I went to Japan and Korea over Christmas for a bunch of reasons. In short it was really, really awesome.
I stayed in 2 different capsule hotels. Capsules are two to a column (one top, one bottom). They come with a TV and you close them with a blind (but if people snore you can still kinda hear). It costs around $35 a night.
The first was aimed solely at Japanese businessmen and I probably couldn’t get in without asking in Japanese. This was quite good but annoying that lockers were not reserved during the day so I had to transfer my stuff to a different coin locker and back. The second was more touristy, bookable in english, had westerners but in return was louder, more expensive, and weirdly slightly smaller so I didn’t quite fit. There’s only public baths at both. Male only.
I found a banana vending machine.
I filled in some gaps in Tokyo from my last trip, where I walked all the way around the edges of central Tokyo. I walked to Yotsuya, in the center of that. It feels like the middle of nowhere though – as much as inner Tokyo can. Only 3 hours walking this time -_-.
Some of my friends from Tasmania were going to a comic, anime, and cosplay event in Tokyo called Comiket which attracts about half a million people. This turned out to be really awesome. I wasn’t brave or dedicated enough for the 5 hour lines for popular items, but I still found it really awesome wandering around taking pictures and searching for things.
I got to try working at a Tokyo office, stayed at a Japanese home (my friends are awesome), went drinking with other foreigners in Shibuya, caught up with many friends, met new ones, missed out on meeting some I really wanted to, did much karaoke, saw Mount Fuji from the center of Tokyo, caught a single whiff of falling snow in Andong, got through some basic conversation in Korean, and had a bunch of other unforgettable experiences.
I always mean to blog more, but usually it’s one of these thoughts that comes up in a conversation, or while I’m on a bus, or … so yeah. This time I’ve remembered all the way home, so let’s go!
I’ve now started at my new job at Google in Sydney (yes, free food!). It’s been pretty good so far. Sydney has been pretty welcoming, although everyone is really busy and I don’t have a circle (!) of friends to hang out with every day. After travelling for months in Asia (and many months of solo work with long hours before that) I guess it’s not that different though!
I have found some awesome new friends in Sydney though, which has been great, but perhaps that’s another story.
So what have I done … well. I came to Sydney about a week after I got back from Malaysia, and stayed out in Willoughby with a childhood friend. It looks something like this.
Starting work was full of things to learn but it was really a pretty welcoming experience. Pretty quickly I learnt that I was supposed to go to the US for training sometime, so I uh … did! That was 2 weeks in. In the US, in addition to working I biked up and down the Bay Area (near San Francisco), went to the Independence Day fireworks, and ate at at least 10 of the free cafes.
I also learnt that planning simultaneous movement of a bike and two travel bags is a difficult task. And that taxis in Mountain View can take 30 minutes to come or not turn up at all. And that the wind just loves blowing south when you’re biking north. And that I should act immediately on my thought “I should buy sunscreen sometime”. And that you should always take the first bus, even if it’s not an express.
Plus I played a bunch of Starcraft, joined the Google AHGL team (it’s a pretty awesome, friendly Starcraft 2 league between tech companies), and ran into a heap of interesting people.
I had 2 weeks of cloudless warm summer days in California. So when I got back to Sydney on my flight , it looked like this:
I got soaked on the way back to work that day, stubbornly refusing to take a taxi. But I did so in my nice new black Google jersey from the Mountain View store :P.
After that is a new story, and it can wait until a bit more of it has unfolded.
So yeah, I’ll try to cover both the good and bad things I’ve skipped over in the last few year or so. It will span several languages and areas of thought, so it might be hard to follow, but … よろしくね！
In Tokyo there’s one railway line which circumnavigates central Tokyo, visiting a lot of the largest cities which have built up around the huge stations which drive Tokyo’s multi-million person daily commute. It’s called the Yamanote line. I decided to walk around it. Here we go!
I started out there at 9:20 after a densely packed train ride. To make it official, I made a rule that I had to visit every station. The first was Shibuya.
Oh, also, this blog is long. If you like, just skim read and look at the pictures. There’s more interesting stuff at the end. No need to read it all.
Shibuya is famous for its main street crossing where a huge crowd of people gather to cross every time the lights change. It’s also home to a lot of shopping and dining.
First, breakfast. Or at least walking under, around, and through the massive Shibuya Station looking for the right way to go. And then breakfast.
Harajuku is a more laid back and stylish district backed by a large area of park. It has a lot of specialty shops for cosplay and fringe clothing styles. It’s pretty close to Shibuya, hardly worth calling a walk. I wandered about a bit, found the bubble tea shop was closed : (, and carried on.
Behind Harajuku are two large areas of green, Yoyogi Park and the Meiji-jingu Shrine. Yoyogi Park is very open and spacious and has amazing cherry blossoms in early spring. I only had time to take a photo of the front. I wandered through Meiji-jingu and bought an omamori with bells (for luck, I think, they also come in various different flavors such as prevention against traffic accidents).
The next station was supposed to be Yoyogi, but in the end I couldn’t find the station from the main road and before I knew it I was in Shinjuku. Time of arrival: 11:02.
Shinjuku is centered around one of the largest stations in Tokyo, it is home to a large number of government departments and offices as well as a huge sprawl of shopping complexes. For all that, it’s quite hard to get around because the interesting things are rarely at street level. Actually, it’s often hard to tell where street level is.
After a painfully slow trek through traffic lights and crowded stairways I made it to the next station, Shin-okubo. This is the first of a series of nondescript residential stations between two big hubs of Tokyo’s commerce. I bought a newspaper, which was actually interesting because I could read quite a bit more than last time I tried.
Next station after a long but mercifully straight walk alongside the tracks was Takadanobaba (translates to something like Highfield racecourse).
From here the road diverged from the track, I took a wrong turn and was pushed further and further away around a university until it became impractical to visit the next station, Meijiro. Two failures already -_-. The road was filled with shops that were still closed, I assume because some people don’t want to get up before mid-day on a Friday.
Next station, Ikebukuro. Ikebukuro is a district I quite like, it doesn’t really specialize in anything but it’s easy to get around, not too crowded, and it has pretty much everything easily accessible. The hedges on the footpaths are very recognizable. It’s another major station, like Shinjuku and Shibuya, with tracks departing for the outer suburbs.
I did some shopping here, which slowed me down a bit. The Yamanote line out of Ikebukuro is very hard to follow on foot, I tried to go in one direction but ended up in a part of town that was, um, not that way. Fortunately it was in the actual right direction. I think I’m doomed to get lost in ‘bukuro.
From there I got turned around constantly and started to run into issues with my navigation device, my iPhone – the compass was fairly unreliable and although I’d preloaded the right map it was hard to find roads that went in the right direction. The Maps app is not well designed for roaming without data. It constantly annoys you with messages about having no global roaming, and it forgets locations and ignores caches often unless you find the right scale again.
The result was that it took me 40 minutes from the closest side of Ikebukuro to Otsuka, by which time it was almost 2pm. That meant I’d been walking for well over 4 hours and gone maybe a quarter of the distance. Around then I realized I’d probably have to stop looking around and just keep going if I wanted to make it the whole way.
Getting to the next station, Sugamo, was also a bit of a pain at first because the roads were on a different grid to the tracks and you never know when they’re going to end on you. I made it to a bit where there was a road next to the track, and just kept taking that until Komagome.
The road to Tabata was another difficult one because it’s not possible to follow the tracks. I made it to the road with the station, and stopped to look at a small temple and the shrine next to it.
The next part of the walk I wanted to take the southern side, which as I’d seen from the train before is filled with greenery, shrines, and temples all the way to Ueno. This also means that it’s hard to get through to all the stations, but I wasn’t prepared to give up just yet.
Uguisudani is a peculiar little station, I could see it from Nippori and judging by the maps I didn’t think I could get through on the south side because it doesn’t connect. I crossed over, put up with the boring commercial road instead of the temple strewn south side, and found the north part of the station. I then walked a bit further and discovered that the south entrance is a considerable distance along, perched on the cliff just touching the far end of the platform. Oh well!
Next I passed through Ueno Park, which is a large and pretty park filled with trees, roads, and public buildings. By this time my feet were covered in blisters, and I stopped long enough to work out that there wasn’t much I could do.
I forgot about Okachimachi, which is hidden behind the buildings and has a busy market built inside and beside the raised railway platform for several hundred metres. I walked past and made it to Akiba. Akiba is full of electronics and anime/manga/game stores, it’s competitive with buying online for many things which is very difficult to pull off when there’s so much choice.
I did some shopping, searching for a magazine that a friend wanted (couldn’t find it), and I bought a Blu-ray of a recent anime that I liked. Anime Blu-rays are incredibly expensive, if you want to buy a full series new it will cost you hundreds of dollars. I’m not sure who exactly can afford that, but I guess most people just record them.
This is close to the half-way point by distance. It was also 5:00 pm by the time I was finished in Akiba. That was kind of worrying, although I’d covered the majority of the stations I knew were interesting, I would have literally no time to explore afterwards.
The last thing I’d planned to visit was a bookstore in Ginza with a large selection of children’s books, so I headed south as quickly as possible to try to get there before it closed.
Ginza was quite a bit further than I expected, I walked along the main road, Nipponbashi (which has a more muted but similar feel) for ages without quite being sure if I had passed it or not. Similarly, it was constantly threatening to rain, without being quite clear if it would. Eventually I asked a friendly old businessman and found out that Ginza was still ahead, and it did rain.
If I’d planned ahead I wouldn’t have brought an umbrella so that I could buy one when required. But I didn’t, and already had one, so whatever.
Shinbashi Station is the end of the Ginza style shopping, just past there I walked through a district full of busy, cheap restaurants. I was getting pretty hungry, because I hadn’t stopped for lunch and was just living off cans of drink and the odd pastry.
So the right thing to do was to stop and eat something. I should have done this. I didn’t because I felt I was later than I really was, and that I should find fast food or something I could eat while moving.
Unfortunately there was nothing of the kind on the major road which I took past the next two stations, which was longer than I care to describe. It was mostly tall office buildings devoid of people because the nine to five workers had all gone home.
Finally I got to Shinagawa, which is a major station and one of the two places where south-bound shinkansen (bullet trains) stop in central Tokyo.
Outside there, I found, yay …
So I’d finally found something to eat, although I’m not sure if it counted as food. But I was pretty desperate. Shinagawa is maybe three quarters of the way around the track. It was 7:20 pm. Not looking so great. Of course, I could always just give up and take the train. But that’s not something I like doing.
From Shinagawa the track loops back around to Osaki and starts heading north after a long southern trek. This meant I could skip across some of the distance without missing a station. Unfortunately I didn’t take into account the huge network of non connecting roads, the river, and the lack of places to cross.
Normally, my iPhone would come to the rescue here and tell me which roads went somewhere. However, somewhere around Shinagawa I had accidentally opened the maps app while roaming data was still on (for twitter). This had two effects – it instantly wasted at least 5 megabytes of my very precious 10 mb per month roaming quota, and it cleared all of the existing map data so that I had exactly nothing to go on. I should just be thankful it wasn’t more data :/.
Anyway, after being pushed back onto the slow and obvious route I made it to Osaki. From here there was really nothing to do but walk, since the road follows the rails after getting past the river again.
And so I walked. I probably don’t need to mention that my legs and feet really hurt. But I could still keep going. These stations are, I think, a rather boring part of Tokyo although I didn’t stick around long enough or see enough to actually know. I took pictures of Gotanda and Meguro but don’t have them here to post.
At Ebisu there was a walkway or something.
So I finally made it back to Shibuya! Time, 8:50 pm. But I wasn’t finished yet. Going in the south exit was not returning to where I started. In other words, I was destined to get lost one more time, and the massive Shibuya station was happy to oblige. I wandered around, over, and back through it before I found the entrance and photo I was looking for.
However, my journey was not over. I needed to get back to Yokohama, and the train ride is long at the best of times. But this was Friday night, and still a really busy time for people commuting home.
Once I somehow squeezed on, I worked out that this was a pretty big mistake. I’d been moving without stopping for several hours without enough to eat, and stopping suddenly in a train without any space to breathe had the effect of making me feel very sick. I had of course forgotten that I’d need to slowly wind down, and it took me several rather scary minutes before I remembered. Once I worked this out and got my legs moving back and forth I was pretty much okay except that I would really much rather be going to bed rather than on a train with a thousand other people.
After the 35 minute first train ride I boarded the much quieter and shorter second train, and then hobbled back to where I was staying, luckily very close.
So, as I was told afterwards by a friend, according to Japanese bloggers it’s not that unusual to walk around the line with similar conditions. Other people also got lost in Ikebukuro and had trouble with roads that don’t follow the rails. Usually it takes 12 hours, which makes my 11:40 with shopping sound ok : ).
The Yamanote line is 34.5 kilometers around. I’d estimate the actual walking distance required to get between all the stations at 40 km or more due to grid layouts, winding roads, stairs, places with no connecting roads, and stations which are accessed primarily from one side only. Now go try it next time you’re in Tokyo! Or … you can just take the train : ).
Let’s skip over a bunch of stuff and into next week. Somewhere in there I went to Seoul and a couple of other places. Maybe some other day.
Andong is an inland city in Gyeonsangbukdo (안동,경상붘도, the romanization is not great, don’t try to pronounce it), roughly in the middle of South Korea ( map ). Andong University exchanges students with the University of Tasmania – one of my friends in Hobart is from Andong, also several students living there recently visited the Esperanto Society in Hobart and so I’ve been sent forth to return the favor. Please don’t make me explain again. Please? -_-
So I got here, managed to stuff up my Korean sufficiently to book two rooms instead of two nights at the motel, eventually explained and fixed it after a bit of back and forth and working out I couldn’t count to two (일, 이, what’s the difference!).
That night we had a thunderstorm which lasted all night and well into the next day. Because I’m stupid, I chose to go walking that day. Several kilometers, to the other side of town. Luckily I had my hat.
I’m fairly sure I’ve now walked the length of the main part of Andong twice. I managed to not find what I was looking for both times. Tomorrow will be the third time, so hopefully it counts.
I have to guiltily admit that I complain incessantly about the overwhelming amount of sweet bread that Japan and Korea have (sometimes it feels like treachery, that isn’t supposed to be sweet! Also, if you can see the sugar, you’re probably right that it will reach out and kill you), but I actually like it when they apply the same formula to coffee. One of the shops here does a very nice strawberry latte. Also green tea latte is generally very good, despite the disturbing colour.
I went to Hahoe on a suggestion from my Korean friend in Hobart, it’s a pretty little village close to Andong made up of old style houses on a river bend.
Anyway, I got in contact with some of the students here and was introduced to the Mate club, which is a university society studying English by talking about a set topic for an hour every day. Pretty good idea, and they take it fairly seriously and seem to be learning a lot from it!
Sadly my Korean is still bad, ie 안촣하요 or even 바부 level. Working on it.
Oh, and today I glued my hands together while trying to fix my shoe. The glue bottle followed the traditional tomato sauce bottle design, or maybe I was supposed to read the Korean on the back or something.
It’s nice when things go to plan.
My friend and I had a great plan, since we couldn’t fly to Japan without a stopover we were going to visit his brother in Melbourne and then leave the next morning. Of course, there was the problem of the tsunami and the ongoing nuclear issues, but for the most part I think they were not relevant to tourists except in their potential to effect the normal running of things.
Anyway, a few days before it was time to go I got a phone call telling me the flight had been cancelled. We didn’t get the full story until getting to Melbourne, apparently we’d be flying to Sydney (the day before our original flight -_-), overnighting, and then going to Japan on Qantas via Hong Kong. Jetstar was still accepting bookings for the original flight just before we left.
So okay. That was a long and annoying mess, but it turned out that was the extent of the annoyance caused by the tsunami. Once we got to Japan, everything was incredibly smooth and efficient, probably more so because there were very few tourists. I got a bit lost looking for the hotel, but this was entirely my fault since I’d been there before (got lost last time too!). We saw very little direct evidence of problems other than a few lights which were switched off to save power and a couple of minor aftershocks.
Ok. Tokyo. Problems, nashi. What do you do in Tokyo in mid April?
I wanted to go see sakura (桜, cherry blossoms). However, it was night and we were in Ikebukuro, which is not particularly famous for it’s flowering cherries. So I asked one of the owners of the restaurant we went to where to find them (in unpracticed Japanese), and she very nicely drew us a map and guided us several blocks towards a small, hidden park where there were, in fact, sakura, see exhibit A. It’s awesome when locals are friendly!
Over the next few days we visited several of the famous sakura spots in Tokyo, including Ueno park and Yoyogi park. Japanese people hold parties supposedly for Hanami (flower viewing), but actually to get drunk. I think pictures tell the story better! We also spent a lot of time shopping, catching trains, being guided around shrines, drinking weird coffee, and trying to decide what to do next. I’m very grateful to my friend for dragging me to Japanese restaurants, because I would just be lazy and not bother if he didn’t :P.
That’s not the end, but Tokyo is a big place.
Last month and this month I’m traveling in Asia, mostly Japan and Korea. Since I’ve neglected my blog for about a year (since I last did something interesting, clearly) I’m going to post more random things about my travels in an effort to pretend I never stopped.
At some point I might also start typing randomly in Korean because the button is right there, and well, it’s just so easy to press it. If I fail to change back it’s because I glued my fingers together today and need to avoid unnecessary stress caused by fixing mistakes. If you can’t understand my Korean it’s probably because it’s wrong.
I’ll start out with some old stuff and some recent stuff, there’s some stories in between which I want to save up and write properly.
In recent weeks a number of decidedly odd postcards have appeared on Twitter (and elsewhere), apparently sent to our friends from Japan by a couple of random people (if you have seen these people or know anything about their decidedly odd activities, please get in contact with me)  [I may award a decidedly odd prize].
For the purpose of working out what it’s all about, I’ve collected those that have surfaced here to be contemplated in harmony.
This card is of particular interest – it was received by Tom and caused a great deal of confusion because it is not actually written in Japanese or Chinese. It’s a puzzle. And it’s pointlessly hard. For those short on time, Tom’s excellent solution can be found here.
Thanks to everyone who uploaded postcards! There’s still a few out there I think, so if you have one please let me know!
Just about to leave Japan so I thought I’d share some interesting moment from the past few weeks. All photos taken from iPhone as we haven’t had many good clear days for photography and I haven’t wanted to carry it around much because I lost the lens cap (now replaced). iPhone encourages immediacy as well, far off scenery is usually pretty boring. Links to larger photos at the bottom. To iu wake de ~
Not really sure what was American about it either.
Very snowish, don’t you think?
My advice: just stop at the first row. Don’t be tempted to see them all.
Actual colour: red.
Not much heat in the sods, but much dint.
Behind Starbucks is a bookshop. They sell books (we think).
Not actually that busy on this day.
A wet and overcast day is the perfect day for long distance sightseeing.
No, I’m not sure either.
Ikebukuro is pretty.
… for the last 30 years …
Actually we’ve spent a lot of time looking for something, eventually finding it, and then being assaulted by the said sagashi-mono the next day. I think the chronology went something like book shop, postcards, postbox, rubbish bin, kimono shop, cinema. This is not including the eternal search for a dinner place which both has a vegetarian option (they just don’t understand it here for what I can tell, or maybe I need to know more Kanji so I can read the whole menu) and is sufficiently interesting. Such is tourism.
We couldn’t (although to be fair, Josh’s was more black).
My video was more blur than picture.
I uploaded these before but didn’t have time to post. Just about to run out of time again, so I can’t write much.
A few hours ago my friend Josh posted an excellent blog post of what we’ve been up to in Japan (http://joshdeprez.com/?p=416). It strikes me that there’s a lot missing. This post will attempt to fill in the gaps. It will skip through the things Josh explains.
One disclaimer – I make no representations about the factual accuracy of this post. It may or may not have some relation to real events.
So, here we go.
~ Gold Coast. Plane. 9 hours. Kansai International Airport. Money Hole. 3rd floor (of 5). Takoyaki sans-tako. ~
Anyway, around about now we had a chance to use our iPhones. Josh’s, as expected, worked perfectly. Mine did almost the opposite. It also worked perfectly. This is despite me being assured several days ago that prepaid Vodafone customers could not get roaming in Japan, and that in any case I would need to be on the $49 cap.
Sadly, we had dire need of my prepaid data, because we didn’t know where our hotel was or how to get there. So I loaded up Google maps, but then Josh found it on a map anyway.
~ Fun whole wall train fare schedule. “Stuff that, let’s get the day pass”. ~
We then caught the JR train to Osaka. I’ve heard a lot about how trains in Japan are almost always on time, but somehow we managed to attract the one delayed one -_-.
We sat around for a bit less that 10 minutes waiting for some unexpected passing trains or something, and then spent the rest of the trip being profusely apologised to by the effusive Japan train voice.
~ 800m walk with semi-miraculous string of green lights. Yay internets. ~
At this point a comment must be made about the difficulty of talking in Japanese when you know some but not enough. It’s annoyingly hard to ask for things in Japanese rather than pointy language or English. Why? Because you have to read the menu / map / etc first. And that’s in Kanji + English. I often don’t understand the first one. They often don’t understand the 2nd. We revert to pointing, which is really unfortunate.
Anyway, we caught a couple more trains in the morning and then walked from Tennoji to Den-den street after some harrowing encounters with 3 different maps, my broken sense of direction, uncrossable streets, lack of signs and even street names (they use numbers or something), and a rather angry looking vending machine.
Eventually we got to Den-den street, although somehow we’d ended up at the north end. That would be the wrong end, meaning that in order to walk through the street we’d have to go backwards. So instead of doing that, we accosted a vending machine and headed into the closest electronics store. There we wandered around looking for cheap computer parts, but were only able to find cheap cameras. I bought a Nikon D3000, and despite the salesman’s attempts to warn me about the warranty and power supply not working in Australia it turned out to have an international warranty and a battery recharger that will work perfectly well in Australia with a standard cable.
We then wandered off towards Minami, got lost again after somehow crossing a river without noticing, discussed various transport options, and chose the slow (but day-pass useable) loop train back to the station 800m from our hotel.
We then flipped out and teleported to Kyoto. Enough about trains.
Kyoto is very pretty, but it makes you wish it was Spring. In Spring it would undoubtedly be beautiful. In Spring we would not be able to afford our 5 star hotel, or even get a reservation. I guess these things balance out.
~ Guided check-in, random convenience store, dinner, night-time wander around expansive hotel, sleep, missed winter celebration. Morning~
So there’s this walk in the Lonely Planet guidebook, which our hotel is pretty much at the end of. We started walking backwards down it, and visited some deserted temples. Around then my new camera ran out of batteries, which I had forgotten to recharge.
そのあとで we found our way to a large temple in which there was a Buddhist monk reciting a story/lesson (or something) about some people who wanted to change themselves – it was pretty interesting, but also fairly hard to follow because it was in Japanese and seemed to be jumping around a bit.
After that we abandoned the walk and headed up through the forest on Higashiyama towards the temple I particularly wanted to see – Kiyomizudera, a huge set of temples perched on the side of the hill. We came in from the back.
Here we met our first actual crowd (and close to our first actual people, the last temple excepted). Since we came in from the back we started at the top. That’s where the greatest concentration of shrines can be found. There are two rocks about 10 meters apart – the nicely misspelt sign informed us that walking between them with your eyes closed would predict your future love life. I went first and made it with a bit of help from the gaps in the pavement. Josh went 2nd and got somewhat lost, but made it with a bit of help.
Kiyomizudera had a very nice atmosphere – the crowds were fine, but there was a genuine feeling of, if not reverence, then casual respect for the shrines.
~ Way too much cream, walking, Gion, walking, city, walking, walking, subway, hotel, books, sleep, walking, dinner, blogging, logging ~
More philosophy next time. Also by then I may know how to use my camera (I’ve had heaps of help from Twitter, thanks for that!).