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.

South Korea

In September 2011, I was very lucky to go to a conference in Seoul, South Korea. With the majority of my trips happening around Europe and/or Western countries, this was one I was really looking forward.

I spent over three weeks in Korea: a first week at the CIG conference, presenting my work, followed by a two week stay in Seoul National University, working as an invited researcher. Finally, I got a few days off at the end of my stay, and went to Busan (and then onwards to Japan - which I will report in a separate post).

It was a long way to get there; a Dublin-Amsterdam flight, followed by a 10h Amsterdam-Seoul. I finally got to fly in a 747, and it was a cool experience - what a massive plane!
The conference and then the stay at the University kept me pretty busy, and I didn't do half the travelling and exploring as I'd usually do. But I still got to explore quite a few interesting areas.

One of the top tourist spots in Seoul is the Insadong area, and it is well worth a visit. A pedestrian street, with many tiny side streets, stuffed with art galleries, vintage and souvenir shops, and traditional tea and coffee shops. I returned there quite a few times, just to wander around, buying a few souvenirs. Right next to it is Tapgol park, a lovely quiet place, with a 500 year old pagoda in a glass protective case.

While attending the conference, I stayed in a hotel, and got the chance to try the famous washlets, a combination of a toilet and a bidet, originally from Japan. These things are unreal: heated seat, automatic behind washing, water massage and drying, alternate positions for women's anatomy, and a thorough washing of the whole apparatus once you're finished. There's a whole range of programs and customisations to choose from. Sounds weird? Feels even weirder - but nice!

The final day of the conference offered us a chance to go to The Korea House, for the typical conference banquet (a wonderful dinner of traditional Korean food); that was followed by a traditional performance of light, music, and dance. It was a really enjoyable show.

Speaking of food, that was probably my biggest discovery in Korea. I wasn't quite fond of it at the start; practically every dish is spicy, and always comes accompanied with gimchi (fermented cabagge) and a whole range of other unidentifiable side dishes. But being five times cheaper than western food, I had little choice but to get used to it.

After a week with an upset stomach, I began enjoying it more and more. In fact, sometimes I had little choice but to adventure into unknown dishes; arriving into restaurants with no English menus nor pictures, I simply pointed at something someone else was eating. Interesting facts about Korean table sets: cuttlery is almost always metal (chopsticks and a long spoon), water is free and served in a reusable plastic bottle, and the glasses are always sterilised. Almost every restaurant has buzzers in the tables; ring it, and immediately 3/4 waiters acknowledge it and will come to you in less than a minute.
Towards the end of my stay, I had become really used to the majority of dishes; my favourite was the Korean bbq.

Most evenings I would take the metro downtown, to go discover yet another mysterious dish in an unknown restaurant. The metro is clean and quiet, hardly anyone speaks with each other (mostly people just watch TV in their mobile phones); in every station, there's gas masks, a reminder of the tensions with their Northern neighbours! After eating, I usually would wander around on foot, to enjoy the neon spectacle that most streets offer.

Considering the northern neighbours, no trip to South Korea is complete without an excursion to the DMZ (Korean Demilitarised Zone). It's a very touristy thing to do, and you can only go there with an excursion, complete with a guide, who tries (and fails) to make jokes. But it's still a site full of interesting spots, such as the Bell of Peace, the secret invasion tunnels, the bullet-riddled train, and the closed roads leading to the North.

You get to actually look into the North, courtesy of an observation deck, from which it is forbidden to take photos; behind the "no-photo" zone, people pile up trying to snap a shot. Far more interesting (if spooky) was the visit to Dorasan station. Located on the South-North train line, it has a whole area reserved for passenger trains to Pyeongyang, which is kept immaculately clean - yet was never used.

Back in the city, the Dongdaemun gate is one of only three original city gates still standing:

Next to it, is the equally famous Dongdaemun market. It is massive, with stalls in small and large streets sprawling in a huge city area. It is also open until 5am. Crazy motorcycle riders pile up merchandise on the back of their bikes, and speed through stalls and pedestrians at insane speeds.

Equally interesting is the Cheonggyecheon area. Once occupied by an elevated motorway which crossed the city, it was renovated into a pedestrian area, and it is a real pleasure to just walk along the small stream, hidden from the craziness of the world around it.

The University had great facilities, and I spent a good deal of time there, working with my wonderful host, Bob McKay. The location is impressive, in a hill on the south of the city.

Bob was fantastic. He took me for meals quite often, including an excursion to the fish market, where we ate some great fresh sushimi. On one of the days, I went with him and his wife to Ganghwa Island, on the Northwestern part of the country. We visited old temples, ate grilled octopus, and explored the beaches nearby.

That about sums it up for Seoul. Of less interest was the famous Yongsan electronics market (half the shops were closed, and the quality was far from great). Equally uninteresting was the Itaewon area: also known as "Western Town", I almost felt like I was back in a Western city, given the amount of western shops and restaurants, and foreigners on the street (it is particularly popular with U.S. Military personnel). It is apparently one of the few places where you can buy "U.S. sized" clothes:

I did save one of the best spots for last, however: on the last day, I visited the Gyeongbok Palace. It is a massive complex of several palaces, museums and pavilions, and you can easily spend a whole day exploring it. Be prepared to elbow your way through hordes of tourists (both national and foreign).


My last 2 days in Korea were spent in Busan, on the Southeast part of the country. The second largest city of Korea, it is quite touristy as well, especially being on the sea shore, but it is in no way as massive as Seoul, and does feel a lot more welcoming. I took a high-speed train (French TGVs!) to get there.

I stayed in a wonderful little peace of heaven: a small hostel named after the owner, "Chan's House". Chan is obsessed with India, having travelled and lived there several times, and the home décor reflects that - all the way to a sitar in the living room, and mantras in the toilet sound system! (yes I brought some copies)
I went out that night, to explore the nightlife by the waterfront.

The next day was mostly spent in markets. I started with the Jagalchi Fish Market, wandering amongst the hundreds of stalls selling live, dead and cooked fish, from easily recognisable varieties such as sole, sea bass, shark, octopus, to strange, unknown creatures of the sea, including spoon worms. These are meant to be a real delicacy, served still wriggling on your plate. They are sometimes known as the penis fish. Go figure why.

I wasn't that brave, but I did have a baby tiger shark in sashimi for lunch, after finding a fisherman that could speak English, and having a lovely chat with him. The way it was killed, two hard blows to the head, followed by chopping and straight to my plate, felt somewhat cruel. Not nearly as cruel as the fate of eels: skinned alive, they are left twitching in agony and pain, before being chopped alive. Not for the faint of heart.

I spent the whole afternoon lost in the tiny shopping streets of the Gukje and surrounding markets. I found it even more interesting than the Seoul markets; tiny little streets where you just get lost (I did, several times), exploring all the merchandise, from cheap clothing to unknown dishes.

My last evening in Korea was spent on Yongdusan Park, one of the highest points of the city. I didn't bother climbing the Busan Tower, and instead just wandered around the park, and sat admiring a group of ukulele players, trying as hard as possible to play together and sing Western songs.

That was it. The next day I took the ferry to Osaka, Japan, which I will tell about in a different post. Sometimes surprising, sometimes a bit hard, my glimpse at life in Korea was very pleasant.