A Travellerspoint blog

Honduras - Thrilla in Utila (or not)

by Kt

So we spent a very long time here - just under 4 months. It's kind of difficult to write a blog about it as in essence not a real lot went on, well not for me anyhow. We came for Mark to dive and do dive courses, I was just to hang about, hopefully make some money and get some sun. Well, in the end, despite powercuts, and often dodgy internet I did manage to get some work, which was cool as without that I think I should have gone mad. I didn't get much sun, as apart from diving, there isn't really anywhere much to go to get the sun on this little island. It's all about the diving. It's full of dive shops and pretty much every visitor is there to dive. It's all anyone talks about too which could also get a tad tedious, so I would say to anyone who might like to come-along with a diver, think long and hard about that.

There's lots of not so great things I could say about this small, often frustrating island but in these months I have had some good times and met some fab people. I've also met some not so fab people, but I'll let that go.

First up - our trip here was fraught with problems, out 7 hours stopover in Miami turned into about 30 minutes due to delays in San Francisco - this meant we were unable to get any US dollar to bring to the island - our brief stopover in Grand Cayman didn't help as the airport ATM was out of order. We had just enough dollars to pay the guy who gave us a lift from La Ceiba airport to the ferry dock. Not a taxi I might add - the tourist info guy came out of his booth to get us a taxi but ended up sending us off with some random guy - oh well, we made it, we may have not been convinced we would, but we did.

So, I'll start with the bad stuff - get it all out in a theraputic styleee.

The bad and the ugly....

We ended up staying in the same apartment block for the whole time. Not the greatest but it was kind of a case of better the devil you know and it was at least central. When we turned up we got a room rather than an apartment for 2 nights which after 3 days on the road from Tokyo to Utila, we were did not need. This turned out to be typical Utila. Someone hadn't left, she wasn't going to turf them out, so it was tough. After about 5 weeks in the first apartment we moved next door to the better situated one which had more light, more windows and less noise. This made a huge difference and probably prevented me going completely and utterly beserk - only just though.

Money

There are 2 ATMs on the island and no other way of changing money. The ATMs were often out of service and sometimes just out of money. They didn't allow you to get much money out at a time and the costs for each transaction were high. One of the ATMs, near the rotisserie chicken shack was only in Spanish, but was kind of easy to work out. The dodgy thing about this ATM though was that you had to exit/essentially log out. We've been in behind people who hadn't done this - we didn't of course take advantage of this, but there would of course be plenty of people who would so if anyone's going to Utila, be aware of this! This ATM was also more tempramental and you sometimes had to try a few times to get it to work. Unfortunately this could flag up with your bank at home so I ended up having my card cancelled to make life even more complicated. You basically had to make sure you never let yourself run out of money before getting some more. That wasn't always possible, for instance during the dive festival it was out of money for quite a few days due to the extra number of people on the island. Having a stash of dollars for backup would have really helped us as they will accept them a lot of places.

Visiting costs - there's an entry and exit fee to Honduras and if you stay for longer than 3 months, as we did, you pay extra too. However, it is a really easy process in Utila to extend - just go to the Immigration office down by the ferry pier. It's all in Spanish but fairly easy to work out.

NOISE!!!!!!!!!!

Unless you go out to the towns edges, Utila town is noisy. Really noisy. Someone is always shouting. There are virtually no cars but the quad bikes, tuk tuks (I know - v wierd having just left south east asia) and motorbikes driving down the narrow road somehow bounce a wall of noise off all the wooden buildings. Everything being wood, the vibrations cut right through you from any traffic, drilling, loud music etc that you have been blessed with that day.
The absolute worst was our neighbour across the road, who pretty much every other day, entertained us all with his electronic 80s organ - at an unspeakable volume as he sung (badly) along to terrible country and western - the bass shaking our floorboards. The ant-social (ie rudeness) of this probably drove us the most mad but seemed not to bother the other neighbours though I think it's because they were all related anyhow. If I was ever going to have a Falling Down, go crazy moment - this guy would have been the final straw.
Everyone here shouts. They don't walk over to the person they want to speak to, they shout. You get used to it, but as none of the buildings have any insulation it's generally like you have a few people in the room with you shouting at each other.

We also had parrots. Their chattering and singing of happy birthday and old mcdonald was cute and amusing at first. Not 4 months on when you've got kids running around the place shouting and screaming and setting them off and you think if you don't get some peace soon you really will lose what's left of your mind.

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Mark didn't really 'get' this until the last month or so when he was home more. Before he was out for much of the day diving/doing courses. When he spent long periods at home in the daytime, trying to concentrate on things - he realised why I'd been going slowly mad all those weeks. I guess that's the thing - if you're here to dive, this wouldn't affect you so much as you're out for chunks of the day and the night time wasn't generally quite so bad. I know it did drive other people in the building crazy too. When they were painting the building you'd often have someone shouting, banging singing, right outside your open window. I particularly enjoyed this first thing in the morning.
I took to staying up into the early hours as, along with it being cool, this was the most peaceful time.

May-heey

Our other noise, bizarelly bothered me the least. Our neighbour in the house next door liked to sit on the porch and scream and wail and shout abuse at all hours. To be fair I don't think he ever went in the house - no idea if it was his or not, he seemed to live on the squalid porch. Our first room overlooked (very closely) his porch so we never opened the window or even the curtains. The house smelt bad as you went past it and when we were in that room we got a heck of a lot of cockroaches. He disappeared for a few weeks at one point and we were a little worried but he came back, possibly a little quieter but sadly, I think, a bit more disturbed. I don't know if he'd gone to hospital (I doubt it) or jail or what, but he seemed angrier at first that was for sure. The reason he bothered me the least, was even though he would be shouting abuse at real or imagined people at all hours of the day and night, he was properly mentally ill, so he couldn't help it. I used to hear him have full on shouting matches with a wife, kids and mother in law that I gradually realised weren't actually there. Sometimes during his rants you realised that he was actually quite an eloquent guy which made it all the sadder. The strangest thing of all was that if someone spoke to him mid rant, he'd nearly always quietly, politely answer back. This softly spoken response was so strange - he literally snapped straight out of whatever world he was in before. I always made the effort to smile and say hello. I figured this would save me if he ever did go on the rampage but my friend Cheryl was convinced this was wrong and that he'd remember and therefore single me out with his machete!! He did have a machete - I saw him carrying it quietly through the dark streets on one of our first nights here, though bless him, as far as I knew he just used it to cut fruit down. He is called May-heey by us because we always called him 'matey' and our friend Cheryl, from St Louis, didn't get our bad english, with us dropping the T, so that's what she heard us saying and since then this is what he's known as. They've opened up a little shop next door to him and so someone's cleaned up the yard. I think they might be giving him money/food to stay out of the way from time to time as now sometimes I hear his rants coming from somewhere out the back. Sometimes it sounds right next to me and I wonder if he has indeed come to get me!!

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Attitude

OK, so we'd come from Japan, which is the politest place in the world, but before that, having been in south east asia, we found people could be off sometimes but where generally friendly and pleasant. It was a big, big, shock our first weeks on the island. We're kind of used to it now, but it's never going to be something that sits that well with me. People in shops will literally serve you without even acknowledging you. They'll carry on phone or face to face conversations without so much as look in your direction. They won't say hello or thank you. This is very common. It's a real treat when someone's a bit friendly and I always tended to try to go back to those places as it was such a nice place. This isn't true for restaurants etc as 95% of the time the people working in them are not locals but people their for the diving. They get paid pittance wages, but survive on tips and being fed. But this is weird I think - there's so much this separation on the island that I don't think this helps. Babalu had local staff and is all the better for it - Buccaneers and Mango Inn also do & really nice people too.
There's kind of differences between the islanders and the mainland hondurans as well - and it certainly doesn't cover everyone, there is lots of lovely people - just lot's of everyday exchanges can be blunt and unfriendly. It's such a funny place, and I know it wasn't just us that found the place, verging on hostile. I don't know if it rubs off on the the dive schools or they are just run a particular way, but people generally seem to lacking in some basic social graces. It's like the manners are dropped off at the ferry port. I've seen certain dive staff being downright rude, churlish and aggressive. In turn, they perhaps teach those learning from them that this is ok and it just snowballs into a few too many people with bad attitudes.
There is a lot of youngish people here but I've been in other places with lots of younger travelers before and you always get the odd bad seed, but I've never known such a bunch of bad mannered, loud, arrogant and selfish little toads as I've come across here. To quote a friend - they had been 'brought up by wolves'. It's a shame as they overshadow the decent on such a small island and sadly, the most dysfunctional folk seem to stay long term, as it's clearly a good fit for them. Without doubt there are lots of nice people, but even some of the nice people display moodiness - in the dive-schools case, to paying customers. I can't imagine anywhere else where you could kind of get away with it. So, it was a mixture of things - culture, circumstance but it didn't make the island my favourite place. Having left the island I certainly noticed a difference - Grand Cayman, Cuba and Canada - all very different places, but a lot more courtesy all round.

Food

It's easy to say the food on the island is bad but it's not so much that it's that it's all the same. It's generally fried, there is that grim processed cheese and there's just not really much choice - chicken, fish - rice, fries, burgers. The ultimate accolade of a restaurant seems to be 'they do a good burger'. There isn't really any high end or even mid-range dining to be honest.

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The cooking options aren't great either. Fresh veg etc and new stocks comes in twice a week and so there's long periods where you can't get anything remotely healthy and the range isn't great anyhow. The veg then sits about until it's far from fresh - especially our local shop that leaves it out in the sun. You could get a fair range of dried goods but overpriced and often had been sat around for a long time, if not years so never quite how it should be. I had a nic stash of Japanese things to begin with so that got me through a few weeks - some cold soba with sesame oil and soy sauce was a real treat.

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The thing that struck as time went on was we felt so unhealthy. Even the water was laser treated so had no minerals in it. Mix the heat and bad nutrition and we felt drained all the time and I started to get ill those last few weeks and couldn't bounce back from any of it. I know the long termers go over to the mainland and stock up on things, but even then I couldn't imagine living with this kind of food forever. I so wished we'd had an oven - there's a lot more you can do with limited ingredients and when all that was available was fried I sure as well wasn't keen on frying at home. I tended to poach chicken but anything that took cooking more than 20-30 minutes heated up the apartment so much it just got unpleasant.

I can't work out for me why more isn't grown on the island - it's a tropical island for goodness sake - very green. Other than some fruit, there doesn't seem to be anything home grown - seems crazy to me.

Anything good to eat?

My recommendations for anyone who might visit Utila, food wise, are - Babalu - you get the food separate to the bar and it's really good. Driftwoods is a lot more expensive but the better quality is worth it. Their burger really is good! RJs is only open a couple of times a week and like the stuff at Driftwood they cook a lot on the grill so is pricier but healthier/nicer.
Pizza Nut, which is open in the evenings in Camilla's bakery - the pizza base is really, really thin, so is probably the healthiest thing on the island :)
Camilla's bakery during the day does nice bagels and bits and pieces and is very friendly and nice - on the pricier side for Utila.
The pizza at the Mango Inn is also good. We never ate at rehab but their menu had some slightly different choices and it always smelt good.

Shopping - the store next to Mermaids is a good little place for decent quality veg - there's also a place on the left as you head to rehab that's friendly and got good veg - somehow they seem to have veg at times other than when the boat has come in. It was always a bit too far from us to shop at regularly though.

Mermaids restaurant itself does amazing ice-cream. Not sure if it's home-made, sure tastes like it. The rum and raison and coconut are lush!
And the guy who runs the restaurant is very friendly and nice.

Bitey things

This affected me way less, but all the divers ended up looking a right mess!! The sand flies are tiny, you can't see them but they nip you a blinder and leave a lump as bad as the worst mosquito bite. They seem to like decking, so all the divers hanging out at the dive shop piers get pickled. I was always pretty careful to spray up in the evening and without the other bits and pieces like coral burns, I got away with it pretty much. Mark however and so many other divers, are tanned to high heaven with pale pink patches all over the place with all those scars.

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Electrics, Dodgy showers & Power cuts

Electrocution fun in the showers is something you hear about all over the island. We had this in both apartments - my favourite was when the shower tap was kind of 'live' so having turned it off it was vibrating so vigorously you could barely switch it off. After various fixes, the wall was kind of live despite the fact there was supposedly a shower off switch and the water heated up so much it would steam and burst the shower head. In the end we just took the fuse out of the shower and stuck with the cold water. Along with the electric issues, they would burst so the overflow would fall out. Trying to stick that back on so many times and in the end just settling to standing under a cold, weak drip. Suffice to say, feeling clean was an achievement hard to achieve.

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Power cuts were fairly frequent, not unsurprising on a small island, but they could be frustrating none the less. You always think a fan does nothing until it's not on. Half a day or more without electricity, especially for non-divers was a total drag. The internet could be dire as well, so you couldn't ever count on anything.
Oddly the price of electricity for such a poor island is extortionate. Aircon was barely used as the bills racked up so quickly. It's surprising that solar power has not been made more use of due to these crazy prices.

The good....

A place of our own

This was the first time we'd had a proper apartment with a bedroom and a front room. It wasn't fancy in any way, shape or form, but just being able to have the space from being in 2 different rooms was a treat!

I kinda decorated it with left over xmas decs, kewpies and odds and ends I'd picked up in japan - as well as putting photos up on the fridge.

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One thing I could always make as it kind of requires things to be overripe was guacamole. I picked up a simple recipe from a guy from South America and it became a bit of a weekly treat - for me at least. Mark tended to find it to avacadoey or too limey. Mark is lucky he didn't end up wearing the guacamole incredible hulk stylee.

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Babalu

This is where you could find us more often than not, of an evening. Just a little down the road, we stumbled across it my accident in the first day or so and were always happiest here - often more so than at home. It was a large ramshackle bar with a pier to sit out on over the sea. A simple place but with lots of oddity and curiosity.

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A large area in the centre - a hole cut into the deck so you could watch the fish. Left over food was thrown in there so you'd get a frenzy of fish polishing it off.

One time we were there and while Mark was at the bar, one of the sides of the place kind of collapsed. It felt like the whole place would fall down, but it never did. Over time, the floorboards were more worn and occasionally you'd get a bit of a patch up job. But that was so part of it's charm. It was always funny to see someone going there for the first time, tentatively making their way over the holey floorboards.

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It has the coolest glasses

vintage flowers and fruit and jam jars!!

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It has the coolest sunset views

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It has luminous plankton

Little neon plankton photo-somethings that appeared after a full moon. Some kind of mating thing - they swirl around like mini glow sticks at a 90s rave. The sea could be full of them and you got to watch it off the end of the Babalu pier.

]I fell in love...

..with Lula - who stayed next door to us briefly on the island. She was an Aztec hairless breed. Stroking her was kind of like stroking an elephant.
She had the most lovely nature and I was totally smitten and wished I had kidnapped her.

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People

There were a few diamonds in the rough and I met some lovely people who restored my faith in humanity. A special shout out to Danielle and Cheryl my girlie buddies, both of whom I bonded with over common thoughts and findings. We had walks, laughs, watched bad and good tv (Danielle introduced me to Game of Thrones and painstakingly explained the entire first series!) and most of all they saved my soul - thank you ladies! :) There were others Mark met through diving who were great and made us smile. Not forgetting Michelle, the best yoga/fitness teacher I've ever encountered and who stopped me from vegetating.

Weather

We had the most amazing storms here. There was often lightening out at sea even when there wasn't storms. When the big storms did hit, they'd go on for hours and the buildings would shake at the strength of the thunder rolls. I love storms so I always enjoyed it even if it did seem like the apartment and possibly the whole island would collapse.

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Rehab

Our second favourite bar, which was a bit of a walk to get to but we did like to watch the sun go down there, particularly when our friend Nadim, who always made us laugh and was often Mark's dive partner in crime, started working there.
And of course everytime we went we could make the same jokes about 'they tried to make me go to rehab'.

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Diving

This of course was the point of us being here and Mark had an amazing time, qualified as an instructor and often bored the pants off of me.

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There was a 'dive festival' while we were there. A few bits and pieces going on, most notably the Boat parade (I'm a sucker for fairylights
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and Mark becoming a Record Breaker as part of the worlds biggest underwater pyramid!!!

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Floating

I tried Float Utila out towards the end of my stay and wished I'd gone sooner. I'd seen the advert and had assumed it was a flotation pod, as I'd used back in London, but although I'd loved it wasn't sure in the Honduran heat, if I'd fancy it here. Then one day we followed the path down to check it out and discovered a huge specially build floation chamber. I floated in there twice and it was absolutely bliss, both mentally and physically. It was large enough so even someone 6 foot something could stretch out I'm sure. There was a dim light which you could switch off for full sensory deprivation. The noise and the chaos that we lived amongst seemed a million miles away and so many aches and pains dissipated.

Random island things...

Fossils

There are coral fossils everywhere you go - mainly brain coral which makes a cool fossil!

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Hummingbirds

There are tons of hummingbirds on the island - various varieties and you never get tired of them - they are amazing.
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They are also, I have learned - aggressive little buggers - always picking on each other.
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After the hummingbirds, in the evenings we'd then get bats stealing all the sugar water out by our apartment.

Crabs

There are crabs inland everywhere along the sides of the roads. Massive ones too and they can often be found wandering into bars.

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My favourite are the ones with one massive claw, totally disproportionate to the rest of their bodies. They are comedy gold!

Iguanas

Tons of ignuanas on the island and you don't have to go far to see them sunning themselves. They'd potter around our apartments. And on a nearby abandoned building there was a family of them where the daddy was huge!!!

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Munchies restaurant has an area out the back where there's lots of iguana holes though I must say I never saw any.

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Eagle rays
I missed out on a lot of the wildlife, not ever going out on the boats but I did a fair few times, have the pleasure of eagle rays floating about on the piers when I was sat in either Babalu or Rehab. Gorgeous they are too!

Treetanic

A bar set in the grounds 'built' over the years by a local artist. It's an amazing place. In fact, the most interesting place on the island, shame it doesn't open until 7pm when it's dark so you can't really see it. The bar does do the best Bloody Marys.
There is a restaurant attached 'Jade Seahorse' but that never seemed to be open the whole time we were there. The area behind the bar/restaurant is where the most amazing things are and there are a few cabins that you can stay it which are cool.

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Divelodge

This place has a little bar which is another haven from the craziness, a pier with swinging chairs and great views.

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Monkey magic

I'm not a big fan of people owning 'wild' animals as pets but this monkeys life seemed a pretty good one - he's basically free to roam about up by his home and you can see him swinging around the trees up there as well as sitting on his owners shoulders as they drive through the streets on a moped.

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All in all...

It was definitely an experience. It's difficult for me, as I had a very different experience to most who go there. I don't think I met anyone else who wasn't there to dive and I did often get a look of bewilderment when I told people I didn't dive as they would wonder what on earth I did with my time.
In a way the timing was bad - I would have liked to have dived a bit and maybe take a few trips to nearby islands, but being so close to the end of our travels I was all too aware of cost and saving money was higher on the priorities than spending. Earning money in particular seemed important as to me the time I was spending there felt rather pointless. My work picked up well towards the end, though it could be incredibly frustrating when external factors scuppered me being able to work as well and efficiently as I would have liked.
It definitely backed up my feelings about living on as small island. As I suspected, I found it quite stifling and frankly boring. There is just so little diversity (if you're not going under the ocean surface) and everyone knowing everyone's business and never quite getting away from it all - had the feel of a small village which, as a private person, I've never been to fond of. If anything happened on the island or in the diving community the gossip and rumours spread pretty quickly.
It's all good though, part of knowing what you want to do/where you want to be, is knowing what you don't want to do and where you don't want to be. It's all valuable experience and at times the place was a lot of fun and the sea was beautiful on the few occasions I went in. There were blue sky days. There was interesting wildlife. And Mark left a dive instructor and record breaker! :)

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Posted by KtandMark 11:00 Archived in Honduras Comments (0)

Japan - Summary: odds, ends, oddities & eats

by Kt

Food

Food is one of the best and most interesting things about Japan and I have to say it was a complete suprise to me as although have eaten lots of Japanese elsewhere, I was surprised it was generally much heartier than I'd expected with bigger portions. This turned out to be great as it was winter, but it's amazing how everyone is so healthy with all this eating!!

Bread & Cake
Noodle and strawberry sandwiches had to be up there with the strangest but you got such interesting bakery goods.

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Sake & beer
I would really like to have tried more sake. I know you could do flights, like in wine testing but the budget didn't stretch unfortunately.
Hot sake we both loved on those chilly days but mostly I became familiar with the one-cups you pick up in the convenience stores.
It amazed me that beer was often more expensive that wine. I imagine this is because it is taxed so much, but that wine would fall into a category with sake and they don't want to tax that so much because of it's religious and cultural associations. Just a guess.

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We found beer always had a big head which annoyed Mark to begin with until he realised it was just a thing.

Food display
This really is one of the most amazing thing and actually one of the most handy. You might not know exactly what you're going to get, but as a tourist in a place that doesn't speak much other than Japanese, having these really helps when you first get there and they are just frankly so cute. I could fill my house with it.

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You also get some quirky little displays too.

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Curry
I've had Japanese curry before but had no idea what a massive thing it was. It's also really good value for budget wary tourists. You often get it for good prices at the ramen shops and there is also specific curry places. The one we went to was called CoCo. The principle was very simple - you had curry and rice, but you could pick everything - umpteen different sizes, different heats of the curry and of course different foods in the curry.

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It looks really unappetising doesn't it? but trust me, it's delicious.

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You can't go wrong with katsu, pork cutlet curry for me, but Cheese curry? Hmm, not sure, but didn't try - it could have been amazing.

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Cute food
Why not dress your food up? I love it. I'm totally like a little kid and I love that in Japan that sure, the cute food dishes are for the kids but no one bats an eyelid if you have anything cute as an adult too. Play with your food :)

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Mayonnaise
Mayonnaise is a bit of a thing - you get it on all sorts. Certainly wasn't expecting that. I'm not quite sure what it is - it's not cheap jar mayonnaise but it's not fresh, posh homemade mayonnaise, but you'll often find if you buy street food it will be put on so make sure you speak up quick if you don't want. But actually, although it seems like it won't go, it generally just works.

Convenience store bits and pieces

Lot's of weird and wonderful things to be found in the convenience stores.

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This ice-cream is from a vending machine in Ueno park and is delish!!
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Kit kats
Green tea and wasabi flavours - why not?

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Eating Etiquette & Environment
I didn't learn much eating etiquette but I did learn that you NEVER leave your chopsticks in your bowl. It's something that's done at funerals/associated with death somehow.
And you don't tip -it's rude. This actually makes life very easy - tipping is often such a pain and confusion when you're travelling.

For some reason so many restaurants play Jazz. All over. All different types. And I hate jazz. But somehow it was never that annoying jazz they play at mediocre Italian restaurant sunday brunches back home. It was ok. It's like it had been scientifically researched to be exactly what it should be - soothing background music. Well it is Japan!

Queuing at the bar - in an orderly line - it's a sight to behold.

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Cooks and bar staff, shouting out when you leave bars/restaurants, particularly in ramen shops, is a bit disconcerting but you get used to it. They are basically shouting some kind of formal thank you for being their customer.
Similarly, in restaurants where the cooks etc are behind the scenes, when you have paid your bill, the person serving you will often do this in a quieter manner, but which often goes on for a lot longer. It is a verbal patter and don't feel you have to stay till the very end everywhere. It feels really impolite to walk away, but if you didn't, you'd never get anywhere.

Pocari Sweat
I gave up most soft drinks years and years ago. Apart from the odd tonic (can't go without a g&t now), I pretty much avoid them but have found in the hotter climates when travelling I occasionally drink them as need the sugar for energy. Now, Derek-san had suggested Pocari Sweat as a little helper the next day after drinking. We'd noticed this advertised about the place and found it's name unappealing to say the least but when feeling a little weary on day (I had been taken by a terrible cold!), we got some out of one of the vending machines and hence began our love affair. It's not like a soft drink as such it is a very smooth, unfizzy drink which doesn't have a particularly strong taste but definitely works well as a pick me up.

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Cuteness

The girls style is so adorable and it is so odd that what in other cultures would be seen as a bit sexual just isn't. You see very young girls with short skirts and over the knee socks. But actually, this originally came from the look of school girls and has somehow been turned into a more sexualised look because of school girl fetish type stuff. Anyway, that's not what this is about. Cuteness is just everywhere. From the lolitas to the normal school girls. They are just adorable.

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The really little kids, maybe 5 or 6, you see with these very smart uniforms and a big leather satchel on their backs. I so wish I'd taken a picture. They are scrumptious.


Shopping

I noticed a real difference to the shops in Japan and the shops in South East Asia, particularly in Bangkok. You can buy everything in Bangkok, often the same things, but the shops are jam packed and you're almost overwhelmed. The shops in Japan are chocca but the stuff is pretty organised which I just find so much better - it's easier to hone in on the individual items. Though this is actually a bad thing because I wanted to buy so much. So much stuff, from clothes, accessories, cosmetics, home stuff - all my style. I have vowed to go back one day and buy the place up.

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Loved this place where you could go in and get your dog photography!!

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There are lots of specialist shops for traditional Japanese things. Tea, chopsticks, kimonos etc, especially in the Ginza area. This is really nice to see as in the UK, so many of these kind of shops close down each year.

These are the shoes that are traditionally worn with Kimonos (and socks). I believe they are often used as slippers too.
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This however, was just not acceptable:

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Kewpie

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I love Kewpie and Kewpie was everywhere. It was too much to bare. But I did manage to buy a few pint sized ones to take on my travels with me.

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I liked the tattoo'd Kewpies, particularly as Mark has the massive Kewpie tattoo himself.

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The trip also coincided with Kewpie's 50th anniversary - go Kewpie!

Dolls

Dolls are kind of a thing in Japan and for me. I like Blythe which I won't explain if you don't know what that is but if you do, I stumbled across an exhibition of another similar doll, Pullip. Mark ran screaming while I spent a little time going around the timeline exhibition and loved it!

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Engrish & Signage

Mark always love a bit of engrish, but unlike through most of asia which was often just spelling mistakes, the engrish in Japan is quite special. It is often a correct translation but just the way it is translated and the way the Japanese language is put together, sounds quite funny.
It's often really quite beautiful when something very straightforward is translated - you get a very floral language. I so often delight in a translation in a tourist information leaflet, for instance.

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Signs are generally more animated so are quite cute:

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This was a hand washing sign that went into very detailed steps:

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Architecture

There was lots of interesting architecture in Japan. Old and new. Often new, particularly in Tokyo for obvious reasons. What I like is all the different yet complimentary designs. There is such great style all over. And they're not afraid to throw in a replica old building if they feel like it either. Odd, but they get away with it.

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Transport

The old fashioned looking taxis were intriguing. We tried to avoid them as they can be pricey but we did have to use them a couple of times.
The driver is often suited - at least with shirt and tie - sometimes even white glove. Many have kind of crocheted/lace style backing on the seats.

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The train system, both local and national were amazing. Like with bars, you queue to get onto trains in an orderly fashion, in the designated areas.

Something we found at a few stations was they were playing bird noises - presumably to put off other birds. We weren't sure especially as this included some underground stations.

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Occasionally you would see some interesting modes of transport. There wasn't as many cars as I had expected in Tokyo at all - it never felt particularly congested. I was surprised by the lack of little cars though - not full of smart car type vehicles, like I'd have imagined.

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We loved these cool, long bikes that we saw a fair bit about the place (usually in the really trendy areas).

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Masks

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So, I'd gotten used to people wearing masks everywhere and I'd even become quite attached to wearing one myself. But the thing I can't get my head around is why people wear them in cars they are in alone. Cannot fathom this.

Japanese Baths

Lot's of the places we stayed had the same setup. A shower over a deep, short, bath. Bathing is a big thing in Japan and they like it deep. It tends to be a ritual before bed and they shower before hand so they are clean when they bathe. I've never liked baths much but partly I've never liked that half of you is out getting cold - I get it much more in these deep tubs. Particularly when it's cold to ease aches and pains. I was particularly in love with the bathroom in the traditional Japanese family home we stayed in and would love to translate this into my own home one day.

Japanese TV

It's very odd, I was watching it one evening and it went from young men/boys in big white underpants cleanings urinals to a quiz with young kids winning prizes.
There's some great quiz shows. They are super kitsch and glitzy. There was also a kind of Japanese catchprase which had the similar noises and characters from the UK one.

Mark's favourite was the English language show on the Japanese Open University. There was a rather eccentric and charasmatic English guy with his younger Japanese sidekick teaching people English in the most bizarre way. They were teaching them regional accents. Brummie of all things. It was truly amazing. I thought the guy had somewhat of the David Soul about him!!

Efficiencies, rules and respect

I just found that everything made sense. Be it products, services or rules. Much differently to how you'd imagine. Japan doesn't feel like it's about over consuming. I don't think anyone has the space to over consume and fill their homes with crap. It seems more that things are bought for quality and purpose or for beauty, less so just because.

Some of the mundane things that tickled us along the way were:
- In a tea shop - the most functional tea strainer I have ever used. We were in awe.
- Rests for your handbag at the counter in hotel receptions and shops
- Water fountains and phone boxes are available all over the place, outdoors and in, simply because of the lack of vandalism
- It's so safe that really, really young kids travel about on trains on their own to go to school etc. I mean super young. The kind of young you wouldn't let out of your sight even in the back garden in the UK (depressingly). The first time I saw one I freaked right out and was looking around to where the parents might be or who I should tell about this child at risk? Later I saw little groups walking around Tokyo city on their own as well. I think they weren't going far, but they were so young and definitely not accompanied by an adult - it's a gob smacking sight. It's lovely that it is so safe that this can still happen and long may it continue!!

What didn't I like about Japan?

- Finding way around was tough
- Smoking everywhere in bars and restaurants
- Lack of Wifi & especially wifi - only LAN in hotel rooms - wtf?? and even Starbucks you had to be a member
- The cheesy cheetoh crumb on First Kitchen's fries - grim
- That I couldn't afford to be there for months and months
That's it - not much of a list!!


In summary

We, especially I, adored Japan. It surprised and interested and charmed and delighted. I literally pined for it after I had left. I know it's not perfect, no country is and of course it has it's dark sides like everywhere. It has challenges to be there for longer, like cost and language, but I would love to spend more time there. I felt a real affinity. It really just suited my personality and tastes in so many ways. There is always something beautiful, quirky or interesting going on. I love the people, the food, the shopping, the art, the food, the architecture, the culture, the food. Luckily, this is my last Japan blog so you won't have to hear anymore gushing after this. But did I mention I loved the food?

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Posted by KtandMark 10:39 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Japan - Back to the capital, but Tokyo-only for a few days

by Kt

Once back in Tokyo, we ended up having a nightmare locating our hotel. This was due to hotel chain naming their hotels to include the area and there was 2 in this area, but the map I was following cut off at the area name. So our hotel was 'Hotel Villa Fontaine Nihombashi Hakozaki' but we ended up at 'Hotel Villa Fontaine Nihombashi Mitsukoshimae' as I was following a tourist map which showed 'Hotel Villa Fontaine Nihombashi' - a boring story I grant you but not as boring as catching umpteen trains and wandering the streets with heavy bags only to discover you're in the wrong place. So a warning to anyone planning to stay in a Hotel Villa Fontaine. Luckily the girl on reception was super helpful and even came down to the street and walked us way up the road and even ran for a taxi for us. It wasn't ideal as taxi's aren't cheap but at this point we couldn't lug our stuff around any further. This was an odd little chain who almost hides their front entrances. But they are cheap for Tokyo, although we did learn I'd booked a room for 1 person so had to pay more. It's a double room - why pay more for another person - a Japanese thing which I do not love - and another word of warning for anyone booking hotel rooms there. Wifi in the lobby but again not in the room just LAN access - useless for macbook air users. So bizarrely old skool - in Tokyo for godness sake. But lovely comfy bed, great bathroom and these long Wee Willy Winky style nightshirts to wear - I loved these so much! The staff were really lovely and although it wasn't in the greatest location to get everywhere, there was a nearby metro and more importantly it was right next to the city air terminal for when we had to leave.

Out on the town
On our first night back in the city we headed for Electric Town to meet up with Derek and then headed over to Shibuya to go to someone's birthday party that he knew. This was in a tiny little bar/club they'd rented out and was a trendy little place and a very funny evening. One of the guys having the joint birthday present was in a band and lots of his friends were in bands so the small stage was filled all night with musicians of varying states of inebriation. The girl guitarist actually fell of the stage at one point.

After leaving the party we then partook in what I find one of the oddest things in Japan - buying booze from a convenience store and drinking on the street. This is, however, understandable when you see the cost of beer in Japan. Quite often the wine would be cheaper than the beer - how crazy is that! Anyhow, our choice of establishment was the Family Mart. Along with a couple of hours of beer (and one-cup sake for me), we also got some super lovely snacks from there too. Mark is a huge fan of the chicken. Anyway, it's an oddly social activity, this drinking on the street malarkey. Amongst the people I met that night was an English expat who was planning a journey by car from the top of Africa to the bottom. With our impending Honduras trip, we spent time discussing who was likely to die first! And I met a very sweet young Japanese lad who'd been out with his mates, but when they'd gone home he'd decided to hang about and see if he could find someone to practise his English with. He was a sweetheart. We also witnessed the fallout of other folk who had been drinking that day. A young couple both sat, pretty much passed out, on the bench. It's so strange for such a straight country that some people get so drunk, to the point of laying on the street, or the train. Although the latter does make for many amusing train photos. The best I've seen is where someone had stripped down to his underwear and settled down on the floor of a busy train for a nap - at quite a busy time - not one person around him acknowledging what was going on and politely looking away. A major thing that's interesting here is that people love a drink and can get uber drunk, but there's no aggression. The UK of course is a massive drinking nation and if out on the town, that usually leads to aggression and trouble. Why? It's not the booze itself, clearly. Why do so many Brits get nasty when drunk? Anyhow, that's something that can likely be worked out but it was interesting to be somewhere with a drink culture but such a different one. And it's a heck of a lot more fun for a night out!

This is just a random series of shots from the bar (including the rather cool toilet cubicle), the street and end - with the short lived train journey home. I liked the Shibuya to Suitengumae line, Hakone I think it was called, was an ascetically pleasing purple and chrome retro look. Unfortunately we didn't get that many stops in before the train stopped and we realised we were being kicked off. It wasn't that late - not sure it had even reached midnight so the closing time of the trains really does depend on the lines and stations. We ended up having a rather expensive taxi ride home, though it wasn't far and we got there quickly and in comparison to missed trains in London, didn't cost that much.

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The next day was rather hard work as we were a bit hungover and were certainly tired. I'd arranged to meet the guy who's apartment we'd previously stayed in to pick up the rucksack he'd stored for us, in Otsaka. We took a while to find him at his other apartment but when we did we went for lunch and with a bit of insider knowledge had probably the best meal we had in Japan, which was a tall order. He is Brooklyn born and bread, of Chinese heritage but now lives in Tokyo with his Japanese wife, so was interesting to chat to him. You wouldn't think raw fish and raw egg mixed with rice and cold noodles on the side would be great with a hangover but you would be very wrong!!

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Underneath the arches
An area we kind of stumbled on our second night back in Tokyo is underneath the arches around Yarakucho station.
There is all kinds of restaurants built into the railway arches and the area is quite atmospheric, especially at night.
This area is also quite close to Hibuya/Ginza stations and not far from Tokyo station so if you around that area at any time, it's definitely worth heading here for food. It's in the middle of a major area but seems quite quiet. If you walk on the right hand side of the railway tracks, heading south, there's a bunch of food places which aren't in the arches but are eclectic, great quality and good value.

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We ate at a quirky steak place where you sat at the counter, ordered your meat, which is then put on a hot slab and you kind of cook yourself when it's served to you - they don't speak english in their but they have paper place settings which tell you what to do. You have a gorgeous herby butter that you cook the steak with and have rice on the side which cooks up beautifully. It was so good and I really liked the place. It was a ticketing system and just a low key, far from fancy but relaxing place. Quite a blokey place which made their music selection even more interesting - Kylie, Je ne sais pa pour quoi!!!

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The Maranouchi area is pretty posh and worth a walk through on your way somewhere but I wouldn't make a special effort. It had some super expensive shops and even large pieces by world famous sculptors right out, unprotected on the street. It is the cleanest place I have ever seen in my life.
Mark got enthralled by the electronics shop which had TV screens built into the glass. Like a lot of expensive shopping areas, it was pleasant enough but rather bland.
Liked the Paul Smith window display here though:

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Tokyo Bay/Odaiba

This area was built on reclaimed land back in the bubble years (the period where Japan was just a wealth factory before the recession started to hit). Parts of it lied dormant for a bit but it's had a resurgence of late. The main reason we were going is because there's a few large shopping centres there and we needed to get some bits ahead of leaving Japan and we didn't want to be traipsing all over.
It's not the most exciting place in the world but we really enjoyed our time there. You take the train over the rainbow bridge which gives spectacular views and you're then in this place full of wide open spaces, which is a nice change in Tokyo. It was really quiet too - I imagine it gets much busier at the weekends as there's some family attractions there.

Fun and games in Decks
As it was so quiet we took advantage and went through some of the attractions in the Decks complex, like the trick picture museum. Super childish but a giggle. You sometimes had to flail around on the floor to get a realistic shot. Let he hilarity (!?) commence...

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There is also a weird museum (of sorts) which has something to do with the Takoyaki squid balls that are adored in Japan. I think this dish/brand became popular in the 60s perhaps. Half the floor was covered by Takoyaki shops and the rest had the odd retro display with shops selling old school branding and sweets and general paraphernalia.

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There was an arcade full of old games, some of which we recognised from our childhood. They had posters up from old magazines and comics which was cool to see Japanese pop culture of the 60s-80s.

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Mark remembered this game from his yoof - I didn't but we had a go and it was indeed fun:

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And a Michael Jackson shop... best not to ask why!!

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There was lots of delightful weirdness.

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I imagine this was an intentional bit of engrish but it made me laugh:

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There was also a mini indoor theme park which had some cool rides but we wouldn't have had time to make the most of it. Plus a lot of it was simulator based.

Outside here, though, we did have a bit of fun and games with this.... (I think Mark thought he was on Top of the Pops circa 1973)

Walking down from Decks, we passed the man made beach and went down to the water which is surprisingly clear. A really nice place to come to get away from the city I think.

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And of course there was the Statue of Liberty.... !?!?! Japan unashamedly loves to re-create things. I love it!

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The shopping centre we headed for was called the DiverCenter - no idea why - Mark got excited that it was somehow dive related - nope!
What it did have outside was a huge statue of the Gundam character... or was it the real thing. A couple of times we could have sworn we saw him move!

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There was tons to eat in the centre, including a family friendly version of a maid cafe which Mark ran a mile from when he heard the shrill giggling of the girls. So we settled on Sushi train as we hadn't yet managed conveyor sushi.
The idea here, of course that the conveyor was the sushi train. You could pick stuff up from the conveyor or you could order stuff on the touch screen. We were a bit confused by everything but in the end we ate a ton of amazing things and paid surprisingly little.

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Condomania
We spotted this place on the way back to get the train and it just made us laugh as it seemed a bit odd in this family friendly complex.
We didn't go in, just giggled outside like teenagers.

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One last blast

So we had one last night and headed back to Electric town to meet Derek and try out their Hub. We were sat right at the bar and I was able to get a snap of this very Japanese sight - Mark, joining the orderly queuing at the bar. I've never seen such a thing. But I tell you what - it works and for me - a short arse who's often lost in the crush at the bar, it was a revelation.

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We finished the night in time honoured tradition - standing on the street, with a drink (sake one-cup for me of course) and snack (Mark is obsessed with the chicken) from the convenience store. Then running for our trains!

Cherry blossom
The day we were due to leave we weren't leaving until night time so we had a whole day to kill. We paid to stay in the room till later and then Mark, who was exhausted/light-weight, went to upload some files in the lobby while I went out in search of Cherry Blossom which we'd seen on the TV that morning. I'd not missed it - by a day!! So, I scooted around the train system (much quicker on my own) and arrived at Ueno Park along with the whole of the rest of Tokyo. Now cherry blossom is a big thing in Japan, but add to this that it was a public holiday and it had come early - it was crazy, crazy busy.
It was also utterly wonderful. Everyone comes out - families, groups of friends and lots of elderly couples - it can't be missed. There were people picnicking everywhere and there were photography clubs as well as the media interviewing people.

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Airport
The best thing about our hotel is that it was right next to the City Air Terminal where you could get a cheap bus to the airport within about half an hour.
We then ended our day at the little complex just outside of Tokyo Hasheda airport. I would recommend eating out here before you go through - the cafe place in the airport once you've gone through customs is definitely the worst place for food we came across during our whole trip.
But there were some great choices, fancy and more simple, in the complex upstairs. Our final proper meal was a set - I had a tempura rice bowl with some cold soba noodles and mark had a sashimi rice bowl.

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There were also some good little shops here and odd things to do. There was a kind of planetarium show. There was a kids orientated area which had a quite large Hello Kitty store so I could get my last fix. And a place with a massive scaletrix setup.

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There's an outdoor terrace where you can watch the planes. If you've got time to kill it's a nice place to kill a few hours, as you can drop your baggage off. There's some nice shopping of some nice Japanese goods. Not much practical shopping however, I was expecting airport shopping for basics etc but I couldn't even find any deodorant. I did however get a sushi fridge magnet and some hello kitty chopsticks - necessities for a Honduran island I felt.

Posted by KtandMark 14:48 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Japan - Hiroshima & Miyajima island

by Kt

I did think about not using a bad pun for the Hiroshima blog but actually, a bit like in Phnom Penh with the killing fields, it's a shame that with Hiroshima, it generally gets talked about outside Japan with only one topic in mind. Obviously it is one of the most important and horrific events of recent centuries and should never be forgotten, but that's not all there is to Hiroshima. It's a vibrant and interesting city in it's own right and therefore I decided it should get poked fun at as such. However, Hiroshima and Miyajima are really not easy words to work with so we failed to come up with anything!

I will start with talking about the dark shadow of Hiroshima though. Let's get it over with. Like I said, Hiroshima is a great place, but would I have gone there if it wasn't for the history, quite possibly not. But it's a city that functions in it's own right, I'm sure 'bomb' tourism is big but that's not all there is and even that is not as negative an experience as you would think.

The Peace Park is where the museum and various sites and memorials are. It's a gorgeous place and it's open-ness in the middle of the city, instantly shows you the scale of what went on as this was the epicentre of the city flattening a-bomb.

The dome, is apparently an image synonymous with Hiroshima, but somehow Mark and I had never seen it before. This is one of the few structures that remained partly standing and is still standing today.

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All around the park are different memorials that have been put up over the years. They are all different and commemorate different types of people who were killed - from the children, to the workers, to different nationalities (there were a lot of Korean forced labourers for instance). It's a quiet place, for obvious reasons and is a place for reflection.
There was a service going on at one of the most shocking memorials which is a mound. This was for the ashes of 70,000 people who were never identified. Imagine. That many people. Some must have been entire families wiped out with no-one left to claim their name. I definitely found this the most upsetting. When you think of huge disasters of recent years, perhaps the tsunami aside, this kind of figure is insane to imagine so many people lost but not accounted for.

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The children's peace statue is of a little girl who died, years later, from disease related to the exposure. She passed the long hours she spent in hospital, by folding paper cranes. Thousands of them. Her classmates did the same and now children and adults from all over the world make them and send them to Hiroshima.

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To the south of the park is the museum. I'm not going to lie, this wasn't the highlight of my trip. Sometimes you wish you just didn't know things but it's important to get information in the country affected - it's interesting how skewed history books in any country can be to their own agenda. The museum has a very gracious message and of course condemns it's government at the time and you learn how pretty much everyone who died there were just victims of the war themselves and often prisoners or forced labour. The city of Hiroshima spends a lot of of time, energy and money campaigning for an end to nuclear weapons - having been one of few places directly affected. When they tell you how tame, for want of a better word, the bombs dropped in Japan were compared to the bombs of today - it's chilling. It wasn't directly stated, but from assessing some of the information I was uncomfortable to understand that the bomb dropping wasn't as necessary as we've always been led to believe for the war to end. It was looking like Japanese forces were going to fall anyway but there was paranoia in the west about other world powers, Russia in particular, getting in there first and thus controlling the region. It's unsettling how many political choices seem to have lead to un-necessary death and cruelty but then I guess that is the nature of war and power. And it goes on now and probably always will. Happy days.. not!

Anyhow, the museum itself is pretty good, though a little dis-organised with the layout not being in any particular order sometimes. It contained a lot of scientific information about what actually happened and some of the processes of destruction. Lots of interesting artifacts, like melted roof tiles and glass bottles.
It's the stories about individuals that really gets you - men, women and children, stopped in their tracks. Or even worse, the pain and suffering that went on in the aftermath - cancers and awful disabilities of children in the womb at the time of the bomb. Children's burnt clothing donated by their parents to tell their story, so they can be remembered.

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I can't imagine that anyone would go to Hiroshima as a tourist without going at least to the park, but once you've been here then you can look to some of the other things about Hiroshima and the surrounding areas. We didn't have much time here, but the guy who owned the apartment we stayed in in Tokyo said it was one of his favourite places as it has great proximity to all kinds of things - the mountains, the sea, the countryside.

Trams
One of the things that I liked about Hiroshima were the vintage trams - these were collected from all over Japan and I like they reclaimed a bit of Japans history back into the city - as pretty much all architecture has gone.

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The centre of Hiroshima is just that a centre, and although it takes a lot of walking you could potentially get to a lot of places on foot or at least with a few tram stops. Although the trams, unfortunately, don't run till that late at night.
There's a lot of great shopping and cool bars and restaurants. In fact there's a lot of high end, uber trendy dining going on I noticed. But then you would only be a short walk to more down to earth (or seedy) places should it suit.

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We spent St Paddy's night in an Irish bar which for the first time in Japan, we got to enjoy smoke free. Never was sure if that was just that bar or if it was a Hiroshima thing. But it was a sweet place which had the owners kids running around earlier in the evening and attracted a fun crowd. There was a particularly be-hatted, jolly, middle-aged Japanese lady who liked a good dance who we found rather adorable.

Miyajima
If you tell anyone you're going to Hiroshima they'll always ask if you are going to Miyajima. They are quite rightly very proud of it and it is a much loved tourist destination for the Japanese. You have to get a train to the outskirt of Hiroshima and then get the ferry but it's Japan, so it's super easy and efficient.

When you walk out of the ferry station you immediately stumble across, literally, the deer. I knew there was deer in the island but thought we'd find them in the surrounding parks, but no, they trot or laze around the mostly pedestrian streets, stealing food from unsuspecting tourists (they have a very sweet tooth).

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There are huge Tori gates outside the Miyajima shrine, in the sea which at certain times apparently look like they are floating. This is what the island is most famous for and this is the big money shot. It's fun just watching everyone jostling to pose for their photos here.

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The island has lots of park areas scattered about and is just a generally pretty, pleasant place to be. It's full of tourists but they could be fun to watch too. Like in Kyoto we saw girls dressed in Kimono's, I guess as part of the experience.

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There other thing Miyajima is famous for - the food, especially the leaf sweets.

My absolute favourite thing was the food. OH MY GOD!!! This place is insanely amazing food wise. There is snacks cooking everywhere you turn and we tried as many as we could. All soooo good! Particularly the fishy stick things - kind of a soft doughy long thing which was a taste sensation, I obsessed about for hours after (and still do).

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And on a gorgeous sunny day what could be better than some green tea ice-cream. Swoon!

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The tourists go crazy for the Maple leaf cakes. There were shop windows showing the machines making batches and we found, down a back alley, a small shop where they had a small machine, but much of the process was done by hand. So we popped in for some tea and to try one. I'm not a huge cake lover but they are nice and watching them being made is cool.

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I'd heard about this and here it is - the worlds largest rice spoon... and Mark... enough said.

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Our hotel
This was the first time we stayed in a hotel in Japan and it was a curious experience. No wifi in the rooms but you can plug in a lan line - what is this 1999? The room was tiny but very cute and best of all we got pajamas to wear to lounge around in. This is obviously a thing in Japan as we had the same in our next Tokyo hotel. Mark was beyond delighted by this. I will spare you the photos!
The breakfast was ok - some japanese stuff but a kind of cheap hotel version. What was quite good was we could eat in the reception area during the day so on our first day, not having found anywhere nearby to eat, we descended on the nearby 7'11 and brought back some lush food from there. As I have said before, Japanese convenience stores aren't like the convenience stores you get in any other country. The food there is REALLY good. Well, on the most part. Of course they have some dodge stuff. I got this hotdog style thing with the cutest little sachet that came with it, that when you snapped, dispensed mustard and ketchup in even amounts on either side of your sausage. So simple, so genius!

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The only other notable experience I had in my Hiroshima hotel was, while Mark, who I'd knackered out with sight seeing, slept soundly, I had my own little party with one-cup sake from the 7'11 and watching Kabuki on TV. Kabuki is kind of odd to explain but I found it quite enthralling. Looking it up it's described as dance-drama but it's too weird to describe really. The female roles seem to be taken by men, but not in a camp, pantomime kind of way. One of the most amazing things was the sets and costumes. They were so clever and so well styled. They could have a scene completely change by just a bunch of people turning around to show a different colour outfit on a different side - so precise. I was taken with it and I don't normally like anything theatre-y. I think it's just so different to anything I've seen before.

The trip home and Mount Fuji
The trip home was nice and easy of course but I was a bit bummed that it was a cloudy day so our view of Mount Fuji, even though we'd sat on the left side, was a bit rubbish. It first came into view about 12.15pm and had completely disappeared by 12.20pm, so snooze on the train and you'll easily miss it.

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Posted by KtandMark 10:47 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Japan - Uno's what we'll see at Naoshima art island

by Kt

So, this was going to be another 2 night stay with the main aim to be visiting the Naoshima art island. I read about this place a few years ago and desperately wanted to go ever since. I loved the concept of having an island with all these art projects and installations going on.
There is an amazing sounding hotel on the island which has it's own art and is in an amazing setting but costs an absolute fortune. There are other accommodation options on the island but they all turned out pretty awkward for people on a short stay with heavy bags. What we ended up doing was staying on the little town on the mainland where the ferry leaves from. This turned out to be a great experience in itself. I found a guy who rents out rooms in his traditional family home - the Uno Slope House. This couldn't have been a better place to stay. The guy wasn't around but he had a girl who looks after everyone while he's not away. Shiori had lived in New York so spoke perfect English (and told us where to find good Japanese in NY) and also her family owned a diner in town, which I'll get to later. Shiori picked us up from the station and hung around even though we were quite late and hadn't been able to get in touch to tell her (note to Japan Rail Pass users - you can't use the passes on all trains so check schedules carefully). It was nice to be looked after and everything being so laid back.

Once we got back to the house we were immediately in awe of the place. Traditional Japanese architecture - not massively old but it had been his family home growing up and was just built in that typical style and was really homely. The architecture geek in me was in love! We were also rather chuffed to find we were staying in the tea room. Many Japanese have these room which is where they'd traditionally take tea.

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There was a cosy living room and a kitchen with a nice chunky, big kitchen table. I haven't sat around a kitchen table for a very long time.
There were a guy and a girl from Australia also staying there so was nice to sit, drinking tea chatting about Japan and other travelling and our lives.

Another interesting part of the house was the toilet. Running the tap on the mini sink on the toilet, to wash your hands, refills the cistern. A simple but ingenius eco idea.

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On the first night we ventured down to the aforementioned diner.
Osaka-ya is a family run cafe that had some of my favourite food in Japan.

The place had been decorated in a quirky way with some fun artwork, I think done by Shiori.

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They had fantastic sets where you'd get all kinds of bits and pieces. It was pretty chilly out so some hot sake was gratefully consumed.

The first night I had thin slices of beef (I think this is what's known as Shabu, Shabu), second night some ginger pork. The set came with rice, yellow radish, spinach and sesame seeds, a cucumber thing with seaweed and whole little fish in and miso soup. The food was so good and so satisfying. Really showing us how our perceptions of Japanese food were way off. Also incredible value. I could have eaten there every night for a week and never gotten sick of it.

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And we were introduced to a delightful thing which Mark now just calls 'sprinklings'. They are packets to sprinkle on rice. They had egg, which was kind of like concentrated/powdered egg and poppy seeds as well as dried fish and seeds. Shiori told us you could get these anywhere, even the 7'11 so it was something I stocked up on before we left Japan.

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The second night we went back a bit earlier, on the way back from the ferry. They had Sumo wrestling on which I'd never watched properly before. It's actually really great to watch and quite addictive. I was gutted we never got chance to go to a live match. There was a tournament on at Okayama, where we'd had to change trains to reach Kyoto. Our new aussie friends had been staying there and had seen the wrestlers out and about in their dressing gowns (or what I used to call a kimono before I realised that isn't what one is). It is the thing I feel we missed out on the most - I would have loved to have seen a wrestler in the flesh. They are fascinating.

The art island
We had a great start to the day, firstly by being made a yummy breakfast (including home-made pancakes) and then being dropped off at the ferry.

Naoshima island is less than a half hour ride on the ferry. You then arrive and suss out one of the buses to take you somewhere as your starting point. Actually the first bus stopped somewhere and then we got on another. Couldn't have been longer than 20/30 minutes and it proved to be quite useful as we drove through the north of the island where we'd head to later.
We'd got some maps but the process was a little confusing. In the end I just picked a random place to start and we jumped off the bus.

We went into a building which was designed as an architectural example - angled concrete, kind of set into the ground like a mammoth bunker. It had some interesting art in there but I do have to say it was really expensive for something which only had a handful of things and took less than quarter of an hour.

Most of the things I wanted to see were outdoor installations anyway and we were so blessed that day, as it had been dark and pouring the previous day. It was chilly but the sun was out and the sky was the perfect backdrop to the island. The beaches were truly beautiful which I was so not expecting. Stunning in fact. And most of the time, because there is not that many visitors to the island at that time of year, we were on our own. It was truly amazing. We walked along, taking in the awesome (in the old fashion sense of the word) scenery.

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The pumpkin is probably the most iconic image to anyone who's heard of Naoshima and with it's spot on a jetty over the ocean was begging for photos!
I think just the contrast of something that colour and shape against the natural backdrop just works so well.

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It's difficult to really put into words but it really is a special place and walking between installations and through the countryside and the beach was so relaxing, despite the distances.

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It was quite a way to get from the last main sculpture area to the place where the Arthouse project was but we decided to walk instead of get the bus and I'm glad we did. There was all kind of quirky things on the way and it being quite a small island, it's interesting to to see what goes on there - and the locals are really friendly.

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Although the sun was out, it could get quite chilly at times, with a sharp wind. I was still suffering from a bad chest at this point so was tending to wear my mask, which by now I was worryingly attached to. Adding my shades, my scarf and me putting my hood up to keep the wind off my face, Mark had decided that I looked like a terrorist. I personally thought a terrorist wouldn't generally look like that as I think blending in is a little more important, but you'll see what's he's getting at. And this is for all of you who moan there is never any pictures of me - ha!

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We were quite tired by the time we got to the village where the Art House Project is so we stopped for some tea and cake. Apple cake which is apparently a regional speciality, with lovely tea, Jack Johnson playing in the background and sitting on the floor at our Japanese style table resting our weary selves - not too shabby for Kt!

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The Art House Project was probably my favourite thing. Scattered through the village were a bunch of projects - some architecture and art installations, often housed in empty houses.

The first thing we went to was Haisha, an abandoned house where they had done all kinds of interesting things, inside and out. They'd cut out part of the 1st floor so using the entire floor to roof spacing. In one of these they had a statue of liberty replica lit up in neon. Turn another corner and there was a bathroom covered in cut outs from vintage Thai magazines, which weirdly I recognised, as at one of the places we went to (ok a bar) in Hua Hin, it had framed pictures up from the same publication.

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Minamidera was an experience which I will not describe as it would ruin it for anyone who goes there. I'll just say that is messes with your senses and perceptions and I certainly wasn't expecting such a thought-provoking experience.

Kadoya - Part of this had a dark room with a kind of indoor pool which had number lights floating in the water, which was another favourite.

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Some of the things we liked, some not so much or even we didn't get, but you always have that if you go to a gallery, which is essentially what the whole village has become. There was totally different styles, from delicate porcelain flowers which were unbelievably realistic, to some glasswork on an abandoned shrine which you could view part of from an underground cave, to modernistic buidling. I particularly liked the string art that was in a few places around the village.

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I also liked that some of the locals have entered into the spirit and there was a few cute and interesting things sprinkled around the place, in front gardens etc.

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Next to one of the little shrines there was a tree where you could offer money by slotting coins into the bark.

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There is a lounge/gift shop in the centre of the village where we hung out to wait for the next scheduled bus to take us back to the ferry port. Even this was a cool space with some mid-century modern furniture and some mini installations.

There is different pumpkin down near the ferry dock which you can get inside, so we had a little fun playing in there. What? This is the joy of travelling - no-one knows you so you can be as silly as you like.

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Back on Uno, I noticed a couple of amazing photos up on billboards. Apparently there was an art festival going on in Uno and there were some other things in town, one of which I saw on the local news later that night - a large fish made out of house hold objects - buckets etc - we had seen from a distance on the ferry, but we unfortunately didn't get a chance to check out anything else.

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That evening, having stuffed our faces and drunk hot sake at the diner, we were back at the house early evening and had the house to ourselves. That, in itself, was a bizarre experience. A whole house... to ourselves! We had a kitchen. a front room and bathroom alongside our bedroom. We sat in the front room watching TV (all in Japanese) and eating some sweet bits we'd picked up at the bakery down the road. Just chilling. Just us, with lots of space and piece and quiet. It was overwhelmingly lovely and actually made me overwhelmingly homesick. Not just for loved ones, which is a constant gnaw in my heart at this point, but for missing having a home that is bigger than one room and is cosy and calm and constant.

Just like with Kyoto, we were disappointed that we couldn't stay in Uno longer. It doesn't have lots of tourist sights but it is a normal, small Japanese town which in itself is an interesting cultural experience. It is quiet, calm, safe but also a bit quirky with it's artistic leanings. And the house was so lovely to stay in, everyone we met was lovely and we could have eaten at Osaka-ya every night and enjoyed watching Sumo and strange quiz shows while drinking hot sake.

Posted by KtandMark 15:23 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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