Posts Tagged ‘travel blog’

Sapporo

Sapporo is to the west on the large island of Hokkaido. If you look at a map, it’s the bit of land that makes up the ‘head’ of Japan. This part hasn’t got the same sort of history as the rest of Japan because until the 1800s it was inhabited by the indigenous people, known as the Ainu or Aynu people, after which the Edo Shogunate took direct control.

Anyway all history aside I think I was mainly just pissed for the first 2 weeks. What a lovely time. These are the only pictures I managed to snap in Sapporo:

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Mario doing spins. (Not pictured: Wario and Luigi.)

Mario doing spins. (Not pictured: Wario and Luigi.)

Taken on a ferris wheel slap bang in the city centre.

Taken on a ferris wheel slap bang in the city centre.

Important beer sampling at the Sapporo beer factory.

Important beer sampling at the Sapporo beer factory.

 

Asahikawa

After Sapporo we moved on to Asahikawa where I begrudgingly entered my late-mid-twenties. ‘Kawa’ means ‘river’ in Japanese and Asahi is a brand of beer, so I had high hopes for this place.

Alas, no rivers of beer, but a lot of beer was certainly drunk. In Sapporo we at least made it outside to izakayahop, but here we were in such a lovely hotel we rarely made it outside. I saw my birthday in at out hotel’s rooftop bar, with Chris ordering a bottle of fine champagne at midnight (a decision we both regretted the next morning for separate reasons).

Happy birthday to meee!

Happy birthday to meee!

After sampling pretty much all alcohol within a 2 metre radius we thought it would be a FAB idea to rent out a karaoke booth, with a free beer tap inside. (And it was.)

We definitely got one word right.

We definitely got one word right.

Again, sorely lacking in photos, mainly due to consuming a little too much of the ol’ wobbly water – but we did finally venture outside of Hotel Paco, our eyes squinting at the sun like moles resurfacing after a long period underground.

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More incredibly important beer sampling.

Japanese gate known as a Torii (鳥居). Traditionally found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine, marking the transition into sacred land.

Japanese gate known as a Torii (鳥居). Traditionally found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine, marking the transition into sacred land.

Shinto worshippers write their prayers and wishes onto these small wooden blocks, known as Ema (絵馬), and leave them hanging in the shrine for the spirits.

Shinto worshippers write their prayers and wishes onto these small wooden blocks, known as Ema (絵馬), and leave them hanging in the shrine for the spirits.

Sacred rock. (At least I left the house.)

Sacred rock. (At least I left the house.)

We managed to shovel some food down in between drinking, which was nice. Japanese food is always nice actually. This time though we found an intriguing little alleyway and followed the lanterns to a Korean BBQ restaurant. If you haven’t been to one already, WHY THE HELL NOT? It’s amazing. Go.

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You get to cook your own meat so it’s done just how ya like. Not sure what makes this meat so much tastier than in other restaurants, but I like to think it’s because I cooked it myself. The dipping sauce that comes with it is DIVINE. So divine, in fact, that I’ve accidentally dipped my cooked meat in it after giving the raw meat a nice marinade bath on no less than 4 occasions.

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Furano

And now for something completely different; out of the city and up to the mountains. In season, Furano is a popular skiing destination. Off season it’s just a beautiful, quiet place to relax amongst the mountains, lakes and lavender fields . When Chris & I chose this destination we pictured hikes up the mountain followed by drinks at a local ski chalet bar in the evening, but as ever we chose the time of the year when everything is rainy and ~dead~. We did attempt a slog up the mountain on the first day but turned around within approximately 7 minutes, our shoes and socks saturated and umbrella threatening to Mary Poppins me away.

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The next day we did have some reprieve as the rain stopped long enough for us to walk to the Furano Winery and lavender fields. The winery itself was quite small but they offered us a few free thimbles of wine which made up for it. (If you hang back from the small group of people you can give yourself a cheeky top up – or so I’ve heard..) Just up the hill is the winery’s restaurant overlooking the town of Furano, where we ate steak and drank lavender wine.

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If you’re planning on visiting Furano I’d recommend going during ski season so there is more to do, bars that stay open past 8pm and possibly even contact with another human being. In all though, it was a lovely little break thoroughly enjoyed. (Apart from the lavender wine, that was cack.)

 

Otaru

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After Furano we head down to the romantic little port city of Otaru. The city faces Ishikari Bay, where the key ferry port is found. It’s not too modern (I struggled to find one of my beloved 7/11 kombinis here)  which I quite enjoyed; you get a real sense of what it looked like in times gone by with its canal moving alongside the city and well-preserved architecture and historical buildings of early modern Japan. Otaru is less built up and western than other places in Hokkaido and mostly everything is within walking distance, so in one day you can visit the suggested points of interest including:

  1. The Music Box Museum – a strange sort of mini-museum exhibiting all manners of music boxes, tinkling out well-known Disney tunes and classical music, and offering information about the development of these delicate inventions. You can buy one ready-made or ask to put together your very own one.
  2. The Steam Clock – a Big Ben-esque mini tower clock that’s powered by steam. On the hour it gives you a little whistle, which I painstakingly missed every time. Here’s a YouTube vid I found instead:
  3. Venetian Glass Shop – Otaru seems to be quite famous for its glasswork. There are a couple of glass shops featuring delicately crafted souvenirs, masks, bottles, plates and my favourite: Venetian pens made entirely of a hollow length of intricately decorated glass which you dip in ink to write with. Being around so much glass makes me really shitting nervous though, so it was a quick in-and-out for me.
  4. Sushi Resturant – it’s a port city, go figure! 12003401_10153080217551603_7747704122321250934_n
  5. Mt. Tengu Ropeway – take a cable car up Mount Tengu for a beautiful day or night view of the city. There are a few things to do at the top so I’d go earlier rather than later – I was too late to feed the chipmunks sunflower seeds. Gutted.
Make a wish! Rub the Tengu's nose for good luck.

Make a wish! Rub the Tengu’s nose for good luck.

Night views of Otaru from Mt. Tengu.

Night views of Otaru from Mt. Tengu.

There are plenty of other things to enjoy too. Beer halls, antiques shops,  markets, sake brewery to name a few. If you go during cold season it’s a magical place blanketed by snow and they have events such as the Snow Light Path festival (the name is self-explanatory).

If you ever find yourself round these parts, look up the Otarunai Backpacker’s Hostel MorinoKI. It’s quirkily decorated as I’d like my future home to be, with comfortable bamboo rounded seats and hammocks, a decking area and comfortable bunk-bed rooms. The owner is friendly and helpful, and there is a lovely dog for you to pet. And a cat but he’s an asshole.

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There’s a fox wearing denim shorts in my room.

 

During this time the Tokyo area was having a bit of a time with typhoons and general shitty weather so instead of making our way from Otaru slowly down Japan, Chris and I made a sensible decision (possibly our first) to take a cheap plane from Sapporo down to Nagoya, where we would be greeted by sun, fun, and more beer. Kampai!

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It’s been 66 days since my last real travel post. 66 long days and all I’ve managed to write about is how I haven’t been able to write. Here’s the cliff notes on what’s happened in the past 2 months; I left Tokyo for good (sob), visited Mt. Fuji (yay!), explored Hokkaido and had a birthday before zipping down to the south of Japan from Sapporo to Nagoya, Ise Shrine, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara.

 

End of an era.

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My teachers, fellow students and friends at my Japanese language school. また会いましょう!

Leaving Tokyo was a little bit very difficult. I’d made a nice little home for myself there, studying Japanese and teaching English part-time, cycling around on my little green bicycle, sipping whiskey with my good friend and owner of the jazz bar next door, karaoke-ing my heart out, eating sushi at the Tsukiji fish market, Book Town browsing, pedalo boating, Hyatt Hotel movie scene re-enacting, beer garden roof top partying and sex shop visiting (not necessarily in that order). Still, it’s always an idea to leave a place while you still love it, so onwards we go.

 

Fuji

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I couldn’t very well leave Japan without visiting Mt. Fuji could I? I hadn’t actually had the chance to see it before as whenever I eagerly went up one of Tokyo’s tall buildings to have a peek the day I chose wasn’t clear enough. The area to stay in is called Kawaguchiko, about 2-3 hours from Tokyo. For ¥2600 (£14) a coach will take you all the way to Fuji 5th Station – the start of the climb. There are a few relatively well-priced ryokans you can stay in which have windows opening out onto a beautiful view of Fuji. Inevitably I went at a shit time and got a face full of cloud instead, but the framed pictures around our room made summer/spring look quite promising.

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My place was a hop, skip and a jump away from the large and statue-still Lake Kawaguchi (河口湖). I took a walk around the lake, had little sit and a think in a boat while looking out at the whale and swan shaped pedalos gliding across the water’s surface; it was all very profound.

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Yep, that’s me up Fuji in short-shorts and a crop top. DISCLAIMER: This was ill-advised. I didn’t make it all the way to 8th station because I got told off by the danger rangers who pointed at my footwear disapprovingly. “Bad shoes!” (Um excuse me no they’re fabulous.) “No jacket? Very cold!” Don’t worry, I’m not a complete idiot, I did have a thick jumper and raincoat stuffed in my satchel, but it still paled in appropriacy compared to my fellow hikers, who had gone gung-ho on the whole outfit thing, poles in hand and specialist clothing adorning each limb. To be fair it was getting pretty nippy the more I ascended so I was secretly glad to be turned away.

After Fuji I nipped back to Tokyo to catch a flight to the biggest city in Hokkaido (4th biggest in Japan), Sapporo. Posts to follow..

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When I tell people where I’m off to next, or where I’ve been, I’m usually faced with the same responses. And I’m here to elaborate.

 

Common reactions include: “Please don’t die” and “Oh you’re just so LUCKY!“. While I do agree I am a fortunate girl as the world goes (money in my pocket, a roof over my head, food in my belly) it really gets my goat when people put my lifestyle down to “luck”. I’m not trying to come across as sour, I know its an automatic reaction, bear with me..

 

I’ve put quite a lot of effort into getting where I am today. I’ve had to navigate my way across the correct sequence of stepping stones which took time, risk and a LOT of thought. I’ve quit jobs, attended Skype interviews for new ones in new countries, worked my butt off and stored money like a squirrel preparing for winter; for this reason, I don’t want to give Lady Luck any credit. Anybody who has taken the leap to sell their worldly possessions (bar what you can carry on your back – which for a tiny girl like me, is not much) and up sticks to a foreign land is blessed with one scrap of luck: the balls to get up and go!

 

Another thing I irrationally dislike is when people ask “When are you coming home?” or “How long is your trip?” The answers to which are NEVER and FOREVER. This isn’t a trip to me, this is a way of life. (That sounds so wanky and awful doesn’t it?) To me, a trip is spending a few weeks or even months in a new place before going back to a home; a base, where all your things and people are there waiting for you upon your return. I don’t have this. Every time I leave one country and enter a new one I have to set up house all over again. I don’t even remember what it’s like to live back “home”, and I certainly don’t want to be reminded until I’ve explored as much of this earth as my little legs will allow. Home is where the heart is, but what if your heart is in a million places at once? With the people I’ve met along the way, the cities I made a living in, everywhere from the tops of the mountains in New Zealand to the bottom of the ocean in Thailand. This is where home feels like; my new normal.

 

Let’s flash back in time to last week, so I can show you what being “lucky” really feels like to me…

 

There’s someone dancing almost violently on the sofa next to me, while someone else is screaming out an interesting version of “La Bamba”. I’m in a karaoke booth. I look up and around at the crazy, amazing people I’ve collected during my time here in Tokyo and feel overwhelmed with pride and happiness. If only I could capture this moment and send it to the pre-travels Sophie of early 2011 and say “Look! It’s going to be all right!”.

 

This is the part of travelling that makes me feel richer than MC Hammer pre-bankruptcy; the people I connect with and the unique situations we find ourselves in across the globe. Usually these people have moved around a fair bit too, which makes for some interesting conversation. These are the times that make me stop and think, “Gosh, aren’t I lucky?

 

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Untitled drawing

Did you know cats around the globe have their very own kitty language? In English they say Meow but in Korean they say Yaong. “Nyan” is supposedly the sound a Japanese cat makes. (Hence the name choice for uber popular Nyan Cat.)

As well as Nyan Cat, Japan is home to Hello Kitty, Doraemon, the lucky “Maneki” cat with its beckoning paw (said to bring in good fortune and wealth – stick it by your door or window!) to name a few. I’ve heard a few things about why the Japanese love this animal so much – probably none of which are true, but I’ll tell ya anyway: supposedly cats were a huge helper in a country big on agricultural farming, chasing away the pesky crop-eating rats. Another theory is cats became a safer option than dogs. This is because  in the Edo Period, each time a criminal was captured they would be tattooed on the forehead. The tattoo strokes were done in such a way that once the criminal was caught and tattooed for the fourth time, they would form the kanji for “dog” – inu. The fifth capture meant the death penalty. The ol’ “five-strikes-and-you’re-out” rule.

Read more about Japanese people and cats here.

You may have gathered by now that I am up for all things animals, especially cats, something I’m glad Japan and I have in common. I’ve picked up a fair few cat “souvenirs” as I keep calling them, or “pointless shit you don’t need” as Chris calls them.

So far I have:

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My lucky calico cat (招き猫 maneki neko) stamp, a “good” stamp to give my students’ homework the cat of approval, my cat coin purse from Kichijoji, and a pencil case that reads hunter.. action.. hungry.. so busy. (I am basically a cat.)

And that’s it!

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..Okay and these cat paper clips.

 

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Aaaand these post-its. (How else am I meant to remember to buy “miruku” for my coffee?)

 

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I found out about a cat fair (!!) through the website timeout.jp (great site for those of you looking for things to do in Japan) and so made my way down to Asakusa to attend “Nekosen 2015“.

 

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It was held in one large room on the 3rd floor of a building; lots of people had set up their stalls. You could buy little collars for your cats, framed photos, stuffed animals, jewellery, key rings.. you name it! Heavenly.

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On the way out I was given this excellent “cat newspaper” with 2 comic strips on it. It’s meant to be read downwards, right to left. So put your finger on the very top row, right hand square, and work your way down, then move to the top row second-to-last square on the right, down, etc. (Seems obvious now, but I spent a good amount of time trying to read it across, left to right as you would a traditional English comic, which is quite a challenge. I just thought it was being all Japanese and quirky.) Here it is for your viewing pleasure:

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If this didn’t fill your daily cat quota, then you can also read about the time I went to a cat cafe here.

I also visited one of Japan’s 11 cat islands (!) and saw.. wait for it.. 7 WHOLE CATS! I don’t know, I seem to have a knack for accidentally choosing all the wrong places. I’m still holding out hope for the rabbit and fox island; the dream is not dead.

Edit: To be clear, the “rabbit island” and the “fox island” are two separate ones – if they were all on the same little chunk of land I suspect this would soon just become an “island”.

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Spot the Kitty

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Beautiful Enoshima

I recommend giving Enoshima a visit; it’s about an hour and a half from Tokyo. On a nice day you can paddle at the beach, eat some of the (very) fresh seafood, and buy some seaside souvenirs as you trek up and around the island.

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Alright I also bought these teeny tiny note papers with cat envelopes. I will stop soon, maybe.

And that brings us to the end of this post, but inevitably not the end of my catventures here in Japan.

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さよならSayonara!

 

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It’s now been been a month and a half since I started living in Tokyo. I completed term 1 of my Japanese beginners course which has made life SO MUCH EASIER. I can now read & write using hiragana and katakana and I’m now onto term 2, learning kanji. For those of you who don’t know, kanji are symbols created by pure evil and written with your feet. (At least that’s how it currently feels.) We’ve made firm friends with a Japanese man who owns the jazz whiskey bar next to our house – he likes to practise his English with us while we practise our Japanese with him, and whichever other unsuspecting victim enters the bar. Talking to so many strangers would make 5 year old me giddy with rebellious excitement.

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Chris & I bought bicycles to travel to and from school on, which has opened up a whole new side of Japanese life. Did you know they cycle on the pavement here? THE PAVEMENT!! It’s like bloody Mario Kart out there! I hate having to weave in and out of groups of pedestrians. Except when I am one. Then I hate the cyclists.

It still beats the subway during rush hour though. Just when I thought I’d experienced the worst of it… I experienced the worst of it. We all went from a carriage full of strangers to subway spooning in 60 seconds. It’s like some horrible love-in you never wanted to be a part of. You don’t even need to hold on to anything because of the dense wall of people surrounding you. Particularly horrible when you’re going round a bend and have all the air squished out of your lungs by your new friends.

***

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literally not having any of it

I think I’ve covered quite a lot of ground in the last 7 weeks. One of my adventures was visiting Ueno Zoo. I specifically went to see the “giant” panda who was as giant as a large household dog. I did see some naughty otters and an excellent flamingo though so all is forgiven, Japan.

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Best part had to be this bird who made off with someone’s sausage.

 

* * *

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I also visited Sensō-ji, the ancient buddhist temple. Visiting temples here is a pretty unavoidable activity. They’re everywhere and some are pretty impressive. You get a real sense of “にほんのぶんか” – Japanese culture. (See? Being a student isn’t all about the post-class beers.)

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You can find out your fortune at the temples via a small scroll of paper if you’re willing to appease the Gods with ¥100 (55p). One of mine said I shouldn’t aim to get married, start a new job or go to a new country, all of which I’ve done in the past couple of months, so that was reassuring.

Try to read up a bit on temple etiquette before you go so you don’t accidentally try to drink the sacred water like I did: click here.

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* * *

 

One of the potentially best things I went to do which ended up being the not-so-best was visiting SHIBA INU!!! (いぬ or “inu” is “dog” in Japanese.) Those of you with access to social media will know him as the dog who sells tobacco in Tokyo. He runs his own little shop! I can’t take it!
..But what actually happened is he was tired and grumpy, and his shop was closed. Didn’t stop us from taking photos until he gave us a smile! *

 

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*baring his teeth because he hates us.

I tried to explain that Shiba Inu is a well known meme to Chris,  to no avail. I was like:

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To watch Shiba in action, click here.

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Through my language school I also did a little cooking course, where we learned to make “おしずし – oshizushi”. I’m not sure what I actually learnt in the end as it mainly involves squishing layers of rice and filling together in an oblong box. It was pretty fun though! And I got to keep the box, so that’s dinner sorted forever.
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* * *

Another school activity was kanji calligraphy. (Chris and I signed up to pretty much every school activity on the first day like some weirdo keen-Os.) We were given 3 symbols, some paintbrushes and some worryingly indelible ink. After an hour and many failed attempts, with a big pile of scrunched up paper behind me like a true artiste, I produced this:

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光 means light, glow, honour and scenery. Take your pick.

* * *

I think I’ve finally got the hang of basic Japanese cuisine now. Doing your first grocery shop and cooking your first meal in a foreign country feels like a right of passage. Until you learn the lingo you can never really be sure if what you bought was a vegetable, or how to cook that unidentifiable blob of seafood.

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le cuisine du jour; pickled “saba” mackerel on a bed of おかゆ okayu rice avec veg.

 

Back home it’s easy to take for granted that you can read food labels; here it’s like an accidental game of Russian roulette.
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Random loosely related fact because it’s about food: slurping is the correct thing to do out here when eating a big ol’ bowl of noodles. Like, really slurping. Not feeling it just yet as I mostly end up splashing molten hot ramen liquid into my face. The Japanese word for slurping is “zuruzuru – ズルズル”.

 

* * *

On Sundays I sometimes hang out with a friendly man I met in a park. (Literally my mother’s worst nightmare.) He’s a lovely Japanese man named Masashi who plays Spanish guitar like a ボス (boss).

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I love how relaxed and friendly most people are.

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You may have heard that we’ve had a few bigger-than-small earthquakes in the past month.. The term “scared to death” gets used more than toilet paper but believe me, I came pretty close to needing an unglamorous outfit change. You’re supposed to have an emergency bag with food and water in case you have to evacuate your house. So far I have half a bottle of iced coffee and a chocolate wafer but I’m working on it.

 

***

Last month I finally sorted out a bank account. The process was about as fun as tweezing out a particularly painful ingrown hair, so here’s some information to ensure you won’t have to go through the same.

The bank you want is Shinsei Bank, the number one choice for foreigners. They have a few English speaking members of staff, English information booklets as well as an English section to their website. They won’t make you fill out dozens of forms either. You just need to know how to spell your name in katakana. (“Just”… Lol.) Again, instead of wasting the bank clerk’s time scribbling out your name like a child with a crayon, use this website: Japanese Name Converter. SO my name, Sophie Clifton-Tucker, becomes:

ソフィー クリフトントゥッカー (sofii kurifutontukkaa)

(Yes I tried all the rude words first. Fun for DAYS!)

Banks and bills can be scary when they arrive in pure Japanese and you haven’t even learned your arigatos properly yet. In the first week I went running to Chris clutching two “bills”, one of which was for over a MILLION YEN (thousands of pounds) and one which had inexplicably been divided into 2 payments of 1989 and 1987. Turns out that one was just Chris’ bank statement and the other was a registration confirmation with our birth dates on.

* * *

To anyone thinking of coming out to Japan, or making a big brave move anywhere actually, remember that being out of your comfort zone can often bring you the biggest comfort of all. ~ SophieSensei

If there’s one thing I’m learning out here it’s that I can make anywhere my home. Like in uni that time I slept in a bush.

 

またね Mata ne – Until next time!

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Spot the wild Sophie

Tomorrow marks an entire week in Japan. It’s gone by so quickly! I’ve gone from terrified westerner with a myriad of insurmountable challenges to an excited ‘gaijin’, picking up the lingo, figuring out the subway (finally) and fully immersing myself into Japanese life!

Here are a few more oddities and experiences that filled my week:

Toilet seats. Heated toilet seats. They are so fantastic I don’t know how I could possibly live without one now. Making a sacrifice to the porcelain Gods has never been so good. If you didn’t need a pee before, you will after sitting down for a second. I wasn’t brave enough to try the “bum spray” for a few days.. until I was. All I’m going to say is check the settings before you go all gung-ho on the controls. Nobody needs the strongest setting. *Shudder*.

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When you see this sign you know you’re in for a good time.

 

Bathrooms here are much smaller than across the way. They resemble the sort of wetroom you had in halls at uni. but a bit better because you have a MINI BATH! I am mini, so this makes me happy. Also, the toilet. Don’t forget the toilet.

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Exhibit A

So there is no button to press at the traffic lights when you want to cross, you have to wait patiently until the green man puts in an appearance. In a way it’s handy because the crossing intervals are fairly regular, and if you’re lucky you’ll reach the pavement just as it turns green. Yesssahhh. Jaywalking is a bit of a faux pas here, as I found out myself (oops). People GENERALLY won’t make a cheeky dash for it, even if the road is pretty empty.Screenshot 2015-04-29 at 22.32.01

The subway is a veritable rabbit warren. Every time I leave the same station I end up in a completely different part of town. Usually each station has a north, south, east and west exit, sometimes a little way apart. Good luck.

One thing I have learned about Japanese directions on posters, websites and pamphlets is that everywhere is a “5 minute walk from the station”. NOT TRUE. Google maps likes to take the piss too:

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Camaaan, give me a left.. throw in a right.. I’ll even take a straight on.

 

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You can buy a train card at the ticket machine to save yourself time and hassle fiddling about for change. The options as far as I can tell are a Suica or Passamo card. It’s basically an Oyster card, but cuter.

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The preconception that most Japanese sleep on trains is accurate. I thought it must be their long work hours but people are at it in the middle of the day on weekends too! People are quiet and its mostly a nice temperature so it is ideal napping conditions to be fair.

Rush hour is a whole ‘nutha story. As someone who hates small spaces without an easy exit, I’ve struggled a bit with this one. If you thought the London underground was packed like sardines in a can, this is more like conjoined sardines in a thimble. Pushing people to get on/off is also totally normal and not deemed rude. I’m trying to get on board with it but occasionally throw out the odd evils by accident.

Japan has it right in so many ways. Every station has toilets, vending machines and sometimes even little shops to pick up some food. In theory, London could do with all that. In practice, those toilet seats would be nicked before you can say konnichi wa.

Another preconception; everybody wears those white surgical masks to prevent spreading/catching germs. Lots of people do, but also lots of people don’t. There you have it. Everyone DOES, however, own a transparent umbrella. Seriously there must have been some sort of sale at the ¥100 shop. It also makes finding YOUR umbrella in the stand outside shops/restaurants nigh on impossible.

The subway map isn’t too difficult to work out because station names are also written in “romaji” (standard alphabet) on some maps. However, once you’re outside..

It’s different to when I was in South America and could just translate words I wasn’t sure of on my phone. Now I have to figure out the pronunciation of the symbols, transcribe into romaji and THEN translate into English! Luckily I stayed up one night and learned Hiragana  – one of THREE alphabets, decidedly not the one with 40,000 characters. All of a sudden I went into the bathroom and could read things! Next stop: understanding.

I really recommend this website (click) if you fancy giving it a shot. It helps you remember each symbol pictorally by associating it with what it looks like. E.g. “の” = “no”, and it kinda looks like a “no” smoking sign. So now I can read some signs, albeit very s-l-o-w-l-y and like a child. Chris & I enrolled on a Japanese language course starting next Monday, so excited to work my way up to conversational level.

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We also moved in to our new apartment – it’s been a big week! All the rooms here have these awesome daylight-mimicking dimmer lights (so I can stay up and procrastinate for even MORE hours without feeling groggy – hurrah!). Everything is so diddy in this country. Our kettle is small and round, the bath is a sit-up one, even the shopping baskets at the supermarket next door look like it was bought for a child as part of a “lets play shops” set. I love it!

Another myth about Tokyo (to follow on from my last post) is that it’s immensely polluted. Considering it’s the most populous metropolitan city in the world, I’m pretty impressed with the (at least seemingly) clean air and blue skies. I know people are going to contradict that, but as this article (click) says, …”the picture many people have of Tokyo dates back to the ‘ 60s and early ‘ 70s when there was a rapidly growing industry and population, and cars with no emission controls. However, over the past 20 years, very strict auto and industrial emission controls have been phased in. A vast fortune has been spent on new subways and sewage-treatment scheme.” Also, it seems like every man and his dog owns a bicycle over here. I live in constant fear of getting mowed down by one on the pavement. (I’ve had a few hairy moments).

 

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 You stick the whole sardine on a mini table-top BBQ and eat it. ALL OF IT.

One of my favourite parts of travel is the foooooood. Japan definitely wins this one, 99% of the food I’ve tried is 100% delicious. Last night I went to an ‘izakaya’ with some old students who I taught in Oxford. It’s a great place to sign yourself up for the ‘nomehoudai’, which translates to “bottomless cup”. Basically, all you can drink for around ¥1000-¥2000 (5-10 pounds). You can order a full on meal here or do what most people do and share dishes, tapas style. If you just want to pick at something you can order one of many “*” dishes. These are things that go well with a beer, like wasabi edamame beans!

* Right okay so I wanted to impress everyone with this word for “beer snack food appetiser thing” but I’ve forgotten so have an asterisk instead.

Tipping is considered taboo here which is quite a relief as it takes the pressure off everyone involved I think. Just give a little bow of the head and a “gochiso sama!” should you feel so inclined.

 

wpid-2015-04-30-00.24.51.jpg.jpegOf course I have an izakaya membership card… 

Getting in to the restaurant itself can be an interesting experience. It took a few embarrassing pushes and shoves to open the door before realising the handle was actually some sort of button made of magic that activated the automatic sliding door. This can be extra interesting on the way out, after a few drinks, when you forget.

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The other day Chris and I ate at this small place where everyone sits on stools around a circular bar, and orders food via a machine with lots of buttons which then gets cooked in the kitchen at the back and brought to you. This strange contraption came with my meal. A frantic Facebook message to one of my students later and I discovered it’s a little pepper/sesame seed dispenser. God this place is wonderfully weird.

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If you’re thinking of making the move to J-land, keep reading this blog because I’ll throw out some tips as I go along; tips I wish I had in the beginning! For example, when you get to the airport you’ll need to register at the passport desk (not if you’re only coming for a holiday). They’ll issue you with a residence card which will magically have a colour version of the photo you used for your visa. Please learn from my mistake and choose a nice one where you don’t look like a sunburnt ginger lion.

Once you find a place to live you’ll need to visit a city ward office and change the address on your card. Go early to avoid queues. (Actually we went sodding early and still had to wait ages. Take a book.)

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They also gave us a huge pamphlet on how to correctly recycle our rubbish. Oh my gyoza they’re big on recycling over here. There’s me being perplexed.

 

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Yum.

Another tip is to bring some essentials with you in the way of pills, ointments, etc. Health care stuff. You CAN buy it here but unless you can read Japanese or have a friend who does, it can be a little difficult. Chris came down with a horrible cold and fever on the first few days, so I was super thankful to have my Mary Poppins bag of (legal) drugs.

 

That’s it from me for today! Here are another couple of videos of the past week:

 

 

 

 

Although it was frightening at first, I’m so glad I pushed through and am enjoying myself. Life is short, live live live!

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? ~Mary Oliver

EDIT: *********************

* Otsumami! (おつまみ) This is the elusive word I was looking for. It loosely translates to “snacks” which are casually eaten with alcohol – it’s a small dish not too dissimilar from the tapas-style dishes in Spain.

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“It’s a fairytale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairytale town not somebody’s f’ing thing? … all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful f’ing fairytale stuff…” – In Bruges (2008)

I don’t know how many movie quotes we managed to slip in, probably a million. This was such an amazing little mini break and if you haven’t been before you MUST.

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Chris surprised me on Christmas morning with one of our favourite DVDs – “In Bruges”. I was happy enough with the thought behind it but when he told me to open it and there were two tickets to Bruges inside.. major brownie points.

I haven’t been to many places like this, I would describe it as a hybrid between Amsterdam and Paris. Quaint little cafés, cobbled streets and museums of BEER! CHOCOLATE! and CHIPS!

 

“…How can that not be somebody’s f’ing thing, eh?”

 

Right. I’m going to hook you up with a quick “To Do” list for this lovely little place. (I was only there for 3 days so this is a revised version – if you’re going for longer I’d advise looking at Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor forums.)

  1. Markt Square – You’ll inevitably end up crossing this square numerous times. It has some beautiful buildings, horse drawn carriages and open air restaurants. If you’re more sporty less lazy than I am you can also rent some bicycles and meander around the city.
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  3. Choco Story (Chocolate Museum) – Bruges is dotted with chocolate shops (Belgian chocolate, hello?). This museum tells you about the history of chocolate and the process it goes through, culminating in a chocolate demonstration – definitely the best bit. You get to watch it being made and even get a cheeky little sample.
    wpid-20150124_140414.jpg (^ Not on display in the actual museum.. for some reason.)
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  5. Beer Museum – Self explanatory. I’ve always been a beer drinker, but I think I’ve turned a little snobby after being in Belgium. It’s perfectly normal for restaurant beer to be anywhere from 6% to 9%, putting British beer to shame. This is down to the war when beer strengths plummeted to 0.8, never fully recovering and plateauing at around 4%. (See? I was listening.) The museum itself was OKAY.. Basically a couple of rooms with some barrels and a bunch of QR codes to scan with an iPad handed to you at the beginning. The real magic happens downstairs at the bar, where you can sample some of the delish beers while overlooking the Markt Square.wpid-20150124_152042.jpg
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  7. Historium – I get bored easily so I wasn’t sure what to expect here. This place offers to give you a brief history of Bruges. As soon as you step inside though, it’s exciting. Historium promises to be a “fully immersive experience” and definitely delivers. You’re given some headphones and a piece of equipment that tracks where in the building you are, and plays the recordings accordingly. They’ve decked the place out to look like 15th century Bruges, with a port, baths, market, even a square with snow! The whole tour follows the story of a young boy who is a painter’s apprentice. There are screens in each room (some appear through opening doors or window shutters) which play the next part of the story.
    …And at the very end you can go and do some MORE BEER TASTING!wpid-20150123_151904.jpg
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  9. The Rozenhoedkaai – This is one of the most photographed locations in Bruges, and for good reason. A beautiful spot to take a few snaps.wpid-20150123_140625.jpg
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  11. Wafel met Slagroom – No sniggering – this is a “waffle with cream”. I’ve never been big on waffles but now I’m a believer. Try one from the vendors for that authentic feeeeel. I got one for dessert at a restaurant and it was perfection. I can’t look at this photo without my mouth making rain.wpid-img_20150127_125120.jpg
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  13. The Belfry Tower – If you’ve watched In Bruges: No we didn’t pay 5 cent less and we didn’t try to leap off the top. There are 366 steps to the top (do not, I repeat DO NOT attempt on a hangover – damn thing nearly killed me) and there are little resting points (praise be) where you see a big ol’ bell and some great views. The best view though is of course the very top (see first two photos in this post).wpid-2015-01-23-17.47.26.jpg.jpeg
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  15. Night Life – There is a strip of bars where young ‘uns flock to of an evening. Music, drinks and a choice of about 10+ places to dine or water yourself. There are other pubs and rock/jazz bars in and around the centre of Bruges though so I recommend taking a stroll in the day to scout them out.
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In all, the best 3 day holiday yet. Do it!

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