Soul to Seoul

Seoul, the last stop on this trip, (where did the time go?) Before the horrible thought of going back to normal lives we first had 4 days of adventure left so set about exploring the South Korean capital with gusto. We used the area of Iteawon as a base and spent the next four days using the very efficient metro system to see all the major sites the city had to offer, including:

  • Papparazzi-ing the locals dressed up in traditional “Hanok” style in Bukchon Village
  • People watching at the regal Changdeokgung palace
  • Psi hunting in Gangnam
  • Walking the 10k Cheonggyeecheon stream
  • Watching the wishers at the fabulous Lotus lantern festival
  • Tasting bonkers food at the Lotte hypermarket
  • and general having a fab time.. .

Here’s some pics

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Back to the Future

Saturday 29th April and Sunday 30th 2017 – Tokyo

Today we had decided to head south and visit the Odaiba area of Tokyo, which is an area of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. It was built in the boom times of the 90s, so is really modern, with glass buildings and wide open streets dotted with neat parks – and the best bit is traveling there on the driverless Yuikamome train which seems to run without rails. We waited a couple of trains so we could sit at the front and loved the ride which includes a full circle to turn left across the Rainbow bridge, and gives the best view of the futuristic buildings. The Fuji TV building is all mechanical struts with a giant ball in the middle, and another building looks like a giant drum has been slotted into the space – fairly nuts but great for Wayne and his camera.

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Our plan was to visit the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation or Miraikan as its known, which means ‘hall of the future’. It’s a great place with interactive exhibitions covering space travel, mathematics, energy, medicine and technology, but our main aim was to see humanoid robot ASIMO and the lifelike android Otonaroid. Well when in Japan, it’s all about robots.

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ASIMO does a little performance, showing how he can run, hop (apparently really difficult for a robot) and dance – though his singing wasn’t up to much. Really cute and love to have a robot pal once they start producing them. Less cute was the deeply sinister Otonaroid which is a robot in a latex suit designed to make her look human. When not doing her presentation she sits on a sofa quietly twitching and blinking, dressed like a creepy 70s librarian – all a bit unsettling. Not sure I need my robot to look human.​


For lunch we headed to Australian Bill Graingers restaurant on the Quay and ordered Wagu burgers. Having tried Hida burgers, wagu was next on our list and god they were good… not sure a normal burger will suffice any more – these are special.


After lunch we followed the sound of umpa music and found a beer festival in full flow, called the Octoberfest, in April, in Tokyo, German band in full flow, the lead singer dressed as a blonde frauline… the crowd loved it and sang along with most of the songs, even dancing along when another ‘guest’ star came on the stage to lead a routine. All really good fun but much more organised than any beer festival I’ve been to in any other country. They even had 5 ladies portaloo cabins to the men’s one… only in Japan!

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Sunday we decided to take one of the River taxis up to Asakusa and then find our way through to – Akihabara – home of the geek, gaming and girl band AKB48. We’d seen some futuristic looking ferries on the river but they didn’t seem to be running today so took the boat up the river and enjoyed the sunshine and the views. It was then a stroll through the streets to Akihabara.

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Akiba’ is the centre of Tokyo’s otaku (geek) subculture, and on a Sunday they pedestrianise the streets so the locals can get their fill of manga (Japanese comics) or anime (Japanese animation). There are people dressed up, huge stores selling electronics or anime characters and lots of people, mainly grown men obsessing. We saw a group of cyclists all geared up in cycling gear pushing bikes where the rear wheel featured their favourite anime girl – thank goodness they all liked different ones, and lots of men outside the AKB48 booth buying posters of their fave girl.

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AKB48 is a manufactured girl band with something like 50 members who perform daily, dominate the charts and have that young girl / stepford wife vibe that you only really get in Japan. Not at all creepy then…

We decided to get some lunch and went to one of the many food floors in the area, opting for a curry stall with the cook in the middle of the room. Not bad for a few quid – Japan is definitely much cheaper to eat in than Australia.


Stuffed, we headed back through Ginza and ended up at the world trade centre to watch the sun down from the viewing platform on the 40th floor. It’s a chilled place and Tokyo is pretty at night with all the neon and lights – so a great way to say goodbye to Japan, before heading back to Shibuya for a final sushi and packing for our final country – Korea!

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Harajuku girls

Friday 28th April – Tokyo

For our last few days in Japan, we were back on our own and had decided to base ourselves in a different part of Tokyo called Shibuya. It’s the location of the famous Shibuya crossing where thousands of people cross an intersection, managing to miss each other and get to the other side without colliding.

First we checked into our hotel, the Shibuya Granbell – who very kindly upgraded us to an amazing 2 floor room, with separate living room, dressing room and all sleek wooden shutters and great views – thanks guys!


Then we headed out for a wander round Shibuya and up Cat Street to Harajuku. Fair to say, it’s completely nuts, Shibuya itself is all shopping, neon and trendy youth, and Cat Street is filled with too cool boutiques and restaurants. On recommendation from Amy, we headed to Harajuku Gyōza-rō which sells, well.. gyoza fairly exclusively (small dumplings). You can have them sui (boiled) or yaki (pan-fried), with or without niniku (garlic) or nira (chives). So we ordered pan-fried in both flavours – really good.


Next we took a walk down Takeshita-dōri, the central lane in Harajuku to look for the Harijuku Girls brought to western attention in the Gwen Stephanie song.. our guide Meg had laughed when we mentioned this, and pointed out that the song was 20 years old and most of the ‘girls’ had now grown up and moved on.  We kept a lookout for the baby doll look made famous by the area, managing to capture a glimpse of a couple but not able to get any photos.

To complete a day of traditional Japanese food, we stopped in at Gamsa Sushi Train – there is a fairly chaotic process of adding your name to a waiting list, before you stand outside and wait for your name to be called, but as the maximum time you’re allowed in the restaurant is 45 minutes, we didn’t have to wait long.


Each seat faces the conveyor belt, and has it’s own ipad which brilliantly had the option to read in English, you select the items you want, then wait for the things to come out of the kitchen on the belt, stopping right in front of you. It’s a cheap, easy way to try lots of small portions of food, though some of Wayne’s choices challenged even him – scallop sushi was odd, but the clam soup was great.

Beer had made us braver so we finished the evening messing about on the Shibuya crossing which randomly had 4 men in full Priscilla gear advertising something but they seemed happy to pose for photos (or just pose) and Wayne had his photo with his favourite.

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Nikko and farewell to the gang

Thursday 27th April 2017 – Nikko

Wayne and I had extended our JR Rail pass for an extra week as we had more time than the rest of the group, so got up early today and navigated the route north of Tokyo and into the mountains and forests of Nikko. It’s a couple of hours by train from Ueno station, but having left at 6.30 we were ahead of the crowds and lucky enough to have a lovely day.

The bullet takes you to one stop, then a local train drops you in Nikko a couple of kilometres from the main sights. We wandered up through the local town to the Shin-kyo, the sacred spot where monk Shodo Shonin was said to be carried across the Daisy River on the backs of two giant serpents. No serpents today, but now it’s a lovely bridge with a tree-lined backdrop over crystal clear water.

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The main area with all the temples is now a World Heritage Site, and the temples and shines sit on a wooded hill, with stone walk ways through the cedar forests. Originally, in about the 8th century a hermitage was established here and it became an area for training Buddhist monks, but then it was chosen as the site for Tokugawa Leyasu to be laid to rest (the warlord who set up the shogun method of rule) and a giant shrine was built using a huge workforce – completing all of the work in 2 years flat.

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The walk up to the main sight the Tosho-gu, is along a stone path, with stone walls covered in moss surrounded by huge trees, so it’s all very scenic. Tosho-gu is really decorative compared to most of the shrines we’ve seen in Japan, closer to the temples and shrines in Hong Kong with the greens and blues, and most decorative of all is the Sunset Gate, which is a dazzling gold, white and multi coloured entry to the main area. It’s being restored at the moment but they’ve completed most of the gate so we were able to see the main part.

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It gets a bit wacky inside, with a stable with a real white horse (all the ones we’ve seen to date have had a plastic horse), temples with carvings of elephants which are a bit odd (apparently the artist had never actually seen a real elephant) and lots of carvings of animals at the top of all the walls – the most popular of which seemed to be a small cat..

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We wandered around for a couple of hours, then headed back to the station for our return trip to Tokyo as this evening was our fair well supper and there was the promise of karaoke! We met the group back at the hotel and headed down towards Ginza for a supper of Yakatori – small things served on skewers, grilled on a fire in the middle of the room. We had tofu, chicken and leek, beef, Wayne of course went off-piste and had chicken livers, all washed down with the local beer. A final food group we hadn’t tried and a great way to say goodbye to our travel buddies..

A group of us then headed back to Ikebukuro for Karaoke – basically a small room in a huge tower of a building with a karaoke machine serving alcohol…. what’s not to love??

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Sushi for Breakfast anyone?

Wednesday 26th April 2017 – Tokyo

After our day of independence we met back up with the group for a walking tour with Meg around her adopted home city. She started by taking us to the Tsukiji Outer Market which is set of streets outside of the famous fish market that sells everything from raw ingredients, to prepared food, and the knives and bowls needed to prepare and serve them.


It’s a slightly mad with lots of tourists but good fun with lots of weird and wonderful produce, giant tuna head anyone? We met back up with the group and went into one of the local restaurants for a sushi breakfast. Fiona, Jen, Wayne and I, ordered a couple of the specials and the chef behind the counter whipped it all together in the standard Japanese super stylish way.

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There were a fair few things we hadn’t tried before – sea urchins, the black spiky ones that cause so much pain if you stand on them so fair revenge, were bright orange, had the texture of pate and not much flavour, tiny transparent whole fish served raw were slightly gelatinous, and horse mackerel was a tasty surprise. It’s not something I’d rush to have for breakfast but it was all totally fresh and served so beautifully I’d have to say it was the best sushi I’ve ever had.

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We then had a wander round the fish market itself, after 10am once the stalls have finished trading tourists are allowed in, before that a small number are allowed in but as you have to queue at 3am we declined. It’s a huge building, with stalls for each trader showing hundreds of different types of seafood. We watched a team process huge frozen tuna using a band saw, and a group inspecting sea urchins – it’s really clean and surprisingly doesn’t smell of fish at all… very different from the fish market in Myanmar.

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Tour complete we got back on the train and headed up to Asakusa to visit the Senso-ji temple. It’s the oldest temple in Tokyo, said to have been built back in 628, and famous for it’s main Karminarimon Gate, where a giant lantern hangs. To get to the temple you have to walk though the Nakamise shopping street – which is lined with shops supposedly dating from the Eco era, it has been brought up to date with iPhone covers, toys and sweets made with green tea (macha) or sweet bean paste. Neither are particularly to our taste, so Wayne had a wasabi ice cream instead – yuk!  (I think she means yummy – Wayne).

Having made it through the market, we visited the temple itself which is slightly calmer than the market. On either side of the Hozomon Gates are giant straw sandals hung high above the street which if you can reach them to touch are supposed to bring good luck.

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We also tried out the temples ability to tell fortunes. You pay your 100y and then shake the silver pot until one of the chopsticks comes out of the small hole. You then match the number on the chopstick with the number on a set of small drawers and take out your fortune. Mine was okay, as it was a ‘regular’ good fortune, Carolyn got an ‘excellent’ fortune, butler Jo and Bert got really bad fortunes, at which point they had to tie them to the rails provided next to the stall, where every evening they burn the unwanted fortunes to take them away.

We headed over to the Sumidagawa River to take a look at the Asahi Brewery head office on the opposite bank. Designed by Philippe Starck in the 80’s, the first of the 2 buildings is designed to look like a pint of beer and the second.. actually I’ve no idea, the locals call it the ‘golden turd’.  More entertaining was the round white sphere, which once you poked your head into one of the holes, turned out to actually be a garden – no idea how you cut the grass?

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Back into town, we headed for Ginza and the Hama-rikyu Gardens. It’s traditionally set out, with a central tidal pond with a tea house set in the middle. The planting is amazing – lots of wisteria ready to pop, and lots of cherry blossom just finishing – it’s surrounded by the tower blocks of Tokyo so a tranquil spot in all amongst all the modern views.

End of tour and as some were going to a Kabuki show, we went our separate ways, and we did what only a proper tourist should do in Tokyo – got coffee with our faces etched into the foam, chatted with a robot and visited the Sony showrooms for a peak at the tech in our near future.

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Monkey Magic

Monday 24th April 2017 – Yudanaka

Having enjoyed our Ryokan / Onsen experience in 70’s concrete style, today we were off to see the other attraction in the spa-town of Yudanaka, the famous Jigokudani Onsen or ‘Snow Monkey Park’.  The local macaque monkeys started to imitate the locals in their outdoor onsen baths, so the town built the monkeys their own onsen and by coincidence created one of the regions most popular tourist attractions.

To get to the park, we took a bus up to the entrance, then it’s a 30 minute walk through the forest to reach the pools that have been given to the troop.  You can smell the sulphur of the volcanic waters and as you get closer you start to see little fair-haired monkeys. Today, it was a nice sunny day so they seemed content to potter about in the sun, grooming, looking for grubs and just lying down.. so we didn’t see any of them actually taking a bath, but in the winter, they are the only monkeys anywhere in the world to bathe in hot springs for warmth.

I’ll leave you with the photos of these lovely little fellas, Onsen water is supposed to be excellent for skin and hair and these chaps do have the most fantastic bouffants…

 

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Mount Fuji and the multiple methods of transport

Tuesday 25th April 2017 – Hakone

We left the snow monkeys at Yudanaka (though I would have happily taken a couple of the youngsters with me) and finished the rest of the journey to Tokyo by train.  As we were there fairly early, Meg took us out that evening for a walk round the Shinjuku area of Tokyo – which is a neon filled, noise box of chaos and crazy, and a wander round the lanes of Memory Lane, which sprang up after the war and are tiny rooms with bars or cooking Yakatori either side of a single track lane.  It’s smoked filled and each bar is tiny, some only able to seat 4 people, but each bar manages to have it’s own personality and style. Ticking the Blade Runner landscapes early on this visit!

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The next day Wayne, Fiona and I had decided as the weather was good, this was a good day to head out of town to Hakone to try to see Mount Fuji.  We’d booked seats on the 7.40 train from Shingawa, so left the hotel at 6.45 and onto the Yamanote Line. It’s a trip with a circuit once you get to Hakone and Meg had suggested we go in the opposite way from the normal route, which meant changing trains at Odawara, then getting on a bus at Hakone-Yumoto before arriving at Moto-Hakone-Ko at about 9:30.

We’d bumped into Carolyn, Amy and Jo on the train (reserved seats behind us!) so ended up together in Hakone, looking at a Mount Fuji mostly covered in cloud, but a bit of a potter along the lake to the Hakone-Jinja shrine and back was enough time for the clouds to have cleared and the mountain to appear.

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There are a couple of view points along the route, but the next one was completely random… to get to what the Japanese call a Ropeway (gondola), you have to take a pirate ship.. yup, not sure why there are pirate ships on a lake in Japan but you get to take a pirate ship, complete with pirate statue across the lake to Togendai-Ko.  The boat gives a great view of the mountain before it disappears again behind the other hills.

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We got on the first of the rope ways up to Owakudani, which to one side has an open area where volcanic gasses come out of the earth, staining it a bright yellow and again quite randomly gives the locals the opportunity to cook eggs in the hot water.  There is something about the shell composition and the water chemistry that combines to make the shells of the eggs black, but apart from looking quite sinister they are still boiled eggs.

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Back on the gondola for the second half of the trip down to Sounzan, we changed onto the Hakone Cable car (funicular) down to Gora where we got on a cute little train to our next top at Chokoku-no-mori.  There we visited the Hakone Open Air Museum which is a huge park with works by Henry Moore, Rodin, Picasso and Bellenden’s very own Anthony Gormley (honestly you go to the other side of the world…).  It’s set between several hills, and all of the art work is really accessible – I really liked the Symphonic Sculpture which was a huge tower made of glass embedded in concrete which you could climb to the top.

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Having upped our dose of highbrow we got back on our series of 4 trains to take us all the way back to Ikebukuro in Tokyo – day well spent!  So in a mood to celebrate our ability to navigate Japan without a guide we grabbed a table at the brilliantly named ‘Meat and Wine’ for a salad and a glass of water – yeah right, steak and several bottles of Malbec…

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