A Travellerspoint blog

The Visayas

On the flight to Cebu I meet two friendly and well to do women who are keen to offer me a lift downtown when we arrive. They have a lot of warnings about the city and drop me at a central place, close to hotels and safe enough for me to walk around on my own. I am also directed to the Elegant Circle Economy Hotel, a palace of concrete and plastic, no windows and totally artificial in every respect. But it has 24 hour electricity, air con, wifi that works and best of all, hot water. After the basic-ness of life on Palawan, I love it, I love it, I love it. To celebrate having a hot shower and being in the city I put on my nice frock and head out. There are lots of people living on the street including many children. One little boy, about six years old is fast asleep in the middle of the pavement, obviously off his face on something. No one seems to be watching out for him. I have a sick feeling in my stomach. A few beggar children tug at me, I try to protect myself but not be horrible to them. Then some older girls surround me and start tugging at my hair. I wonder what they are doing and realise they are trying to yank off my silver necklace. I think I am most shocked at the fact they are doing this when I am in a busy shopping street and surrounded by people. But I realise they are bored and looking for entertainment, if they really wanted the necklace they would have got it, in fact they would have taken my bag too. They were bored and I was the target for a bit of merriment. I understand this but am still a bit shaken. I try to find somewhere to eat, but the options look like Dunkin Donuts and McDonalds and I'm not willing to venture further afield after what has just happened. I end up in McDonalds, a McDonalds where the air con isn't working and a very old guy is being taken care of by a young Filipino man in a way, with a dynamic that is familiar to me from previous travel in South East Asia, it's Sex tourism. I feel sick and flee, cheese burger in hand, to the safety of my sterilised room. I double lock the door and make a plan to escape the city first thing in the morning.

I screw up with the ferry timetable and miss the one daily sailing to Siquijor. So my options are to wait to the next day or try a contorted route to Siquijor through a variety of other places. It takes me less than a second to decide. At the bus station everyone seems to be staring at me and I don't know why, but it certainly makes me feel uncomfortable. I board a rundown local bus and head out of town, following the coast south. I know that at some point in the journey there is a ferry to the island of Negros, so I hope to jump off there. After five dusty hours we pull up outside a shed and I descend unconfidently. Sure enough a small ferry is waiting and within thirty minutes I have arrived in Dumaguete, or so I think. But apparently it's not Dumaguete and I have no clue where I am. With the help of friendly locals I am loaded and unloaded onto various forms of clapped out tricycles, minivans and trucks and within the hour I am home and dry, having totally enjoyed the adventure of the day.

I check into the Bethel Hotel, a Christian hotel where smoking and drinking are not allowed. Fornication is not mentioned on the 'please refrain from..' signs, so I remain unsure where the management stood on that. I have a single suite; spotlessly clean with all the works, I even have cable tv and sanitised flip flops to wear around my room. What more could a girl ask for?

Given its a Filipino city, Dumaguete is do- able. In fact if it wasn't for the overwhelming heat and humidity I might even say I liked it. Busy streets, a Central square with church and belfry. The market is interesting and is full of little cheapo beauty parlours in which hair dyeing seems to be the whole rage, there ain't a manicure parlour in sight.

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The waterfront promenade is full of western restaurants and expats. There are lots and lots of white men in their sixties, with Filipino women. It is a thousand times less shocking than what I've seen before in Thailand and Cambodia; the men aren't quite as old, as ugly, as scary. The women aren't as young, aren't as bought looking. In fact lots of them are probably in longterm relationships, even married. I know sex tourism and mail order brides have been an accepted part of the Filipino economy for a very long time, but that doesn't make it right. And I'm not judging the Philippines. Until the recent-ish past, marriage in Ireland was often a primarily economic transaction. Many young girls were married off to old men with big farms or healthy bank balances. That's the way it was. But knowing that doesn't help. My head starts to get a bit mangled. I notice that I when I look at a white man on his own and over forty, I assume he is here for sex. I might be right, I might be wrong. When the women look at me, I don't know how to read it. Is it just a confident woman looking at another woman? As straightforward as that. Or is it a woman looking to me for approval, for acceptance, I am one of you now? Or is she saying, I know what I am doing, so don't judge me? I have no idea. I would love to talk to the Filipinos about this, get their angle on it, but I don't know anyone well enough to bring up the conversation. I mention it fleetingly, after a few beers, to a tricycle driver. He suggests I go out and get myself a Filipino man.

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A few days later I take the ferry to Siquijor. I have a vague plan for when I arrive, a plan which is thrown into total disarray by the strident advice of a German woman I meet on the ferry. Thus I end up on the opposite side of the island to what I had planned, in a little 'resort', down a dirt road. It has four rooms, some chairs and a beach. The beach is rather scrappy but at low ride I am delighted by thousands of sand coloured starfish, camouflaged on the shore. Their movement is sensual, sensuous, rather than rigid and uptight. The water is extremely shallow and warmer than tepid, but swimming is off the agenda because the water is littered with sea urchins. When the heat dies down in the afternoons I stroll along the beach, gentle wind in face, singing along to my iPod and reminding myself of my mother Eileen. There is absolutely nothing to do and I find it hard to stay awake past 8 o clock, one beer and some food and I'm knocked out. Generally I spend my evenings sitting on a deck chair, getting eaten alive by unnamed insects. The electricity cuts out on the second and third nights ( they call it a brown out) and I notice the fireflies around the mangrove tree, an unexpected little piece of magic. It's lovely but I have a constant feeling that I am not making the most of being in the Philippines, that all this lounging around is not where it's at.

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Next morning I stagger up to the main road where a man with a machine awaits me. One of the draws of Siqujor is that it has a decent paved road around the entire island and very little traffic. I'd met a few people who had rented a motorbike and loved the experience, so my intention had been to do likewise and enjoy the freedom. I'd never riden a moped before and the owner of the shop is openly pessimistic about my prospects. He stands shaking his head, huffing and puffing, he doesn't think I'll be able. His wife is in the background, full of encouragement, it took her a while to learn so why shouldn't I. I ask to be given a lesson and when this is done, jump onboard full of anxiety. I can't regulate the throttle at all and I'm either unable to get the bike to move or taking off at 100 miles an hour down the dirt track. I can't get the bloody thing to balance properly either, nor can I manage to turn it around on the lane. Husband and wife are nervously chasing after me, I can tell he is gritting his teeth and she is willing me on, for the sake of the sisterhood. I am drenched in sweat, even by ten o clock the heat is unbearable and my nervous system is pumping at overload. I suggest I sit in the shade for a while; drink some water, cool down, calm my nerves and then have another go. But when I do, I as am as disastrously bad as before and I know that if I rent the moped I will end up killing myself or someone else. So I admit defeat, offer the guy a few pesos for his time and lurch off, feeling about seven years old and wanting to cry my eyes out. I'm in a fury now and stomp back to pack my bags and get the hell out of there.

A gallon of sweat later I'm in an open top pick up truck and on my way to the town of Laurena. When I get there I buy a bottle of rum for 50p and hop in another truck for a ride to Siquijor town. Two more gallons of sweat later I arrive and find my way to the shared tricycle depot. Tricycles are totally amazing contraptions; basically a motorbike with a metal chassis for passengers over the top. They offer an ear splitting and bone-shaking ride and ladies, a strong support bra is highly recommended. I'd been on them loads of times, but never in a shared one. So now was my chance. The driver is on the bike, with two people sitting behind him. In the side cab is myself, three other adults and a child. My large bag and everyone else's shopping is on the roof. Initially the ride is exciting, then it gets uncomfortable, then it is nightmarish. Half an hour later I have to be pulled out of the cab. The place I want to stay is full and I end up in a run down motel which I fear is a knocking shop, but it will have to do. The room is bright and has a mirror and I am very frightened at the creature looking back at me. Despite December being one of the coolest months of the year, I am in constant struggle with the heat and humidity. I am permanently shinny, looking like I am doused in turkey fat and my hair has turned into a construction which resembles a collection of used Brillo pads. Sweat stained clothes and a constant pong just add to the overall effect. I make the decision to avoid looking in mirrors, it's the only thing for it really.

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The next few days are great. I check into a room at another 'resort' run by an entertaining Filipino woman, her German husband and a gaggle of female staff in their early twenties. The girls are fun; bright and sassy, confident, lively and always laughing. They can stand up for themselves too. I like that about Filipino women, they don't take anything too seriously and have a fantastic sense of humour, but they pull no punches when they need to.

A few minutes walk away is a really posh hotel, replete with its own marine reserve, open to non residents for diving and snorkelling. At reception I am allocated to a female member of staff dressed in the hotel uniform, a foxy long black dress and hand bag. We walk through the beautiful grounds to the snorkel hire place, laughing all the way. Initially it isn't promising, I can't see anything but sea grass, but when it clears, once again my breath is taken away. Fish, lots of fish, canary yellow ones, cobalt blue ones, orange, red, black, even completely clear ones. Some are enormous, about the size of my torso, which scares me a bit. A school of fish casually swim past, no colour except for a very large black dot on their flank. Relaxed fish, in no rush to get anywhere, God it's such a privilege. My favourite cobalt blue starfishes are plentiful here; each must have their own personality or mood because some are rigid, standing to attention in typical starfish pose, others are lounging against rocks in a more sensual fashion. They are often near groups of ginormous sea urchins, with spikes maybe fifty centimetres long. They remind me of unexplored World War Two bombs, lying in wait.

Every night I walk fifteen minutes along the main road to a restaurant that serves good food. I love the walk. It is lined with people's houses, the odd little grill place and a few sari sari shops. People are lounging around; texting, chatting, combing their hair, listening to the radio. I am constantly amazed at all the greetings I receive; the waves, the "good evening mam", the big smiles. However I am not the main initiator of these greetings, sure I smile at the usual suspects like kids out playing, but in the main I want to leave people in peace, to let them get on with their quiet evening. I am so charmed at this natural friendliness. So charmed by the starry sky as I walk there and back. I feel almost completely safe; a woman on her own, walking down a dark road at night, in the Philippines. A challenge to many peoples perceptions I would guess. I think about Central American and the need for danger assessment at every corner, that low lying fear being always in my belly. Cebu and Manila were rough, but that's been it. Occasionally I see men or woman who look a bit scary, it's mainly men and it's mainly because they are poor and look malnourished and unkempt. My response it to flash them a big smile. Immediately they are like puppy dogs, big eyes, big smiles and if they had tails, they would be wagging. All credit to the Philippines and it's people.

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One day I hire a tricycle and driver to take me round the island. We head up to Mount Bandilan, the highest point in the island, I spend an hour swimming at the lovely Cambughay falls and then sit under the island's famous Bayan tree, while fish in the stream beside it nibble at my feet. I have these places all to myself, there is not another tourists in sight. Yet it is supposed to be peak tourist season and these are the main attractions on the island. Everywhere seems so quiet, so empty. When I speak to the locals they say it's business as usual and deny that Typhoon Yolanda or the recent earthquake on nearby Bohol has had any impact on tourist numbers. At my request we drive to a butterfly breeding/conservation place that I have read about on the Internet. It's really tiny and there are only a limited of species, but they are beautiful. The owner is an intelligent and thoughtful character and he tells me there have only been two other visitors this past week. This has been the trend since the Bohol earthquake. The entrance fee is his only income and he tells he may have to close if the situation doesn't change. Whom to believe?

On my final day in Siquijor I take a tour, run by the posh hotel, to Apo Island. The boat trip is lovely and when we get to the island, we don our snorkels and are told to follow a local guide we have been allocated. After a while there is a bit of a commotion and in the blurry distance I see what is supposed to be a turtle swim past. I don't take much notice. I've been told we will see turtles, but I take that with a pinch of salt. I swim off and a minute or so later I am two arms length away from a huge turtle, it's head is bigger than mine, it's body really huge. I really can't believe this is happening. Soon there are a lot of us all hoovering around it and I feel like we are caging him in, so I swim off, ecstatic to have had my moment and content to enjoy even more beautiful coral and amazing fish. As I'm pottering, all on my lonesome, a big turtle swims past me, just like that. I let him pass me by and when I turn around to look back there are two more of them, merrily going their way, off to do their shopping or something. I am such a lucky girl. The final snorkel is after lunch, in a really deep part of the sea. The coral here is probably the most spectacular that I've seen and the whole experience is enriched by our guides. My favourite, dressed in an outfit of trousers, t shirts and flip flops, takes off like a seal, diving down really deep, flip flops now in his hands, occasionally, naughtily, balancing on his tippy toes on a coral tree. Part fish, part old man really and a total joy to behold. Half way through the trip back to Siquijor the staff are at the front of the boy, singing and madly clapping. They are a great bunch, lively and fun and irreverent, but I wonder what all the commotion is about. Then I know. Suddenly we are surrounded by a school of dolphins, not five or ten like I have seen before, but forty to fifty. They are swimming on all sides, close to the boat and far away, jumping up into the air, twirling their tails, showing off. It goes on for an age, it is really beautiful and I am almost in tears. Like I said many times before, I am a lucky girl.

So yes, my three weeks in the Phillipines had offered me many an idyllic moment. Yet, at the very back of my head I was still unsatisfied with my experience there. I think I needed a dose of Filipino reality, a sense of Filipino life not involving beaches, glorious sunsets and mango juice. Sometimes I need to more careful about what I wish for.

Posted by noratheexplorer 25.02.2014 18:43 Archived in Philippines Tagged turtles snorkelling philippines cebu siquijor dumaguette Comments (0)

Sun, sea, sand and.............

Snorkelling

I arrive into Manila at ten in the evening and despite the protection of an upmarket metered taxi, am immediately scared witless. A 4k drive from airport to hotel takes about an hour and we pass by scenes in which feral type people crawl out of the darkness. I am often impressed by the dignity of people who live in poverty; despite their living conditions and lack of resources they somehow manage to have gleaming white shirts for their children to wear to school, freshly washed hair in the morning, bright curtains in the window of their shack. I have absolute admiration for them. But this was different; utter squalor, utter poverty, utter degradation.

The hotel I have booked is grim and when I ask where I can buy some beer, one of the staff suggests she accompanies when I leave the compound. When I eventually get to bed I can't figure out how to turn the air con down and I end up spending the night freezing my balls off, wearing all my clothes and wrapped in the hotel towels. Next morning the hotel fail to provide me with their minibus back to the airport (one of the reasons I booked them) and the cab I hail a cab tries to rip me off big time. Not a good start.

Back at the airport, I take a one hour flight to Palawan, one of the Philippines 7000 islands and the most Westerly in the Philippine archipelago. I fly with Zest air, a branch of the budget airline Air Asia, with whom I will fly with on probably another ten occasions before I return home. The stewardesses are something else, dressed in skimpy red outfits clinging to every curve. Zest Air are proud of these outfits; in the inflight magazine they rave about the technical qualities of the fabric they are made of, apparently at altitude it allows the body to expand and contract at ease, as well as allowing the skin to breathe more easily. Me arse. The girls were pinned into them; the mini skirts just about covering their posteriors, their knicker lines fully on show. The top was held together by a single white zip running straight from the boob line to just below the navel, teasingly ready to pop at any moment. The headline of the current Philippine tourism campaign is ' Its more fun in the Philippines', well based on those outfits, I couldn't really disagree. I'm surprised Michael Ryan didn't beat them to it. Watch this space eh.

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I like Puerto Princessa airport; it's small, provincial, friendly. I have booked myself into a nice hotel for a few days and they are there waiting for me. Oh I do enjoy travelling in style. I am driven through town in a huge jeepney, by an almost as huge man who gives me the low down on what I need to know. I immediately notice there is absolutely no litter on the streets, something which is repeated in many towns through the islands, something I was not expecting. I have a lovely room; my own room, air con, a fridge, tv, bottled water, but after I recline on the comfy bed for an hour or two I realise i don't quite know what to do with myself. On the tv I am faced with wall to wall coverage of Typhoon Yolanda, which hit only a week ago. Although Yolanda passed very close to Palawan, only 12 kilometres off its north coast, it was not affected. Other than a box outside the airport collecting donations for disaster relief, there are no obvious signs that anything untoward has happened. Indeed if it hadn't been for the occasional TV in my room and concerned messages from home, I would have been oblivious to the fact that the Philippines was in the midst of a natural disaster.

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Puerto Princessa is hot, hectic, noisy and poor. It feels very familiar to me, the trappings of daily life in a hot poor country are the same the world over. There is a huge trade in used clothing, the more decent stuff is slung on hangers but most are in piles on the floor, 10 pence for a pair of trousers, that sort of thing. There are little shack like shops every few metres, selling very little except sachets of shampoo, toothpaste, washing powder and single cigarettes. everything is sold in a small enough size to be affordable, everything just a few pesos. They are identical to those in Central America, except they are not behind a metal grill for protection. Everything is constantly mended and repaired, nothing is discarded. So many shoe menders, alterations seamstresses and a huge industry connected to keeping decrepit old vehicles on the road and moving. My part of town is crammed with garages and mechanics, part shops, tyre centres and something new to me, vulcanisers. What ever a vulcaniser is or does, business seems to be good. Although there are a fair few smoke belching jeepneys on the road, most people are in tricycles ( which I shall explain later, tricycles being my latest obsession) or on motorbikes. For those of you unfamiliar with Asia I should explain that the humble moped or scooter is fit to carry a family of five without difficulty. Dad will be driving, with the toddler standing on the footrest in the front. Then maybe the seven year old behind, with mum at the rear with the baby on her lap. All un helmeted of course.

I find the heat incredible and am drenched in sweat within seconds. The moment it is wiped away it condenses again and I notice that I begin to reek of a strong odour after a very short time outside. Yuk. So the next morning I try to head out early before the heat kicks in. Although three days here was supposed to be about chilling out after my mad dash through Japan, I realise I am bored and just filling in the the time really. What shall i do? I had my legs waxed yesterday, so why not a pedicure today?

The Main Street has plenty of run down saloons to chose from, all offering the same services at the same prices. All appear to be empty, so I take pot luck. The lucky saloon which get my pesos is staffed by a variety of lady boys, all with differing degrees of 'ladyness'. The jewel in the crown is as thin as a whippet, wearing painted on red jeans and killer orange stilettos with a diamanté ankle piece. She is wearing hair extensions but as yet no makeup. This allows her to spend most of her time plucking away at chin hair with a pair of tweezers. The others could be described as reasonably unfortunate looking creatures, even if they had remained being male. One is wearing make up, but with a mans hair do. The other has no make up but spends her time, straightening irons in hand, peering and pouting at herself in the mirror. There is a straight guy, watching sport on tv and a dowdy straight woman who is manicuring my feet. I am the only customer in the saloon, but they all ignore me asides from Bet Lynch. With a toss of her hair extensions she asks me where I am from, but goes back to plucking her chin before I can answer. By the time I leave two of them are asleep. I pay my 150 pesos, less than two pounds and depart. Sure it was half the price of a cup of coffee in Japan, but it was no fun at all.

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I eventually escape to Sabang, basically a small square with a basketball court, a rocky foreshore and a stunning beach. The colours are so strong, so bright, so intense, it really is startling. And the wind is wild. I drink it in, God, it is soooo good to be out of the city. I check into a place with a few rooms and a balcony overlooking the basketball court and the ocean. Downtown you might say. The beach to the right is a beautiful crescent of white sand, lined with palm trees, there are two posh hotels, a few budget resorts and lots of massage tents, open to the elements. The locals live to the left. It's all so sparse, so low key, so relaxed. In Central America you had almost to show your bank balance to get within a mile of a golden beach, so this seems sooo good. How come no one is there? I sit on the quay front for dusk; the sea is on three sides, the mountains on the fourth. The local guys are playing basketball. It all seems very easeful, very gentle. This is what I learn to love about the Philippines, gentleness and ease.

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I am woken by golden sunlight and gentle human stirrings at six the next morning.I walk along the beach and into into forest, I have a date with a canoe at 8. My canoe tour of the mangrove swamps is lovely. I am charmed by my slightly greying guide and paddler. I learn about mangroves sure, but it is the gentle movement through the landscape that does it for me. I wander back along the beach, have breakfast and watch swarms of minivans arrive, bearing tourists for the departure point for their tour of the famous Underground River.

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The underground river is one of the Philippines biggest tourist destinations. Apparently it has just been named as one of the eight great 'natural wonders' of the world. From Sabang you take a very choppy bangka ride to the entrance of the cave, where you then transfer to a canoe for your paddle through it. Sadly my entire experience was ruined by two spoilt, surly young Americans which whom I had the misfortune to share my boat. They slouched around, rolling their eyes in a superior fashion and muttering anti Filipino sentiments, not quite under their breath. The younger one sat in a constant state of recline, open legged, whilst rolling a toothpick around his mouth like he was a goddam character out of Deliverance. In summary, Total assholes. What can I say about the underground river? It was big, deep, cavernous, sulphuric smelling. That's it. For something I had been really looking forward to, it's a shame. A shame that I let myself be influenced by their horribleness. That night I notice I am covered in bites. Next morning I count. About fifty. Raw and raging. Whether they are from the beach, the mangrove swam or my room, I have no idea. Buts it's not good.

The next morning I pay a lot of money to take a bangka to Port Barton. Bangka is the Tagalog word for boat and they come in one variety in this part of the world, a type of outrigger canoe that looks like an insect. Given the rough sea conditions they seem very flimsy, but with my history of sailing disasters, who am I to have an opinion. However I assume that for this much longer journey we will be travelling in a bigger, more substantial bangka than yesterday. Nope. Waves crash over the side and we are wet before he journey even begins. Thank god it is only two and a half hours. With each passing few minutes the sea gets rougher, the waves bigger, the amount of water entering the boat, greater and greater. The English couple at the front are drenched. Eventually a tarpaulin is placed over our rucksacks but the water runs off it and onto the floor, the floor in which the bags are sitting. It's tough going; rocky, wet, blasted by water and sun and the noise of the engine is deafening. The two malnourished looking boatmen keep having to fill the engine with kerosene they keep in a glass bottle, at times they do this with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. I have to look away.

Five hours later we have not arrived, but soon afterwards we pull into a settlement. The boat drivers don't look as if they know what they are doing. Someone in another boat waves an arm and we pull out again and round to the other side of the port. I start to get anxious about what is going on. Then with another wave of an arm we are pulling out of port. The English gut points out a sign on land. It's says San Vincente. Scanning my guide book I note it is 15km north of where we are supposed to be. What? It explains the five hour journey, but how can a boatman not have realised they have missed the mark, for a full 15 km. I have no confidence in the boat men now, no confidence that they can find the right place. I worry about the fuel, the boatmen are poor and will have brought enough diesel to get them there and no more. Will they have the diesel to get us to where we are supposed to be? We head back in the direction we came. All of us are anxious, most of us bursting for a wee. We crawl along the coast, every little cluster of house we scrutinise for a. Port Barton sign. An hour later I spot a telecommunications mast and what looks like a posh villa. Surely that must be Port Barton? The men don't seem to be paying any attention and I am despairing. Then just as we are about to pass the boat seems to hardly move. One of the boat men dives in and comes up with the propellor in his hand. It has broken. I utter deep sighs and begin my prayers to the deities. Half an hour later, six hours late, we pull into an utterly perfect crescent of golden sand. I see a sign saying Jambalaya. I scan my guidebook, it's Port Barton.

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The Port Barton beach is something else, a crescent of golden sand, tepid water and a lack of strong currents which makes it very swim able. It's also dead quiet, I'd say twenty of so foreigners and that's it. I bag a Nippa Hut for 700 pesos, it's a bed with a mosquito net and that's it. You can see through the bamboo floor and onto the ground below, which freaked me slightly in relation to the possibility of furry visitors during the night. But I'm getting used to conditions on Palawan, cold water showers and electricity from 6pm to midnight only, I can cope. But I feel terrible tonight, shaky, and nauseous. I wonder if I've got malaria, heatstroke or some toxic reaction to all those bites.Then I begin to worry about how I will get to a decent hospitable for treatment. I go to bed at eight and ponder death in a foreign land. I sleep blissfully for 12 hours sleep; next morning my period has arrived and I realise that last nights nausea was motion sickness. I'm not going to die after all! So I celebrate by spend the day doing vey little and enjoy it all immensely.

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Next day I do an island hoping boat trip. It's just myself and a lovely Spanish couple. The sea is calm and we move between tiny islands, blobs of white sand with the odd palm tree thrown in for good measure. But we are mainly here because of the coral and the snorkelling opportunities. The water is gorgeously tepid and while there aren't many fish, there is coral like I've never seen before. It like a magic kingdom under the water, like a forest of sedum plants, cauliflowers or human brains of all shapes, varieties and colours. It amazes me that I can see so much when the back of my head is still out of the water. Its amazing how perception totally changes under water; depth, distance, colour, temperature are totally different and then, one tilt of your head, face out of the water, and you are back in above water perception. At another stop we are treated to an abundance of tropical fish; lots of yellow and black ones with stripes, blues, canary yellows. I see my first ever cobalt blue star fish, what a thrill. We stop off on a couple of tiny Palm fringed islands, it's beautiful and the company is soft and gentle. I speak with the boatman, he is in his late twenties, trained to be a teacher, but gave it up for a simpler life. What a beautiful day.

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Next morning I take my first proper jeepney ride. To me, jeepneys are quintessentially Filipino. Structurally they are army jeeps, left behind by the Americans at the end of the Second World War. They were stripped down and reconverted to meet local needs; metal roofs were added for shade, the back seats were reconfigured into two long parallel benches to create more space and of course they were decorated with vibrant colours and chrome plated ornaments for extra pazzaz. Definitely a cousin of the Central American chicken bus, they seemed a bit tougher, a bit less forgiving.

Thankfully my journey is only a few hours and not as uncomfortable as I was expecting. The only issue is that it is raining heavily and the red dirt track is soon a red mud track. The driver and his assistants have to dig us with shovels on two occasions, but it doesn't take long. Within minutes of arriving at Roxas, a minivan heading to my next destination, El Nido arrives. On the bus is Annie, recently arrived from Ubud in Bali, a place where I hope to spend a few weeks resting and relaxing next month. She gives me the name of a great place to stay for next to nothing, as well as a driver to pick me up at the airport. What a gift.

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El Nido is as lively as it gets in Palawan, fully Filipino, but with a subtle accent of backpacker. Over the few days I am there I grow to like it. I'm staying at a place recommended to me, on a beach about fifteen minutes out of the town. It's a bugger to be away from the action and the beach is completely shitty, a thin strip of non descript rubble, but it is redeemed by views like this at sunset.

Next day I'm on another island hopping/ snorkelling trip. It's three times the price of the Port Barton one, there are at least thirty of us onboard and the atmosphere reeks of rip off. So many enticingly named places await us; Paradise Island, Secret Beach, Hidden Cove, but the reality is that where ever we go, there are at least another three to four boats also packed to the gills with tourists. Take for example Secret beach. You jump off the boat and swim to a small hole at the bottom of a huge outcrop of rock. Treading water you wait till it's your turn to swim through, being careful not to cut yourself on the sides. What awaits you is a sandy beach in a sheltered lagoon and maybe seventy other tourists paddling about. It was not my cup of tea at all. But the landscape was beautiful, craggy grey limestone islands jutting out of startlingly turquoise sea. During a big rainstorm in which we all got drenched (but in a good, exciting sort of way) the intense greyness of the clouds really deepened the intensity of the blue green sea. Sadly my camera is not talented enough to really capture this. And another thrill was had, I spotted my first Clown Fish ( of Saving Nemo fame) feeding off a bit of coral. What a kick.

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My time in Palawan is up and I'm next heading to a really large group of islands called the Visayas. It had originally been by intention to travel by slow boat, but the extensive network of ferries in the Philippines is on its very last legs. Poor safety records, the risk of piracy and competition from budget airlines means that hardly anyone wants to use them anymore. So I was booked on a flight instead, flying to Cebu City on Cebu island where I would attempt to make my way by ferry to a small island called Siquijor.

Posted by noratheexplorer 25.02.2014 03:09 Archived in Philippines Tagged snorkelling philippines palawan sabang puerto_princessa port_barton el_nido Comments (0)

Here, there and everywhere

Slippers on and slippers off.

The ferry to Shikoku is very pleasant; the views of the inland sea are beautiful and I feel very calm and content, like I am really getting into the groove of travelling in Japan. After arriving I get the train to downtown Matsuyama. It has a tram system which I can't figure out, so I decide to walk through the lengthy covered shopping arcade, so typical of Japan, to get me to a stop that I know will take me to the suburb of Dogo. Maybe it's my imagination, but in the space of a ten minute jaunt through the arcade, the people seem friendlier. I stop to buy some locally grown oranges from a old but spritely man who has a little fruit and vegetable stall. He initiates a huge smile and offers an enthusiastic hello. I nearly topple over.

I enjoy the dander through the arcade and board a lovely old wooden tram to my destination, Dogo Onsen. When I end up back at the train station I realise I have taken it in the wrong direction. This is not a problem for the ever so polite conductor, no need for another ticket, I am to remain on the tram and head back in the right direction.

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I love Dogo immediately, I wander up through an arcade selling touristy nicnaks, a left turn past a fantastic supermarket, a right turn up a residential street and I'm at Sen guesthouse, my favourite accommodation in Japan. The place is run by a young couple, he American, she Japanese. It is full of cool furnishings and decor collected from their travels and is flooded with light. They have an amazing kitchen which I load up with fresh fruit, yoghurt, cheese and other western goodies from the supermarket, goodies which I consume with relish every morning during marathon breakfast sessions. Even better, my bed has a memory foam mattress and pillow, it's own little power point to charge electronic equipment and a curtain to give privacy. And I get the dorm to myself. Result.

I'm in Dogo because it's an onsen resort. To simplify the concept hugely, I'd say an onsen is another form of naked communal, scrubbing, cleaning and steeping in hot spring water, albeit a posher experience than visiting the neighbour sento. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsen, which are now big business in the Japanese domestic tourism market. Couples, families and company groups flock to them, seeking relaxation and an escape from hectic city life. There are many onsen in the Dogo area, hence why it's called a resort and people seem to be here for a few days, sampling the delights of a number of places. I am very amused to see gaggles of them, wading around town in their yukatas (a causal cotton kimono-esque dressing gown) white, two toed socks and geta (wooden clogs). I feel like I have walked into a movie set, a comedy one. Sadly my limited funds mean I can only visit one, so I choose the Dogo Onsen Honkan, the oldest hot spring in Japan.

After my sento experience in Tokyo I feel like an old hand, as I confidently lock my shoes away and buy my ticket. I opt for one step up from the pauper experience, buying a ticket which asides from the soak, includes the loan of a yukata and permission to recline in the second floor saloon. Apparently I will also be served green tea and rice crackers. The changing area is hectic, crowded with people coming and going, the scrubbing area is larger and a bit more upmarket than the sento and the soaking is done in one large, ornate mosaic pool. There are probably forty or fifty women there at any one point, a mixture of classes but definitely a wealthier bunch than in Tokyo, I guess mostly tourists like me. Now that I am more at ease with the right way to do things I can relax and take it all in; not just the heat and humidity, the sense of being properly steam cleaned, but all those lovely non saggy, pert breasted, cellulite free bodies. A few days ago I was describing this experience to a Japanese woman who was curious as to my experience of onsens. She was dumbfounded at my positive take on the Japanese female body. She told me that Japanese women hate their small boobs and lack of curves, how they desire a 'western' body, long and lean but replete with luscious bums and boobs. Ahhh I thought, the 'Barbie' bodies you see in the media. So I told her about cellulite and love handles and what a muffin belly looked like and invited her to come stay with me in Ireland and have a proper look.

The next day I venture further out of town, where there are a number of lovely walks and temples to visit. Near the end, I am huffing and puffing my way up a steep set of stone steps to a temple, just as a party of school children, aged about ten, are trickling down. They are all stoney faced. My brain is doing its usual; marvelling at the lack of apparent curiosity, or their ability to mask it, when out of the line steps a very brave boy. He addresses me in English, "Good morning, what is your name? Where are you from?" I see his teacher and the other children stop, jaws dropped, not quite believing what has just transpired. I reply and ask him the same questions back, to which he is replies in excellent English, beaming away and confident as you like. My inner drama queen, developed through twenty years of working with children, kicks in. I pull an exaggerated face, holler a very loud wow, clap my hands, the works. The other kids start cheering for him, everyone including the teachers are clapping. Mark my words, that boy will go far.

I think that experience was a turning point in my time in Japan. I felt the country warmed to me and I warmed to the country, warmed to the extent that I could now say, officially, I like Japan!. Wheyhey!

A train ride up the west coast of Shikoku took me to the city of Takamatsu. At the tourist information desk, a lively inhabitant proudly told me of the city's Saint Patricks day parade last year, their first ever. Whilst I remained unclear as to why the city needed a Saint Patricks day parade, I was amused at her clarity about the size of the Irish population there. Three. Two men and a woman. Such was her enthusiasm that I felt guilty, almost apologetic about just using the city to get to another place. At times I am a terrible softy.

My destination that day was the small island of Naoshima, home to a few hundred people, a couple of general stores, three superb contemporary art museums and an interior landscape scattered with many large scale art installations! Like many other small islands in Japan, depopulation had meant that Naoshima was slowly ebbing out of existence. But in stepped a forward thinking regional revitalisation program, backed by a wealthy art corporation, now a major force in revitalising island communities. With time, this really really unique island experience took shape.

I arrive into Miyanoura port just as dusk is descending. It appears to be the seafront and a couple of lanes running back from it. It is deadly quiet and there doesn't seem to be anyone anywhere. I can't quite get my head around what might be in store. When I check into my accommodation I find a Japanese tv crew in the foyer, they are desperate to talk to foreigners about their experience of the island. I reluctantly agree. What follows is a comedic thirty minutes of mutual misunderstanding. Most of their questions relate to how I have experienced the island. I keep trying to tell then that I have just arrived and haven't seen the bloody island, but their English is not sufficient to get what I am saying. I keep laughing, necessitating numerous breaks in filming and when the owner arrives, who speaks English, I can't stop rolling my eyes and pulling faces at the whole shambles. When the debacle is over they ask if they join me on my trip around the island the next day. Oh how I start to laugh. By the way, I was not flattered by this request, viewing it as some reflection of my charismatic personality or on screen beauty. It's called pure desperation.

They are there next morning at breakfast, waiting for some fresh victims. I almost feel sorry for them. But it's time to jump on a bike and go find out what this place is all about. I cycle on the main road, almost devoid of traffic, through countryside, clusters of houses, small farms; normal, everyday, slow paced rural life. Thirty minutes later I arrive in the small fishing village of Honmura where several old houses, a temple and a shrine, all scattered amongst normal neighbourhood housing, have been turned into art installations. I have visited a lot of art installations in my time, especially in my twenties, desperately trying to be interesting and cool. I'm a bit cynical about the majority of them now. What I saw in Honmura was enjoyable, interesting, a great way to spend a few hours and a brilliant brilliant way to get income generating tourists to visit the island for the day. I have a snack and jump back on the bike for another gentle enough cycle to the Benesse House Museum; a stunning piece of contemporary architecture and home to some really nice art. I walk through it slowly, this is the second ten pound entrance fee I have paid today and I have more to come. The islands icon, the Pumpkin is there, swarming with people trying to get the perfect picture. And the camera crew and two young, sensible looking Europeans.

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Back on the bike and it's a steep drive uphill. I have to get off and push and push and push. I'm quite high up in the mountains and am certain that I've gone the wrong way, surely they wouldn't build anything in a place that's as inaccessible as this. But lo and behold another beautiful building comes into view. It's the Lee Ufan Museum, in the most glorious position in the middle of nowhere. It's twenty quid to get in, no way Jose, so I peddle off, feeling stingy. The road curves round and down and with relief I realise I'm heading back to Miyanoura, just in time for the sun setting. Before dinner I head to the island's sento. As expected it is off beat, arty farty and funky, although I still manage to get told off by the custodian for some footwear violation. I had a brilliant day; a chance to experience quiet island life, a chance to be out in nature, a chance to experience art you might find in a top class museum in a major city, a chance to exercise, all rolled into one. Like I have said many times before, the Japanese do things well. That night I slept in a four bed dorm, housed, I kid you not, within a shipping crate. It was quite comfy, but cold and I thanked God I had no dorm mates. I would loved to have stayed a few days, to just hang out, but my time in Japan was running out.

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Over the past few pages I have been very kind and generous to Japan. But now I need to share some of my irritations and frustrations. Let me begin by saying the word slippers. Six months ago Slippers was just another word in my footwear vocabulary. Post Japan, mention the word slippers and I can become overcome with emotion ranging from minor irritation to anger and rage! Let me begin to explain.

When you enter a home, your hostel, sometimes a museum, sometimes a shop, it is the correct etiquette to remove your shoes. Rather than walk bare footed, it is also the correct etiquette to wear a pair of hideous slippers, which are provided for you. If that was it, I could cope. But it's not. Say that after ten second seconds you get to the living space or perhaps your bedroom, basically any area that has tatami mats flooring, then you have to remove your slippers. Deep breath Nora. Then Lo and behold you realise you need to pee, so you leave your room, put on your slippers and walk to the loo, hoping to not come across any tatami flooring during the journey. By the loo door you will find a pair of toilet slippers. To me these look identical to the other slippers, but somehow they are not. So, off comes the normal slippers, on go the loo slippers, sit on the pot, wee, flush chain, remove loo slippers, put on normal slippers, walk ten metres, remove slippers. Jesus H. Christ. What is wrong with these people?

Of course rules are there to be broken and I merrily wore the wrong footwear on many an occasion, but only when I thought I wouldn't be caught. Being caught would not be pleasant. During a four week stay I witnessed only four 'showings' of strong emotion from the Japenese. All four were linked to my breaking of the footwear code; all involved me accidentally standing on wooden floors while still in my shoes and all involved a distressed person coming running towards me looking as if they had lost their only child. Hhhhmmmnn.

Before Kyoto, my final destination, I make a quick detour to Koya San, one of Japan's holiest mountains. The journey offers quite a build up, a rickety train climbing higher and higher into the mountains, followed by a dramatic cable car to the top. My head is full of romantic images of the hundred or so monasteries, perched on the edge of steep cliffs and swathed in mist. The reality is that the weather is pretty gloomy and by the time I get to the top, heavy rain has kicked in. It's also freezing. I have to then get a bus to my lodgings and am completely dispirited by the big main road being lined with tourists shops. However I am rewarded by the lovely Koyasan guest house. On the outside it looks like a small tin cow shed, on the inside is a cool and funky contemporary space. I climb into my my own pod, with the most luxurious comfy mattress and duvet I have ever had the pleasure to get intimate with. I could lie there till Check out time the next day but I have a date with some chanting monks at dawn the next morning.

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At four thirty a.m I am scuttling through the Okunion, the ancient cemetery of the mountain and home to over 200000 graves. All on my lonesome, I wonder who I should be frightened of the most, the living or the dead. Obviously it's pitch dark, but the path is lit by lanterns and after thirty nervy minutes and jumping out of my skin on only four occasions, I find myself at the ceremonial hall of the monastery. It's time for dawn prayers. It's all very simple, ten chanting monks, two devotees, myself and ten thousand oil lamps. Yip, ten thousand. The lamps are donated by the faithful and like those on the path, are kept constantly alight, they say two of them having been burning since the 11th century. Their glow is golden but muted and I find it all impossibly magical

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When the service is over the darkness has lifted and I spend time wandering through the cemetery, scattered with 200000 stone stupas of all shapes and sizes, intermingled with ancient cedar and pine trees trees. It's like a huge jungle of mossy stone and wood. I don't see another soul (living or dead) in the two hours that I spend there. As you may guess from the pictures, I am very drawn to the stone deities draped in brightly coloured bibs. Their colours are such a treat for the eyes, amongst all the muted greys, greens and browns. I later learn that the bibs are placed there by those who have lost children, with the prayer that Ojizo-San, who I assume is some form of deity or spirit, will watch over them as a surrogate parent.

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After breakfast and a very quick nap I head out to explore some of the other religious sites. There are some lovely colours to be seen, but I find everything energy draining and the weather is miserable, like a proper depressing Irish November day. Before I depart I head back to the cemetery for another fix. The place is crawling with large tour groups, at least about twenty of them. The tour leaders don't have megaphones like they do in China, but they shout so loudly they don't seem to need them. Get me out of here.

I descend back down the mountain, take the slow train to Osaka and then my final bullet train of the journey to Kyoto. Japan and it's railways are something else.

I am greeted in Kyoto station by piercing cold and a tiny little old man on an escalator, who swears he was a Professor of Linguistics and Syntax at Trinity College, Dublin. I don't know whether to believe him or not, but when I eventually shake him and his enthusiasm off, I notice he is following behind me at a distance. I am chuckling away to myself when I enter the tourist information centre, heaving with tourists and much to my amazement, find Karen, an old colleague Karen, who is there on holiday with her family. I haven't seen her for nearly ten years. Professor Hito emerges from the crowds, seizes his opportunity and pounces on each and every one of them, taking over the show entirely. We have to escape to a nearby restaurant for a catch up and it's nearly ten at night before I get to my accommodation for the night, a capsule hotel! I am very excited.

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The staff of 'First Cabin' capsule hotel are dressed as air stewards and stewardesses, of the old pre RyanAir times, when air travel was still glamorous. They speak perfect English and check me if for my first class cabin experience (as opposed to business class). I am given an electronic key to wear round my neck and am directed to the women's floor. Much to my surprise my capsule is far from a coffin like pod into which I need to climb. It's a decent sized room with almost a double bed, crisp white sheets, a locker, tv and even my own pyjamas to lounge in. The thing that makes it a capsule rather than room is that it is a plastic pod and has a curtain rather than a door to go in and out of. The communal bathrooms are huge, spotless and space age ish, with free Sheisedo products with which to beautify yourself. I have a fantastic shower, slather myself in expensive body lotion and don my pyjamas to go buy a beer in the vending machine and use the wifi. I bloody love it and it's just a few quid more than my dormitories have been costing, What a great way to be leaving Japan.

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I'm staying in modern Downtown Kyoto; large, broad, heaving, modern shopping streets interlaced with an intricate network of small lanes and roads full of all sorts of shops, services and cafés. I like this about Japan. Big and small together. Modern and old together. Kyoto has the added delight of being peppered with little shrines and temples, tiny things crammed into tiny spaces. They seem more colourful than elsewhere; more lanterns, more lucky charms, more quirks, more character. A visit to the Nishiki koji food market is lovely, so so much food for sale and as always in Japan, everything is exquisitely presented. But asides from the green tea there are no strong smells. That's what makes it different to all other countries in Asia; yes the same obsession with food exists, but minus the noxious odours that knock you for six. Maybe it's a good metaphor for Japan, nothing too strong, obnoxious, offensive. On the surface that is, I have no clue as to what might lie beneath. I have lunch in my favourite type of eatery; 1970s Formica furniture, pictures of the food on the walls, customers from every walk of life and a mean feed for less than a fiver. After the initial thril of being in sopping heaven, I find moving through all the consumerism quite soul destroying, especially because I can't afford anything. Nonetheless the next day I return to a classic local store to buy a yukata I'd fallen in love with. Although reduced by 70 % it's still 10000 yen, nearly seventy quid. I like it a lot and imagine walking round my house looking elegant, sophisticated and terribly exotic. I hope my postman will appreciate it.

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The vast amount of culture and history in Kyoto is mind boggling. It is crammed to the gills with ancient Buddhist temples, majestic places, gardens of every size and description, art, architecture, tradition. Never mind the Geishas. I hardly knew where to begin and to be honest, found it quite overwhelming to know what to do with my last few days there.

One of my favourite times was lurching around the North Eastern end of the city, late in the evening. It's dark and I don't really know where I am, but then I stumble across a temple which I figure out is Kiyomizu- dera temple, a pretty famous one. The moon is up high in the sky and the views across the city are beautiful. The streets surrounding it are lined with souvenir shops selling beautifully packaged boxes of sweets, purses handkerchiefs, the usual stuff. There are so many people there, but rather than detract from the atmosphere, it adds to it creating a sense of fun and occasion, of celebration. The golden lights from the shops creates a really lovely atmosphere. Everything seems so tasteful, so nice, so atmospheric. I could sit on the street and drink it in for hours but I know it's late and I have no idea how to get back to where I am staying. So I continue wandering in a vague direction, every few minutes tripping up on more temples, pagoda's, shrines, gorgeousness. Eventually I tumble out of the magic and onto one of the neon shopping streets, still going strong at 930 in the evening. I'm not resentful of the neon, like I said before, it's the mixture of old and new, big and small, brash and subdued that makes Japan special.

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Fushimi inari temple, a simple ten minute train journey north of downtown was also special. I am immediately mesmerised by the reds, oranges and vermilion's and by the shape and arrangements of the torii gates everywhere. It really is a feast for my eyes and spectacularly photogenic, everyone, including myself, is camera crazy. You climb to the top, through ten thousand, more red tori gates, before descending. It's tough, but glorious.

Like I said before, there was so much to see and so in Kyoto that I often found it overwhelming. I also made some bad decisions about what I visited and what I left out. But I did get many glimpses of magic and I guess it made me want to come back. I felt that I only got to see the tip of the iceberg in Japan, I'll definitely be back at some point in my life, hopefully with a bit more money and some company. But it was time to head off to the Philippines, the poor Philippines, devastated by typhoon Haiyan only the week before.

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Posted by noratheexplorer 17.02.2014 22:19 Archived in Japan Tagged budget _japan naoshima dogo_onsen koya_san Comments (0)

The only way is up, I hope

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In Japan, getting from A to B can be expensive. Like most visitors I had opted to buy a Japanese Rail pass in the hope of limiting the damage to my already dwindling bank balance. You can only buy these passes outside Japan and whilst 300 Stirling seemed a rather hefty price tag for two weeks of travel, I knew that in the end it would save me money. However my pass wasn't stamped to begin until a few days later, so my ticket from Tokyo would have to be purchased at face value. Since arriving in Japan frugality was fast becoming my second name, so I chose a destination a mere two and a half hours away and a train that wasn't one of the sooperdooper fast and expensive ones. Nonetheless I will still stung with a bill of over fifty quid; which after some initial heart palpitations was put in perspective by realising it was cheaper than the Irish Rail fare from Dublin to Cork.

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Before I hopped on the train I bought a bento box and a soft drink to consume along the way. Even the packaging of my bento box was beautiful and when it was opened I was faced with a visual feast of savoury delights, which taste wise, worked together to create something you wouldn't expect of a box sitting on your lap. It's distant cousin, the British Rail cheese and ham sandwich should hang its head in shame. Food gives me enormous pleasure and as I mastered my chop sticks and drunk my tin of fizzy lemon, which ended up being an alcohopop, sure I was in great form, the price of my ticket long forgotten.

The train passed slowly through small towns and hamlets; a constant low density of housing nearly all with their own vegetable patch, many with a small orchard, some with vineyards, tree clad low mountains in the near distance. This natural and built landscape reminded me so much of the Basque Country in Northern Spain. As time progressed the low mountains morphed into big ones and I realise I am entering the foothills of the Japanese Alps.

I arrive in the city of Matsumoto, the bright sunshine hurts my eyes and is the only clue that I am at altitude. In my excitement at having escaped Tokyo, I immediately head to what my guidebook describes as a recital of traditional Japanese music. I enter a rather intimate room in a house where two aul dolls in kimonos do a huge amount of smiling and bowing before playing two songs on their Shamisens, a Classical Japanese string instrument played with what looked like a plastic scrapper you get with a food processor. Their playing and singing seemed horrifically off key and I wonder for quite a few moments if this is a joke and wait for some Japanese camera crew to jump out from behind the curtains. Japanese candid camera, that sort of thing. But they don't and quite quickly we are at the interval where we are provided with green tea and a Japanese bun, the type filled with a sweet bean paste which I have to grimace when I eat. I thank god that I'm not the only member of the audience. For company I have two European gay men. The Spanish one thinks the whole occasion is utterly sweet whilst the German one wants to head for the door. I think I am somewhere I between. Then we are invited up on stage to have a go at playing the Shamisen. I decline, they have a go. A folk song later and we are free to leave. Phew. Then I hit the Nawatedori, an area of old streets by the river, full of cute shops and cafés. I have no time to browse though; as a treat I have checked into a business hotel for the night, so privacy, a tiny bath tub, dressing gown and disposable slippers await me. I feel like I'm staying in the Ritz.

Next morning I take the bus to Takayama. The road curves through the mountains; orange, reds, russets and browns, autumn foliage all around. The river is always below. It is really beautiful, reminding me of those pictures you see of New England in the fall. Then it gets more alpine. The houses change shape and become more chalet like. Then I'm in Switzerland.

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Takayama is lovely in the afternoon sunlight. I am immediately drawn to San Machi Suji an area of dark wooden merchant houses dating from the mid nineteenth century. They are crammed with souvenir shops, art galleries, cafés and the like. Very similar to Matsumoto infact. I shriek when I take a look at the prices. I have been spoiled by spending a lot of time in China about ten years ago, returning home with more goodies (at next to nothing prices) than Marco Polo could fit on one of his camels. They are also crammed with hoards of tourists. It feels a bit like a Disney version of 'olde Japan' which I sense I'm tiring of already. Nonetheless I spend a couple of days there; I'm struggling with a bad cold and it's a pleasant enough place to spend some time.

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But its been three cities in a row now and I am craving a taste of small town life. So I head for the Kiso valley where there are a number of small mountain villages close together and linked by easy walking trails. It takes two trains and two buses to get to Magome, and by the time I get there I am a tad nervous at being out in the sticks for my first time. I gingerly step off the bus only to be almost knocked down by droves of marauding tourists. Where did they all down from? The village is beautiful; a steep cobblestoned street lined on either side with restored wooden period buildings, but they are filled with, as you might guess, cafés, galleries and souvenir shops. Arrggghh.

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Because of the lack of any affordable accommodation in the area, I have booked an expensive room in a Ryoken, a traditional Japanese Inn. It's a lovely traditional house and I have my first traditional room with shoji, the paper thin sliding screen walls, tatami mat flooring, low furniture and a futon mattress that is unfolded before you retire for the evening. As a fan of a minimalistic interiors, I am surprised at how austere and uncomfortable it feels. I am also provided with a yukata, a cotton dressing gown and a more ornate cover coat to wear to dinner. Out of a fear of making a fool of myself, I refrain from dressing up but my fellow dinners, half Westerners, half Japanese have been braver. There are four long tables in the dining room, the guests, all in couples are spaced out along three of them and I am placed at the fourth, alone. Feeling a tad crumpled, I hold my head high, as I have learnt to do from many years of travelling alone. A delicious spread is placed in front of me, it looks so beautiful, as so many things do in Japan. This is such a treat and I leave the table with a full belly, a pretty unusual experience for me in Japan where I find the portion sizes insufficient to meet my appetite. After dinner I take a quick walk up through the village which, post the exodus of day trippers, is now totally deserted. And then I collapse and have my first proper nights sleep since I left Ireland, nine days previously.

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Next morning I begin my hike to the next village, Tsumago. The sun is shinning, the air is mountainy and cool. I am excited. The path is well marked, through woods, bamboo groves, little villages. Its a relief to be out in the countryside and lovely to see people living their lives; working their vegetable gardens, drying chillies in the sun, airing their clothes and bed linen. I am very surprised by the abundance of public conveniences, aka loos, given I am in the middle of nowhere. I ponder wether this is a reflection of amazing organisational skills or a fear of having to pee in the open. I have become quite fascinated by toilets in Japan.

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Computerised toilets are now common place; they have lots of buttons which enable you to do lots of things, one of which is to play a soundtrack of a flushing toilet, to cover up any noises you might be making yourself, heaven forbid. Other public conveniences have a device on the cubicle wall which is triggered by movement; it plays the wholesome sounds of birds chirping. It's a far cry from my time in China when visiting a public toilet involved crouching above a gulley to do your business, facing the backside of the person in front of you and offering a similar view to the person behind you. What does birds chirping in toilets say about the psychology of the Japanese? I could only hazard a guess, but I think Dr Freud might have a few things to say.

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After about three hours I'm in Tsumago. It's also touristy but much wider, more open, bigger and less Disney- esque than Magone. I like it. I am blown away by the beautiful flower arrangements outside many of the shops. I wish I could stay just a little while longer but I have a long journey to my next destination, so I have a bowl of the local speciality, sansai soba, buckwheat noodles topped with mountain greens, before hopping on a local bus to the train station.

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In many countries, travelling after dark is a no no. In Central America, even leaving your room after dark was always carefully planned. But Japan feels extremely safe and what with the efficiency of public transport, I travel many evenings without anxiety or fear. I leave Tsumago at just after two for a journey that is probably about 400 or kilometres.Seven hours, two buses, three trains and a walk later I arrive in the the port town of Onomichi.

I immediately like Onomichi. It feels real and alive; a world away from the restored, olde worlde, ever so perfect Japan for tourists that I seem to have been unable to avoid. At this point in the trip I am completely underwhelmed by Japan. Sure it's very pleasant, but it feel like its a safe sanitised version of North East Asia, a place to travel if you don't have the balls for the real thing! Honestly, I really was that dismissive. For me thus far, Japan had no kick, no bite, no spice. Insipid would be the word I'd use. The other issue connected to this reticence was my struggle with having such minimal interaction and connection with the people around me. I walked the streets of Japan smiling at everyone, as I do in my home town , as I do in every country I visit. The issue wasn't that the smiles were unreturned, it was my sense that I wasn't even seen, that I was in fact invisible. Of course I understood it was a cultural issue, a complex one at that. But it was one which I had no way of really understanding. The lack of reaction from young children was especially interesting to me as a child psychologist, a psychologist who has spent at least ten months in Asia before this current trip, in about nine different countries. In my experience in Asia ( and this is very generalised) the under twos will stare at the pointy nosed white person for quite some time. Some will get bored and look away whilst some will get frightened and upset by this strange looking person. In relation to the over threes, generally they go boogaloo; jump up and down, run around, scream, grab each other, grab you., a scene of mayhem linked to the excitement/fear of something new. In Japan no reaction, nothing, like they haven't seen you. I found it absolutely fascinating to puzzle over, especially In relation to the younger ones for whom socialisation hadn't yet become so potent. Anyway, back to Onomichi.

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Onomichi faces out onto the inland sea, which I need to explain, given I spend a lot of time in and around it. Japan is made up of five main islands and the inland sea is a big stretch of water trapped between the islands of Honshu and Shikoku. Within the sea are nine small islands, all of which have now been linked to each other and the main islands by a series of ten bridges, including one which at 1480m long is the worlds longest cable suspension bridge. This route through the islands has become a real draw for cyclists from all around Japan.

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I took a ferry to one of the nine islands, Ikuchi Jima and rented a bike to go explore. The bike is not made for people my height and I'm crippled within ten minutes, nevertheless I spend a lovely afternoon peddling along the empty cycle paths at the side of the empty beautifully paved roads, taking in the views of the inland sea and it's islands. Ikuchi Jima itself is pleasant and dappled with citrus groves, but not the Mediterranean type landscape that my guidebook had lead me to believe. The route is flat, and almost without cars, so perfect for an unfit cyclist and I get an added thrill of whiz zing onto and across one of the big suspension bridges, getting to cycle across water at a huge height and with minimal effort. The subtle charms of Japan are slowly beginning to dawn on me.

Next day was spent exploring the town of Onomichi. To start I take a cable car up to Senkoji-Koen park where I find the views over the city and the islands quite magical. The main temple, Senkoji is bright and colourful with lots of paraphernalia for sale, all requesting special favours of the gods. I spend a couple of hours descending back down to the town, along what's called the temple walk; twenty five temples scattered amongst neighbourhood shops, narrow little lanes and flagstoned alleyways, houses, and shack like noodle bars. It really is charming. I see why this place is a popular setting for nostalgic movies. There seem to be a lot of Japanese here for the weekend. In the hostel I speak with two lovely girls, both in their twenties and living in Tokyo. They have taken a few days off work and are here to see the sights. The sisterhood in Asia is something else.

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The joy of Onomichi is just dandering along taking it all in. The trendy set have definitely arrived in this provincial place; there are a lot of cool cafés, bars and restaurants, many with French and Spanish influences, just like in Tokyo. It would lovely to be here with a friend or even better, a lover and just hang out in some of the cafés and see what it leads to. Small intimate spaces can be hard to manage when you are on your own, especially at night. From speaking to other travellers, it would seem that the best place and time to connect with the local people is in the evening, in places exactly like this, when work their done for the day and a few beers have worked their magic and on the famous Japanese reserve.

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For dinner I try a speciality of the area and nearby Hiroshima. It's called okonomiyaki and can be best described as a pancakey/pizza type thing, made of layers of noodles, cabbage, bean sprouts, egg and the like, all doused in batter and fried on a griddle. I opt out of the house speciality, the key ingredient being chicken gizzards. Accessing good food has become increasingly difficult since leaving Tokyo. The good food is there, it's just that I don't have the language or cultural knowledge to get at it. For instance, I can't decipher the restaurant signs which tell you the type of food it serves, for example a soba noodle bar, or a sashimi restaurant. When I do venture inside, the menu is most likely only in Japanese, so I don't know what I'm ordering. In China I would walk around the diner and having a good gawk at what everyone else was eating before brazenly pointing to someone's bowl, indicating I want some of this. But that was rural China, where etiquette and manners at the table are few and far between. And prices were not an issue. In Japan they are. Especially after my sushi experience, I am paranoid about ordering something which is going to cost a bomb. In Japan I often berated myself for being obsessed by the cost of things, but then Id tell myself I been without a wage and travelling for 18 months, with five more ahead of me, so I need to be careful. I am smiling as I write this a few months later, having gone through my bank statements. Despite staying in dorms four nights out of every five, not buying any souvenirs, eating in cheapish restaurants and never having beer or coffee with meals, my spending each week averaged around 700 euros compared to 250 euro a week in the Philippines. Japan, it ain't cheap.

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By chance I had stumbled upon the weekend of the Betcha festival, an entirely local celebration, linked to the temple about thirty seconds from where I was staying. The temple deity is carried along the streets on an elevated alter, carried by hordes of chanting macho men in strange outfits, replete with headbands and those thoroughly Japanese two toed shoe/sock things. The entertainment comes from three masked characters who seek out young children and hit them on the head with a bamboo stick, thus ensuring their protection from illness in the coming year. It is a sight to witness countless grannies pushing terrified, screaming grandchildren into the face of adversity, and with such glee. While the festivities had been going on all weekend, the big event started at 645 on Sunday morning. I am awoken by the sound of kobo drums at about six. It is so exciting to be in the middle of things, rather than having to seek them out. By eight I have seen enough, so I head to the train station and lo behold, about ninety minutes later I am in Hiroshima. The ease of travel in Japan is phenomenal. I think, slowly slowly, that I am beginning to quite like Japan.

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So, Hiroshima. You'll be expecting me to talk about the bomb, which I will briefly, but not now. I want to talk about umbrellas. For me, how the Japanese manage their umbrellas is a symbol of much of what is really great about Japan. Let's start with the basics, it's raining and you need an umbrella. At home you would have already lost the cheap, inferior quality umbrella bought at Dunnes stores the other week. So you get wet heading out to buy another cheap, inferior quality umbrella that will break within ten minutes of usage or get nicked or you'll loose it again. The Japanese have that covered. Let me explain. Many hotels, even hostels, have cheap umbrellas you can borrow. Super. But if you want a better quality item, why not hire one from the hotel. Frightened you might loose it? No problem. Park it at one of the umbrella parks, where a nominal fee will ensure it is locked away for safe keeping until your return. It's been raining hard and your umbrella is really wet, it's dripping, dripping water onto the nice polished floor of the hotel or department store. No problem. A kind member of staff is waiting to help you, armed with long thin plastic sheaths into which you slip your umbrella. But why bother will all that manpower when a machine can do it better. So, to the machine, pop the tip of your umbrella into the hole, push down and hey presto, your umbrella pops back up, sheathed in its own little plastic condom. Fantastic or what?

The preponderance of storage lockers is another example of how great the Japanese are at making things easy and convenient. Why carry a heavy bags round with you, when for a small fee you can lock it away and pick it up later. Railway stations are full of them, of every size, so you can arrive in a city, leave your bag to go see the sights and reclaim your luggage before hopping on the train to somewhere else. Parks, temples, museums, shops are the same, hire a locker, an umbrella or maybe a wheel chair if you're in the mood.

And what about getting around? Firstly everywhere is well signposted, with regular street maps on walls, in Japanese and English, with red dots saying ' you are here'. Unlike anywhere else in the world, the red dots appear to be in the right place! It seems that everything has been thought about in a logical and sensible manner. So, when you descend from the train all you need to do is follow the logically placed signs to the tourist information desk. Here you will be greeted by a smile and perfect English, before being offered a city map, after which all your questions will be answered competently and correctly. Perhaps your next step is to get on a tram, but you don't have any change. No problem, a little change machine is right by the ticket machine, just waiting to helpful. A lady with an American accent is usually there, over the tanoy , telling you where you are now and what the next stop is. I realised that in Japan I no longer needed to brace myself when I arrived in a new place, a habit I have formed out of years of experience of travelling solo. Yip, no need to stress, it would all be fine. Travelling in Japan really was growing on me, at an exponential speed.

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What shall I say about Hiroshima? The picture says a lot. That was less than seventy years ago. Now Hiroshima is a vibrant, prosperous, accessible city and like most cities, is wall to wall with swish department stores, a never ending maze of underground shopping arcades, over ground covered shopping malls and eateries. The day of my arrival was wet and gloomy and after walking through endless shopping arcades I bit the bullet and went into a pleasant looking, upmarket-ish restaurant which didn't have menus in English. After ordering I waited, ravenous with hunger for what seemed like hours, only to be eventually served up a fish with a face. I normally don't do fish with faces, a hangover from all my years as a vegetarian, but by God, I tried my best that day, managing to scrape off about a gram of flesh before giving up and heading to bakery next door for a pig out.

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I went to the Peace Memorial Park and Museum the next day, a day glorious with sunshine and optimism and hope. Everything was beautifully done; although the park is a memorial, the intention is to focus not on what happened to Hiroshima per se, but on ensuring that it never happens again. Thus the over arching concept and feeling to the experience is educating people about the risks of nuclear testing and warfare and the need to constantly be working towards peace. Successive mayors of Hiroshima have sent letters of protest in response to every nuclear test, by any country, since 1968. That is an amazing commitment. Each time a letter is sent, the mayor hopes it will be the last. I was impressed; impressed at how the museum acknowledged Japan's own history of oppression and violence towards other nations, impressed at how the horror of the A bomb has been turned around and used a force for good rather than retribution, impressed at how sensitively the information was conveyed. Nonetheless I was still overwhelmed and sick to the stomach when I left the museum. To drop an atomic bomb on a city. Jesus.

Next day I was finally leaving the island of Honshu and heading to its neighbour, Shikoku.

Posted by noratheexplorer 03.01.2014 04:41 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

A shaky start in the land of the rising sun

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From the moment I stepped out of the airport terminal, my preconceived notions of Japan were turned on their head. I had assumed I would board a state of the art bullet train which would gracefully deliver me to Central Tokyo within a matter of moments. Instead what was waiting was the equivalent of the Piccadilly line tube from Heathrow to Central London; a never ending, tortuous, stopping and starting at every hole in the hell crawl. A crawl in a carriage full of grey people slumped in their seats; their colour, their energy, their affect all grey and exhausted. City life can do this to people and I never cease to give thanks for having made the decision to leave London when I did.

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I had been aware that Tokyo's public transport system was pretty nightmarish (reference the map above), so I'd booked accommodation in a part of the city I could get to directly, rather than having to change trains. However there was some difficulty with the system that night and I was told I had to change stations. It was with great difficulty that I managed to get off at the right stop, however I was completely and utterly unable to find my way to the next connection, totally clueless. Thankfully the station wasn't crowded and I asked a girl for help. Asking for help in Japan is wonderful. People go completely out of their way to help you and are tenacious as terriers until the problem is solved. Whilst you may feel invisible to the Japanese population for 99.99999% of the time, once you ask for help you become like their favourite auntie who has come to visit with a big box of sweets. And I am soooo thankful for that. The girl was delightful, disappearing and returning a few minutes later with a conductor who escorted me to the right platform and made sure I got on the train safely.

I arrived in the Asakusa area at about eleven in the evening. The hostel suggested the best way to get to them was to walk from the station, a confident indication of safety in the area and I guess in Tokyo too. Asakusa was empty, quiet and subdued. The only noise came from groups of tipsy business men making their way back to the station. Off the main streets it was a warren of little lanes and alleyways lined with noodle shops, bars and small restaurants, most with their shutters up for the evening. A few places remained opened; I could see small cosy interiors whilst outside, people perched on high stools under plastic awnings. It reminded me of a sanitised version of the hutongs in Beijing crossed with, bizarrely enough, Spain, a street full of tapas bars to be more precise. An air of quiet calm prevailed. I liked it. I got to the hostel just before midnight and celebrated my 45th birthday with a pot noodle and a can of beer from the vending machine outside, feeling reasonably sorry for myself I might add.

To be fair to Tokyo, it didn't stand a chance. I was in seriously foul form for most of my time there. Jet lag had kicked when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur a few days previously and I was averaging about two hours sleep a night. When you are staying in dormitories, sleep deprivation takes on many new avenues of torment. My misbehaving hormones added depth to the gloom and the weather, constant rain, just topped it all off. I constantly felt underwhelmed by everything, my thoughts racing with 'what's the big deal' about this place.

On my first afternoon, I paid the first of my many visits to a Sento. Although they take many shapes and forms, essentially a sento is a public bath house. After the war, houses were built rapidly and without running water and bathing facilities. This lead to the sento becoming a central part of the community and community life. From what I have read, the highly class conscious society of modern day Japan is rather ill at ease with the sento, their continued presence, an embarrassing reminder of an impoverished past. Apparently an undeserved stigma has fallen on those who continue to patronise the remaining establishments. As an outsider, thankfully those issues were not of concern to me. As an outsider, I was completely bricking it about ' the right way' to proceed through the experience without making a huge faux pas. I read and re read about the routine in my guide book. Then I asked the girls on reception at the hostel. Then there was nothing else for it, get naked Nora!

First hurdle, buy a ticket from the vending machine in the entrance. The vending machine is in Japanese, of course. Shit. Then an angry man with a mop comes running at me. I haven't taken off my shoes (a major no no, which I shall rant about at a later point). Shit. I saw the lockers for shoes but i got distracted by the vending machine. Shit. He indicates what button I need to press whilst madly mopping at the floor I have destroyed. I fumble to find the correct change and eventually manage to get a ticket, but only after my shoes are deposited in a locker. I walk through the main door, hand in my ticket and am directed to enter another room when women are dressing and undressing. Shit. It's not that I am nervous about undressing, actually I can't wait, it's about knowing the right way to do it. The right way to do things is very important in Japan. For the first week or so I get very worked up about these things, then I relax.

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Clothes packed away in another locker, I enter another room full of naked women sitting on low plastic chairs, soaped and scrubbing away at themselves as if they were cleaning a dirty saucepan with a Brillo pad. Sitting on the little plastic stools, the water facets are at tummy level, so rather than stand under a shower, you fill your little plastic bucket and pour it over you, rinsing yourself that way. It feels good to have a good leisurely scrub, good to be cleansed with abundant hot water, good to be naked with other people, good to have a good gawk at the female Japanese body. And what beautiful bodies. Ninety percent of the clientele are over fifty at the least, many would be seventy plus. Their skin is pale and surprisingly firm and unwrinkled with very little sagging. Boobs are smallish, firm and not droopy at all. No one is over weight. There is not a shred of cellulite in sight. Obviously, avoiding the sun is an important factor in these un-aged bodies. But what else? Diet? Exercise? Regular exfoliation? In every sento it was the same thing. Women aged sixty with the body of someone in their early thirties, someone who took care of themselves. I was told it was the same in relation to men, that it was almost impossible to tell their age by looking at their body. By the way, no cameras are allowed in the sento, so the photo below is from the Internet.

But it would be rude to stare to much. So it was back to more and more scrubbing and more and more rinsing before finally descending into the hot baths for a soak and relax. The bath is unbearably hot and I can't really chill out. My mood has not lifted. A nice woman tries to make conversation with me, she is a darling and I really appreciate it, but my heart is not in it. I move to a cooler bath. She follows and other ladies join in, but there is an element of laughing at the strangeness of the stranger. I feel vulnerable and want to cry. She sings Danny Boy to me. Oh my God. I have to get out. There is no relaxation area in sentos, once you're out its get dressed and go. I am the colour of beetroot and still very uptight. Normally warm water and a good steep is a fail proof way to lift my mood, but as I've already said, my mood was particularly foul and stubborn. But I had passed my sento initiation and day one of a five and a half month trip was over. Phew.

Number one of any list of things to do Tokyo is always the Tsukiji fish market, with the smartest cookies getting there on time for the 5.30am tuna auction. This was day 5 of my sleep deprivation hell and the last thing I wanted to do was be up and active in the middle of the night, but I knew I'd regret if I didn't go. I went to bed before midnight and was kept awake by jet lag, two mini earthquakes (the bunk beds trembled and then swayed for about thirty seconds) and continuous loud yaking from two of my dorm mates. I get up at 2.30 am, having not closed an eye. Nowhere to be seen is the girl who has promised to share the sizeable cost of the taxi with me. I am saved by an Australian boy who had not yet gone to bed. He not only is drunk, but is game to come with me. It's lashing outside, the beginning of a small typhoon. The taxi drops us off at a gate and we spend the next fifteen minutes dashing round a series of warehouses and yards, trying to find the check in area for the tuna fish auction. There are only 60 people allowed in each morning, so it's a race to get there on time. The boy is confident he knows where he is going so I just follow like an obedient dog; god it's great to be around a man's confidence sometimes. We make it to the gate. It's 3.30am and we are about twentieth in the queue and completely and utterly drenched. We are let into the equivalent of a holding pen and after the utter exhilaration of knowing we are 'in', the reality of a two hour wait kicks in. I am distracted by the man in front whom I think might be Will Self. But he is wearing dodgy trainers and does not exude an air of haughty self confidence. It can't be him.

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Finally it's five thirty. We are at the auction. Big dead tuna fish being inspected by men in welly boats with hooks in hand. Then the auction begins, the auctioneers are singing as they take the bids, tuna are being sold for thousands of pounds. Then it's over. The market doesn't open till seven. What do we do now?

The heavens have really opened. Everywhere is flooded, outside the water it as least ankle deep. Men in motorised trolleys speed around the roads and warehouses in the not quite dark, not quite light. It's like something from a sci fi movie. I love it. Normally I would just hang out, mooch around, soak everything up, but it's so horrifically wet. We end up taking refuge in a queue for a sushi bar. It's nice to have company, the occasion would have be so different if I had been on my own. After only a fifteen minute wait we are seated. The Sushi is served up and I immediately know I won't be able to stomach most of it. Having been a vegetarian for 29 of the last 30 years, raw flesh is a tad tricky for me. Embarrassed, but probably also dis inhibited through tiredness I let the sushi master know that I will share with the Australian boy. I think I may also have eaten with my fingers, a major faux pas no doubt. I make conversation with a Russian man sitting beside me. He has come all the way to Tokyo to eat Sushi at the market and tells me that were we are eating is very good, but very expensive. Yikes. The bill for our shared plate is 35000 yen a head, about thirty five euro each, more than the cost of my accommodation for two nights. I try not to obsess about looming bankruptcy.

It's now seven am. The market doesn't open till nine. I have a delicious coffee in a little shack. It costs me an outrageous five euros. I need to stop obsessing about money. Then I decide I'm not going to hang around, it's far too miserable. The rain is crazy, I later learn that it officially a typhoon. I get back to the hostel at 9 and sleep blissfully till about one. Four hours sleep is like a dream. I'm a new-ish woman and I've decided that it's time to get out of Tokyo.

Posted by noratheexplorer 02.01.2014 03:07 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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