Japan, my last Adventure

The boat from Southern Korea was smooth and fast, crossing the Sea of Japan in just under three hours. It’s my first international crossing on this trip without using an airport.  As the Japanese tourist train pass can only be bought outside of Japan, I managed to pick one up in Busan before I left Korea.

Busan Ferry Port

I have time concerns, this weekend starts Japan’s ‘golden week’, a busy national holiday. In addition, I have unlimited bullet train travel but only for seven days. It’s also cherry blossom season, and the Japanese are blossom crazy. The news has a blossom report just before the weather.

The seats flip 180 degrees, it’s bad luck to face the wrong way

Like Japan itself, Japan’s rail network is futuristic and also really quaint. It’s funny to see the platform staff bowing to the bullet trains as they pull into the station. The speed of the network has allowed me to hop around Kyushu island and southern Honsu is just two days. I trying not to look lost in public as a helpful conductor will be trying to assist me in less than three seconds.

My train pass, I intend to get my monies worth

The train network consists of hyper-fast maglev trains (>350km/hr), and vanilla bullet trains (>300km/hr). Off of the main network you have to settle for just a tilting ‘sonic’ train (>200km/hr). No train I have yet ridden is slower than the fastest train we have in the UK, except mabye the Eurostar.

Hiroshima Castle

My first stop was Hiroshima Peace Museum. This is a misleading name, it was jammed full of school kids and anything but peaceful. I gave the Peace Bell a good ring on the way out.

Hiroshima Peace flame, which will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon is decommissioned

Last night I visited rural Japan looking for Aso Volcano. I arrived three hours late, as an earthquake had damaged the train tracks (alas, even Japanese timetables arn’t earthquake proof). I was worried I would need to spend the night in a Pachinko casino; luckily my host was awake to check me in.

I can’t read these signs but I get the point

On the hike to the volcano my luck didn’t look good, it’s classed as ‘semi active’ and a eruption last year had destroyed both cable cars. I managed to get within a kilometre of the crater before the signs turned me around. Walking around on fresh ash was an experience, it’a just a shame I didn’t get a pic of the sulphur lake.

This is what’s left of the cable car

Next stop, Tokyo (with a few detours).

I could start a postcard company when I get back

Life in the Monastary

I have spent a few days in the mountains of southern Korea, living at a Bhuddist temple. The monks wake us up at 4am, for chanting, meditation and martial arts practice.

After silent breakfast of rice and seaweed, we practice archery. There is a camera crew present, I think I’m going to be on television in Singapore.

The chief discipline is Sunmudo, a meditative combat art. Each monk also specialises in a single discipline, such as singing or dance. The monks are far more talented at this stuff than I am.

I took tea with the Grand Master, and we discussed his religion. Currently, 60% of new Korean monks are female, which is changing Bhuddism.

After more martial arts and more seaweed, bedtime is at 8:30pm. I was out like a light.

Temple puppies! All the dogs here are really quiet. Except the mother, who bit me.

East Korea, mostly in Pictures

I’m slowly moving down the east coast of the Korean peninsula. This is the most alien place I have ever been. Everyone is friendly, but no-one speaks a word of English and there are no other western travellers. All the signs are in Korean which makes finding anything difficult.

You havn’t lived until you have slept in a heated pod

The food here is good, but weird. Lots of Kimchi (fermented cabbage in chilli sauce, I think), slow cooked meat, pickled and raw veg and tons of seafood.

Either they worship fish or honour fishermen

Normally I would find some foreign restaurants and eat something more familiar; Italian places are worldwide, and you normally find kebab shops by the local mosque. But, no such luck, in Korea it’s Kimchi or nothing.

After being on the road for five months, I have walked through my remaining pairs of trousers. As I have also run out of repair thread, I think a supply run is needed. There are a few mountaineering places in Pohang, fingers crossed they do clothes in my size. My shoes are still wearable but are no longer waterproof.

I did some climbing
Valley view
Bhuddists always make the biggest statues
I thought the headspot was a Hindu thing
Cherry blossom waterfall
Bhudda cave…
…it was a 600m climb

Gangnam Style

Have you ever wanted to see a show mixing Iron Chef with farce comedy? NANTA theatre is for you. Korea has a great sense of humour.

The Seoul tower has the world’s fastest elevator, moving you 554 meters in sixty seconds. The glass floor in the observation deck looks down on a busy crossroads, the perspective is really unique.

Seoul Lotte Tower
The further east you go, the uglier the crabs get…..
… but the ice creams get prettier
Upside down fish…
… and robot fish

Koreans do a lot of gaming. High speed internet is so common here, few people bother putting a password on their wifi.
This makes me a very sad panda

As Korean doorways are very narrow, they use these furniture cranes to get things through windows.

The North Korean DMZ and other cultural adventures

The two peace villages in the Korean Demilitarised Zone got into a flag-off about a decade ago. Each night, they would raise the height of thier flagpoles, until eventually the South gave up. The flags are still there.

The DMZ is a 4 kilometre wide ribbon of land separating North and South Korea. The landmines make farming difficult, so nature has reclaimed it.

The border
The bus ride to the DMZ was surreal, an eight lane highway was empty for thirty miles. It was constructed to quickly move tanks to the border, and passes within sight of the north side of the river.

I toured some communist infiltration tunnels (I’m glad I wore a helmet), and purchased some of North Korea’s finest wine at the train station.

Sadly North Korea is closed

Looking across the border, North Korea is desolate and devoid of trees. I was told that the communist peasants have chopped and burned everything as firewood to keep warm. The government regularly replants whole forests but they don’t last long.

Not much foliage in North Korea

The older generation of South Korean people have great sympathy for those in the north. They see them as lost family and strive for reunification. About thirty thousand defectors arrive every year, and for five years they will be given a home and education. But the younger South Koreans are more apathetic about the situation.

Hopefully, one day, you will be able to take a train from London to Seoul. But for now I’ll be finding another way home.

Helpful map in the visitors centre

Ettiquette in Seoul

I thought I was getting better with chopsticks. In South Korea they use thin, flat, metallic versions. These don’t get the friction that the wooden ones do, and are reasonably heavy. I will persevere.

Namdemun Gate

I’m also reasonably sure Korean guys don’t wear underpants, as every other shop sells socks but no-one sells boxers. 25% of the shops sell barbecue noodles and the other 25%, digital cameras.

Free entry to palaces if you wear a traditional Korean dress!

I had a plan to visit Vladivostok in Eastern Russia, but after three days of visiting the Russian consulates I have given up. Without a Korean resident’s permit my only option for a tourist visa is to fly back to Hong Kong and wait eleven days to process my application. After eleven days in Hong Kong I would likely need the attention of a good osteopath, so I have set my Siberian dreams aside.

Those huge flat screens are everywhere
The wise play Bao in the park

I have booked a flight home from Osaka, Japan; I have thirty days to get there. I’ve decided there are worse places to spend that time than South Korea, I arrived just in time for the cherry blossoms.

Sky Rainbows greet my flight over the South China Sea

East Meets West in Hong Kong

Imagine a beehive collapsing around a black hole. That’s about half as crowded as Hong Kong. I don’t fit anywhere in this city.

My ‘double en suite’ hotel room

The city is a bustling three dimensional maze of subways, walkways, alleys, catwalks, tunnels, tiny shops and (admittedly, good) restaurants located on the nineteenth floor of a block of flats.

I never thought I’d see thirty story scaffolding made of bamboo

The locals affectionally refer to the area as ‘Hong Kongcrete’. There is near-zero public space, no benches, parks or grass. They do have a charming double-decker tramway, apparantly built to carry tiny children around.

The top deck is a good spot for photography

I’m probably just upset that I’ve banged my head four times in three days. Hong Kong has a great atmosphere, lots to see and do, and no-one wastes your time. The subway network is better than London, everything is well-planned and efficient, and you can buy anything here. If only it wasn’t at 3/5 scale, I’d love it.

Visibility is a problem even on the coasts
No-one actually offered me a kidney

Bonus Photo: This is the Dragon Bridge in DaNang, Vietnam. It only breathes fire at 9pm on Sundays so it missed my last update.

Seaplane Blues

Ha Long Bay is renowned for its sleepy cruises amongst the maze of limestone pillars.

I made this black and white as there was very little colour in it

My tender stomach didn’t like the idea of spending three days on a boat, eating whatever they decided to cook me. I found a nifty seaplane parked down the jetty and made some enquiries about a scenic tour.

A vehicle that can traverse air, land and sea

The weather was still very British; grey with extra moisture. The pilot said they can’t fly until Saturday, so I spent a few days watching movies on my laptop and doing some photos from the local ferries.

Visit Rainland, the rainiest place on Earth!

Here is an observation about Vietnam – there are people here who speak zero English. I have met hotel receptionists who don’t understand ‘tomorrow’, waitresses who look puzzled at a request for ‘water’, and taxi drivers who can’t decipher ‘airport’. I think this will only get more common as I go further north, I need to brush up on my international gesticulations.

Burning valuables with a calendar appeases the universe. I hope the universe doesn’t notice the money is fake.

This morning, the weather cleared up and I took my first ever seaplane flight. It’s less bumpy than tarmac, though we had to wait for the fishing boats to move aside before we found a ‘runway’.

Ha Long Bay, as the birds see it