Tuesday, 11 December 2012

6 months back in Osaka

The German Christmas markets were held right under the shadow of the Umeda Sky Tree, which was the site of Josh and my first date. We went there, all the way up to the top way back in June. It was a rushed date, but the start of everything, and the best thing to ever happen to me. So, just for the sake of nostalgia, we went up to the main ticketting platform, and took a picture, just for old times. It was super cute, and so nice to be back there, where we first met!

Osaka Weinachtsmart

One time, my train was stopped outside Osaka station, and I saw a sign proclaiming Osaka Weinachten. German Christmas markets are a big thing - and after being away for 2 years, I had been feeling like it was a tradition to go visit them in December in England. Josh agreed to go with me, and it was actually really close to the Umeda Sky Building, where we had our first date. The German markets were great. They had all sorts of german food, and things lik fried donuts, cheese and Gluewein! Iteven came in a cute Santa-head cup! It was a great souvenier, and to be honest, the whole experience felt like I was right at home. There was Christmas music and beautiful lights, and even a little train! Right before we left, Josh bought a nice gingerbread cookie which had Ich Liebe Dich on it - it was super tasty!

Luminarie....it's 10 days of lights!

In my diary, I keep a list of my favourite places I have visited in Japan. I have visited a lot of places, and to be honest, I think I keep it because I worry I will forget! This time last year, I took my first solo trip somewhere at night, and ended up at the most magical place, the Luminarie. Luminarie is the big illuminations which are held at the beginning of December ever year in order to remember the big Hanshin earthquake which happened in 1995. I have seen some of the photos of the destructionand I can't imagine how they survived that awful cold winter weather. Now, they remember it with huge tunnels of lights, made of up lit up arches which are covered in hand painted bulbs flown in from Italy. It's the same every year - actually it wasn't as good as last year, but it is still really magical. Josh and I went for our big December date, and stayed in Kobe at a lovely hotel too. The illuminations were so pretty, and I love the music that they play as you walk through the tunnel of light. Last year, I went alone, and I was a little sad that I didn't get any photos of me there. But, this year we got tons of photos of us, with Josh getting a nice lady to take a few of us together too. I always love getting photos of us together, and we matched with our lovely scarves that we bought in Korea. It was a really lovely time just being together and enjoying the light. It turns out a lot of our friends were also there, but considering they get a few million visitors over the 10 days that the lights were up, we were unlikely to ever run into them! We sang this Luminarie song to tune of Hannukah...its 8 days of Presents, which was featured on Saturday Night Live...I sang it for days and days after this!

A quick walk through Chinatown

This time last year was my first visit to Kobe, to see the illuminations, so we went back again this year. We were hungry, so we ran through China town to grab some food. It is a small China Town but so good, and full of yummy food, as well as pretty lanterns and nice illuminations! We often stop there because Josh and I like the pork wrapped buns. I first had one in Nagasaki, and I love them so much! We are off to Nagasaki soon so I will be able to get more then!

Gyeongbok Palace with matching scarves

one of the last things we bought in Myeong Dong were matching scarves. Couples are a big thing in Korea, from matching clothes ( identical) to all sorts of couple discounts. I loved seeing the couples in matching clothes, although sometimes it was extreme and sometimes it was much more....subdued. Like coordinating. Or the same thing but in a different colour. Josh and I had to do the same thing, so we shopped around for ages to find a scarf. At the very last place we went, we got these beautiful thick knit scarves. We didn't pay much for them, and they are really great scarves. And of course, there was a discount! In the morning, we headed over to the big palace in the centre of the city. We thought about going to Gangam, but I wanted Josh to see some of the history in the city. He really liked it and I took him in time to see the changing of the guards. We saw a lot more of the palace that I did the las time i was there, even going much farther out to the back of the palace complex. We had a really nice time, as it wasn't very busy either. It was a great way to end our trip, nice and relxed, rather than how I usually am, rushing everywhere. It was so nice to be in a different country than home, where we could speak English and be understood, eat a lot of our favourite foods from home and get some great photos of the two of us!

Josh at the dog cafe

We headed back into Myeong Dong to get some Pizza Hut and it was unbelievable. Then, we found a man dressed up as a giant Snoopy and a giant Garfield ( and only slight creepy). Turns out, they were advertising for a cat and dog cafe. It was so fun, full of all sorts of dogs. I was fond of the little pug which rode around in a toy car, but all of the dogs seemed to like Josh, and kept sitting on his lap! It was really adorable, and finally the little white dog decided it liked me too! And I was super happy and got some photos as proof!

The most romantic date ever: Ice Skating under the lights

In the time that Josh and I have been dating, we have been fortunate to visit a lot of really fun places. We get to travel a lot I'm Japan, all over really, but we've also been lucky enough to go abroad, both together and separately. But Korea was a nice romantic trip for just us together, and something that I had got to plan for him and so it was mostly a surprise. We had picked up a brochure at the station and it mentioned going to the Grand Hyatt hotel for ice skating. So up we trudged, up this huge huge ( turns out there was a bus), and it was a bit awkward at first, as we weren't hotel guests, mountain but down next to the leisure centre, which had tons of gyms and swimming pools, was an amazing ice rink. I haven't been ice skating since I left England and so now it's been 2 years. I was so excited, and the setting was so beautiful. The ice rink was great and it was surrounded by chair and heaters and a little cafe, but more spectacularly,it was surrounded by lovely trees wrapped in beautiful white lights. And tons and tons of these little lights. The setting was absolutely magical, and I have to say its easily my most favourite place I have ever visited. We skated for hours, and took lots of photos in the trees, and together on the ice. Then we bought a lovely 12 dollar hot chocolate which has spoiled us for any future hot chocolate ever, and then skated some more! I loved ever single second!

Korean War Memorial Museum

We only did the afternoon tour of the DMZ, so after, we stopped and had Taco Bell. It was really amazing, and so nice to have. We wanted to try some Korean food, but in the end, we ended up eating only Western food the whole time we were there! After that, we decided to do some sightseeing. Outisde were all sorts of tanks and planes that you could go up and sit on. We took a lot of funny photos then! And right at the very front was this statue to the memorial of the brothers which fought on different sides of then war. Seoul has a lot of strange modern art, which we saw all over the place, but this is one of those statues which is so grim snd haunting. It actually reminded me of the war memorial on the top of the mountain in Busan when we went in March. I love the photo I took of it against the backdrop of New Seoul.

Back at the DMZ

The next morning, we got up bright and early to head to the DMZ. Josh had mentioned that if he ever went to Korea, that would be where he would want to visit. I was lucky to get a reservation just a week before, and we were picked up and driven to the bus ( and passed a Taco Bell on the way!) and fro, there we went to the DMZ. The DMZ is one of the most dangerous places in the world and is still considered an active war zone because no treaty to end the war has ever been signed. We had a great time seeing everything, visiting Dorosan station and the Freedom Bridge as well as getting to buy some chocolate edamame which were made by farmers living in the Demilitarized zone. I had a great time and was so happy to see Josh so happy!

Illuminations in Myeong-Dong

We checked into our hotel, and then wrapped up warm and headed out into the city. We got some dinner - I think we had Outback, and then we went over to Myeong- Dong, one of my favourite areas in Seoul. We went to the big shopping area, Lotte Town, which had the most amazing illuminations. Giant trees and giant stars, and lots of the buildings were covered in lights too! Korea is a mainly Christian country, so there were lots of Christmas related things and lights too. I love the giant stars, especially because they were pink and purple, which is beautiful! Josh and I spend a lot of time at illuminations - I personally think they are super romantic! In Japan, illuminations are a winter thing, because they don't celebrate Christmas, so they are up until about March. We walked around, and looked in some shops. Whenever we go to other Asian countries, we seem to ( or I do at least) shop a lot. A lot of it is window shopping, but I really enjoyed showing Josh the night time markets and the different places downtown.

Josh's Hanukkah trip to korea

Hanukkah was in the first week of December this year and I really had no clue what to get Josh. So I made him a little book with all the different places we have visited together, with dates and pictures. And the picture albums looked like a little suitcase! At the end, I surprised him with a trip to Korea! He has always wanted to go, so it was a great idea, and we set off the next afternoon. We arrived quite late, but I took this photo to show that we had arrived in Seoul!

Hakata Illuminations

Coming back from Taiwan was nice and eventful less, apart from a seriously early breakfast. But we were fine, and I got some Starbucks, which made me happy. Even better it was just like the American Starbucks and so I got a peppermint mocha. Seriously, I've lived away from home for 2 years, and it tasted better than sliced bread ever could.Coming back from Taiwan was nice and eventful less, apart from a seriously early breakfast. But we were fine, and I got some Starbucks, which made me happy. Even better it was just like the American Starbucks and so I got a peppermint mocha. Seriously, I've lived away from home for 2 years, and it tasted better than sliced bread ever could. We came back, and randomly ran into some other Yamaguchi ALTs in the train station in Fukuoka. Its a huge city and they just happened to get on the same escalator. It was hell finding a locker for my bag, but in the end, I waited for a Krispy Kreme while one became free. Brad and I shopped for a good while, and I got a lot of nice clothes. Before I went home, I took some photos of the beautiful illuminations outside Hakata train station. The blue and white was just amazing!

A very pink temple in taiwan

We heard a lot of noise, while we were at the temple, and decided to go and investigate. Just across the street was yet another temple, holding some sort of festival. And it was exceptionally pink. There were lots of flowers, and musicians, as well as sculptures made out of flowers,
waiting to be judged ( perhaps in a competition). There was a lot going on, and it was very interesting to see, until a firework went off and scared us all off! Maybe it was a noise festival...I really don't know!

Dalongdong Baoan Temple

We had lunch in a weird basement of a restaurant which seemed to sell bentos during the day. It was packed upstairs, but strangely empty downstairs. I was prepared to have no clue about the food, and we definitely did, but it was very yummy! I ended up really enjoying the sweet and sour fish, which I ate n accident, since I usually don't eat fish. After we finished our yummy lunch with a game of guess-the-food, we climbed back onto the bus and drove around until we came to another temple. This was one of the places that was a bit out of the way, but a place I would really reccomend people go. It seemed much more n a style that you would find somewhere like Indonesia or Thailand. It was a much smaller temple, but very orate, and after several award conversations in Japanese, we realised it had recently been designated a Unesco World Heritage site recently. Or at least a special site of interest. It had a main courtyard, and then several smaller rooms each with a different deity or something that you could pray to. I think I understood that you pray to different ones for different issues. It was very interesting, and apart from the rain, really very beautiful! enjoy visiting temples which are in use, but this one was sufficiently busy without being too busy. Of all the things in Taipei that we visited, this was the coolest! I love all the red colours, especially the sticks of incense which you could get to burn as an offering to the gods. It's one of my favourite photos! We were lucky to get quite a bit of time at this temple, before we went out to take a photo of the outside and discovered another cool place, right across the street!

Chiangmai Kai-Shek Memorial

This was the next place we stopped, and is a memorial to the last person who ruled Taipei, or something along those lines. Sadly, beng on a Japanese tour means we really didn't know what the tour guide was saying. But I had seen the building all over Taipei on billboards and in magazines so I knew it was a key tourist spot to visit! We got there just as the changing of the guards starting, which was really interesting to see! After the did their performance, and changed posts, a man came to straighten up their uniforms! It was kind of funny! We got a good giggle out of that! It was nice to see other tourists there, and I took a few photos of the beautiful blue roof which covered the memorial building, as well as the walls surrounding it. I would have taken more, but our trip to this place was quite rushed, and it was super busy!

Taipei martyrs shrine

We went to bed, in our lovely hotel ( which looked like it was in a really slummy part of town, but wasn't) and the next morning, a man came to pick us up for the tour which Francis had booked us on. The flights and hotel were included, and we got a very cheap price, and it included the tour too! The issue with the tour was that it was all in Japanese! So off Sarah and I went. It wasn't too bad, we kind of tuned the tour guide out and tried to figure out where we were going. Our first stop was the Taipei Martyrs Shrine. It is seriously huge, and very big! It was raining and hot when we first arrived, so everyone had umbrellas up and we couldnt see wha was happening. Turns out, after the guards change, you are allowed into the central courtyard part. The temple was really pretty, even in the rain, and we had a fun time jostling with the tourists to et a good photo!

At the night market

After Taipei 101, we went to this place that was serving a real American Thanksgiving, complete with turkey and all the trimmings. There was even pumpkin soup and walnut cake to finish. It was a whole turkey too! Nothing in Japan would even have cme remotely close! But it was super yummy, and took several ours. By the end, we were extremely tired, but Sara and Francis decided we should go to the famous night market and try the snake restaurant. We went, and actually, once I was up and about, I wasn't so tired. We found the restaurant, which served all the different parts of the snakes, snake syrups, and all sorts. It was pretty disgusting, but I did try a little tiny piece of snake, just to say that I had, and it tastes just like Chicken! We even got sme yummy watermelon juice, it was super cheap that I just couldn't believe it. Living in Japan has totally affected my thinking on prices! It was so delicious!

Taipei 101

After leaving the cafe, we discovered ow insanely cheap the taxis are in Taiwan. We took one all the way over to Taipei 101, what was once the tallest building in the world ( until two years ago) and it was super super cheap. I'm talking five pounds maximum, for about 20 minutes in rush hour traffic. It was great. We headed up to the main building, and bought our tickets. We had to wait a little, because the line for the elevators was quite long, but once we were in the elevator, it was so quick. I'm fact, the elevators have a sign and a Guiness Record saying that they are, in fact, the fastest elevators in the world. It was pretty crazy how fast it was and how it hurt my ears as I went up! We walked around and took some pictures, but it was a little cloudy, and surprisingly, Taipei is quite a dark cit compared to some I've seen in Japan. There were some fun places to take your photo, and I loved this one with the giant candy canes and the big sign. it took quite an effort to even get the picture, we were definitely back n the rest of Asia, where people won't wait in lines in order to take a picture! I was pretty pleased that. Did get this picture regardless. We also went down a few floorsto see the amazing damper which keeps the building upright, and protects it from falling over in the wind. I'm not sure if it was the largest in the world, but it was obviously a big deal, because all of the mascots, which were multicoloured, we're called Damper Babies!

Hello kitty sweets cafe, taipei

We got picked up at the airport, and taken to our hotel. They drive like maniacs in Taiwan, but we made it there in one piece! The hotel was nice, and pretty soon, Junko, Francis's girlfriend arrived. She was so sweet, and had planned a nice evening out for us. She first took us to the Hello Kitty cafe! I've heard of one in Korea, and I know there is one in Tokyo, but not quite like this! I love themed cafes, and this one was adorable. All the waiters and waitresses wore pink and we got adorable food and yummy hot chocolates with Hello Kitty faces on them! It was our first meal in Taiwan, and even thought Junko had arranged for us to get a proper American Thanksgiving dinner later, we still ate tons!

Inside the kitty plane

The outside of the Hello Kitty plane was adorable, but the inside was super super adorable. I was taking photos of everything! First, all the staff had a little Hello Kitty on their aprons. The pillows were all Hello Kitty's face. I loved the pillows most of all, and took a few of the covers as souvenirs. The card in the seat pocket for safety was all Hello Kitty shaped, and out food and cutlery was also Hello Kitty themed. The dinner was really delicious. And the cutlery, which was pink with Hello Kitty heads on the end, came home with me. On the little TVs, a skit of Hello Kitty played as we came on the airplane, and even our coffee cups were Hello Kitty. It all was super cute, and I really enjoyed the whole experience. When I went into the bathroom, there were tons of Hello Kitty the,ed things. The toilet paper was, of course, Hello Kitty. It's not tha uncommon in Japan, but this was specially designed Hello Kitty EVA stuff. Pretty silly but adorable all the same. then, both the smoke detector and the air freshner were Hello Kitty. They also had little bottles of things you cold use, like body spray, lotion, face mist and such things. I think it's a really good plan to have those types of things. I think in America, they would get stolen, but things like that are quite commonplace here. The whole Hello Kitty plane experience was great, and it was a great way to have a memorable flight, and start outer trip out right. On our way back in Japan, we got a cute Hello Kitty passport too, which you can get a stamp in, each time y fly on the Hello Kitty plane. Looks like Taiwan is more obsessed with Hello Kitty than Japan!

Fly away on Kitty Airways

One of the new ALTs, Francis, has a girlfriend who is from Japan but now studies in Taiwan, and he often goes over to visit here. In November, he decided to arrange for a few of us to go there, and he arranged everything for us, tour, hotel etc. It wasn't until I arrived at the airport with Sarah Helland, that I realised we were going on the cool EVA airways, which fly Hello Kitty themed planes to Taiwan! I was so excited! Everything was decked out, and the plane was super cute!


We volunteered, if you might call it that, by planting flowers, and then we all were exhausted and headed to an Onsen and a nice dinner and then we all headed to bed. Well some people stayed up, but I wanted to get up at 5am for a nice Onsen, or really a quick shower! The next morning, we got up super super early and headed for a long, long journey home. The drive was about 12 hours, so you imagine how horrible it is to sit like that for so long! We stopped every hour, which I was grateful for, but now, because it was the daytime, we got to explore some of the nicer rest stops. I collect little phone straps, which come from different places, and as we stopped in about 6 prefectures, I got to collect quite a few! It was very odd, but we didn't stop in Fukushima for soloing, so Brittany and I took our photo with some curry from Fukushima! Our very last touristy stop was Matsushima, one of the three best sights in Japan. It's a rock sticking out over the ocean to look at a chain of islands covered in pine trees. It's supposedly on par with the big tori gate in Miyajima, but I wasn't very impressed. We checked out the fish markets, and a couple other places too.I wandered around with Brittany and Katie, which was nice ( we also sat together on the bus), it was so nice to have girlfriends to hang out with! We bought lots of omiyage, and more katei charms for my phone, and wandered along the coast, before heading back to the bus because it was super, super windy and cold!

Tsunami Damage in Rikuzentakata.... 29 months on

After lunch, and a few more rest stops, a lot of people started falling asleep. Soon, we came to the areas which were hardest hit by the tsunami which hit north east Japan in March 2011. I guess I expected to see little signs of it here and there, but what I wasn't prepared for was the fact that there were towns and streets, and then there was nothing. The bus was eerily silent, and it was just heartbreaking to see. In some of the bigger areas, all the debris has been cleared and there are sme temporary building that make up convenience stores or banks or the like. In other areas, you can see that some buildings have mainly been demolished, but there are still some foundations that need to be removed. Its the foundations that are the saddest, because there simply isn't anything there any more. We came to this place called Rikuzentakata, which is a small town where the tsunami hit really bad. They are still trying to demolish buildings there. We helped plant some flowers for a lady who runs a farm there, and then she took us up to the broken sea wall to show us what it used to be like. It used t be a beautiful beach, and now there is nothing. Brittany and I wandered off and did some searching. While the vending machines had been replaced, and there was work going on at the school, there was not much else. Quite a few houses still stood...and they hadn't been cleared out at all. We got quite close to some, and you could see how the roof had caved in and how things had called out and been swept away. There were still children's books inside. It was heartbreaking. And really sad to not know what happened to the people that lived there. I was glad to be able to come and see Tohoku, and help however I could, but I wish the rest of the world could see how far they are from being back to normal. And will they ever be?