Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Singapore And VeganBurg

When I first arrived in Singapore I was suffering from a bad case of post-Japan blues. After being there for 3 weeks I kinda got used to the Japanese way of life, so it took me a while to adjust to my new surroundings and accept the fact that sushi wouldn't be on the daily menu anymore. Life is so cruel sometimes. Luckily though, Singapore has some seriously amazing food and a huge variety of different cuisines like Indian and Chinese so I got over the sadness pretty quickly. I've only been here for a few days but it's been great spending time in this little city. It's super clean, unbelievably safe and there's impressive architecture everywhere you look. For a city, it's not at all noisy or polluted either. If only London was like that. I'm staying at the Rucksack Inn hostel in Lavender, which is just a short train ride to the central districts. It's so homely and comfortable for a hostel - especially the bed. Definitely appreciated by my aching back. After arriving, I spent the first couple of days with a friend I met in Tokyo just a few weeks ago who lives and works here. It's funny how life throws people together sometimes. She was the perfect host and introduced me to the city by taking me for dinner at Clarke Quay and drinks at Marina Bay. It really is gorgeous here at night when everything lights up and a nice place to have a drink. We went to Club Street afterwards to a bar and then onto a club somewhere else (I can't for the life of me remember the name). 




I also visted Marina Bay during the day and later explored Chinatown and Little India. I have a severe lack of photos from this day out though, the only decent one being the one below. Obviously food is a higher priority for me these days. This photo was taken at the most delicious vegan fast food place called VeganBurg. I literally died and went to veggie heaven. I could have everything on the menu! Which is amazing (fellow carrot munchers google it NOW) and didn't disappoint. I had the Smoky BBQ burger with seaweed sprinkled chips and a side of vegan franks. Mouth-wateringly good. I only wish it existed in the UK. I'm leaving for Bali tomorrow so I might actually try to fit in another visit before I go. I've spent most of the day blogging so it would make a nice treat. I've caught up with most of my blog posts now which is actually a really good feeling, especially as it's so hard to find the time to blog when travelling. A hostel with a big comfy sofa, free tea and PB toast helps a bit though...


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Things To Do In Osaka

After spending an amazing week in beautiful Kyoto (see previous post), I headed to Osaka for a few days before ending my Japanese adventure. At first, I had no idea what to expect from Osaka, except I imagined it to be like a small version of Tokyo. Turns out I was kinda right! It's a really buzzing city and especially good for shopping. During my time there I stayed at Tani9 Backpackers Hostel which I couldn't recommend enough. It's in a great location and has a friendly atmosphere, making it easy to meet people to explore the city with. There's a good few sights to see in Osaka, but not as many as there was in Tokyo. This was perfect for me as I was now getting a wee bit travel-weary, so sightseeing grew less and less appealing by the day. Hashtag travel problems. My blisters were not happy either and my feet were thankful for a day or two of rest. So, after lots of Sudacrem and napping I finally got round to seeing stuff:

Osaka Castle

Probably the main attraction in Osaka. This beautiful castle lies in a gorgeous park which makes it the perfect way to spend a sunny day. You can go inside the castle and get entry to the museum next door too, but I would avoid the museum unless you can read Japanese or want to pay for a headset. 


Night Out In Dotonbori

Dotonbori is the place to go for a night out. It's also a pretty amazing place for shopping, so head there during the day if you fancy a spree. After dark though, the neon lights come on and the drinks start flowing creating a lively atmosphere. There's plenty of bars and clubs to choose from and countless ramen and sushi places - so you're spoilt for choice in the food department. After dinner we ended up in an old Japanese whiskey bar which I absolutely loved. I even had my first decent G&T in Asia. Perfect.


Nara Day Trip

Many people do this day trip from Kyoto, but it's roughly the same distance from Osaka so I thought I'd save it for the end of my trip. When you go to Nara you can expect to find a big park full of very overly-friendly deer (especially if you buy something to feed them with), which also houses lots of temples and food places. My main aim whilst here was to hang with the deer and visit the Daibutsu-den Hall. This hall is the largest wooden building in the world and home to a giant bronze buddha statue. It really is breathtaking and not-to-be-missed if you're there. 





The Ragdoll Cat Cafe

On my last day in Osaka I went to another cat cafe. It was inevitable really. I love these places, they're so relaxing and the perfect way for cat botherers like me to get their fix. The cats here were gorgeous and clearly well looked after. In fact, I don't think I've seen such healthy looking cats. In case you were wondering, Cat cafes typically cost around 1000 yen (about £6) for one hour and you get a free non-alcoholic drink too.




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Highlights Of Kyoto

Kyoto was the highlight of my trip to Japan. As much as I loved Tokyo, I can't seem to spend too long in major cities and generally prefer places with less hustle and bustle and lots of history. Put simply, Tokyo gives you a taste of modern Japan while Kyoto lets you experience old Japan. It's the best place for Geisha spotting (I saw two!) and the perfect place to explore lantern-lined streets and alleyways. You can find amazing food everywhere you go here and there's lots of places to have a drink - especially near the Pontocho area. I stayed in Gion-Shijo at JAM Hostel, which was a great location and very sociable. Thumbs up from me. Overall I had a week in Kyoto, allowing me to do some day trips and explore Gion without feeling rushed. Even with a week though, there's so much to see and do that I still didn't fit everything in. In terms of day trips, here's what I did manage to tick off my list:

Kiyomizu-dera and Ninenzaka

The pretty streets filled with souvenir shops and ice cream stalls make the walk up to Kiyomizu-dera temple all the more memorable. Once you reach the top, you get a great view of Kyoto and can enjoy exploring the traditional streets of Ninenzaka on the way down. There's lots of tea rooms too, which are definitely worth a visit.






Arashiyama 

This sleepy riverside town is not far from Gion. Here you can take a walk through the stunning bamboo grove followed by a visit to Monkey Mountain. If you're an animal lover like me, Monkey Mountain will be a definite highlight. It's a bit like the opposite of a zoo, so us humans are in the cage instead of the monkeys (see my Instagram for some ground-breaking monkey footage. Just call me David Attenborough). Oh, and take it from me, flip flops are not appropriate footwear. It's a good 30 minute trek up the mountain and I may have taken a little fall on the way down and injured my knee. Cool as always. 




Fushimi-Inari 

One of the most unique and stunning shrines I've ever seen (I really impressed myself with my iPhone photography too). Fushimi-Inari shrine is located at the base of a mountain, so you can walk the 'tori' trails right up to the top. I didn't make it that far sadly. Mainly due to the Monkey Mountain knee injury and the fact I'm very lazy. 




During my week in Kyoto I also visted the Obubu Green Tea Plantation in Wazuka (see my previous post). Lots of other travellers headed to Nara for the day, but I saved this for my visit to Osaka as they're about equal distance away. Despite being "templed out" by this point in my trip, I wish I'd seen the Golden Pavillion (Kinkaku-ji). Apparently it's amazing so I'd suggest adding this to your itinerary if you're planning to go to Kyoto.
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Monday, 18 August 2014

My Visit To Obubu Green Tea Plantation, Wazuka

It's a well-known fact, especially amongst Brits, that a cup of tea can solve just about any problem. It's like giving your insides a nice warm bath and if you hadn't guessed, I'm quite a fan of this tasty liquid. Yes, I'm a total tea geek and proud of it. In actual fact, I don't think I could live without it. There's been times on my trip when not a single drop of tea is available and I've had a slight inner meltdown. Sad but true. It's not just good old English tea that I love either, I'm a big herbal drinker too - especially Japanese green tea. Sencha to be exact. That's why on my travels in Japan it was pretty essential that I spend the day at the Obubu Green Tea Plantation. I booked it online when I was in Kyoto and I'm so glad that I did. It was quite a bit more than I'd usually spend for a day tour but 100% worth it.



It took about 90 mins to get there from Kyoto and my journey included several trains, a bus and an attempt to follow some vague directions that I found on the internet (yeah, I'm a pretty bad traveller). Luckily though, I saw some tourists on the bus who looked to be heading the same way so I tagged along. I'm pretty sure if they hadn't been there I would have got completely lost. Our tour started at 11am and we were given a short presentation explaining how the tea fields came to be and how our day would be organised. Naturally, this talk was accompanied by a cup of fresh green tea. Delicious. Shortly after, we piled into the minivan for a scenic ride up to the gorgeous green tea fields. Here we learnt all about the picking process. As a tea fanatic, it was fascinating and the view was unforgettable. Lunch was next, so we made our way back from the fields to a little restaurant nearby - apparently the only one in this sleepy little town. I must admit, after Tokyo, it was nice to have some silence. Can you guess what we ate there? Yep, that's right. Green tea noodles. They do exist in this crazy world and they were delicious, with very little green tea taste. I had mine with tofu, soy sauce, wasabi and some green onion. 


The next part of our tour included a tea tasting session. This lasted about two hours and we tried 9 different teas. It was really interesting to learn all about how the leaves are processed and why each tea has a certain flavour. We also learnt about the health benefits and how to brew it properly. The best part though was making my own matcha! Bit of a workout for my puny arms too which was nice. I'm pretty sure I've never looked as happy in a photo as I do in the one below. Geek overload. 







After the tea tasting, we were given "kokigori" which basically means shaved ice. You'll find this a lot on the streets of Japan, especially in the summer as it's a great way to cool down. Our kakigori, of course, came with a matcha syrup. Sadly though, this little dessert marked the end of our tour, which was 4 hours in total. Before we left, we were all given a few sachets of tea to take home with us too. Definitely saving those for a rainy day when I can brew it properly. Then, as if I hadn't had enough of the stuff, I decided to try some green tea ice cream on the way home. I think my insides had turned green by this point. 

Honestly though, the whole day was so perfect and might even be the best thing I've done on my trip so far - and one to tick off the bucket list! I'd definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Japan and to those who are spending time in Kyoto. I apologise if green tea isn't your thang, but to be fair you probably haven't read this far. 



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Monday, 4 August 2014

My 5 Day Tokyo Itinerary

Every cloud has a silver lining, they say. This year, for me, travelling has definitely been the silver lining amongst the clouds and I'm pleased to be backpacking in Asia once again. Well, technically I'm not backpacking now as I ditched my trusty backpack for a good old wheelie suitcase. A controversial choice in the travelling world some would say, but the best decision I ever made for my shoulders. So much easier if you're a weakling like me and much more ideal for city travel in my opinion, especially on the subway. It also means I can take more clothes and shoes and won't be knocking the locals out every time I turn around. Always a bonus. But, I digress. Last week, I spent 5 unforgettable days in the weird and wonderful world of Tokyo. I saw everything I wanted to see in a relatively short space of time, but as always, a few more days wouldn't have gone to waste in a city like that. So, here's how I filled my days...

Day 1 
Shinjuku

I arrived at Tokyo Narita airport at about 11am and slowly made my way to the Khaosan Tokyo Ninja Hostel in Asakusabashi. I say slowly because I took both the train and the subway, so it took me a while to get to grips with the whole not-being-able-to-read-stuff thing. That being said, once I got myself a map, I was fine. The subway is just like the London Underground to be honest, and a lot of the main signs are written in English as well as Japanese. Plus, the locals are so friendly and always happy to help, even if they don't speak English (the majority don't FYI). If, like me, you plan to stay in hostels in Tokyo, I'd definitely recommended the Khaosan Ninja (great name, I know), due to the convenient location and amazingly comfortable beds complete with privacy curtain and reading lamp. A lot of box ticking going on there for me, and it had a good atmosphere to boot. Once I arrived, I quickly settled in and and got chatting to my new roomate from Singapore, Ju. We soon decided to head to bright lights of Shunjuku, one of Tokyo's liveliest districts.


It's definitely a great place to spend those first few hours after landing, and you get a real taste of what Tokyo is all about. Think blindingly bright lights, a sea of people and countless places to eat and drink. We opted for sushi at one of the many conveyor-belt style restaurants, and needless to say it was delicious. As you may know, I'm vegetarian, which has been a bit of a challenge in Japan at times but not totally impossible. I'm actually planning a 'How To Be a Vegetarian In Japan' type of post very soon to give my fellow herbivores a few tips on how to get by over here. 


Next, we went a cat cafe. This was obviously top of my 'to do' list as I'm a massive cat lover, and it certainly didn't disappoint. We paid a small entry fee for an hour, and basically just played with the cats and fed them treats. You weren't allowed to pick them up though, which is understandable. All in all, it was the perfect post-dinner activity and a great way to get my cat fix. After this, we headed back out to some bars, made some new friends and stayed out until the early hours.


Day 2
Harajuku
Yoyogi Park

The next day, after little sleep, I headed to the colourful district of Harajuku. If you like shopping and want some unique pieces, then this is the place for you. It's got a really fun vibe (a bit like Camden actually) and the narrow streets and alley-ways are perfect for exploring on sunny afternoons. I must admit, I didn't take enough pictures while I was there, so the sorry-looking photo below doesn't really do it justice. After a little wander and a quick bite to eat, I headed to the Meiji-jingu shrine which is very close by. It was a great introduction to the Shinto shrines here in Japan and it's a really peaceful place to visit, nicely tucked away behind the busy streets nearby. Once I'd explored the temple, I grabbed an iced tea and headed to Yoyogi Park to rest my sore feet. I was actually hoping to spot some of those rock 'n' roll dancer guys with the quiffs, but alas, no such luck. Still, it's a pretty place to chill out and nice in the summer when it's not so hot. 






For dinner, I had my first taste of Japanese ramen. At many of the ramen places in Tokyo you have to order using a slightly confusing vending machine-style system and the majority don't do veggie options, so it was quite difficult for me to get my hands on any at first. But, the Gods must've been looking down on me this day as I managed to find a place not far from my hostel in the middle of a storm (sadly it didn't have an English sign so I couldn't tell you what it was called) but oh my, it was delicious.



Day 3 
Rest Day/Day Trip

Sometimes when you're travelling, a day of rest is very much needed. Reasons include jet-lag, angry blisters, a hangover and very often the simple need for wifi in order to plan those very important next steps. On day 3, I had all of the above going on at the same time, so needless to say I opted for a rest day and just chilled out. It was also BOILING HOT outside. Seriously. If you're thinking about visiting Japan (I know I'll be coming again), I'd definitely recommend a trip in the Spring/Autumn rather than Summer - unless you happen to enjoy looking like a sweaty mess 24/7. If I hadn't been in such a sorrowful state on this day though, I would've taken myself off on a little day trip to see some pretty places outside the city. On my list were Nikko and Kamakura - both about an hour or so away from Tokyo on the train. 

Day 4
Akihabara
Shibuya

Ah, Akihabara. Or Electric Town as it's also known. The perfect place for gamers and tech-lovers, with electronic devices on sale everywhere you look. I must admit, I felt a little out of place here at first, being a technophobe and all. However, I found solace in a delightfully weird little cafe called Maidreamin. Now, if you don't like cute things and hate making cat noises, don't go here. If you want to feel like a 3 year old again, then definitely go here! It's the weirdest dining experience I've ever had, and what made it even weirder was that I went alone. In hindsight, not the best idea. It's such a strange experience that you really do need someone there to laugh it off with. If you haven't heard of maid cafes, then I'll quickly explain. They're basically cafes where the waitresses dress as maids and everything is overly cute. The whole concept comes from the Hello Kitty-style anime that's all about celebrating childhood innocence, so there's lots of singing and clapping going on. Seriously, it's so weird. 











After all that weirdness, I headed to Shibuya to see the famous crossing featured in films like Lost In Translation. I also had a look around the shops and then met my friend Ju for some more sushi. We went to the Mark City Hall Plaza and ate at Sushi-no-midori. Definitely recommended, but it's so busy and popular they have to use a ticket system - so be prepared to wait!





Day 5
Asakusa
Tokyo Sky Tree

My last day was spent in Asakusa. On reflection, this cute little town was probably my favourite place in Tokyo. It's got a very traditional feel to it, but doesn't lack any energy. During the day, the main attraction is Senso-ji temple. It's a beautiful temple and well worth seeing, and I loved nosing in all the little souvenir shops that surround it. So very cute. I also loved eyeing-up the many many food stalls. See the picture below of what looks like a bogey? It is in actual fact a deep fried green tea bun with a sweet soybean paste filling - surprisingly tasty! To be honest, I could've easily spent the whole day eating my around Asakusa, but I spent only the morning and early afternoon here before heading to the nearby Tokyo Sky Tree for the best view of Tokyo. Just make sure you're phone is charged, or like me you'll end up with just your memory of the view. Yep. So, it was a quick trip back to the hostel to charge my phone before heading back to Asakusa for the night.








I met with my friend Ju for the last time this evening to watch the fireworks by the river (they go on in different parts of Tokyo all summer) and they were truly amazing. We had smiley faces, star shapes and heart shapes too, all of which I'd never seen before. It was quite hard to get a good view though, hence the tree and cables in the shot below. After about an hour, the show was over so we headed back to the temple area for some food and drinks at an Izakaya. An Izakaya is a lively Japanese drinking hole that sells tapas-style food like rice balls and tempura. A really fun place to spend an evening and great for meeting new people. It was the perfect end to my stay in Tokyo, and the next day I got the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto where I am now. I absolutely love Kyoto and can't wait to share what I've seen in my next posts. I warn you, there's a lot of food photos...






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