A Travellerspoint blog

Peace is not the word to play

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Hiroshima.

Ever since the morning of Monday 6 August 1945, the city has been synonymous with the use of the world's first nuclear weapon.

And I'm struggling to put into words just what it feels like to walk around the city today, especially if you've just spent a few hours in the Peace Memorial Park and it's neighbouring museum.

I've never visited a museum before where I was so overwhelmingly compelled to stop, study and digest each exhibit. All of them. It took hours. Using photos, videos, scale models, eye witness accounts, survivor stories, charred and mutilated artifacts recovered from the flattened city, transcripts of communications between presidents, prime ministers, war generals and scientists... the full horror of that day in August is transmitted with staggering force.

Whatever your personal opinion of the bombing of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki three days later) - a brutal and indiscriminate act of mass murder, or that it was a necessary step in the quest for an end to the war - it doesn't really matter in the end. If you visit Hiroshima now, and spend time amongst the memorials and walk the museum, there is only one conclusion you can possibly reach - what the hell are we still doing with nuclear weapons over half a century later?

There's a wall inside the museum covered top to bottom with typed letters from the Mayor of Hiroshima. Every time there's a nuclear weapons test somewhere in the world, the Mayor writes to the government of the country responsible expressing his disgust. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of them. It's as if the city of Hiroshima itself has become the biggest anti-nuclear weapons protest organisation on the planet.

Then on a slightly smaller scale you have people such as the World Friendship Centre (WFC), and they were my hosts in Hiroshima. Set up by an American in 1968 (to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the bombing), the Hiroshima WFC was founded as a place where people from all corners of the globe could meet, talk and exchange ideas. And given the location, the focus of these meetings was, and still is, peace. Grounded in more than just flower power idealism, for the last four decades the centre has continued to provide travellers with a roof over their heads and a base from which to explore the area.

They even leave tiny folded peace cranes on your pillow.

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The volunteers at the WFC encourage each guest to search out local food from community restaurants, and without exception every single one of their dining recommendations was on the money. Top pick for me was the small eatery right next door that served up one dish and one dish only - fresh and delicious okinomiyaki. There's something special about having your food prepared on a hot plate right in front of you, before using a deft combination of metal spatula and chopstick to scoff the thing down.

Miyajima, an island about one hour's tram - train - boat trip from the centre of Hiroshima, is an attraction that needs no tip off. The island is the site of one of the most iconic, and certainly one of the most photographed, views in all of Japan - the floating shrine O'Torii.

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Miyajima is almost just as famous for it's deer - and they're the most human-friendly (i.e. food chasing) deer you'll ever meet.

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More appealing to me than either of these was the prospect of hiking up Mount Misen. The summit, 535m high, was well worth the late afternoon slog to scale, rewarding everyone who makes it with cracking views both back inland and out to sea.

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The top of Misen is also the best place to look back at modern day Hiroshima, and reflect again on the events of sixty three years ago, and wonder if we've learned anything at all.

Posted by Serge78 14:49 Archived in Japan Tagged educational Comments (0)

Houhai by night

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Gonna jump back to China for this brief post, as i've just found a short video that perfectly captures the vibe of Houhai, Beijing - the area I stayed in for a week and a half back in early November.

Shot by Dan Chung, a photographer working for The Guardian, on the new Canon 5D MkII (i'm turning in to a real camera nerd), this short film not only shows off the camera's fancy new bells and whistles, it also manages to transmit a large amount of the thick Houhai atmosphere that appealed so much. Happy viewing.

Posted by Serge78 00:57 Archived in China Tagged photography Comments (0)

Fun in the rising sun

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Better start this post by issuing a warning - there's a copious amount of naked flesh below.

Not mine, you'll be thankful, but quite a bit of Japanese T'n'A. So if that isn't your thing, divert your gaze... now!

I rocked up in Fukuoka midday on a Friday, stepping off the 'Beetle' hydrofoil from Busan in South Korea (a boat that screams across the water separating the two countries in a lightening quick three hours), again with the sun following me all the way.

Time for lunch, and also my first taste of fast food dining Japanese style. After locating the nearest Ichiran, a popular local chain serving delicious ramen, I ordered my meal in the same way people at home buy Tube tickets - feed your money into a machine by the entrance and press the buttons that relate to your chosen dish (ramen, ramen and more ramen). Out spits a receipt, with which you walk towards the dining area.

I took my place on a stool at the long, narrow serving counter, populated exclusively by local office workers grabbing a brief bite (and these guys and girls really do slurp their noodles down in no time at all). The counter is separated from the kitchen, and therefore all of Ichiran's staff, by a long red curtain along it's entire length. As soon as I took my seat, a disembodied hand plunged from under the curtain towards me. I passed the hand my receipt, and in return received another menu. This allowed me to further refine my meal, selecting the firmness of the noodles, the strength of the soup, the amount of garlic and green onions, whether you want pork or not... the list went on and on, and by the end of it I was filling in each question with the same semi-enthusiasm most people use to complete those mandatory questionnaires after training sessions at work.

But the food I ended up with was spectacular, a steaming hot bowl of ramen with a ton of fresh green onions and enough garlic to ward off several generations of vampire, all swimming in a slurptastic soup. I could've have stayed there for hours, but the done thing seemed to be to vacate the restaurant as quickly as you entered it.

So what about that bare flesh I promised?

Okee doke.

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The start of my Japan adventure nicely coincided with the staging of the latest Grand Sumo Tournament in Fukuoka. And although all the prime seats had long since been snapped up by devotees, the thoughtful organisers had kept back a few 'on-the-day' passes to allow those straight off the boat a chance at watching a true Japanese passion first hand.

And the big guys certainly didn't disappoint. Firstly, as comes with the job, they're huge. Absolute mammoths, but at the same time no less athletic than participants in any other wrestling discipline. And they move pretty quick too, especially when it comes to slapping the oppo's shoulders/neck/face. Just as important as each combatant is the ceremony, with each bout preceded by a half-sung half-bellowed announcement and followed by respectful bows to opponent, the ring, and the officials.

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Some match-ups last seconds, others an epic minute or two. And although I'm not well versed enough in the finer points of sumo to appreciate the nuances of each fight, the tension that builds when these guys reach stalemate - each man just holding on to his opponents belt, or if that is out of reach his spare tyre - really is something to witness.

Unfortunately, I got my timing a bit wrong. Concerned that I'd miss out on the tickets for that day, I arrived at the sumo early morning with plans to stay for a few hours before I had to move my backpack to a new bed for the night. But just as locals in Spain don't dream of going out for a drink until the early hours of the morning, the people of Fukuoka would rather not arrive at the sumo tournament until mid-way through the afternoon. So my time at the sumo was in a half-empty arena, useful for sneaking into the good seats but not so great for experiencing the wild atmosphere and pumped crowd that surrounds bouts towards the end of each day.

But it was all cracking fun nonetheless, and total essential viewing for anyone who's lucky to be in town the same time the heavies are there too.

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Armed with a countrywide Japan Rail Pass, I was determined to see much more of Japan than just city life. With a goal of ending up on the north coast of Western Honshu, I headed first for the town of Tsuwano. Lying in a picturesque valley between two sets of hills, with a population of only a few thousand and several examples of traditional Japanese architecture, Tsuwano is one of a number of places in Japan that likes to brand itself "Little Kyoto". Although I wouldn't want to dispute this claim, I reckon the town had enough charm of it's own to get rid of any comparative tags, and to be proud of calling itself just plain old Tsuwano.

For a start, they've got some stellar fish. Huge multicoloured carp, swimming in streams that run along the streets of Tsuwano, outnumber the resident Human population by something like ten to one.

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And have you ever seen a more atmospheric T-junction anywhere in the world?

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Nope, I think not.

But seriously, Tsuwano was just perfect. Although it drizzled for much of the day, the low cloud and lush green just made the setting even more appealing. And I stayed in an incredible ryokan (basically a Japanese B&B), where I was fed all kinds of stunning Japanese dishes - soups, veggies, fish, noodles, tofu - and that was just those I could actually identify. For breakfast, alongside more of the same, my host invited me to follow her into a small garden area where she was growing wild mushrooms. I picked a handful, gave them a rinse, and then grilled them over an open flame, dipped them in some soy, and popped them in my mouth where they instantly became the loveliest bunch of shrooms I've ever eaten.

Tsuwano was top dollar, but why do more people not know about this place? Almost nobody I spoke to afterwards, tourists and Japanese alike, had heard of the town. Trust me, go there!

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The following morning I continued east along the San-in line, the train hugging the rocky coast allowing fantastic views of a pretty angry looking Sea of Japan.

Getting off in Matsue, I vowed to have a lazy day. My back was still giving me some trouble almost a week after i'd left Gyeongju in Korea, so I took the opportunity to visit one of Matsue's many spas in the hope of easing the ache. Being a quiet mid-week afternoon, I managed to get a hot spring-sourced pool all for myself, and soaked for a very relaxing hour.

With a clear head, and considerably increased mobility in my neck and shoulders, I headed back for an early night. A 6am start and a convoluted dog leg of a route awaited, but it would lead me to a city I'd dreamed of for countless years - Hiroshima. And that's coming up next.

Posted by Serge78 11:11 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Higher ground

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I tell you what, South Korea must be just about the fittest nation on the planet.

Blessed with an embarrasing abundance of accessible hills and mountains, Koreans young and old put on their best hiking gear and head for higher ground as often as you or I walk up stairs. It's practically the national sport. If tramping were an Olympic event, no other nation would stand a chance.

So I had to give it a go. Catching a bus from Gyeongju, I rode a few kilometres south of the city to the middle of Gyeongju National Park. In the near-distance stood Namsan, a 494-metre high peak that is the target for hundreds of thousands of hike-hungry tourists each year.

Despite the gloriously sunny weather, Namsan was pretty quiet the day I chose to clamber up. The lower reaches of the mountain are mainly covered in forest, and amongst the trees and bush lie a sack load of rock carvings and artwork, stone pagodas and old Korean Buddhist monuments. Some are signposted, and some hide a few hundred metres off the main path waiting to be stumbled across.

About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, you reach Chilbulam - a rock with a Buddha triad carved into it. It's in quite a spot, with the carving looking out across the plains to the south and west of Namsam.

You can see the carving on the right side of this pic:

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After pressing on further (and despite being overtaken by a group of laughing Korean grannies en route), I reached the summit. My pay off was a brilliant early-afternoon view of the surrounding countryside.

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I was buzzing so much from the climb up that I took a wrong turn on my way back and ended up balancing along an overgrown bushy ridge for much of the descent. But accidentally taking this unofficial route off the mountain at least allowed me to run into a few more relics from the past, including a few small burial mounds (see below).

Still, I was pretty happy to be back down at sea level, and so made the most of the remaining sunshine and just walked the eight-ish kilometres back into Gyeongju.

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Although it's perhaps hard to imagine these days, especially if you've just got off the train from Seoul, but Gyeongju used to be the capital of Korea. The city enjoyed this distinction more than a millennia ago, during a period of unification covering the whole Korean peninsula (the Later Silla era) .

Visible signs of Gyeongju's past still exist within the modern city, in the form of several burial mounds housing the graves of ancient Silla kings. They're not on the same scale as those better-known after life chambers, the pyramids of Giza, but when walking among them in the modern town centre (mostly in well looked after parks and open spaces) they still posses a certain reverence.

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My accommodation for my time in Gyeongju was in a traditional-style Korean house, complete with tatami mats to sleep on.

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The atmosphere of the place was great, but sleeping for two nights on the floor did my back a right mischief. I spent the next few days quietly yelping whenever the pain shot across from spine to neck and back, usually after turning my head at the wrong angle. The backpack never felt so heavy or uncomfortable.

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I really enjoyed Gyeongju. As is becoming something of a theme for this trip, I seem to be drawn to cities that have just the right balance of beauty and sleeze. Namsam, and the immediate countryside, are filled with great hikes and impressive monuments.

And then, as a pleasant contrast, you've got the area just behind the back of Gyeongju's two bus stations. Love hotel after love hotel after love hotel. I'm not sure if this is a phenomenon that has escaped this part of Asia (pleading my innocence), but Korean cities (and Japanese ones too) always seem to have a street or two handed over wholesale to hotels that feature blacked-out windows, hidden lobbies, and car parks with vanity curtains to prevent your car, and therefore your attendance at the hotel, being spotted from the street.

There's got to be something slightly funny about hotels that on one hand stress their candidness, and then with the other (free) hand slap huge great neon signs on their sides - and the neon is almost always pink or red. About as subtle as a brick.

What this all says about Korean attitudes to sex is anyone's guess, and the local tourist office outside Gyeongju station probably won't give you directions or a leaflet, but if you're in town check out the street nonetheless. I doubt this will be one facit of Korean life that'll be preserved in a nicely landscaped garden for future generations.

Posted by Serge78 16:07 Archived in South Korea Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

My naked Seoul

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It's 10pm on a Saturday evening in Seoul.

I've been in Korea for just under two hours.

And i find myself, along with about one hundred locals, in a public bath house. Butt naked. Starkers. Sans clothing.

After a crash course in Korean bath house etiquette - leave your shoes at the door, your clothes in the locker and any inhibiting self-consciousness at the airport - I alternate between the different pools of water. There are four of five different baths, ranging in temperature from sub-tropical to arctic, and the name of the game seems to be to shock your body as violently as possible by plunging straight out the hot tub and into the icy waters alongside.

And just before you turn into a human ice lolly, you climb out of the freeze bucket and back into the volcanic hot bath.

Then repeat as often as desired or are able.

You've also got industrial-strength jets of water that could probably be used to punch small holes in a wall. Off to one side of the room lie a couple of massage tables, with people actively volunteering to have a few layers of skin sandpapered from their bodies.

But none of this should sound weird, as this is family entertainment Korean style. I'm in a jjimjilbang, and they're wildly popular round here.

The bath rooms are segregated by sex, but that's only one part of the evening's fun. In the clothed-sections, a whole range of saunas are waiting to be tried, separated by a large communal area where families lounge around for hours watching soaps. There's a restaurant, a bar, an internet cafe, a collection of arcade machines, and a bank of techno chairs that are able to massage you whilst you doze off.

Quieter areas are set aside for sleeping, and the whole place is open 24 hours a day. You could literally never leave, and it looks like some people don't. To be honest, who can blame them. As I walked back to my guesthouse, a few hours later that night, I felt totally refreshed. Now if only we could get over the nudity thing in the UK, i'm pretty sure these places would be a hit back home too.

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350 metres up, and 8872 kilometres away.

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Arriving in a new city, I like to take a trip up to top of the tallest building to get my bearings a bit.

The N Seoul Tower gave me an opportunity to get a look at one of the largest population centres on the planet. A staggering 24 million South Koreans live in the Greater Seoul area, almost half the population of entire country.

And when viewed from up here, it looks as if each has left the light on.

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I'm finding it a bit hard to sum up my feelings towards Seoul. On the surface it's a sprawling, flashy mix of concrete, steel and glass, but I found it difficult to really get under the skin of the place.

This is maybe gonna sound obvious, but I've never been in country where I was so aware I wasn't a local. Don't get me wrong, the Koreans I met were almost all lovely people, astonishingly helpful and keen to interact, but at the same time I got the impression that no matter how long I spent in the country or how much Korean I managed to speak I would always be an outsider. What does the Korean soul look like? I didn't really find out.

An expat said to me that Seoul was a great place to live, but a hard place to visit. I think I understand exactly what she meant.

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Posted by Serge78 13:50 Archived in South Korea Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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