Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Continuing with my discovery of Easter Bloc countries, I decided to go to Kiev, Ukraine for 5 days, with my great friend Lena Verik. In typical Russian/Ukrainian fashion, hotels are more of an exception than a rule; it's far cheaper (and more comfortable) to rent an apartment, which we did (arranging it through an Ukrainian website is again much cheaper than going through typical Western booking sites).

An eight-legged baby pig
With five days, we could visit a bit. One of the places I really wanted to see was the Chernobyl Museum. It's a really touching museum, a sore reminder of the suffering of thousands of people, not just because of the effects of radiation, but perhaps even more so due to the massive economic and social problems that it created.

We followed that with a long walk along the Dripro. November in Ukraine is quite cold, and no-one is crazy enough to go for river cruises, but we could still see some of the pretty churches along the river front, until we nearly froze, and had to find a big bowl of hot soup! Kiev is set on a sort of plateau, and so from the river towards the city centre, we could take a lovely old Soviet funicular.

At the top of the funicular, is the monasteries area, with St. Michael's Gold-Domed Monastery grabbing all the attention, shiny and postcard pretty (and interesting in the sense that it is a working monastery) - even though it is in reality a very recent reconstruction (2001).

Nearby is the really nice St. Sophia's Cathedral. Named after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, it may not be as grandiose, but one does feel the power of history inside it. Nearby there once was yet another church, replaced by the Soviets with the humongous Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which I could not stop admiring, given my fascination with all things Soviet).

Entrance to the Lavra
One of the places most people visit when in Kiev is the Lavra (there's always queues of people coming off excursion buses). Despite finding our way there, we decided the long queues were not worth it. In any case, the main objective was the nearby Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Despite having seen quite a few WWII museums during my trips across Russia, this one was by far the best, and even had some explanations in English. It mostly describes the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, and includes some gruelling objects, such as a concentration camp guillotine, and a bone crushing machine.

The museum has an area of Soviet realist sculptures around it, trying to depict both the heroism of the troops that fought the Nazis, and the suffering of the civilians. And sitting on top of the museum, is the absolutely stunning Родина Мать (Nation's Mother) sculpture; standing at 62m tall, and made out of titanium, it is a sight to behold.

The walk back towards the Lavra, albeit long, is worth it, passing by the touching monument to the victims of the Holodomor (the great famine, ordered by Stalin during the collectivisation campaign), and offering great views long the Dnipro river.

The Andriyivsky Uzviz, a winding descent street in the centre, is a typical spot to visit, with stalls of crafts and souvenirs, although really it felt like a massive tourist trap. It was also under renovation, to be ready for the hordes of tourists coming for the 2012 European Football Cup, so we didn't linger. Instead, we went for a wonderful Borsch, complete with bread topped with a big layer of fat, and loads of сметана (sour cream)!

Visiting Kiev with an Ukrainian-speaking friend means it's a bit easier to get around! So we could find and take a long marshutka (collective mini-bus) towards the "Pyrohovo Museum of Folk Architecture", a large outdoor park located well outside the city, with houses and buildings brought from every province in Ukraine.

We spent quite a few hours there, peeking into farmer's houses, windmills, and even a beautiful wooden church. The dinner we had there was probably the best Ukrainian borsch I ever had (and I had many!), complete with home-baked bread, garlic, and a plate of pelmeni.

For our last day in Kiev, we went to see the Babi Yar park. This was the site where the Nazis executed most of Ukraine's jews. On the 29th September 1941, hordes of jews were ferried to this spot, and 34,000 were executed within 48h. It is now a beautiful park, especially dressed in Autumn's colours, and it's hard to imagine such atrocities, but a few monuments here and there are a sober reminder.

We still tried to go to the Water Museum, but were also greeted with a closed door (renovations for the World Cup...); still, the park where it is located offers great views of the Dnipro.

Kiev is a city full of history. In between old monasteries, reminders of the horrors of Nazi occupation, the good and bad consequences of Soviet influence, and an undeniably Ukrainian feel, it is a city of contrasts, and one that I quite enjoyed exploring. Especially with a wonderful friend!

Friday, 30 September 2011


After my trip to South Korea, I had some free time from work, and this being my first time in Asia, I kept going East, all the way to Japan. It had been on my dream travel destinations list for so long! I had to take this opportunity.



 It all started with the ferry crossing between Busan (in South Korea) and Osaka, my first destination. It's always fun to travel by ferry, feels like a mini cruise. Passing under the Akashi Kaikyo bridge was one of the highlights (the longest suspension bridge in the world - it is massive).

Japanese delicacy 1
I met Xue Fang in the ferry (a Chinese living in Osaka), so after clearing customs, she helped me find my capsule hotel (more on that later). I was glad for her help, as it was in the middle of a massive shopping arcade, I would had never found it. We shared a lunch, and then she helped me find an ATM that would actually work with VISA (we tried at least ten!). For such an advanced country, it's mad how few things actually work with cards. Shops, restaurants, metro: only cash!

Japanese delicacy 2
I decided to go spend the afternoon in the Tempozan area, by the bay. The weather was great, so I bought a combined ticket for the aquarium (one of the largest in the world) and the Ferris wheel (supposedly also the tallest in the world - welcome to Japan!). I've visited many aquariums, but this one was impressive, with a great white shark, giant manta rays, and a gorgeous finless porpoise. But by the time I made it to the Ferris wheel the weather had turned (a typhoon was passing by), so all I saw was rain.

Back downtown, I went for dinner in a ramen place, where the only way I could make the staff understand what I wanted was to take a photo of the photo showing the food outside. But I did get exactly what was shown!

I spent the evening in the Dotonbori area in Namba, filled with flashy people, bright neon ads, karaoke bars, restaurants, and sleazy versions of all those in the back alleys - I was even offered services there, after using the ATM ("-Let's go? Maybe?" "-No thank you." "-Sex massage." "-Emmm... no thanks!").

Sleazy alleyways in Osaka
After a while, I was finally able to find a cafe with free wifi (strangely hard to find, in the most advanced country in the world), and had my fix of internet. In fact, even the metro doesn't have data connection, so unlike Seoul, where everyone was watching TV shows in their mobiles, or Moscow, where everyone reads e-books, in Osaka they just sit silently.
Speaking of which, when I decided to go back at 11pm, the metro was already closed. Drama ensued - I only knew where the hotel was in reference to a specific metro exit! Equipped with a tiny scale, Japanese only city map, I began walking "north", hoping to eventually find it.

I didn't dare to flag a taxi and try to explain in English that I didn't know exactly where the hotel was. So who rescued me? Two Indian guys in bicycles! They googled the hotel phone number, found the address, and then proceeded to cycle there (a good 30 minutes), with me sitting on the rack of one of the bicycles, iPhone with maps in hand, trying to avoid the cops. We eventually found the hotel (it would probably have taken me the whole night). Unbelievably nice guys, pity I never got their names.

Shoe lockers by the reception
So, the capsule hotel! Insane concept. To get to the reception, I had to take off my shoes, put them in a shoe locker, and give the key to the receptionist. I couldn't book 2 nights in a row - at 8am the hotel closes, is cleaned, and then opens for costumers who worked the whole night!

After giving away the shoe locker key, I was handed a clothes locker key, a white robe, and matching white sleepers. All your belongings are left in the next set of lockers, and you must go to your capsule wearing your "night gown" already (so ridiculously short on me). The place was mad, full with tiny Japanese men (it is a men only hotel), wearing white robes and chain smoking, while watching TV (felt like a place for mad men). I climbed into my capsule (number 3006), closed the curtain (there's no door), and explored the place - basically all 70s style, with a CRT TV, radio, digital clock, and so tiny I couldn't even sit inside it.

I set an alarm for 7:30am, but that was pointless - at that exact time, the whole hotel was woken up with a recording of a cheap instrumental version of Auld Lang Syne, and a message with a sweet female voice: "Konnichiwa, ...". That was enough to wake me up with a smile, but the English version that followed up made me burst out laughing in my capsule:

Thank you for using our store today. We will be closing shortly. Please do not forget to take all of your belongings with you. We hope you enjoyed your shopping, and look forward to seeing you again. Thank you.

Ticket machine
On the way to the train station, I entered a coffee shop and asked for a kō hī, but was immediately pointed back to the door. Strange. Not matter how much I told her I just wanted a cup of coffee, I kept being sent to the door. I was about to leave, frustrated, when someone came in. They proceeded to put money in a vending machine by the door, press a button, take a piece of paper, give it to the lady, and hey presto!: there's coffee. So all I had to do was guess which button was coffee!

Japan is mad.

Women-only train carriages in Osaka

Kyoto (and Nara)

After the madness that was Osaka, Kyoto was a welcome piece of heaven. I took an early train from Osaka, and after a bit of search (thank you, LP), found and booked a Ryokan for two nights (traditional Japanese accommodation, with straw floors, sliding doors, very thin mattresses on the floor, and communal Japanese bath) - for which I had to pay cash, of course. I then set out to find food, which is not an easy thing in Japan, when you're travelling on a budget (contrary to South Korea), after which I took a local train to Nara.

Mingling with the locals
Nara is a lovely small place, with most of the attractions around Nara-Koen, a massive park on the slope of a hill. After visiting the Kofuku-Ji temple, I spent my time exploring the Todai-ji temple complex, which houses the biggest bronze Buddha statue, along with its massive wooden guardians by the gates. It also has wild deer roaming the temple grounds; you can buy food to feed them - but after I did, they just wouldn't leave me alone, biting at my backpack! I used the endless lines of Japanese school kids to dodge them.

Nara Daibutsu (giant Buddha)

Agyo, one of two great Nio gate guardians

As the day drew to a close, and the temples closed, I decided to follow a random path up the hill. And all of a sudden, no more crowds and noisy children: all I could hear was the sound of my footsteps, raindrops in the trees, and the occasional crows. I found some amazing little paths, decorated all around with beautiful shrines, and would have stayed there for much longer, but at night time it was hard to see where I was going, and I had to make it to the last train back to Kyoto. I had a relaxing late Japanese bath, and slept like a baby.

For relaxing times...
I spoke with a lot of people that day, and indeed throughout my trip. But most conversations were invariably of the type: "- Hello! American?" "- No, Portuguese." "Oh, Cristiano Ronaldo!" (one would have thought that Portuguese people would be more more known in Japan for the Japanese words of Portuguese origin). I obviously stood out as a tourist, but a lot less than in Korea: not only are there a lot more foreigners in Japan (both residents and tourists), but unlike Koreans, who look practically all the same, Japanese come in all shapes and sizes: small, tall, thin, thick, black/brown/blonde/red/shaved hair, and even the occasional showing of facial hair.

Erm... return ticket?
The next day I explored many of the temples in the East side of Kyoto, after finally figuring out how to buy tickets for the Kyoto metro. The typhoon rain throughout the day was actually a godsend - there were almost no tourists, and there is something very soothing in visiting Japanese gardens with the constant sound of trickling rain. I visited the Shoren-in and Chion-in temples; the Maruyama-Koen park; the Yasaka shrine; and the Kodai-ji temple.

At the impressive Ryozen Kannon, with its massive Bodhisattva statue, I was given an incense stick to lit up and add to many others: it's a war memorial, commemorating the dead of the Pacific War. The statue is surrounded by thousands of tiny statues, representing those killed, which are adorned with everything, from flowers to toys.

I finished my temple tour with Kiyomizu-dera. Being one of the most famous, and with the typhoon finally gone, it was full of snappy cameras and cheesy tourist shops - a bit of an anti-climax, but still an interesting place. I walked all around the temple, and finally made my way back to the city centre on foot, completely exhausted.

Japan is beautiful.


The next day I took the ridiculously fast Shinkansen to my last destination, Tokyo. It took me a while to get my head around the metro, with Japanese only ticket machines, and where you need to know your final station (in Japanese), with different types of lines (metro and JR), involving paying tranfer fees.

But in restaurants you can!
I began Tokyo with a night walk around Akihabara, also known as Electric City. A mad place, with big and small electronics shops, known to be a geek hangout spot, usually after office work. There certainly were a lot of them, with their white shirts, black trousers, and computer bags. Plenty of places there cater for this specific clientèle: soft-porn collectors shops, with manga-style heroine statues in very sensual poses, and rows after rows of collector cards (it's funny how these were never openly sexual in nature). There's also hostess bars, where manga-sounding real girls wearing school girl uniforms tease their clients, without any touching or explicit sexual interaction. A mad place.

The next day I went for a very long walk around the city. I started by the electronics shops in Akihabara, and then moved on to the Ochanomizu area,  famous for its music shops. I carried on to Kanda, with its second-hand book stores, and finally to Marunouchi, where I spent a few hours walking along the gardens of the Imperial Palace.

I had a very late and adventurous lunch, at a tiny ramen spot under a bridge. Impossible to understand what I had ordered from the Japanese-only ticket machine at the entrance. I ate standing up, amongst Japanese business men slurping their noodles in two minutes and rushing back to work, but it was surprisingly tasty, and finally something affordable.

In the evening I arranged to meet up with Kaori, my good Japanese friend from previous trips to Barcelona and Italy - the world can really be a small place! She took me to Odaiba, where we sat on the beach, watching the sun set over the city, drinking a bottle of red wine. The Rainbow Bridge never lit up (probably due to electricity savings, after the Fukushima accident), and that probably made the bay even prettier.

In the evening we went to Shinjuku, very lively at night time, especially the Kabukicho area, with its restaurants and arcades; we had some good street food, and explored the area. It is full of men's (and women's) clubs, where very sexy hostesses (or hosts) draw clients from the streets. Quite different from Akihabara! The back streets are littered with "love hotels", where rooms are booked for a night or by the hour.

Ladies' club, with a very peculiar client
The lo-o-ove hotels

I stayed at Kaori's apartment for the remainder of my trip, a lovely place with so many typical Japanese touches - small, bed on the floor, electronic toilet with integrated handwash basin! Unfortunately, she had to work the whole of next day (even though it was Saturday - this is Japan after all), so we left her place at 8am, and I had the whole day to keep exploring the city.

I began with a morning visit to the busy Tsukiji fish market (of course it's the biggest in the world). After wandering around the stalls for a while, I noticed large queues of (Japanese) people at specific doors, so as a smart tourist I decided to queue as well. I queued for half-hour, until I realised that this was for the sushi restaurants, with the freshest fish you could ever hope for. Never have I eaten tastier fish (pretty expensive too, but well worth it).

In the afternoon I had a wonderful relaxing stroll along the Hamarikyu Gardens. a piece of heaven in the middle of crazy Tokyo. There's a tea house in the middle of a pond, where I enjoyed a cup of Japanese tea along with a rice cake, after someone carefully explained me how to consume it in the purest Japanese tradition.

Afterwards I went to Asakusa, where I spent four hours walking along the enormous Nakamise pedestrian street, leading to the Senso-ji temple. The street is full of crafts and food stalls, and this being my last day in Japan, I made the most of it. With the arrival of sunset, the lit street and temple were beautiful to watch.

In the evening I went for a stroll along the streets of the Shibuya area, full of shops, restaurants and clubs. The energy in the streets was amazing, with people enjoying their Saturday evening. I spent one hour trying to capture the madness of its most famous place, the Shibuya pedestrian crossing; this is the best I could do, hanging from the metro walkway.

I then joined Kaori at her work place (she finished working at 2230, on a Saturday - never complain about your Western schedule!). She took me to a restaurant very famous with foreigners (the walls were filled with photos of clients such as Stevie Wonder, Sting, etc). I soon understood why - the food was just amazing. I remember eating delicious tempura, and many other other amazing dishes, all well washed down with a bottle of sake.

And that was it. We went back home, and the following day woke up at 7am to go to the airport, where we enjoyed a last Japanese meal together. I boarded my A380, and returned to Ireland. Thank you so much, Kaori! - funny how the most unlikely of friendships are some of the best ones.

I'm really glad that after South Korea I took the extra week to go to Japan, what an amazing experience it was. Of the two countries, I was pretty sure Korea would be the most exotic. After all, Japan is one of the most developed countries in the world, the land of Sony, Toyota, Nikon, Panasonic. Nothing prepared me for the cultural shock. I am counting the days to return.

Japan is amazing.