A Travellerspoint blog

December 2009

Guilin - Limestone Hills and Cave Light Shows


all seasons in one day 12 °C
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Initially, when I was planning my journey through China, I thought perhaps a Yangtze river cruise via the Three Gorges Dam would have been really interesting, but I was struggling to find a tour that was operating during December, let alone one that didn't cost a small fortune. So, I left the decision on what I should do for "later". By the time I had arrived in China, I still didn't have a plan on where to go after Shanghai or any time during the xmas and new year's period so I spent a whole evening doing research using the super slow internet connection at the hostel. After lots of searching and reading news of a bitterly cold winter blast headed from the north, I decided to head south to Guilin in the Guangxi province. Guilin city and the surrounding towns are known in China and supposedly around the world for the beautiful scenery and the area has become a popular tourist destination, and all I had to do was take a mere 22 hour train ride to get there, so really, the decision was simple.

Having purchased my ticket a few days in advance, all I had to do was turn up at the Shanghai South train station and wait.

One of the waiting areas in the Shanghai South train station - The building is the first circular shaped train station in the world, it's one huge building.

At this point, an unfortunate coincidence resulted in a great deal of confusion. To cut a long story short, all the writing on the train ticket was in Chinese except for the origin, destination and some numbers. The coincidence was that the time of departure together with my allocated departure lounge matched exactly the number of my train carridge together with my seat number. So the items on the ticket which I thought were the departure time and waiting lounge, actually told me which carridge and seat I was allocated. I wanted to double check, but surprise surprise, the one and only tourist information desk at the train station was completely deserted.

I think I was the only westerner in the entire station and although I was used to being stared at while walking through the streets of Shanghai, it's different when you are in a large and croweded waiting lounge. I could see every pair of eyes in my vicinity following me around as I searched for a seat. It was as if they hadn't seen a foreigner before because they didn't just glance at me, they just continued staring as if they were a bunch of kittens following a piece of string around the room.

Finally the train started boarding and I ended up having to show my ticket to half of the grumpy train door attendants until one of them finally pointed to their carridge door. Then I did the same thing inside the carridge but with the passengers until someone pointed to the berth next to them. I felt like an idiot once I figured out that the ticket was quite clear and specific on where I had to go.

Again, nobody on the train appeared to speak English. The man in the bed adjacent to me was wearing reasonably nice clothes and looked like a business man, however, even though I said "Nin hao" to him as I sat down, he didn't reply and we ended up not speaking a single word to eachother for the entire 22 hour journey. Not only this but my nickname for him ended up being the "Farty-burpy-snorry Man", he performed each of the aforementioned actions regularly and without a hint of restraint, not so great when you are only about two feet away from eachother. Some younger Chinese passeners were on the bunk beds above me, but they were travelling in a large group so they hung out with their friends a couple of berths down, so it ended up being one of those silent journeys, this was the point when I truly appreciated my ipod.

Unfortunately, most of the windows on the train were dirty and because it was dark for most of the journey, I didn't really get to see much. What I did see was quite a bleak winter landscape with old worn down houses and factories nestled amongst misty brown hills. There was little greenery to speak of, most of the hills were covered with depressed leafless trees. One of the carridge attendants was a nice woman who didn't speak English, but she did her best to be friendly by smiling at me a lot. As I left the train, she smiled, put her hand on my shoulder and said "Bye bye, bye bye".

So I finally arrived in Guilin, and although it doesn't have the appearance of a big city, it has a population 1.34 million (big by NZ standards). The buildings themselves aren't very pretty and the traffic is crazy just like in Shanghai but a little more chaotic. People cut eachother off everywhere, indicators and road rules appear to be optional. Everyone is on their horns all the time and there are buses, trucks, scooters and motorcycles everywhere. I've noticed most of the scooters in China are electric, this means they are almost silent which is not the best thing when you are trying to cross the road and there are swarms of them everywhere. There are plenty of pedestrian crossings with zebra lines painted on the road, but without crossing lights which means everyone has to resort to j-walking. Most of the time I waited on the side of the road for a reasonable gap so I didn't feel like I was going to get run over, meanwhile dozens of people had already made their way across by stopping at strategic points on the road in between the imaginary lanes. It's like a giant version of the old Atari arcade game "frogger" (now I'm really showing my age). However, what makes up for all of this chaos, is the amazing surroundings and the peace and tranquilty you find in the parks. The city of Guilin is located on the banks of the Li River, it's also nestled within countless karst formations which are tall, steep limestone hills.

The limestone hills around Guilin

From the right locations, the distant views are amazing. The limestone hills appear to go on forever and only gradually disappear behind distant misty curtains. Because winter is also the dry season, the hills aren't lush and green like in the photos I've seen and the cold temperatures mean a heavy mist sits over them throughout the day, but they are still quite impressive. The best thing is, you could be walking down a main road, and right in front of you, a huge hill is extending up into the sky from behind some buildings.

Limestone hills right in the middle of the city

On my first full day, I only ventured to the botanical gardens a short walk from my hostel. The park is nice to walk through, it is obviously well cared for and a nice escape from the hectic streets. Right next to the park, there's a huge shopping mall with four levels containing a supermarket, various stores and an entire level dedicated to small restaurants. Once again, I was stared at constantly while walking around the area, which is surprising because this is supposed to be a semi-popular tourist destination. I still have my hair cut short so perhaps they think I look like Bruce Willis like the chef did at the Udon restaurant I went to in Fukuoka, Japan. That was quite funny actually, when I walked in and sat down in the udon restaurant, the chef looked at me then whispered something to the waitress in Japanese before they both giggled, then she turned to me and said, "He think you look like Bluce Willis".

The next day I went to Elephant Hill Park. This park is right next to the Li River and its main attraction is a limestone hill at the edge of the river with a cave through it which is supposed to look like an elephant drinking water from the river. Unfotunately it's the dry season and the river levels are so low that when I was there, it was more like an elephant sniffing rocks.

Elephant Hill in park, Guilin

I climbed all the way to the top of the hill and got some nice views, although again the mist seemed to limit visibility somewhat.

The stairway leading to the top of Elephant Hill passed through some gates and alongside some caves

Me at the top of Elephant Hill

A murual near the entry gate of Elephant Hill Park - I took the photo more because of the flags, it reminded me I was in China

After Elephant Hill Park, I walked to the center of town and came across a tall and long stone wall that turned out to be the rim of the Prince City Scenic area. Inside there were several Ming and Qing Dynasty buildings as well as a single solitary limestone hill, aptly named Solitary Beauty Peak. The area inside the walls also included several residential streets as well as a women's university. I walked to the top of the hill and also entered one of the caves underneath it. To be honest, this park was a bit disappointing and it happend to be the most expensive that I went to in Guilin. Perhaps it would have been prettier if it wasn't the middle of winter.

Funny sign in Prince City - I've told you a thousand times before, no trombones! (Actually I was told later this meant "No car horn honking")

A better park that I visited a couple of days later, was the Seven Star Scenic Area. It is named so because it is surrounded by seven distinct limestone hills. Within it there are several attractions like caves, small lakes and waterfalls, a zoo and at least one temple.

The Qixia Temple in Seven Star Park

The Buddha statue in Qixia Temple, Seven Star Park

I took a tour of the Seven Star Cave which ran under one of the hills behind the Qixia temple. A path has been built inside it which meanders around several interesting rock formations. They've added a coloured light show to try and make it more interesting.

Statues near entrance to Seven Star Cave, Guilin

Although a few rock formations did look amazing when they used one or two colours, the vast majority were completely over done with lights from every colour of the rainbow.

Amazing looking rock formations in Seven Star Cave, Guilin

Over the top and totally cheesy light show on rock formations in Seven Star Cave, Guilin

You had to walk through with a tour guide so they could turn the lights on as you walked along. The guide also pointed at certain rock formations with her torch and explained how they bore some resemblance to some animal, groups of animals, a building or even a person. Let's just say, I wasn't too upset that she was only speaking in Chinese because it seemed a little bit cheesy. Most of the other people taking the tour would all go "Ooooh, Aaaah" when she would reveal what the rocks were supposed to look like. The only reason I knew what was going on was because these formations were also sign posted in English and I had been through a similar cave tour when I travelled through Mexico.

The descriptions on some of the formations were really starting to reach. I could just picture a couple of guys shining torches around in the cave, and one of them would say something like, "I think this one could be 'Lion Looking back at the Camel', what do you think Li?"

A rock formation sign inside Seven Star Cave - The sign says "A Lion Looking Back at the Camel"

After the cave, I ventured over to the zoo and I actually got to see a panda in China, not that I'm that interested in pandas, it's just that people go on and on about them because they are so rare. There's a reason they are so rare and that's because they are absolutely terrible at reproducing and they only eat bamboo. I'm actually quite surprised they've managed to cheat evolution for so long. Unfortunately it was inside snacking on bamboo leaves at the time, but I did get to see it through one of the windows.

Panda in zoo at Seven Star Park

As I was making my way out of the zoo, I walked past a group of young girls sitting on the grass. They all yelled out "Hello!" and one of them asked me if she could have her photo taken with me. Of course I thought it was a little strange but figured it was merely the novelty of me being a foreigner so I agreed and as soon as that photo was taken, one by one, the rest of them ran up and stood by me to have theirs taken individually. I felt like a Santa in a shopping mall (minus the sitting on the knee). They were quite sweet though and very friendly, after all that I though it was only fitting that I got to take their photo.

Highschool girls in Seven Star Park, Guilin

The funniest part came later on when I was looking at the views from the top of one of the hills. Four girls from the same group turned up and started chatting with me again in English. They were absolutely amazed at how I could be travelling around the world by myself. After a while, we walked down the steps together and just before they went their own way, one of them slipped me her telephone number, how cute is that! (I just hope she wasn't too heartbroken when I didn't call).

The view from the top of one of the hills in Seven Star Park, Guilin

A large restaurnat nestled beneath one of the peaks in Seven Star Park

By the time I left the park it was getting dark and I decided to walk half way back to my hostel. I decided the city itself is much pretier after dark.

Bridge over Li River, Guilin

This excursion ended up being my last in Guilin because the rain really set in over the following two days and it would have been absolutely terrible to go out sight seeing. So I relaxed back at the hostel and let my sore feet recover from all the walking I had done during the previous few days. Unfortunately, because the bar and outdoor areas of my hostel were being renovated, together with the fact there were only one or two other travellers staying at the same time, meant that I didn't really get to meet other people there except for the staff which were really friendly and helpful. When I checked out (on xmas eve) they even gave me a small present and I was refunded half of what I had paid for the room because the bar had been closed the whole time I was there! I hadn't even complained about it so I was really impressed. And to top it off, because it was pouring rain outside when I checked out, one of them walked with me to the bus stop with an umbrella and she showed me which bus I needed to catch to go to Yangshuo.

A hand made present from the staff at Wada Hostel in Guilin - I was told the Chinese character basically means "Safe Travels".

So, that was Guilin. The city itself wasn't that pretty, but the surrounding parks were and the people were definitely much friendlier than in Shanghai.

Next stop, Yangshuo!

Posted by joshuag 03:24 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Shanghi - Cement Dust and the Tea Ceremony Scam


rain 11 °C
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The first thing I did after settling in at the hostel, was to find the nearest convenience store so I could buy some bottled water. I also stocked up on snacks which turned out to be quite tricky, instead of wandering around the store checking for prices, it was a matter of trying to find food that hadn't expired two months ago. This problem turned out to be true for every convenience store I went to in Shanghai. I was lucky if I found something with an expiry date in late November.

By the time I got back to the hostel, it had started raining so I decided to stay in for the rest of the day. The hostel I stayed in couldn't have been in a better location. It's on a street full of restaurants (including one that was part of the hostel itself) and it was only two blocks away from the People's Square which is technically the center of Shanghai. It's about 10 minutes walk to the nearest subway station and about 25 minutes walk from The Bund.

Looking up Xizang Road from pedestrian bridge under Yan'an Road. The People's Square is just to the left of this photo

On my first full day in Shanghai, it was cold and overcast, but at least it wasn't raining so I decided to go to the Shanghai museum located in the edge of the People's Square. I took a leisurely stroll through the paths leading to the museum and just as I reached the back of the museum I walked past a young couple standing by some steps and the girl called out in perfect English, "Could you take a photo of us?". I said "Sure, why not" and proceeded to take a nice snap of them with the museum in the background. We then had the usual conversation, "Where are you from?", "How long are you in China?", etc, etc. They told me they were students. After a few minutes, I started walking slowly down the path while still chatting to them. Then one of them casually mentioned that they were on their way to see a Chinese tea ceremony. For some reason, alarm bells started ringing in my head but before I had the chance to put the pieces together, I saw a man cycling towards us while shouting something in Chinese. He got to us pretty quickly and I realised by his uniform that he was a policeman. He proceeded to yell at the couple some more in Chinese while motioning to them to move along. At this point he moved closer to me and reached for what I thought was his badge from the inside pocket of his jacket. He showed me the back of it and on it was a sentence made up from a collage of English words splashed together, which read, "Do not believe what they tell you". At that moment, apart from feeling like I was in an episode of the X-Files, I also realised exactly what was going on. I said "xie xie" ("thanks") to the policeman and he cycled off. I took one look back at the couple as I walked away and they were still standing there pretending to look all innocent and confused.

Despite not actually having been scammed, I still felt like a complete mug for simply believing the couple were being genuinely friendly. When I was doing reasearch for my trip on the net a few months ago, I had actually read something about a Chinese tea ceremony scam, hence the alarm bells. Apparently the scam involves them taking you to a tea store where they "wash some tea", followed by you sampling lots of expensive teas, this is the so called "tea ceremony". Then the young kids that took you to the store pretend to buy an expensive gift box of tea, and you are then also expected to either pay for them and/or buy some yourself at extremely exuberant prices. Of course there is no such thing as a Chinese tea ceremony.

I have to give it to them, from looks alone, they were very convincing. The "take a photo of us" opening was very plausible (it happened quite often in Japan), they were patient, they made plenty of friendly small talk and when they did bring up the tea ceremony, they didn't immediately invite me, they just mentioned they were going, though they probably would have pushed it if things were allowed to progress any further. Also, they looked very young and innocent, to the point where they were the ones that looked naiive. The girl even had one of those "cutesy" plush-toy backpacks.

So in the end, I was glad this had happened because it was a good wake up call. It is definitely a pity when you can't trust anyone, especially those that initiate a conversation.

Within seconds of me walking away, I spotted a western looking woman walking towards me. She knew exactly what had happend and in fact was on her way to try and rescue me because she had been the victim of the same scam the previous day. I forgot the woman's name, but she was from England and she was very nice. We ended up chatting for a couple of hours while walking through one of the museum floors together. The museum is not too bad actually, it's quite flash, has four floors containing ancient sculptures, paintings, calligraphy, ancient coins and bronze statues and best of all, it's free. But I didn't see all of it that day because my English companion was heading to an art gallery and I was starving so I decided to do the rest another time. The museum was after all, only two blocks from my hostel.

The next day was miserable, it was pouring rain outside and apart from some quick trips to the store and the almost empty roof top bar at the hostel, I hardly left my room. This type of weather turned out to be a recurring theme during my stay in Shanghai.

The next morning, the rain turned to very light drizzle so I took a walk to The Bund to see what the big deal was. By the way, if someone doesn't know what "The Bund" is, it is the stretch of road (also known as Zhongshan Road) on the banks of the Huangpu river opposite the bank containing the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower (which has several spherical shaped levels of various sizes). The road is full of colonial style buildings housing mainly upmarket high fashion stores.

The Oriental Pearl TV Tower from Nanjing Road, Shanghai - This is the best photo I could get of the tower without capturing a large portion of roadworks in the frame.

I had already taken a taxi ride through it on my way to the hostel, so I wasn't expecting much but I thought perhaps on foot I would get to see more. Unfortunately, because of the World Expo being held in Shanghai in 2010, large parts of the city are under construction. The government must have ordered that every building from The Bund down to the site of the Expo undergoes some kind of makeover. On my way to The Bund I ended up walking through seemingly endless maze of bamboo scaffolding. Aside from the sporadic food odours eminating from restaurants and fast food joints, all you can really smell around the city is cement dust. It was no real surprise that on foot, the Bund was no better, in fact it was worse. Wet, muddy and crowded foot paths with no view of the river whatsoever. I'm sure by the time the Expo comes around in about five months, the city will be lovely, albeit superficially so. Right now it's like a war zone with the flooded bomb-like craters to boot.

At the moment The Bund is like this all the way, it's just a huge construction site

Pudong from Zhongshan Road, the actual river bank area of The Bund is hidden behind barriers.

A couple of days later, I returned to the Shanghai museum so I could check out the rest of the floors I didn't see on the first visit. There was a big queue at the door, but this was due to the security checks as opposed to large crowds. Everybody has to walk through a metal detector and bags are scanned through x-ray machines. The museum is big enough that once inside, you can walk around the exhibits with plenty of space around you. Though even the virtual emptiness didn't stop some people from barging right in front of you as if you didn't exist. Sometimes it felt like I was on an episode of candid camera, standing alone, less than half a meter in front of a long glass case reading an exhibit's description and a person would feel an irresistible urge to walk between you and the glass, almost shoving you aside so they could stand there! I couldn't believe it when it happend to me no less than three or four times. My jaw would literally drop in amazement. The queue jumping, well that's another story. In Shanghai, it's everyone for themselves. If you are in a queue anywhere, a restaurant, a convenience store, a museum, a train tickets window, and you leave just enough space between you and the person in front of you, then someone will take it. They even look back at you, knowing full well they just jumped the queue in front of you and give you a blank look like nothing has happened. Getting on the subway is also a "me first" activity. People don't wait for people to get off a train before boarding, it just becomes a big push and shove affair. It's almost the polar opposite of my experiences in Japan.

Some of the ancient sculptures in the Shanghai museum

As I walked out of the museum, I immediately spotted a young couple standing towards the middle of the wide concrete steps, the guy was taking a photo of the girl with the museum doors as a back drop (if this is not a dead give away, I don't know what is). I noticed the guy took a quick look at me. I veered several meters away from them all the way to the edge of the steps to avoid them, but it didn't stop the guy from shouting out, "Hello, you speak English? Can you take photo?". Now this was obviously another tea ceremony scam couple, they could have easily asked any one of the countless other people standing much closer to them to take their photo, but instead they had honed in on me, the foreigner. I continued walking while I looked over my shoulder at him with a smile, pointed to my wrist and said, "Sorry, I'm running late ...I have a tea ceremony to go to". (I have to admit, I was quite proud of my self having used that line, usually that's the kind of thing I think of later when it's too late).

A couple of nights later, the rain stopped enough for me to venture to the shopping mall area of Nanjing Road. I had no actual desire to do any shopping, but since I was in Shanghai, I had to take a look. I managed to get a good 200 meters down the street before I was approached by one of the hawkers (I expected it to be much sooner), he was of course selling watches. They come prepared with a little laminated brouchure containing all of their "cheap" goods. I managed to get rid of this guy with only a few shakes of my head and a single "Bu Yao" ("Bu Yao" means "Don't want"). I thought, "Wow, that was easy!", but it turns out, he was the easiest one to get rid of.

The view up Nanjing Road, Shanghai

Just as I was taking the photo above, another hawker walked up to me offering watches. Once again I shook my head and said "Bu Yao" a couple of times. Then he persited, "No watch? How bout massage, loverly Ladees?", after about the 5th "Bu Yao", I just ignored him and kept walking, that didn't stop him though, he just kept on rattling his sales pitch at me. After a while he finally gave up and returned to his "post". I knew this was going to be one of those walks. This happend a few more times with varying degrees of persistance. It was almost like a game trying to avoid them, but they blend in with the crowds so well, you can't tell who's who. Even ignoring them right off the bat didn't stop them. I found I didn't get hassled if I walked like a local, head down, fast confident pace, no eye contact with anybody, but the reason I was there in the first place was to have a look at the buildings, neon lights and stores around me so I'd break character once in a while to look around like a tourist which almost undoubtedly led to the next hawker approaching me. The very last hawker I got that night was a bit of a joker and it was actually quite fun to see how long he would last. He must have walked beside me for a couple of hundred meters trying to sell me everything under the sun. Even ignoring him wasn't doing the trick, then finally I said "Trust me, there's no way I'm ever going to buy anything. Now think of all the potential customers you've missed while wasting your time with me". I don't know if he had reached his natural limit or whether that made sense to him but he immediately stopped and returned to where he came from. He was the last hawker I got so I never got to test it out on someone else. Needless to say, I took a turn and walked down a different parallel street on my way back to the hostel.

The traffic in Shanghai is quite exicing, in fact people should stop wasting their money on extreme sports like base jumping or free rock climbing and instead walk along the streets of Shanghai during rush hour. If I could use one phrase to describe it, it's "Run for your life!"

Another thing that's been hard to get used to, is the spitting. You see and hear men (though I have seen women do it also) spitting everywhere, the gutter, steps, footpath, train platform, you name it. They don't wait until there's a space either, if you are walking past and you hear a somone violently clearing their throats of phlegm, then you better watch out. I find it very hard to hide my disgust even though nobody else around them even batters an eye lid. A message to the Chinese government, if you want to stop the spread of the H1N1 virus, create a huge ad campaign telling people to stop spitting everywere and let them know it's disgusting and will NOT rid them of evil spirits!

Now I know, not everybody in China is like this, it's just that there's enough of them that are that makes it very noticeable. I've already met plenty of Chinese people in Shanghai that were polite and friendly (and don't spit everywhere), it's just a shame they seem to be the minority.

I know from this blog, it sounds like I hated Shanghai but I didn't really, I kind of enjoyed the challenge. I think if the weather had been nicer and there wasn't so much building work going on I would have enjoyed myself more. Besides, I'm in China! I still can't believe I'm here, and there's still plenty more to come.

Some statues in a small park, Shanghai - Told you it was cold!

As you can probably tell, I didn't take many photos in Shanghai, not only were the views pretty limited, but it also attracted too much attention.

So, am I glad I went to Shanghai? ...Maybe. Would I go back? Probably not.

Luckily I'm expecting better things from my next destinations in China, although the weather is proabably not going to get any better.

Until next time, Hui tou jian!

Posted by joshuag 05:31 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Osaka to Shanghai - The Ferry Crossing

Sayonara Japan, Nin Hao China

semi-overcast 11 °C
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This blog only covers two days, but I thought it deserved its own page.

Probably the only good thing about my last hotel in Osaka, was that it was about 30 seconds walk away from the subway station, so leaving at 8:30 on a cold morning with pack on my back wasn't such a big hassle. One subway line transfer, a taxi and 45 minutes later, I was at the Osaka International Ferry Terminal. I was so organized that I had the honour of being the very first person to check in at the ticket counter. The terminal is large enough, but it's quite basic with only a small waiting area and very few people around.

After a 15 minute wait, everyone was asked to line up at a desk to have their temperatures taken, this is supposed to be how they can tell if you have the flu. The device they use is some sort of a non-invasive reflective laser pointer. Apparently the temperature of the skin on my forehead was officially 36.5 C. Lucky, because if it was more than 37 C, they would have refused to let me board the ferry.

The CHINJIF (Japan-China International Ferry) from the waiting area

At around 10:00, they started boarding and I was shown to my cabin by one of the crew. I had bought a first class ticket, which put me in a cabin with four beds. There were 2 by 2 bunks on either side and a small table, couch and a TV by the window. There was also a luggage compartment and a small sink with mirror right by the door.

The beds my ferry cabin

The "lounge" area and window of my ferry cabin

I unpacked a few things and got semi comfortable before I went for a brief walk around the ferry. The ferry was quite large, in fact, later when I looked at the cabin arrangements poster on a wall, I estimated the ferry could carry well over 300 passengers. But after a while I quickly noticed that there weren't many people on board, and definitely no other westerners. It turned out there were only around 30 passengers. I guess this is pretty normal during the low season. They must make up on costs during the high season as well as with all the cargo they seemed to be carrying across.

With me, saftey is always in the top 10 so I had to check out the lifeboats.

Lifeboats on the ferry, there were six of these in total, three on each side. They looked quite big and easy to access.

The ferry had a large dining room, a karaoke & dancing bar, a games room (with ping-pong table), a mahjong room, a large smoker's area, large outer decks with fixed seats, and a couple of walls full of vending machines. It also had a large glamarous looking circular stair case in the middle leading to each of main three decks which sometimes made it feel like I was on the Titanic. Unfortuately, I couldn't stand on the tip of the bow and shout "I'm the king of the world!" because the bow area was closed off to passengers.

Central Staircase looking up from the first to the second deck. The stairs from the second to the third deck curved around on each side.

At around 11:30 am, we finally started moving slowly west out of Osaka harbour to begin our full two day voyage.

A view of the Osaka International Ferry Terminal from the ferry as we were leaving

Osaka as we were leaving. The red-purple building to the left of the ferris wheel is the aquarium I went to on my first visit to Osaka

With the small number of passengers, I thought perhaps I was going to have the cabin all to myself, but when I arrieved back at my cabin, I found a young Japanese guy getting settled. His name was Yudai and he turned out to be a really nice guy. He spoke nearly fluent English and had just finished a year's training to become a Buddhist monk!

Yudai, my bunk mate on the ferry. He's the first monk I've ever met.

Yudai belongs to the Shingon sect based at Koyasan. During the trip I had some long and very interesting conversations with Yudai about his sect and his life as a monk. I learnt his sect specialises in the practice of yoga, and no, this is not the usual yoga that spandex wearing Ponsonby housewives do every morning on synthetic blue rubber mats whilst sipping on lattes. This is proper yoga where it becomes a philosophy and way of life. They practice their yoga poses and stretches while meditating and chanting a mantra. He was making his way to a Hindu festival in Haridowar, about six hours north east of New Delhi in India.

For the rest of the day and into the night, we sailed along the east coast of the lower islands of Japan. When it was nearing sunset, I ventured out on the windy deck and just stared at the amazing views.

The hills of Japan at sunset - This photo doesn't do the actual view justice.

I caught the actual sunset as the sun disappeared behind the distant Japanese hills, it was quite a sight.

When it was dark, all you could see outside were little dots of light along the coast in between intermittent flashes from all the lighthouses. I spent the evening chatting to a couple of Chinese and Japanese people on board and trying to learn some more Chinese phrases. I had realised a long time ago, that learning anything more than the very basics was going to be impossible given that there are so many tones in Chinese and it rarely sounds like it is spelled. As long as I know basic greetings and some polite words like, "Excuse me", "Please", "Thank you" and "Please leave me alone", then I'll feel like I'm at least making an effort.

For the whole of the next day we might as well have been in the middle of the ocean because as we were travelling along the East China Sea and there was not a speck of land in sight. Because the ferry was so large and the sea was quite calm, the ferry wasn't rocking much, it was more of a very gentle swaying from side to side. You could feel it most when lying in bed because you were lying perpendicular to the direction of travel so you'd feel your body's weight shift from your head to your feet ever so slightly. In a way, it was kind of relaxing.

The only time I had food in the dining room, was the free breakfasts (mostly so I could have a coffee and it was free), otherwise I would dig into the bag of goodies I brought on board with me, like cup noodles and chocolate biscuits. I had been warned by a Japanese girl I met in Nagasaki who had taken the ferry that the food on board wasn't very good so I came prepared. She was right, I took a peek at the food during one of their dinner services and it didn't look very appetising. It turned out you could also buy cup noodles from the vending machines on board so I would have been alright anyway.

Funny sign on ferry. Don't worry captain, in an emergency I'll promise the last thing I'll be, is excited.

On the last day, I woke up at around 7 am to some ghostly sights outside the cabin window. We were now travelling up the very long and wide harbor towards the mouth of the Pudong river in Shanghai and it was one of the most surreal sights I have ever seen. I quickly got dressed and ran up the stairs and on to the outside deck. I was greeted by a mixture of morning mist and smog and the unmistakable smell of burning coal in the air. The water was now brown and dirty and a steady stream of debris was floating past the ferry from the rivers that drain into the sea. Through the mist you could see several small boats and on one side the faint outline of the river bank.

The misty morning in the Shanghai harbours

Slowly, the harbour narrowed a little and more and more boats started to appear out of the mist, most of them small, rickety barges carrying coal or dirt and rocks, lots of tug boats, and even a few police boats with flashing red and blue lights.

More and more small boats started appearing out of the mist

I headed inside to have my free breakfast and while I was sitting at the table, a young woman walked over and introduced herself in fluent English. Her name was Christine and she turned out to be from Australia! She had been talking to one of the Chinese guys that I'd had a conversation with and somehow she found out we were both staying in the same hostel in Shanghai. This turned out to be an extremely convenient coincidence because she spoke fluent Mandarin and she offered to share a cab with me to the hostel. I found out she was born in Beijing, but had moved to Perth when she was very young. This was also her first time in Shanghai, but she returns to Beijing every couple of years so she's quite used to the way things generally work in China.

After about an hour, we reached a part of the harbour where you could see land on each side. The banks were lined with countless types and sizes of docked ships, some of them large navy ships and even submarines. Long lines of huge cranes were already hard at work loading containers onto huge cargo ships and every few kilometers, you'd spot a vast ship building yard given away by the flashing lights from the welding torches. The port buildings looked old and rusty, bearing big Chinese flags and banners, it almost felt I'd been transported backwards in time or onto the set of an epic movie.

The countless cranes and boats lining the harbour edges

Eventually we entered the narrower part of the Pudong river where bridges and more and more tall buildings started to appear out of the mist.

A huge bridge over the pudong river

Tall buildings rising out of the mist along the Pudong river

Eventually, we docked along the Huangpu river not far from The Bund. As we were waiting to disembark, Christine and I agreed to wait for eachother after we passed through immigration. After a long wait we climbed down a portable staircase and into a waiting bus which took us on a very short distance to the entrance of the ferry terminal building. After another quick temperature check (36.5 C again - Yes!), we walked to the imigration gates. It was a huge and new looking building and very much like an airport. It had obviously been built quite recently in response to the 2010 Expo being held in Shanghai. Since our boat was the only one to have arrived, the place was virtually empty and I couldn't believe how quickly I got through immigration. There was a small panel with buttons at the immigration window which you could use to rate your experience with the immigration official. I can't remember exactly what was printed on the labels, but the sign read something along the lines of "Please rate your experience" and the buttons were labelled something like "Very Pleased", "Pleased", "Satisfied", "Unsatisfied" and "Very Unsatisfied". As I was walking through, I pushed the "Very Pleased" button, which the guy must have noticed as he cocked his head back with a huge smile letting out a huge sigh of satisfaction (I wonder what happens to people who push the "Very Unsatisfied" button).

On the other side, Christine was waiting for me and so we started walking towards the exit. I still had to exchange my remaining Japanese Yen into Yuan before I could do anything, so I was quite pleased when I spotted two automatic money exchange machines on the way out. It turned out to be not such good news though, as one of the machines didn't appear to be working and the other had just taken some guy's money without giving him any in exchange! Though he did get a nice receipt for his troubles. So I decided to skip the machines and instead walk to the nearest bank. Christine saved my life at this point as she did the work of asking security people where banks were and after finding one just across the road she even came to the bank with me to translate with the bank teller. We caught a taxi right outside the bank and once again Christine saved the day by being able to tell the driver where we were going.

I had a hunch that taking the ferry instead of flying to China would make for a more interesting journey, and I turned out to be absolutely right. I'm extremely glad I did it.

So here I am in China! I can already tell that things are going to be very different from now on, but I'm ready, so bring it on!

Posted by joshuag 06:46 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Osaka Again


sunny 15 °C
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As soon as I arrived in Fukuoka, I knew it wasn't going to be terribly exciting. The main reason I had planned on going to Fukuoka was to see some sumo wrestling. There are four main sumo tournaments in Japan every year and one of them was being held in Fukuoka. Unfortunately, even though I was organized enough to book some accomodation, I was too late to get some tickets which had sold out the day before. Not a huge disaster because I had to go through Fukuoka on my way to Nagasaki anyway.

I stayed in a five bed dorm at a guesthouse, it was located behind and above a small Udon restaurant. The dorm in the guesthouse was Japanse style, which meant futons on tatami mats. The dorm had five futons almost side by side separated by tiny partitions that only went as far as the pillows. The futons were extra thin and the tatami mats didn't offer much cushioning either, so it was almost like lying on the ground. I had to fold my douvet in two and use one half as extra cushioning. On my first day I only explored the immediate area around the guesthouse and there really wasn't much to see. On the second day it was pouring rain outside so it drained any motivation I had to see the rest of the city, not that there's much to see in Fukuoka apparently.

Decorated trees along the side of the road in Fukuoka

Originally I had booked three nights there, but I cut it short by one and booked an extra night in Nagasaki. I have to say, I'm not much of a fan of guesthouses. They are so small and intimate, it feels like you're intruding in someone's house and because they don't have many guests as opposed to hostels, some tend to charge for everything, like soap, towels, coffee, tea, etc. Also, if there aren't many other people staying there, it can be a bit quiet and boring which is always a risk when it is such a small place and you're there during the low season. The very first day, I only saw a French girl the whole time, and we got off on the wrong foot right from the start when she accidentally took my ipod that I had temporarily left on the hostel's counter. After I pointed out her mistake, she showed me her ipod which did look like mine on the outside so I didn't blame her, but in the translation I think she thought that I thought she was a thief and avoided me the rest of the day, either that or I smelled funny.

By the second night I was lucky to meet a group of young foreign students travelling around Japan for a week during a break from their studies near Tokyo. They provided some entertainment and a few tips on good places to visit in Europe. At the end of the night one of them found out I was a computer geek and she excitedly asked me if I could fix her virus ridden laptop. It was a little difficult trying to fix a computer when all the dialog boxes and links were in German, so I had to get by using my memory and her direct translations of all the technical computer jargon, which was rather comical. She was quite pleased in the end when I did fix it considering she'd been having problems with it for the last three months.

It was quite a relief arriving in Nagasaki, the weather was perfect and the city is relatively small and quite pretty.

Nagasaki train station from the pedestrian bridge over the main road

I decided to walk the 15 minutes from the train station to my hostel, which turned out to be a bad decision because I took a wrong turn and it ended up being around 30 minutes. I think a combination of sleeping on a hard floor the previous two nights and carrying my pack for such a long time contributed to the dull pain I developed on my left shoulder. This together with my sore toe that I badly sprained while running up the stairs in Hiroshima while wearing socks has left me a little bruised and battered but still surviving.

River in Nagasaki with one of the many stone bridges crossing it

Night time view outside my window from Nagasaki hostel

Spectacles Bridge in Nagasaki - Built in 1634, this is the oldest surviving stone bridge in Japan

The river was absolutely teeming with Japanese koi of all different colours, but I never got a decent photo of them.

For some reason, even though I paid for a single room, I was given a double room which meant I got a large double bed (first time in Japan). The bathroom and toilet were even in separate rooms so this ended up being my favourite hostel in Japan, at least in terms of location and sleeping arrangements, but other hostels had more people staying so they tended to be a little more fun.

My private double room in hostel Akari, spacious and comfortable

My bathroom in hostel Akari, it wasn't spotless like a 5 star hotel but it was all mine and not the size of a porta-loo

On my first full day in Nagasaki, I went to the Peace Museum and Memorial Park. It was of course very similar to Hiroshima but structured differently. The aftermath of the Atomic bomb begins right at the entrance with several displays of actual bent and torn structures as well as damaged personal belongings and many photos. Then a few video screens showed survivor's testimonies with full and graphic accounts of what had occurred. The most disturbing item I found was a helment displayed upside down still containing several large fragments of human skull fused to the inside. The last part of the museum was dedicated to the education of the dangers of nuclear weapons.

There is a really long wall split horizontally which shows the timeline of the worlds nuclear history (on top) and the anti-nuclear movement (below). The top part is kind of like a wall of shame and the bottom part is the wall of hope. It was quite nice to see New Zealand mentioned in an entry at the January 1985 mark, shown in the photo below.

Entry in anti-nuclear movement timeline, Nagasaki Peace Museum

Even though you are allowed to take photos inside the museum, I hadn't even thought of taking my camera out until the very end. The place isn't exactly conducive to taking tourist snaps.

When I left the museum, light was fading fast but I still decided to go the hypocenter and the Peace Park only a short walk away. The hypocenter (ground zero) in Nagasaki is marked more prominently than in Hiroshima. It's located in a small park and the exact hypocenter is marked by a large black stone monolith surrounded by brick paving arranged in concentric circles.

The Hypocenter in Nagasaki. At 11:02 am, August 9, 1945 a 21 kiloton Plutonium-239 atomic bomb exploded 500 meters above this spot

There were several feral cats hanging out in this park, in fact, in most parks in Japan you will find a clowder of cats. They all look well fed and it's not surprising because quite often you see people (usually elderly) sitting in benches putting food down for them. It's almost like the Japanese version of going to the park with stale bread to feed ducks or pidgeons. Luckily, you don't ever see homeless dogs wondering the streets which is good to see. One thing that is disturbing, is the American trend that the Japanese have adopted with much enthusiasm, and that is the "small dog accessory". You see lots of people, mostly women, carrying their little dogs in their arms, handbags and bicycle baskets.

A cat taking a free drink from flower vase at the Nagasaki hypocenter monument.

Just at the edge of the hypocenter park, there are some steps leading down to a stream and part of the actual ground level at the time of the bombing can be seen behind some protective glass.

Ground level at the time of the atomic bombing, Nagasaki hypocenter.

The Peace Park entrance is about a 2 minute walk from the hypocenter. The park houses several memorial monuments and statues, some were gifted by other countries to the city of Nagasaki. I happened to stumble on the New Zealand "sculpture" by accident, it was apparently unveiled by Phil Goff in October 2006, at the time he was the Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control. Some nearby monuments were memorial statues gifted by Russia, Hungry and the Czech Republic.

The New Zealand memorial sculpture "Cloak of Peace" dedicated to the victims of the Atomic Bomb in Nagasaki

The centre piece at Nagasaki Peace Park, the huge Peace Statue - As impressive at it was, the statue seemed very "European" to me and didn't quite represent anything Japanese

The Fountain of Peace at night

The rest of my time in Nagasaki consisted of chilling out at the hostel and lots of long walks around the city. Nagasaki was probably the prettiest city I visited in Japan, in particular the little cobbled streets near my hostel were quite nice to walk through. These streets were a mixture of residential streets with traditional Japanese houses as well as shopping streets leading to a large covered shopping arcade.

Residential street in Nagasaki. Apparently in Japan, Santa climbs up your balcony instead of using the chimney. This was not the only house where I saw Santas climbing over balconies.

The hostel was also very near a large hill from which you could get excellent views of the city.

View of Nagasaki from hill near hostel. The Peace Park is situated in the valley just to the right of center in the background

I left Nagasaki a few days before leaving Japan because my departure point was Osaka. To be honest Osaka was not one of my favourite cities in Japan and I would have stayed in Nagasaki until the day before leaving but unfortunately my JR train pass was about to expire.

In all of my travels in Japan, I never had to book or reserve any seats on any trains. The beauty of having a Japan Rail (JR) pass was that you could hop on a JR train at any station, go anywhere and get off whenever you wanted. The JR pass has got to be the best tourism incentive that Japan offers, apart from its actual tourist attractions of course. Sure it was expensive to get, but nothing compared to how much I would have ended up paying if I had bought individual tickets. Especially for someone like me that used trains all of the time, not only between cities but also within them. The only catch is you have to buy the JR Pass before you enter Japan so you need to be prepared.

Even though I tried booking a better hostel in Osaka about two weeks in advance, the best ones were all booked - I still blame JetStar with their cheap flights for flying over half of Australia all at once. Not that I have anything against Aussies, it's just that they were booking all the good hostels! So I ended up staying in the south side of Osaka once again in a cheap hotel. This time I chose a different hotel to the one I stayed in my first visit, but it was in the same area. This is the area I talked about in my first Osaka blog which appears to have accumulated the entire homeless and alcoholic population of Osaka. Unfortunately, this hotel was worse than the first one I stayed at in Osaka. I was given a Japanese style room with yet another thin futon on tatami mats (even though the booking I made on the net made no mention of this). The bathroom was shared and the hotel was next door to the train station, this meant there was little chance of sleeping in.

So this is pretty much the end of my adventures in Japan. Hard to encapsulate the experience in just a few sentences, but I'll try anyway. Here are my favourite things about Japan:

  • The People
    It's early on in my travels, but I can quite confidently say that Japanese people are probably the most respectful and polite people on earth. Always happy to help, even when they don't understand what you are saying. The staff at the hostels and guest houses were always friendly and helpful. Even convenience store staff always greeted me very politely.
  • Safety
    Not once did I feel unsafe or if someone was trying to hustle me, well except for the smut peddlers in Roppongi, Tokyo, but you could see them coming a mile away. It's amazing how safe you feel even if you were on a deserted subway platform late at night.
  • The Transport System
    Having a JR pass definitely helps in this area, nevertheless, travel between and within cities is extremely easy. All the train, tram, bus and subway stations that I used were marked in both Japanse and English and there's always someone to help you if you do get lost and confused.
  • The Sights
    I only saw a tiny fraction of the country, but most of what I did see was fantastic.
  • Heated toilet seats
    ...enough said.

I don't really have anything I didn't like about Japan but there is one thing that I wish had been different and that was all on me - I wish I knew more Japanese. You definitely feel cut off from things after a while when you don't speak the language. It would have been nice to have more indepth conversations with Japanse people. Also, it would also have been nice if I could have been more specific when ordering in restaurants instead of relying on what looked best in the photos or plastic food models.

My travels so far...

Well, that's it for now, but the adventure continues, so stay tuned!

Posted by joshuag 00:35 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Hiroshima and Miyajima - A Bomb and the Deer


all seasons in one day 14 °C
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On my way to Hiroshima, things didn't start so well at the Osaka train station. I arrived at the platform tired and a little hung over which led to me accidentally hopping on the wrong train. The train was heading to the right destination, Hiroshima, but the type of train was a Nozomi shinkansen. These particular types of bullet trains are the fastest in Japan and tourists using Japan Rail (JR) passes (which is what I have) are not allowed to use them unless they pay for full price tickets. I didn't realize my mistake until the train started moving so I spent the first 15 or so minutes nervously wondering if they would come around checking tickets, which they sometimes do. Luckily for me nobody was checking on that train and I was spared the embarassment and the extra cost. This was officially the fastest I have ever travelled on land, at around 300 km/h. The next fastest trains that visitors with JR passes are actually allowed to use, are the Hikari trains and they go as fast as around 285 km/h, hardly much slower.

A shinkansen train flying past the train station at Himeji doing around between 280 and 300 km/h

At the hostel I met a nice Aussie girl called Nina who had arrived in Hiroshima the same day as me and we decided to team up on our trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park the next day. Hiroshima's best means of transport is trams, it's relatively cheap and they go everywhere a tourist would want to go. Apparently many other cities around Japan who phased out their trams, donated their trams to Hiroshima so you could end up riding on a brand new blue tram or an old ex-Kyoto tram depending on which one happened to arrive next at the station.

There was no time to get used to the idea of what I was walking into because the tram stops directly next to the Peace Park and at the very edge of the park, there stands the ghostly yet iconic Atomic Bomb Dome. Despite knowing full well what had happened in Hiroshima, it doesn't quite hit home until you see the Dome, it was an extremely sobering experience to say the least.

The first look you get of the Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima

It was hard to comprehend that I was standing on the spot where a little over 64 years ago a single bomb had almost completely obliterated an entire city, directly killing some 80,000 people and a further 60,000 by the end of 1945 due to burns, trauma and radiation exposure.

Close up of the Dome, you can see the steel beams inside which were added in recent years to prevent it from collapsing

The A-Bomb Dome is actually 160 meters from the actual ground zero, or as they call it the "hypocenter" and the atomic bomb exploded around 580 meters above the hypocenter. Apparently the Dome only survived relatively intact because it was so near the hypocenter so the blast came down on it's roof rather than against the sides of the walls. Even though a large part of it remained standing, the blast caved in the roof and everything inside ignited immediately by the 4000 C fireball. Needless to say, everyone inside was killed instantly.

The T-Shaped Aioi bridge to the left of the A-Bomb Dome. The bridge was the aiming point used by the American B29 bomber, they missed by a couple of hundred meters.

The A-Bomb Dome as seen from the T-Shaped Aioi Bridge

The hypocenter is designated by a single stone monolith on the side of a small back street less than a minute walk from the Dome. It is actually outside of the Peace Park and is surrounded by car parking buildings and offices and seems to be marked rather unceremoniously compared to the rest of the monuments within the park.

This is The Ground Zero at Hiroshima - the 15 kiloton Uranium-235 atomic bomb exploded about 580 meters directly above this very spot.

The sky directly above the Hypocenter

There are many other monuments and memorials in the Peace Park aside from the Atomic Bomb Dome, like the Peace Bell, the Children's Peace Memorial, the Flame of Peace, the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, amongst many others. But before we could go and see any of them it started raining quite heavily so we had to make a hasty retreat to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. The story told along its walls and passages is pretty comprehensive, begining with the history of the city before the bombing, to the actual day and finally the gruesome after effects. There is also lots of information about nuclear weapons in general, how they work, what type was used on Hiroshima, which countries have them, who is suspected of having them and how many they currently have. The museum obviously makes several pleas to the world to ban nuclear weapons and band together in peace. Unfortunately, not everybody seems to be listening.

It probably wouldn't be a bad idea if every child in the world visited Hiroshima's Peace Park. There are displays in the museum, particularly towards the end, that should make an impression on even the most desensitized of minds. For example, they have the actual stone steps where someone was vaporized but only after leaving their shadow scorched into the stone bricks. There are several personal items found at various distances from the hypocenter, such as torn, burned and bloodied clothing, children's metal school lunch boxes with charred food still inside, clocks and watches that stopped at precisely 8:15 and the most disturbing of all, aftermath photos taken of victims and their surroundings.

A wrist watch displayed at the Hiroshima Peace Museum that stopped at precisely 8:15

A photo displayed in the museum. It was taken 2,270 meters from the hypocenter less than three hours after the blast

There are four walls full of protest letters sent from the mayors of Hiroshima to the ambassadors of countries who had tested nuclear weapons, one letter for each test.

The museum also explains, using a completely objective tone, why Hiroshima was chosen as the target and the reasons why the A-bomb had been used. It definitely goes a little deeper than the story you are used to hearing, that is, "The bomb was used to shorten the war and save half a million US soldiers' lives". The museum's narrative goes a little deeper and includes the politics between the US and the Soviet Union as well as justification for spending so much money on building the bomb. Being a New Zealander, I am already a member of a firm anti-nuclear society, it's even written into our legislation, and after visiting this museum the sentiment has merely deepened.

By the time we left the museum several hours later, it was dark, cold and still raining. Despite the best efforts of the security guard at the exit to find us a "lost and found" umbrella, he was unsuccessful and we had to resort to power walking for 10 minutes in the freezing cold rain until we found a covered shopping arcade. I decided right there and then that I needed to buy a warm hat to replace the one I had lost in Tokyo and a pair of gloves too if I could find some. Nina was on a hunt for an umbrella to replace one she had lost.

My nice and warm new hat and gloves along with a puffy jacket I bought a few days later - Now I'm ready for whatever nature throws at me ...except perhaps a tsunami or an avalanche

After a successful shopping expedition, we stopped off for dinner at an Izakaya restaurant, these types of restaurants are more drinking places which offer a variety of different small dishes, sort of like the meals you'd get in a pub, but Japanese styles and more varied. Half of the menu was drinks, including various cocktails - it was a no brainer, I had to have the one called "Secret and Red Bull".

Yum ...our cocktails. To this day the other ingredient in my cocktail remains a secret. The black stirrers in our drinks looked just like straws and we both simultaneously attempted to drink out of them - silly tourists.

The next day the weather was perfect so Nina and I teamed up again for a day trip to Miyajima, an island to the south west of Hiroshima. The island is famous for several things, three of which include a giant shinto O-torii Gate sitting over the water near the shore, the nearby Itsukushima Shrine which appears to float on the water and the wild yet friendly deer that wander around the island. Nina was most interested in the deer and I wanted to check out this famous O-torii gate.

Bambi and I just kickin' it at Miyajima

A couple of deer relaxing by the shore at Miyajima, you can see the very southern part of Hiroshima in the background.

A little girl patting one of the dozing deer, there are a couple of signs telling people not to pat them, but they are just too cute to resist.

The "floating" O-torii Gate at Miyajima

Nina with the "floating" Itsukushima Shrine in the background - We weren't there at high tide when the effect is supposed to be much better

There are lots of stores in Miyajima which make and sell momiji manju, these are flower-shaped pancake buns which consist of a double layer of pancake with various flavoured fillings, such as chocolate and soy paste. Most of these stores have a little factory attached to them and you can see exactly how they are being made and packaged in mini automation lines.

The mini factory at the Momiji Manju store

A small pond full of huge koi behind one of the Momiji Manju stores - I thought the koi were fake because they were so big and appeared lifeless until one of them started moving.

In retrospect, the deer were probably the best part, they were everywhere and they weren't at all scared of people, in fact they seemed to congregate around the biggest crowds, though it wasn't hard to figure out why. If they saw anyone carrying anything that looked like food or food wrappers, even a map, about three or four of the deer would start hounding them trying to snatch whatever the person was holding. They are all quite small deer so they are hardly dangerous, plus they could be shaken off quite easily.

The next day, I made a return to the Peace Park to check out the monuments that I didn't get a chance to see the first time because of the rain. This time I went alone since Nina had left for Kyoto the previous evening. This is where I got tricked for the very first time in Japan. In my previous three weeks in Japan, I had been stopped several times by people of all ages keen to talk to foreigners and practice their English, and I have been quite happy to oblige. So when three sweet looking old ladies walked past me and asked "Could we talk English?" I didn't think anything of it and I gladly stopped and started chatting to them. One of them spoke pretty good English while the other two didn't say much but appeared to understand everything I was saying. After the usual, "Where are you from?", "How long are you in Japan?", etc, etc, one of them started to reach for something in her bag as she asked, "Could you read this for me?". Subconsciously I knew immediately what was happening, but I must have been in denial because as she pulled out a bible and said, "We are Jehovah witnesses", a wave of dread swept over me and I let out a loud laugh, and said "Snap! You got me!", to which they didn't react. Out of all the countries in the world I didn't expect to be bible-bashed in Japan. In New Zealand I would have easily said "No thank you" and walked away without another word being said, but this is Japan, everyone is so polite and it's kind of catchy, so I politely told them it wasn't for me, that it was nice to meet them and I had to go. They didn't resist as much as I expected but they wouldn't let me leave without me taking one of their pamphlets.

A Jehova Witness pamphlet - How ironic I thought, with one more of these off the street, technically I was probably the one that saved somebody that day.

Anyway, I finally got to walk around the park in peace (no pun intended), and I got to see the other monuments more closely.

School children at the Peace Park's children's memorial

Children ringing the Peace Bell at the Peace Park

The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound - contains the ashes of 70,000 unidentified A bomb victims

The Peace Flame, Cenotaph and Museum in the background.

The arch of the Cenotaph, the Peace Flame and the A-Bomb Dome all line up perfectly along the park (the museum is directly behind me in this photo)

A Jizoson statue exposed to the bomb. It was located in a cemetary a few meters away from the hypocenter - you can still see the shadow left by the bomb flash

So I will move on now, the population of Hiroshima definitely appear to have done so. Once you leave the park, it's not too difficult to put the dark history out of your mind and just appreciate this city for what it is today. The Peace Park is really the only visual reminder of what happened, the rest of the city is, not surprisingly, just like any other Japanese city.

One of the guys that works at the hostel has a Chilean wife so he spoke pretty good Spanish, probably better than his English so whenever we had a conversation we ended up talking Jaspanglish, it was strange but quite useful. If anything got lost in translation in one language, we just switched and everything was suddenly clear, either that or even more confused. His name is Masa and since I stayed there for six nights I got to know him and Mayumi, the manager of the hostel. One evening, Masa took me along for a bike ride to his favourite supermarket where you can buy cheap food after 8 pm when prices on sea food and ready-made meals like lunch boxes and sushi are discounted between 30-50%. We got back to the hostel with a few bag fulls of food, he absolutely refused to let me pay for any of it. We ended up having a huge feast at the hostel followed by a couple of rounds of his favourite drink, Souchu, which is a like a spirit fermented from wheat.

A couple of nights later, Masa and I headed to his favourite haunt in Hiroshima, a bar called Mac's. It's out of the way up some stairs in a quiet narrow street but it was actually quite a nice and popular joint, and it sells relatively cheap beer too. Behind the bar there were racks and racks of CDs and anyone could walk up and request a song or two, it was like a live juke-box. The guy that owns it was behind the bar that night and he is obviously an old rocker. He had long grey hair in a pony tail and he just looked plain mellow. He reminded me of the old stoner hippie dude from That 70's Show. If you're ever in Hiroshima I recommend the place if you can find it. We stayed there until quite late speaking Jaspanglish while enjoying a few half pints.

Just when I was just getting settled, it was time to leave Hiroshima. So on the Sunday I hopped on a shinkansen (the right type this time) to Fukuoka City in Kyushu. So that's where I leave this extremely long post, if you made it this far I'm pretty impressed.


Posted by joshuag 23:41 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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