Monday, June 30, 2008 Thailand Thailand

Journey to paradise

Sunset at LaLaanta [Enlarge]

Thailand has some of the best beaches in the world, and that's where we were heading. It's currently low season which means the possibility of typhoons, tropical storms, monsoons... but it's not like that all the time. You can be unlucky, but most days have perfectly good weather.

We spent a few days in Bangkok in our now customary hotel, the Prince Palace (quirky but we kinda like it) before heading down to the station for our overnight train to the south-west corner of the country. We were heading for the island of Koh Lanta. We chose that island because we wanted somewhere cheap but comfortable, and quiet. The whole island seems to be pretty quiet in low season, but we wanted Really Quiet. So we chose LaLaanta Hideaway Resort, which is right at the southern tip of the island and consists of twenty beachside bungalows nestled in the jungle right next to a national park.

The train was slow and comfortable and dropped us off at Surat Thani, near the east coast—the other side of the peninsula from where we wanted to be. Note: If you're taking the train from Bangkok to Koh Lanta, forget about connecting with buses to Krabi and just stay on the train until it reaches Trang. You'll see why in a moment. It was just after dawn when we, and a handful of other crumpled westerners tumbled off the train and into the waiting grasp of the bus touts. They certainly get up early! We'd actually already got our onward bus ticket to Krabi on the west coast because we'd bought a combined train and bus ticket. But what we hadn't known at the time of purchase is that the train company had effectively just sold us on to the touts. Our ticket was for one of their buses.

What follows is an all too typical story of being passed from one bus to another, circling the streets of Surat Thani endlessly collecting groups of weary travellers who had been ferried in from all over the country, then being dropped off in the middle of nowhere (done so that you have no other options) and sold to more touts, etc etc blah blah.

We passed amazing limestone karsts just like you see in any movie featuring Thailand. The AC on the bus was reasonably effective at protecting us from the heat outside—it seemed to be one of the few functions on the bus that was still working. The speedometer registered zero throughout the trip, the oil pressure gauge was in negative territory and the odometer had stopped turning a long time ago at 527,163 kilometres. The driver, like other Thai drivers we had last year, didn't have a clue how gears worked. Luckily the route wasn't too hilly. But he made excellent use of the horn, which was still operational, and we finally got to Krabi.

Koh Lanta car ferry [Enlarge]

Our next task was to find a minibus from Krabi to Koh Lanta. In the high season there's apparently a direct passenger ferry, but in the low season the only way onto the island is on the vehicle ferry which crosses a much narrower stretch of water, but leaves from a pier a long way out of Krabi. Finding a minibus was actually very easy, because we were dumped in a farmhouse outside Krabi which belonged, surprise surprise, to a minibus company! We grudgingly paid our 350 baht (GBP 5.24 / USD 10.40) each—sadly we couldn't be bothered to start walking into town in search of a cheaper option.

Okay. Next stop Koh Lanta? No. Next stop the minibus company's office in town to change vehicle, then another stop or two to make sure the bus was completely full.

It was almost a shock when we realised that we were finally speeding towards the Koh Lanta car ferry. Having loaded his cargo, the minibus driver was obviously on a time bonus. He barely touched the brakes until we were at the ferry port. Reading up on the journey to Koh Lanta in low season (when the car ferry is the only option) we had been warned to expect long queues at the car ferry. It can take as much as four hours to get from Krabi to the island. But for the first time in the whole day something went perfectly and there were no queues—we drove straight onto a waiting ferry!

Off the ferry, another white knuckle ride in the minibus and finally another car ferry, and we were on the right island. Phew. We had been in contact with LaLaanta on the mobile and their driver was waiting in Saladan town to pick us up. About forty-five minutes later we were delivered safely to our own personal paradise island resort, at the end of a long dirt track.

LaLaanta is everything the website says. Our new home is a beautiful bungalow with bamboo bits and a thatched roof, and the odd gecko behind the curtains. It's great! Did we say we wanted somewhere quiet? It's a case of be careful what you wish for, because it turns out we're the only guests! And the few other resorts on the beach are closed, which means that we have the entire bay to ourselves... We now have plans for at least the next two weeks. After a year of crazy working schedules we are on holiday! We celebrated in the beach bar over a beer: the first, no doubt, of many.

Map of Day 582-583

Day 582-583
Bangkok to Koh Lanta Yai

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008 Taiwan Taiwan / Thailand Thailand

A pleasant surprise

Our plane to Bangkok arriving [Enlarge]

We were second in the queue to check in to our KLM flight from Taipei to Bangkok. Why does Dutch carrier KLM fly from Taipei to Bangkok? Because Bangkok is just a stopover en route to Amsterdam. As always, Glenn asked very politely for a seat with extra leg room. The check in desk person allocated us a pair of seats at the front of a section with no neighbours, which was very nice of her (as we've noted before, Asian women love Glenn).

After immigration we searched for ways to spend our final 122 Taiwanese dollars (GBP 2.02 / USD 4.02) on food. The best value, we eventually decided, was two Starbucks toasted paninis costing 55 and 65 dollars. That's all we needed, because we would be getting another sandwich or something later during our lowish-priced flight.

Thirty minutes before boarding we went to our gate. The plane was a 747—our first 747 ever!—and it looked like it was going to be full. As we sat waiting there was an announcement "Could passengers Malte Isla and Livett Glenn please contact a member of staff." Our first thought was that they'd done something to our luggage. Detonated it in a controlled explosion? We showed the man our boarding cards to say who we were. He told us that because the flight was overbooked, we were going upstairs to business class! Oh yeah, baby!

We said a few posts ago that we feel that travelling by boat or train is really travelling, and flying is cheating. Well we were wrong. Flying is best, KLM is our new favourite airline and Holland is the Greatest Country In The World. We really should visit some day.

As we supped our pre-flight champagne we checked out the dinner menu options, and donned our active noise reduction headphones to flick through the available movies. After we took off, we dined on a smoked halibut and salmon starter followed by a choice of Siam perch, sweet and sour pork or beef Penang (we both had the beef), and fresh fruit salad with opera gâteau. We swilled it down with a surprising Austrian red, Johanneshof Zweigelt 2006 ("cherries, herbs and oak"), then finished with a glass of VSOP cognac. After dinner we reclined in our lie-flat seats with massage function and we hoped that maybe there would be a strike at Air Traffic Control or Bangkok would be fog-bound which would prevent us from landing. But sadly the four-hour flight came to an end in no time.

We don't know why we were chosen over the other 386 economy people for an upgrade. But we don't care. The only downside to our flight to Bangkok is that it's going to be very hard to go back to a tatami mat on the floor after this.

Map of Day 578

Day 578
Taipei to Bangkok

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Monday, June 23, 2008 Taiwan Taiwan

The other China

Taipei 101 [Enlarge]

Taiwan is the first place we've been to that isn't a fully recognised nation state. Most countries in the world, ours included, don't recognise it because if they do, China will break off diplomatic relations with them. It's a choice laid down by China: have a relationship with us, or have a relationship with Taiwan, but you can't have both. Sadly China wins nearly every time.

Why are the Chinese so anti Taiwan? Because China and Taiwan are locked in a strange stand-off. They both agree that Taiwan should be a province of China rather than a separate country. Where they disagree is that they both claim to be the legitimate government of the whole territory of China!

The problems result from the Chinese civil war, between the Nationalists headed by Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists headed by Mao Zedong. Mao won and established the People's Republic of China, and Chiang was driven out to the island of Taiwan where he established a new capital for the Republic of China in the city of Taipei. And that has been the status quo ever since.

During the Cold War most countries recognised Taiwan as the One True China, but as the might of mainland China grew they started switching over, and by the end of the seventies almost all had abandoned poor Taiwan.

Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall [Enlarge]

So now bizarrely, we have two states calling themselves China. And even more bizarrely, mainland China is happy for Taiwan to call itself 'the Republic of China', but not happy for it to call itself 'the Republic of Taiwan'. This is because the prime concern of mainland China is that the two countries are both part of China. It is a secondary objective that they have a single government. If Taiwan ever does change its name, it will be invaded forthwith.

We found ourselves in Taiwan not knowing anything about the place, and also not having a clue what we wanted to do there. We are really, really tired and we need to take a rest. We are still on English teachers' hours, waking up at stupid o'clock every morning, alarm clock or no. So we're sorry to say that we've made a complete mess of being in Taiwan, and haven't done very much here at all.

This post therefore will be an anti-post. A description of all the things we didn't do in Taipei.

Firstly, we didn't go up the current world's tallest building, Taipei 101. We went in it, but not up it. We couldn't be bothered to pay a fortune and go through a ridiculous airport-style security screening. What the hell are we going to do: hijack the observation deck?

Consequently, we didn't go up the world's fastest elevators, 60.6 km/h (37.7 mph).

We didn't walk around the famous markets or restaurant districts. We didn't eat Taiwanese cuisine. And we didn't see any temples or museums containing a lot of the riches of China, 'rescued' by the fleeing Nationalists.

We just kind of existed here for a few days, getting annoyed at our inability to motivate ourselves to do anything. We did discover that Taipei has an 'earthiness' that reminds us of Hanoi (maybe it was all the mopeds). It also has a wonderful sweet, spicy smell that reminded us of the suburbs of Mumbai.

Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall gate [Enlarge]

We did do some stuff. We found it quite easy to get around Taipei, although it was really hot. The MRT (subway) is good, and every time we stopped to look at a map a friendly Taiwanese person asked us if we needed help. The Chiang Kai Shek memorial hall felt similar to Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung Mausoleum (but without the pickled corpse). There were old black sedan cars and awards from across the world exhibited in a huge, windowless, marble monolith of a building. The main gate to the place is also huge (see picture—that's us at the bottom of one of the pillars).

So there you go. We're going to Bangkok now, and then we're going to find a nice quiet beach in the south of Thailand for a rest. Because this has been such a rubbish post, we'll make it up to you by letting you in on our future plans. After Thailand, we plan to go down the Malay peninsula by train to Singapore, then travel through Indonesia (and maybe Brunei) and onward to Australia.

Map of Day 574

Day 574
Naha (Okinawa) to Taipei

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Friday, June 20, 2008 Japan Japan

Okinawa road trip

Cape Hedo [Enlarge]

OK, so the ferry company's gone bust and so the only way out of Okinawa is to fly. But where to? Of the limited selection of international destinations available from here, Taiwan or Hong Kong were the only obvious choices to avoid backtracking too much. But where after that? Cheapish, reasonably close onward flights are available to Singapore, Bangkok, Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

We chose to stick to our original plan of going to Taiwan. Taiwan's immigration rules are strict about requiring an onward/return ticket, so we had to book a flight out too. We chose Bangkok. From there we will be able to take a train south to Malaysia and Singapore. We'll be able to visit Southern Thailand, which we missed last year... And eat Thai food again!

Okinawa is a big island, and Naha is a decent-sized city at the southern end of it, so again we decided to try to hire a scooter in the hope that our International Driving Permits would be recognised here. We asked at the tourist information office where the best place to hire one would be. The impossibly helpful lady told us that actually a car would be only a teeny bit more expensive than a scooter, and would be much better. We really wanted a scooter for the convenience, but it was true that a car would have AC and be able to travel much further—maybe even right round the island. The tourist office lady phoned the rental company for us, and they came out to collect us in an MPV. Here our licence wasn't a problem at all and in no time we were sitting in our brand new Honda Fit Aria (which seems to be a sedan version of the Honda Jazz) with sat nav and AC. And the steering wheel is even on the correct side! (The right.) This is one civilised country.

It was 11:30 when we set out, and drove north on Route 58 which runs the length of Okinawa's west coast. It's been 20 months since we drove a car, and the freedom was great. We could go anywhere we wanted! After an eternity we finally got out of Naha. The city seemed to stretch pretty much halfway up the island from the southern shore, but gradually it gave way to beach resorts and the occasional convenience store, oh and a huge great US base, and finally we found ourselves in rural Okinawa. We stopped to pick up a picnic at one of the many convenience stores and sorted out the GPS, setting it to navigate us to Yanbaru Subtropical Botanical Garden using the magic GPS code on our tourist map. Even though everything was in Japanese it was extremely easy to use.

We arrived at Yanbaru. In our heads, and after reading the description on our map, the 'amazing tropical garden' was going to be something like the Eden Project but without the dome. We paid our 400 yen each (GBP 1.88 / USD 3.71) and entered the subtropical jungliness. However, although we walked down every path we could find, we never got more than 80 metres from the car (and the traffic noise)! The garden was pretty much indistinguishable from the 'normal' jungle which was lining the road and through which we could have walked for free. The place was very disappointing and to be honest, a complete rip-off.

Causeway to Kourijima [Enlarge]

It gradually became clear that we weren't going to have time to drive around the whole island in one day, since we were taking our time and exploring loads of little dead ends (like the impressive causeway to the offshore island of Kourijima—see picture). We did think we could get to the northernmost point on Okinawa, Cape Hedo, and back in a reasonable time however.

The far north of Okinawa has a varied and beautiful coastline, covered as ever with lush, green jungle. The beaches are white and the sea is shades of aquamarine, turquoise and royal blue. From the Cape Hedo we could see Yoronto (the island we didn't stop off at on the way here) in the distance. If we'd known that the ferry to Taiwan wasn't running any more we could have stopped there and taken our time.

It was late afternoon as we programmed our hotel's location into the GPS and started driving back south. The polite Japanese lady who lives inside the GPS recommended that we use the Okinawa Expressway to get us home and although we knew it was a toll road, we decided to go along with her instructions. It was all going very well until we came to our exit on the edge of Naha. Immediately after paying at the toll booth we came to a traffic jam. We queued, creeping forward, for about 40 minutes until we turned off onto a side road in "How much worse can it be?" frustration, at which point the GPS lady woke up and found us a much better way back to the hotel.

Our final excitement came in the form of the hotel car park. They have a parking elevator! Yes, we're easily pleased these days. A parking elevator is a tall, narrow tower, with an automatic door on the front and a small control panel outside. You see them quite a lot in Korea and Japan because of the lack of space, but of course we had never tried one out before. You drive your car up to it, the door opens, you drive into the space, get out and lock your car. The door closes and the car is lifted up and put on a shelf somewhere inside the tower. Voilà! Space for up to 50 cars in the footprint of a double garage.

Our car, automatically retrieved and turned around for us [Enlarge]

The next morning we checked out and went to retrieve our car to take it back to the hire office. We put our key in the control panel and pressed the number of the bay in which it was parked. After a lot of whirring, the garage door slid open and there was our car. The machine had even turned it around so we wouldn't have to reverse out! So cool.

We really liked Okinawa. It has a very laid back feel, almost European. The only thing we didn't like about it was the airport. They only have a few international flights (the vast majority of flights from here are to other cities in Japan). But bizarrely there is a dedicated international terminal, which is in fact a shed stuck in the corner of the airfield. While the domestic flyers have their malls and restaurants and free wi-fi, the international customers have to make do with a departure lounge like a doctor's waiting room, with a TV in the corner on endless loop showing you all the great things you could have been doing in Okinawa if you weren't leaving (?!).

So now we find ourselves effortlessly transported to Taipei courtesy of China Airlines (Taiwan's national carrier), relaxing in our spacious and cheap room at the Royal Garden Hotel, wondering what experiences this new destination will bring. It's a shame that we couldn't sail here, as we really feel that we're travelling when we're going slowly across the surface of the earth.

So what's our verdict on Japan? Firstly, the Japanese are the most friendly and polite people we have met so far. Japan didn't seem as expensive as we feared it would be, but when we look at how many Yen we have left over, we still managed to spend GBP 77.88 (USD 153.60) per day in total, including the train passes. That was despite obsessing over every Yen we spent! This is a deceptively big and varied country that needs a lot of time to explore, but sadly time is something we didn't have much of due to the cost. Communication was much more of an issue than we expected, too—next time we come here we'll try to study the language a bit more before we travel.

One final note. Avoid the Lonely Planet guidebook for Japan, at least the 2005 edition. It's superficial at best, plain wrong at worst. In fact, it's next to useless except for when you use a public toilet in a station and realise you forgot to buy your toilet paper from the machine before going in. (Come to think of it, the Lonely Planet is cheaper page-for-page than vending machine toilet paper at 100 Yen a time... Maybe it's not so bad after all!) Anyway, you're left with the impression that the authors have never ever even visited Japan. Lonely Planet, you should be ashamed to have your name on the cover of this one. There is a newer edition out now which may well be an improvement, but we haven't seen it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 Japan Japan

Dead end

Our second ferry docking at Tokunoshima [Enlarge]

As we boarded the A-Line ferry bound for Naha, capital city of Okinawa, we still hadn't decided whether to make another stopover en route. Our ticket allowed us to get off at Yoronto Island if we wanted to. A few hours later, as Yoronto became visible. we were still trying to make up our minds. Our hearts said stop, our heads said keep going to Naha. We had a semi-deadline in Okinawa because we wanted to catch another ferry out of Naha to Taiwan, and these only run once a week. If we stopped in Yoronto we'd only be able to spend one day there, and then we'd be scrambling to get out of Naha in time, or we'd be committed to a spending a whole week in Naha waiting for the next ferry.

As we slowly steered into port we decided to stay on the ship and go straight to Naha. We played a game of cards on the Tatami room floor to celebrate our decisiveness.

Later on we met a French-Portuguese chef who was working his way from one country to the next. He had spent some time in England (York) and was now trying to find a way from Okinawa back to Hong Kong, where he wanted to base himself for a while. Like us, he was trying not to fly if possible.

Eventually, just before sunset, we docked in Naha. We shouldered our bags and stepped out into the steamy evening air. There is no tourist information office at the ferry port in Naha, but we found a city map posted outside the building and took a photo of it so that we could use it to find the nearest monorail station. We had no reservation but we wanted to stay in the Toyoko Inn in the Miebashi district, because we liked the Toyoko Inn we used in Kagoshima.

One wrong move and you get a real surprise. [IMG_4393]
Japanese toilet control panel [Enlarge]

In the hotel room, we finally remembered to take a photo of our toilet control panel, which we've been meaning to do since we first came to Japan. The Japanese are the world masters of high-tech toiletry. Almost everywhere we have stayed in Japan, the toilets have had heated seats, temperature-variable spray-jets in all sorts of places, noise emitters (for modesty), posture-dependent extractor fans, and buttons and dials for everything. The only snag is, we haven't a clue what to press because everything's in Japanese. The first time you use one of these toilets you feel compelled to press buttons at random, well Glenn did, anyway. Our advice if you find yourself in this situation is simple: just don't do it. Glenn ended up washing the bathroom ceiling with a jet of water shooting vertically out of the toilet (no, really). If he had been sitting on it at the time, let's just say he'd have been very very clean. And walking strangely.

This morning we went online to find out where we needed to go to buy our ferry tickets to Taiwan. Isla went to The Man in Seat 61's site and discovered a slight problem. The only ferry company between Japan and Taiwan has gone into liquidation citing high fuel prices. The ferry stopped running on 7th June, eleven days ago.

So we've spent three days travelling six hundred kilometres by boat, almost to the end of the Ryukyu Island chain—and now we're a bit marooned. When we researched the Taiwan ferry from Tokyo, news of the demise of the company hadn't reached the internet yet. It couldn't have happened at a worse time for us.

So sadly we now have no choice but to fly out of here: we can choose to fly first to Tokyo or Osaka, and from there to anywhere we like; or we can fly straight out of Naha to Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai or Seoul. Either way it's not going to be cheap.

Map of Day 571

Day 571
Kametsu (Tokunoshima) to Naha

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008 Japan Japan

Pacific outpost

Kinen Beach [Enlarge]

The air on Tokunoshima was warm and humid. At the ferry port's little information window we asked the lady for some accommodation tips. She very decisively gave us a map and circled hotel number 16, and also wrote its name in romaji (Roman letters) for us. The town of Kametsu is fairly small and simply laid out—basically it's three roads running parallel to the sea front. So it was easy to find the information desk lady's recommended prescribed place, 'Copo Shichifukujin'. We discovered later that it's the top listed budget accommodation in the Lonely Planet too. That is usually more than enough reason for us to avoid a place, since it usually means that the owner has completely given up making an effort because he now has a steady guaranteed stream of visitors. The hostel was in a side street, and as we turned the corner the owner saw us coming from his third floor balcony lookout point. He was friendly enough and quoted us 3,000 Yen (GBP 14.20 / USD 28.04) for a double room with bathroom. The hostel used to be apartments, so the room's facilities were pretty good, if a little shabby. We had a shower, put on clean clothes and went to find out about renting a scooter so we could see the whole island.

The scooter hire place was across the road, within a hundred metres of our hotel. But the owner had possibly had problems with gaijin before, since he was not interested in renting us a scooter. "Japanese licence only." We showed him our International Driving Permits, freshly renewed while we were still in Seoul and showed him the page written in Japanese saying that it really was OK to rent us a vehicle, but he wasn't having it. He was, however, happy to lend us two bikes—push bikes, that is—for 1,000 yen each for 24 hours. We were out of options and that would have to do, although it now meant an end to our chances of seeing much of the island.

We both got 21-speed mountain bikes, much better than the rickety bikes we'd wobbled round Xi'an city wall in China, Seoul's Yeouido Park, and the Imperial Palace Park in Tokyo on. But in the heat of the beating sun there was no way we could visit the far away fruit farms, spectacular rock formations and cycad tree tunnels, which is what we'd wanted the scooter for. Our aim was much less ambitious now: we would just find a lovely, quiet beach. Half way between Kametsu and Isen, the next town, we found the way to the perfect Pacific island beach. The sand was white, the sea was blue and a shallow reef surrounded the bay. Best of all, the beach was deserted.

We watched sea cucumbers dawdling along the shallow sea floor, and sea urchins hiding in the coral. Tiny crabs scuttled around doing their thing. In the distance out on the reef people were fishing, dressed in traditional fishing clothes. They could have been from any century.

Two fishermen decided to quit the beach at the same time as us. As they got closer they turned out to be a husband and wife. They walked up to the parking area, took off their traditional clothing and got into a little Daihatsu car. It was mid-afternoon and we were hungry, so we cycled back towards Kametsu to visit a small supermarket that we'd passed on the way.

Bull sumo statue [Enlarge]

On the way back we stopped at a monument to one of the island's attractions: bullfighting. Not the Spanish variety. This is bull versus bull: bull sumo. We kid you not. Called togyu in Japanese, it is a sport native to the Ryukyu Islands and involves a lot of horn locking and shoving, and no harming of bulls. Sadly there are no tournaments going on now as we would have loved to see it. Which reminds us, we have also been completely unable to find any human sumo tournaments during our stay in Japan.

We arrived at the supermarket a bit wind-blown, sweaty and streaked with suncream. The shop had some delicious looking bento boxed lunches. We took them back along the coast a little way and ate lunch sitting on the high sea wall which protects the coast from summer typhoons. The whole place was so quiet.

We had intended to spend two days on Tokunoshima, but that was when we thought were going to have a scooter. So instead we decided to push on towards Okinawa on the ferry this morning. We will leave at roughly the same time of day that we arrived, but this time we'll be on the ferry run by A-Line—the Marix Line ship we came in on yesterday is long gone.

Tokunoshima is a strange blend of old and new. In some ways it is just like mainland Japan, with all the services and facilities you would expect. But in other ways it is of another time and somehow feels every bit like the island outpost it is. We're glad we saw this little-visited corner of this fascinating country.

Monday, June 16, 2008 Japan Japan

A ferry big adventure

With Sakurajima volcano behind. [IMG_4302]
Marix Line ferry to Okinawa [Enlarge]

Choosing our next country after Japan was simple. We don't want to fly if possible, and Japan being an island nation, that meant finding a boat off. There are ferries from Japan to four other countries: China, Korea, Russia, and Taiwan. We've kind of done China and Korea, and we don't want to head north, so that meant Taiwan was the only choice.

The international ferry to Taiwan leaves from Naha, capital of the Okinawa prefecture, and takes nearly a day to reach Taiwan. But just getting from the Japanese mainland to Naha without flying is in itself a big undertaking. It is over six hundred kilometres away, and involves a twenty-five and a half hour ferry ride with A-Line or Marix Line from Kagoshima. Although it's a long journey, the ferry has many pros:

  • It's an adventure
  • It's cheaper than flying and you save a night's accommodation costs
  • It's more comfortable than flying, and you can go outside
  • You don't have all the ridiculous "You can't take your toothpaste on board" security shenanigans
  • And on this particular route you can get off and back on again at no extra cost!

Yup, buy a one way ticket from Kagoshima to Naha and you can get off and back on at your choice of four interim Pacific island destinations: Amami Oshima, Tokunoshima, Okinoerabu-jima and Yoron-to, so long as you reach Naha within seven days of the start of your voyage. Both ferry companies honour the other's tickets, so in effect you have a sailing every day to choose from. The tickets cost us 14,800 yen (GBP 69.60 / USD 137.27) per person. We pre-reserved them by visiting the port two days before we wanted to travel, but it seems like you can easily just turn up a couple of hours before the 18:00 sailing, pay your money and go aboard. This may not be the case in peak season though.

Last time we took an overnight ferry was last year, from China to Korea. That time we treated ourselves to a private cabin because the difference in price wasn't huge. But on this ferry, private cabins are around three times the price of the basic accommodation. Also, the hop-on, hop-off facility is limited to basic class ticketholders. Anyway, we thought "How bad can it be sleeping in a room the size of a school gym, on a thin futon, two inches away from your snoring neighbour, with over two hundred other passengers?"

The answer is, not bad at all! The room had a very chilled out atmosphere. The older passengers lay down on their mats and immediately went to sleep, not stirring again until just before their destination. (How do they manage to do that?) Most people sat in their little groups chatting, drinking beer or quietly watching the TV.

Sleeping conditions aboard the Marix Line's Queen Coral. The passengers for Amami Oshima had just left. [IMG_4343]
I guess room service is out of the question? [Enlarge]

By 21:30, when the main lights were turned off, most people had already settled down for the night. The card games packed up at 22:45. By 23:00 all was silent. The bed was more comfortable than we'd expected. We discovered early on in our round the world trip that long journeys are much more comfortable when you're horizontal. The boat came back to life at 05:00 with a broadcast on the speakers announcing that we were about to dock in our first port, Amami Oshima. We were giving that island a miss so we dozed on, having quickly been outside for a look at what was going on.

We had decided to break our journey in the small island of Tokunoshima. We had no particular reason for picking Tokunoshima, other than it sounded like a good place, and a break from the big cities we've spent most of the last year in. As we arrived more or less on time at 09:40, we waited at the off ramp and watched the docking procedure. The boat sailed slowly into a sheltered manmade cove in the island's main town of Kametsu, then reversed carefully back into place on the dockside. Lines were thrown from the ferry and the ship winched itself in. We had arrived on a Pacific island paradise about two-thirds of the way to Okinawa, and we didn't quite know where we were going when we got off the ferry, or how long we would be here.

Map of Day 569

Day 569
Kagoshima to Kametsu (Tokunoshima)

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Sunday, June 15, 2008 Japan Japan

Rainfall and ashfall in Satsuma

It rains a lot in Kagoshima [Enlarge]

On Wednesday we travelled from the middle of Honshu, Japan's biggest island, all the way to the bottom tip of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands. Our destination was Kagoshima in the ancient province of Satsuma, from where the Citrus unshiu (a.k.a. the satsuma mandarin) was first exported to the West in 1879 by a US embassy employee's wife.

A plan has crystallised over the last few days: we will take an overnight ferry from Kagoshima to the remote island of Okinawa, hopefully stopping off on an even more remote island on the way, and then another overnight ferry to Taiwan. Options for leaving Taiwan without flying are currently looking limited, but we'll worry about that later.

The Shinkansen line across Kyushu is not finished yet, so from Hakata we had to take an 'ordinary' Japanese train to Shin Yatsushiro, before connecting with a Shinkansen to take us the last little bit into Kagoshima. The ordinary train was slower than the Shinkansen, but still infinitely more luxurious and reliable than anything on offer in Britain. The inside was like a hotel, right down to the mood lighting. As we headed south from Hakata, the landscape took on a jungly appearance. We passed through narrow valleys between lush, steeply sloping hillsides where tiny villages nestled. Rain poured from a low, slate grey sky and the landscape dripped and steamed.

Again we had not made a reservation in advance. From the train we went straight to the tourist information desk. We got the impression that we were the first foreigners the woman had ever met. After an initial look of panic had flashed across her face, she rallied and suggested the Toyoko Inn, centrally located and modern, with free internet access and breakfast. Surprisingly, considering we were away from the tourist hotspots, it was the most expensive hotel so far! Still, at 8,190 yen (GBP 38.96 / USD 75.80) per night for a double room it would be considered cheap in the UK. We booked four nights to give us plenty of time to look around and arrange a ferry to Okinawa.

Kagoshima is a laid back, rather sleepy place. There are wide streets and a convenient tram system—the only one we've ever seen whose tracks run on a grass lawn. They call the place the 'Naples of the East', because of its climate, its bayside location, and its proximity to a huge great active volcano.

Volcanic ash [Enlarge]

Our first priority was to walk down to the ferry port, where we sorted our tickets to Okinawa very easily. With sign language and simple English we managed to convey that we wanted the "Get on, get off, get on, get off" tickets that will allow us to stop at any of the islands on the way, as long as we get to Okinawa within seven days. With that done, we took a short boat trip across the bay to Sakurajima to visit our first active volcano. We took a walk through a lava field made in the last major eruption in 1914. The volcano still constantly spews out ash—everything on the island is covered in a blanket of the stuff.

There's a famous garden just around the coast that we wanted to see, but it has been raining non-stop pretty much since we arrived. At the moment we're camped out in the hotel lobby taking maximum advantage of the free wifi and two available power points. In an hour or so we'll up sticks to the ferry terminal to wait for our 18:00 ferry to the Okinawan Islands. Let's hope it stops raining soon!

Map of Day 565

Day 565
Kyoto to Kagoshima

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008 Japan Japan

Temples and shrines in Kyoto

Out for a stroll [Enlarge]

Heading back south from Tokyo to Kyoto, we requested seats on the right-hand side of the train so that we could see Fuji-san as we passed... and mother nature made sure again that we didn't see the mountain, by laying on thick cloud and drizzle. Maybe next time we're in Japan we'll finally get to see it.

We were due to spend a day and a half in Kyoto, and as usual we began with a visit to the tourist information centre to book accommodation. The impressive Kyoto station has two information desks, but the easy-to-find one is not very well set up for gaijins (foreigners). The one with English-speaking staff is tucked away on the ninth floor, accessed by a tiny elevator in the middle of a department store! But it is a great facility, with a travel library, leaflets, guide books, a notice board full of local events, and an accommodation booking desk. The helpful staff found us a low priced hotel. We also collected some leaflets, each of which we had to request specifically—the lady wasn't volunteering anything!

Our first stop was To-ji Temple. We had seen this five storey pagoda—the tallest wooden building in Japan—from the train between Shin-Osaka and Tokyo as we passed through Kyoto a few days ago. On our new city map it looked about 800 metres from the hotel to the temple, so we set off walking. Three kilometres later we finally arrived! With only 90 minutes until it closed, and a 500 yen each entrance fee (GBP 2.39 / USD 4.67) we decided to make do with the view of the pagoda from the gate.

Possibly the orangest thing in Kyoto. [IMG_4247]
Gate to Yasaka Shrine [Enlarge]

We headed back across town to the Gion area of Kyoto for the evening. This is the place to see a real geisha if you're lucky. Sadly all we saw was crowds of gaijin. But again we managed to not spend any money, opting instead for a look around the (free) Yasaka Shrine.

OK, so what's the difference between a shrine and a temple in Japan? Shrines are Shinto, which is the native religion of Japan. They are often painted bright orange, and usually have a torii (gate) through which you have to walk to get in. Temples on the other hand are Buddhist, which is the 'new' religion imported to the country by the semi-mythological Prince Shotoku in the early 7th Century.

The next day we had a late start, as we're still catching up on a year of lost sleep. Kyoto is pretty spread out so we decided to buy a one-day go-anywhere bus ticket for 500 yen (GBP 2.39 / USD 4.67). That decision was easier made than actioned. Our bus map said we could buy this pass at any bus station, information office or subway ticket office. But our local subway station didn't have a ticket office, just a row of machines. Having briefly failed to work out what buttons to press we asked the single member of station staff we could find—the assistant at the ticket barrier. In between letting people through the barrier he came over and helped us to buy a bus ticket from the devoid-of-any-English-whatsoever automatic vending machine. Slightly embarrassingly however, it did have a huge great picture of a bus stuck on the front. But our helper was patient, as he probably has been with gaijin a million times before. Japanese people seem to be universally helpful and courteous, and they'll go out of their way to assist you.

A tiny part of the awesome whole. [IMG_4383]
Part of the Kyoto bus map [Enlarge]

Next we had to find our bus. The Kyoto bus map tells you everything you need to know about getting around Kyoto by bus, but the downside is that it's a work of awesome complexity. The picture to the right shows one small part of it. If you want, you can find a PDF of the whole thing here. It gives the bus routes, numbers and the locations of bus stops as well as complete pricing information. What it doesn't mention is that in some places there the different buses stop at slightly different points along the road, and finding the right point involves walking up and down the street trying to decipher the mostly Japanese signs. After a little while we found the right stop and set off for our first destination.

Honen-in [Enlarge]

Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) is on the eastern edge of the city. It's a major tourist trap and costs (another) 500 yen to get in. And it's not silver anyway, so that wasn't where we were going. A short walk away from it, across a narrow stream and up a hill along a dark, winding path through a bamboo grove is the lesser known Honen-in Temple. That's where we were going. Peaceful, shady, cool, covered in moss and surrounded by jungle, and free of charge to enter, it was a wonderful place of fish ponds, gardens and vines. There was a small art exhibition in one of the temple buildings and the artist gave us a couple of free postcards to take away.

We walked back down the hill to the bus stops. We planned to go next to Nijo castle. After another slightly confusing search for the bus stop we crossed the road, and caught our bus. Almost immediately we realised we were going the wrong way. So we changed our plans and decided to skip the castle and go straight to the Golden Pavilion, perhaps Kyoto's best known sight. There was no chance to see the Golden Pavilion without paying the 500 yen and joining the crowds, but this one we were willing to pay for. So after a quick picnic we coughed up our first entrance fee. The Golden Pavilion is indeed very, very golden (its top two stories are covered with gold leaf), and sits on an island in the middle of a mirror pond surrounded by a perfectly crafted Japanese garden.

Golden Pavilion [Enlarge]

On the way out of the pavilion garden we had two failed attempts at throwing a one-yen coin into a little pot (it brings good luck, especially for the owner of the pot). Then we leapt on to another bus and went north. On reflection, maybe choosing one-yen coins to throw at the pot (worth half a British penny / 1 US cent) was a bit too tight-fisted of us... They are small and made of aluminium, and so light that they don't fly straight.

Next it was back to trying something not on the average Kyoto agenda: Kamigamo Shrine. It's right on the northern fringes of Kyoto city and is the end of the line for that particular bus. We arrived as a wedding party was assembling. The bride and groom were posing for pictures between two cones of white sand, about a metre tall, which are supposed to be symbolic of mountains for the temple's nominated god, the God of Thunder, to descend upon. This was the second lot of wedding pictures we'd stumbled upon in Japan—the first was in Shukkei-en in Hiroshima. We much prefer these tiny glimpses of real life to the mass produced "cultural experiences" that are forced upon tourists.

Most things in Kyoto seem to close quite early—between 16:00 and 17:30, depending on their whims and with no correlation to our guide book. We called it a day and caught a bus back to our hotel. Total spent on sightseeing in Kyoto, including our all-day bus ticket: 1000 yen each (GBP 4.77 / USD 9.28). You could spend a fortune here, taking the easy route (taxis) between the attractions and only visiting the popular places that cost money to get into, but we've had a great time, and seen more than enough temples and shrines for a while! Tomorrow we will use our Japan Rail Passes for the last time and take our longest train ride in Japan: 953.6 kilometres, involving four trains, to get down to the bottom of the Japanese mainland and the city of Kagoshima, known as the Naples of the East.

Map of Day 563

Day 563
Tokyo to Kyoto

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Sunday, June 08, 2008 Japan Japan

To go to Tokyo

Bullet train at Shin Osaka [Enlarge]

We thought the best use of our seven day rail pass would be to have two nights in three different places in Japan before travelling to our final destination on the seventh day. For our second and third two-nighter stops we chose the modern capital Tokyo and the ancient capital Kyoto.

Expecting the city to be busy, we pre-booked our accommodation. There aren't many bargains to be had in Tokyo, but we found a good place at USD 30 per person, per night (GBP 15.42). It was a long way out of the centre, but very close to a subway station.

After living in Seoul for a year, we thought we'd never again find it difficult to get around in any busy city. But we were wrong. Unlike Seoul's tightly integrated transport system, Tokyo's metropolitan transport system is privately owned by more than a dozen different operators. There's no common fare system—They can't even agree on a single map format! So you end up seeing endless completely different maps of the same city. It is almost impossible (at least when you've just arrived here) to work out the best way between two stations, or how much it's going to cost to get there. Even some residents just buy the minimum-price ticket and top it up at their destination, because it's easier than buying the right ticket beforehand.

We finally worked out how to get to the hotel. Our room was actually a rooftop apartment—clean, but a little shabby. The shy member of staff who checked us in offered us one end of a very long LAN cable to give us our advertised free internet access. The cable went out of our room under the door, across the roof, under another door and disappeared.

TV Asahi, Roppongi [Enlarge]

To say there's lots to do in Tokyo is an understatement. We only had a day and a bit here, so we couldn't do much. We randomly chose to go to the Roppongi area on the first evening and ended up on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower, in a gallery which was holding a Turner Prize retrospective (a collection of Turner Prize winners and nominees from every year since the prize started in 1984). If you're not British you may not have heard of the Turner Prize. Basically it's a famous prize for modern art which always gets the media in a spin asking "Is it art?"

It was quite amusing to watch the Japanese trying to make sense of the works. As they looked at say Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided (a cow and a calf sliced in half longitudinally and suspended in formaldehyde), or even the 2001 winner The Lights Going On and Off by Martin Creed (an empty room with the lights going on and off from time to time), you could see them trying desperately to understand this mysterious European culture which could make works like that and what it all means. They didn't realise it's all a big joke by the British. (At least we assume it is...?)

Incidentally, walking between two halves of a pickled cow was quite an unusual experience.

We're finding it much harder to find food here than we did in Korea. It's not that there's a shortage of restaurants, just a shortage of reasonably priced ones. The language is a real problem too. We know Hiragana, one of the three Japanese alphabets, from some Japanese lessons we took several years ago, but that's not enough to accomplish anything. The most widely used alphabet is Kanji (Chinese-style characters), of which there are thousands. We have no hope of getting anywhere with them in one week. Our illiteracy means we have a choice between dragging the waiter outside to point at the plastic models in the window, or leaving the whole thing to chance—a potentially interesting, risky, disgusting or expensive move depending on the chef's sense of humour. Or going to McDonald's instead.

We are however big fans of Japanese convenience store food. Rice wrapped in fried bean curd is much yummier than it sounds and a steal at 198 yen (GBP 0.94 / USD 1.83) for three chunky parcels. But in our view Seoul still has the edge on Tokyo for delicious, cheap, accessible restaurants.

Tokyo Imperial Palace [Enlarge]

Tokyo is even more crowded than Seoul (we didn't think that was possible), but it is actually more pleasant because it's much more organised and ordered. We haven't once been bumped or barged into the gutter—in fact we haven't seen a single ajumma yet! Cars even stop at pedestrian crossings too! Speaking of which, one must see destination in Tokyo is the world's busiest pedestrian crossing. It's at Shibuya and is apparently correctly known as a pedestrian scramble by crossing designers. It's outside Shibuya station, where two JR lines, three Tokyo Metro lines and three private railway lines meet. It is surrounded by huge shopping malls and department stores. That makes for a lot of people. Every time the lights change, a few thousand people want to cross the road. There's a brief video clip at the bottom of the post.

We spent this afternoon riding a tandem around the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Get this: it's free! You just write your name on a piece of paper, and they lend you a bike! Imagine that happening back home.

After the cycling, we spent a while eating a convenience-store snack in the park in front of the Palace. All the time, sirens were wailing and helicopters circling overhead. We assumed this was normal for Tokyo, but this evening when we checked the news on the internet back at our hostel, we discovered there'd been a violent massacre in the Akihabara area of Tokyo—only a couple of kilometres from where we were. Sadly there's a darker side to this highly ordered society.

Tomorrow we'll be back on the train again, this time to Kyoto.

Map of Day 561

Day 561
Hiroshima to Tokyo

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Saturday, June 07, 2008 Japan Japan

An infamous past

A-dome, Hiroshima [Enlarge]

Hiroshima has the 'ewww' factor as a tourist destination. Even now, 62 years after the fateful atomic blast, tourists are often reluctant to come here because they worry about the reception they will get. There is no need to worry. Hiroshima is not a depressing mausoleum. It's an attractive, modern city full of friendly, polite, welcoming people. In fact, it is probably the most welcoming place we have visited on our whole trip so far.

Our hotel was centrally located and all the tourist sights were a short walk away. To make the most of our seven-day rail pass, we can't stay for long in each place we visit. So we headed straight out for an early evening walk along the riverside path to the A-Bomb Dome, the preserved remains of Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. It was only 150 metres from the hypocentre (the point directly underneath the atomic explosion), and although all the buildings around it were flattened, its reinforced concrete walls and dome remained upright and semi-intact.

Over the years, the few buildings which were not completely destroyed in the blast were pulled down and new buildings were built in their places, but the Promotional Hall was left alone as a monument and reminder to the world. In 1996, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. At night the building is floodlit and bats swoop around the skeletal remains.

Bride in Shukkei Garden [Enlarge]

The centre of Hiroshima is full of monuments to peace and reminders of the past. The Shukkei-en, a seventeenth century garden modelled on West Lake at Hangzhou, China, was decimated by the bomb. Now the garden has been replanted and is beautiful again. The trees and plants have grown back and the tea house and other buildings have been rebuilt. As we arrived in the garden a young woman in an elaborate white kimono came down the path, followed by a photographer. She was having her wedding photos taken. She paused and smiled for Glenn's camera, then continued with what she was doing. After a minute watching her, we were approached by a man who introduced himself very politely and asked where we were from and if we would like a free guided tour of the garden. He was from a local society and happily talked to us about the garden, it's history, destruction and reconstruction. He turned out to be a retired automotive engineer from Fukuoka, who had once visited the Longbridge Rover plant in Birmingham. In his past life Glenn briefly worked on a Japanese automotive engineering project, so the two of them talked about that for a while ("Boring stuff"—Isla).

After lunch we visited the city's main "attraction": Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It is an excellent and thought provoking place. It makes no attempt to be political or to justify the actions of either side, it just explains things from a humanitarian perspective. On the ground floor there is a detailed explanation of why the bombing happened, the time-line leading up to it, and photos and models of the city before and after the explosion. Upstairs, items such as articles of clothing are displayed along with the stories of the people they belonged to. Every story is uniquely tragic. Many of them concern children who were in the area around the hypocentre, working to demolish rows of wooden buildings to create fire-breaks against conventional air raids which were feared by the city. Of course most of these people died instantly, but the less fortunate ones survived the initial blast. With horrific burns and injuries many of them managed to find their way home, or were found by their parents and taken home. They almost all died, days later, in unbelievable agony. We will never forget the pictures of people with their skin hanging off.

Before the atomic bombing. [IMG_4099]
Before... [Enlarge]
After the atomic bombing. [IMG_4098]
...and after [Enlarge]

Over the following years and decades the bomb continued to take its toll in the form of radiation-induced cancers. Again, children were worst hit. Possibly the most famous is Sadako Sasaki. She was only two years old at the time of the bomb. Ten years later, in 1955, she was diagnosed with leukemia. A Japanese proverb states that a person who folds 1,000 paper cranes will be granted a wish. So Sadako began folding cranes, believing that if she could complete 1,000 she would be able to recover. She died in October 1955, having completed only 644 cranes. Her schoolmates decided to complete her unfinished task. This symbolic action captured the hearts and minds of the people of Hiroshima and eventually all over the world, and now thousands of paper cranes are hung from monuments throughout the city.

Hypocentre of the A-bomb explosion [Enlarge]

Sixty-two years later people are still dying from the effects of that moment in history.

One of the most telling displays in the museum is walls covered with letters to world leaders, written by successive Mayors of Hiroshima. Every time a country carries out a nuclear test, Hiroshima's Mayor issues a formal letter of protest to that country in the name of humanity. The letters began in 1968 with letters to France and China. The following year, the Mayor wrote to the USA. In the 1970s he also wrote to Russia and the UK. In the 1990s India and Pakistan joined the list. The most recent letter was dated October 2006. It was sent to Kim Jong-il.

Hiroshima is a beautiful, quiet, dignified, friendly place. It has rebuilt itself after the tragedy of 1945 to become a modern city, but its history is everywhere. At the hypocentre, an apartment block now stands, ivy and begonias trailing from the balconies, a small plaque by the side of the road marking the place. But there is no fanfare and no looking back in self-pity. It seems a little weird to say that we enjoyed our visit, but we really loved Hiroshima.

Friday, June 06, 2008 Japan Japan / Korea (South) South Korea

Bullet train to Hiroshima

Whale warning! [Enlarge]

The sailing on the jet hydrofoil from Busan to Hakata was boring. You are never aware of the boat rising up onto the wing things, and if the GPS hadn't told us we were travelling at 75kph (47mph) we would never have known. The only thing which made the journey more interesting was the threat of colliding with a whale at any moment. Seriously, the ferry company warned all passengers to remain in their seats with seat belts fastened in case we had to make an emergency stop to avoid a whale (see picture). Hitting a whale at the speed we were going wouldn't have been pleasant.

About half way into the three-hour journey we passed quite close to the Japanese island of Tsushima. At the same time the clouds dispersed and the sun came out, and Japan looked lush and green.

We docked in Hakata (a.k.a. Fukuoka) at 14:05, where the immigration guy took a long hard look at our passports. He seemed interested that we had visited the same city briefly exactly a year ago. We could see what he was wondering... illegal work? It was made worse by the fact that in the "address in Japan" section of the arrivals card we had nonchalantly written "travelling". He quizzed us in great detail on our itinerary in Japan, so we told him honestly that we didn't have a fixed plan, and then gave him a list of cities that we would probably be visiting. For the first time in our trip we were asked to produce return tickets to prove that we were planning to leave. We didn't have any. For a brief moment it didn't look good, but then he just smiled and said "Have a nice stay". We were in, and we had no problems passing through customs.

On board the bullet train [Enlarge]

Now we were in Japan but we still had no accommodation and no idea where we were going next. But we did have a Japan Rail Pass exchange voucher, which we had bought from a travel agent in Seoul (you can't buy it in Japan) for 275,600 Won (114.93 GBP / 224.65 USD). This little piece of paper, when swapped for an actual pass, would give us seven days of unlimited train travel on the JR network anywhere in Japan. Considering the price is only slightly more than a single one-way journey from Hakata to Tokyo, it's a screaming bargain. So, our rough plan was to get on the first available train to Hiroshima, but as we didn't know how full the trains were going to be, Plan B was to take another train somewhere else. Plan C (there's always a Plan C, right?) was to stay the night in Hakata and try again tomorrow.

Hakata felt a little familiar to us, since we spent two days here last year collecting our Korean work visas. We were planning to walk from the ferry terminal to the station, but it was hot and we had our luggage so we caught a bus from just outside the ferry terminal. Taxis in Japan are a definite no-no if you're watching your budget, and we're still thinking in Korean prices! At the station as we followed signs for the Japan Rail Pass desk, we remembered the eventful day in India last year when we went to New Delhi station. That time it took us four hours of scam dodging, crowd avoiding, queuing and mind-numbing form filling to buy a few tickets. We were braced for a marathon.

The desk was pretty easy to find, and the lady there spoke good English. We handed her the exchange forms, and our passports to show that we were in Japan as temporary visitors. Then she asked us when we'd like the seven day period to start, and we said that, if it was possible, we'd like to go to Hiroshima today. Without checking anything, she said that was no problem. How could she be sure? Had she misunderstood? We were just about to ask whether she thought it would be a good idea to make a seat reservation, or whether there would be spaces in the unreserved section, when two tickets popped out of the printer under the counter. She handed them to us, along with our shiny new passes (which look a lot like Christmas cards). We were in reserved seats on the bullet train to Hiroshima leaving in six minutes!

Nine minutes after asking if it would be possible to get on a train today, we were outside the city limits travelling at 250 km/h and accelerating.

Oh... My... God... Japan makes our country's arcane rail system look like India's.

Seventy silent, gliding minutes later we arrived no seconds late at Hiroshima station. We decided to give the Tourist Information desk at the station a go, to see if they could come up with some reasonably-priced accommodation. They could, and a woman with excellent English booked us a semi-double (semi-double? Sounds tiny) at the Comfort Hotel Hiroshima for 6,200 yen (GBP 29.94 / USD 58.52) per room per night including breakfast and free internet. A price like that was most definitely not in the script! We were expecting to have to choose between staying in a flea-pit or completely emptying our wallets.

After a tasty tonkatsu lunch in one of the many restaurants in the station we caught a tram to our hotel and checked in. The room is indeed tiny, but it is spotlessly clean, has a bathroom, window, fridge, a TV with at least one English channel, and free wireless internet. It's perfect. So far, so good. It's starting to sink in that we're back travelling. But what sort of reception are we going to get in the world's first nuked city?

Map of Day 559

Day 559
Busan to Hiroshima

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Thursday, June 05, 2008 Korea (South) South Korea

Starting out again

Seoul Station [Enlarge]

In our quest to minimise air travel on our round-the-world trip, we've found ferries to be one of the harder modes of transport to use. They always seem to be operated by ancient shipping lines out of pokey, smokey offices deep in warrenlike ports with very bad signage. They hardly ever have online booking, and if they do you can forget about it being available in English. When we tried to arrange our boat to Japan last week it turned out that the Korea to Japan ferries are no exception to the norm. We'd heard about the high speed JR Beetle ferry run by Japan Railways, and their website was available in English... but it says you can only book from within Japan. After a lot of internet searching, Isla stumbled upon Mirae Jet who run the Kobee high speed ferry. This appears to be the Korean Beetle. Naturally you can book from Korea, and the prices are cheaper, but unfortunately their site is only in Korean. And anyway, foreigners can't use their foreign credit cards to book even if they can understand the language. So we asked a Korean friend to book it for us on the phone, cost 95,000 Won per person one-way (GBP 47.48 / USD 92.82).

Incidentally, one thing we will not miss about Korea is the fact that as foreigners, we have been deprived of the chance to access basic financial services like credit cards and international ATM cards which would allow us to withdraw our legally earned, legally deposited Korean money when outside Korea. This means we're carrying a paranoia-inducing amount of cash with us to Japan.

Haeundae Beach, Busan [Enlarge]

With just two days remaining on our Korean visas we left Seoul for the last time (for now at least) on the high-speed KTX train to Busan. Located in the far south-eastern corner of the peninsula, Busan is Korea's second city, and its gateway to Japan. It is also proud of the fact that it was the only city on the mainland never to fall to the Commies during the Korean war. We decided to spend two nights there, enjoying the fresh seaside air away from the smog and yellow dust of Seoul. We found a great deal on the internet for a hotel next to Haeundae beach, with a huge bathtub and a sea view. Gradually we started to feel like ourselves again.

The atmosphere in Haeundae was a little strange, as it is in any seaside town in the off-season. In August there will be a gazillion holidaymakers from all over the country here (see this great picture and this one for an idea). But this was June, and Koreans don't vacation in June. The weather wasn't so great anyway, with torrential rain and thunderstorms a lot of the time, so we didn't do very much apart from relaxing. We spent the time drinking coffee in near-empty coffee shops, walking along the beach, and observing that there seem to be more love motels than people in Haeundae at this time of year.

Map of Day 557

Day 557
Seoul to Busan

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Monday, June 02, 2008 Korea (South) South Korea

And that, as they say, is that

Admiral Yi Sun-shin [Enlarge]

Waking up at 05:00 every day we sometimes thought we wouldn't make it to the end of the week, let alone the month, or the year. For the last three months, we've been trying to avoid counting down the time remaining to the end of our contracts, since as every school kid knows, counting down to the end of term just makes the time go slower.

And then suddenly it was all over! Now when we look back we can't believe how fast the last twelve months went.

We've learned a lot about Korea and about being Korean, we've also learned about our own culture by seeing it through the eyes of foreigners. We have a much better idea of how another country perceives Britain and the British—we have received both cutting insights and funny misconceptions from the people we've met. We've made friends with people from different corners of the world. We'll take so much away with us from Korea.

Review of our goals

  • Experience living in a different culture...Check
  • Save as much money as possible...GBP 26,000 / USD 52,000—Check!
  • Glenn to overcome his fear of public speaking... Oh yes!

We'd say that is a result.

In all honesty, saving that much money has been one of the hardest things we've ever done. We literally didn't spend a penny all year on anything that wasn't essential. Around the half-way mark it became really painful but we were determined not to slip up, and we're proud to say we managed.

Now, our visas are expiring and it's time to go. Japan seems like as good a place as any to go next, so we've found someone to take over the apartment, sold all our stuff (for the second time in our lives!), packed our tiny bags and bought a ticket on the ferry. Tomorrow we're back on the road.