The Deer Capital | Nara, Japan

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Nara used to be the capital of Japan. Today it’s the capital of Nara Prefecture. And one could say the capital of deer. Free roaming deer everywhere! Just kidding! The deer are roaming around Nara Park and they seem to know not to cross the road. Deer cookies are up for sale around the park and lots of tourists opt to feed them and take selfies. They are pretty cute to look at and hang out for a bit.

This was our day trip out of Kyoto. Nara is a short train ride outside the city. 🙂

Enjoy!

The City of Geisha | Kyoto, Japan

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Kyoto was the city we were most excited about in Japan. It’s the former capital of Japan, and it’s also the largest city in the country that wasn’t destroyed during the war, so it’s one of the few places where you can see lots of traditional (pre-war) Japanese architecture. It’s also one of the best places to see Geisha.

We were so intrigued by Geisha we had to watch a few documentaries to learn more about them (search on YouTube if you are interested). They seemed so mythical and fairy tale-like. However, they really do exist  and no, they are not prostitutes, but rather high-class performers or entertainers.

Kyoto is where Geisha culture first emerged more than 1200 years ago. There are far fewer Geisha now than there were in the past, but it’s amazing that a small group of extremely dedicated (it’s a lifetime commitment) women has kept this ancient profession alive. Kyoto has several ‘Geisha districts’ where you might spot Geisha out walking in the evening, sometimes even during the day. Problem is, lots of tourists in Kyoto dress as Geisha (dress rentals are quite popular), so you need to be careful to make sure you’ve spotted a legitimate one. Of course, tourists aren’t likely to go to the trouble of applying all the make-up in addition to the outfit, so that’s one telltale sign. Plus, real Geisha aren’t likely to be seen posing for selfies. We’re pretty sure we got a few pictures of real ones without being in their face.

We only spent here 4 days, but we’ve done so much that I have to post a few blog posts. Keep your eyes out for Arashiyama and Nara, which are just outside of Kyoto. We walked through a bamboo forest, hung out with Japanese monkeys and and watched free-roaming deer. 🙂

The North American City | Osaka, Japan

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We took an overnight bus from Kokura to Osaka. Unlike Kokura, Osaka is definitively not a “small town in the country”, even by Japanese standards. It’s the centre of Japan’s second largest metropolis, the Keihanshin Metropolitan Area, with more than 19 million residents!

If you’re hoping to see traditional Japanese architecture, then Osaka is not the city for you. So much of the city was destroyed during the Second World War, and today, in a lot of ways, it looks very western. Yet it’s still Japan – an uber modern city with the sort of density that makes possible very efficient mass transit and lively urban spaces.

In Osaka they make great use of space. The city is full of walkable streets filled with stores and restaurants. There are commercial alleyways tucked in behind rail lines and arterial roads. There are even stores and restaurants underneath rail lines.

Our hostel was along one of these alleyways, just off a main road, right behind a major rail line. It had a beer vending machine (yep, that’s a thing in Japan), and an in-house nightlife guide named Mr. Yano. Mr. Yano is quite the character. He’s maybe 60….ish, but can party hard and out-drink any of the 20-somethings staying at the hostel.

 

The Small Towns | Fukuoka & Kokura, Japan

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During our year of adventure, Ben and I spent a lot of time on planes, buses, and trains. Usually we would use planes to travel between countries, then use buses and trains for travel within countries. But when an opportunity to travel by boat presents itself, well, let’s just say someone gets very excited!

That someone is Ben, in case you’re wondering. 🙂

We took an overnight ferry from Busan, South Korea to Fukuoka, Japan. This was a neat experience, and much cheaper than flying. We slept on Japanese-style mats on the floor with a bunch of other people in the room. We actually had a very pleasant sleep, and when we awoke we were already in Japan, docked and ready to disembark – so much nicer than flying!

Fukuoka is probably not on the radar for many foreign tourists in Japan, but we’re glad we visited. We made a new friend, Ran, a local university student who hosted us in her small, but super cute apartment. Fukuoka is the home of ramen noodles, and it was a great introduction to Japan – a city with both ancient castles and ultra-modern shopping centres.

 

 

Ran was surprised to hear that our next stop would be Kokura. “That’s just a small town in the country” she proclaimed. Actually, we were really only going to Kokura because we were getting an overnight bus from there to Osaka. This was during Japan’s “Golden Week” when bus/train tickets and accommodations sell out fast, so our options were limited. As it turns out, however, the Japanese have a somewhat different understanding of “a small town in the country.” Kokura is the central area of the city of Kitakyushu with a population of nearly one million people!! Yup…that’s a “small town” in this part of the world.

We only spent one night here at a hostel in the entertainment/club district, which some thought was unsafe. However, we never had or saw any trouble. People tend to mind their own business, plus it was pretty clear we were out-of-towners and no one was offering their services. 🙂 All in all, a great stay!

The Natural Wonder | Jeju Island, South Korea

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Our Korean friend, Diana, told us we needed to visit Jeju Island while in South Korea. So naturally, we looked online while in Busan and booked a two-way flight for 4 days to this natural wonder. It was a last-minute addition to our itinerary, but totally worth it.

Jeju Island is full of waterfalls and caves, but also fun(ny) museums ranging from the regular folklore museums to chocolate, love and teddy bear museums. The only museum we visited though was about Haenyeo – or sea women. These free divers use no oxygen tanks and their typical dive can last a couple of minutes. Pretty amazing! We saw a few Haenyeo selling their catch on the rocks when looking for one of many waterfalls.

One other amazing thing that happened was meeting a Slovak family on this island. Totally didn’t expect that! There’s a complex of international schools (Canadian, American, and British) on the island, and that’s where this couple works. They have three children and had been living there for almost four years. It was neat to hear about their experiences adapting to live in a country that receives very few immigrants.

The Cinque Terre of Korea | Busan, South Korea

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From Seoul we took a train to Busan. We had arrived late at the train station in Seoul because we got on the wrong subway (oops!), but this didn’t cost us much. Turns out, the Korean rail service is very accommodating for dumb tourists like us. They refunded almost all of the cost of the tickets from the missed train (just charged a tiny penalty fee) and sold us new tickets for the next available train. Such nice people!

We passed on the opportunity to try out the high speed KTX train, opting instead for a slower ride. We’re glad we chose the slower option – the Korean countryside is not to be missed. South Korea looks quite different between the cities. About 2/3 of the country’s population lives in or around one of the two major cities: Seoul and Busan. The two cities are at opposite ends of South Korea (Seoul is in the north west part of the country, Busan is in the south east). The space between is a very mountainous region, full of spectacular scenery.

Almost all of the products we buy in stores were, at some point, on a cargo ship. And chances are, that ship was built in Busan. The region is the heart of the world’s ship building industry. But Busan is far more than just an industrial city (as impressive as its industrial side is). While not quite as big and flashy as Seoul, Busan has been called “the Cinque Terre of Korea.” It is South Korea’s bohemian city – beautiful and colourful, alive with interesting artwork and funky neighbourhoods. We were there during the film festival, which from what we could see was really more of a street food festival (though I think they do show some films too). The street food was great (and cheap) and provided most of our meals.

Our hostel in Seoul was very nice, even though Ben and I had to sleep in separate dorms (apparently, mixed dorms are a no-no in South Korea). But in Busan we found a hotel that didn’t cost much more than the hostels, so we opted for that instead. It’s nice to have a nicer place to stay once in a while. Turns out though, that this was a “love hotel.” Housing in South Korea’s major cities is very expensive, so young Koreans may have to live with their parents much longer than they might like to. These hotels provide a place for some privacy. The staff may not have been very used to foreign visitors like us, but they were very friendly and the location was perfect – right in the middle of the film festival!

Cherry Blossoms Festival | Jinhae, South Korea

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Originally, we were planning to be in Japan during cherry blossoms season. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be in Japan during cherry blossoms season?! Apparently everyone wants to be in Japan at that time! So when we began looking for flights and accommodations, everything was either too expensive or already sold out. Not to worry though, there are lots of other places to see cherry blossoms. And in Jinhae, South Korea (about a one-hour bus ride from Busan) they even have a festival.

On Ben’s birthday, April 7, we took a day trip to Jinhae for the Cherry Blossoms Festival. This event lasts about ten days in early April, and it is a pretty big deal for the local economy. Jinhae is not normally a major tourism destination – this is their chance each year to capitalize on large numbers of visitors. Needless to say, Jinhae merchants salivate at the chance to make a few extra bucks, so we weren’t surprised to notice a LOT of food and souvenir vendors who were a little extra pushy.

The cherry blossoms did not disappoint. They really are beautiful. And of course, they make an excellent backdrop for pictures. The weather was good that day too. It didn’t rain much, but it was overcast all day which kept it cool: the perfect weather for a walk in the woods. The city itself was certainly not the most impressive place we’d seen – an industrial city with dull architecture – but when cherry blossoms are in full bloom they can make almost any place look pretty. Just look at the pictures below….