, the huge expanse gives the elephants all the space they need.


The areas you walk around as a day tourist are actually quite small in the percentage of the size of the land. They have built a large wooden covered area on the edge, from which you can go to viewing platforms and walkways that are up high and in the shade.

The walkways can also be used as big scratching posts too:


You can feed the elephants (under supervision) from these main area. You never get elephants walking about without a mahoot/caretaker nearby to keep an eye on things. They also only bring them out towards the public in shifts and for limited periods of time. If you look at photos taken at the park because everyone would have elephants and people in them it would look like you constantly have elephants and people interacting and they are everywhere, but that's so not the case - it's just when everyone takes the photos. The small groups are spread out in time and area and the animals are never swamped with too many people. They pretty much do their own thing. If they don't want to hang around, they won't. Of course, when they are being fed, they are pretty likely to! You get taught how to hand the food to sit in their trunk for them to throw into their mouths.


The stories of the various elephants are heartbreaking. There are many blind and partially blind elephants there, not least because traditionally the working animals are usually controlled by violence and a stick in the eye is pretty effective it seems.
The lady in the photo below, Medo, was mistreated in that the owner tried to mate her with a bull elephant way, way, way too big for her as she was too young. The result? A broken back and hips. You can't fix an elephant with injuries like that, so this is how she lives. Heartbreaking! But she is a lovely lady and is the one I gravitated towards - she totally stole my heart.


One of the other highlights is bath time. You literally go into the river with them and a bucket and help give em a good wash. They love it.
Now let me tell you, at 5 foot 1 and a half, throwing up a bucket of water at an elephant isn't going to be all that effective. Didn't manage much higher than mid ear!


The day ends with a video, a wake up call and a laugh - you'll have to go to find out what I mean.

If you ever want to donate to a good cause or just educate yourself some, then please look at www.elephantnaturepark.org/


Posted by KtandMark 17:03 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

China - Hong Kong Architecture & Art

by Kt


Hong Kong

Although I wasn't particularly inspired by the skyline as we floated in on that grey day, I soon appreciated the shiny mega buildings and the vast blocks of apartments you get as you see as you edge out of the financial districts.

I was amazed how few apartment blocks had balconies. I get that they need to be small, but to be able to just step out a few inches into fresh makes such a difference I think. None-the-less there was something about the buildings in Hong Kong that just drew me in - even the grimy, run down ones!

There's a lot of 40s-60s architecture which I love but sadly they are having a tendency to knock this down (and even older). It's apparently an ongoing battle to convince the Hong Kong big wigs not to rip everything down but that restoration can be good.














Well Macau had the huge, vegas-esque casinos standing in massive grounds as well as the narrow european style streets of the old city. Throw in some 60s blocks and you've got an unusual mix but it kind of works. Will be interesting to see how it will change in the future. Hopefully not all big old hotel-casinos but they do seem to be building them on nondescript land - not knocking down great old areas. At least I hope not. But if they do, I hope they are kind of themey and a bit tacky and fun - not dull like the copy of the Wynn they've got there. There were a few example of new architecture that were quirky. Will be interesting to see this place in 10 years.





It was nice to be back in a city full of art. Be it big exhibitions in galleries or street art or illustrations - there was a visual treat everywhere.


Warhol exhibition

We went to the Warhol exhibit at the art museum in the harbour of Kowloon which was really nicely done. Always love a bit of Warhol.
I really liked that the way they advertised the exhibition so proudly and in essence made the building part of the exhibit.


Posted by KtandMark 07:44 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

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