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The last part- Hakone and back to Tokyo

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Sensoji

It’s funny, isn’t it, how the places you anticipate before the trip turn out so differently in reality, and often the ones you had no expectations of just blow you away. Well that is how it was for us with Hiroshima vs Hakone. Hakone is touted as a super relaxed calm spa town surrounded with onsens (hot springs) and amazing views of Mount Fuji which you are meant to see by using a combination ticket of ropeways, cable cars, buses, trains and even a pirate ship that crosses lake Ashi. People come from all over the world to stay in resort hotels, languish in hot baths and hike in the lush mountain greenery. In autumn, the foliage would be at its most stunning. As I have said, Hiroshima knocked us out because we had absolutely no expectations about it. Hakone was totally underwhelming and this is why.

I had worked hard on the Hakone part, checking all the transportation around the area, and saving articles about what to see there- the Open Air Museum, the Lake, Owakudani Geothermal valley, Kowakien Yunessun Hot Springs, and many other places in the area, which appeared to be chock full of exciting things to see and do .I booked two nights in the cheapest place I could find which was not super luxurious, but had private bathroom.  It still cost nearly $300 for two nights, much more than any other place we stayed in Japan. Many places were booked up six months in advance and I felt happy to secure the Emblem Flow Hakone right next to Gora station.  (It also had a restaurant which was good as I had heard that many places around close very early because people book accommodations with full board in fancy expensive restaurants and don’t go out to eat) . This turned out to be most fortuitous as we shall see.

The first complication we had was that  the special Hakone Tozan Railway, which was meant to bring us  from Odawara station to Gora station, was damaged in the Hagibis Typhoon, and the website said it would not be running for several months. This concerned me somewhat as we were arriving at Odawara Station from Hiroshima. This Tozan Railway, a super steep train taking one through the stunning mountain scenery was something I had waited to see. The Japanese, in typical efficient style, laid on a replacement bus between Odawara and Gora that ran pretty much along the same route. SO that problem was solved. But once we reached Gora we found it to be a tiny little place with hardly any shops, restaurants or anything whatsoever to do, and it rained steadily for the two days we were there. After settling into the hotel we went for a small wander around and found pretty much nothing to do in the drizzle. WE arrived at around 4.30pm and things tend to close at 5pm. All the museums and other activities finish by then. My Japanese friends told us to do the hot springs. But getting all my kit off in front of strangers in the rain did not really appeal to me. (Maybe I have not grasped the fascination of this hot springs thing) So we returned to the hotel, which had a fantastic dinner of curry, had a beer and called it a day. I forgot to mention that we very fortunately  did get a glimpse of the elusive Fuji san from the train as we were arriving at Odawara station, me waking D up so we could get a few fleeting shots. This again turned out to be a great stroke of luck.

So having purchased our Hakone Free pass at Odawara station which covered the train and bus to Hakone, the ropeway, the cruise and reduced entrance to various museums, we set out the next day to do the Hakone Loop. It poured with rain. Visibility was nil. On the cable car before the ropeway the commentary breezily noted that on our right we could see Mount Fuji on a clear day. The Filippina girls in our pod giggled. We all giggled. At the bottom of the ropeway we saw the pirate ship but not the far side of the lake. We got back on the ropeway and went back to Gora. WE tried to go round Hakone Park which was free with our JR pass, but it was all outdoors, and pouring. We went back to the hotel. The whole thing was a washout. Never mind. The next day we were returning to our beloved Tokyo for a whole five more days.

We returned to Tokyo on a fast train which took about 45 minutes. We stayed in the same Asakusa district but a different hotel, not particularly recommended, as the Red Planet was full. Anyway we loved being back in Asakusa, and being now familiar with the neighbourhood was great. We had made a booking for  Tokyo Free Greeter to meet us and take us around somewhere for a couple of hours. Our greeter, Takuya Hayashi , in his email complete with photo, told us to meet him next to the Hachiko Dog Statue  ( if you don’t know the dog story click the link!) in Shibuya. Having walked around Shinjuku and Harajuki the previous day, we said we would like to go to Shinjuku Park, which had been closed . But as we exited the train station it was raining again so walking around the park didn’t seem such a great idea. So Takuya suggested we go to the Tokyo Municpal Building which affords a free view of the city from the 45th floor (as opposed to the Tokyo Tower or the Sky Tower both of which cost money) . We said great. He also took us to a Starbucks which affords a view of the famous Shibuya Scramble crossing purported to be one of the busiest in the world. To me it just looked like a zebra crossing, but maybe we were there too early.

We returned to Odaiba area which we had visited previously ( where the fake Statue of Liberty is) to go to the Borderless Teamlab Digital Museum, something I was afraid would be another tourist trap and letdown, but was in fact well worth it and quite enjoyable. Lots of people love it because it is extremely instagrammable. We loved it because it was fascinating, weird and ultimately very Japanese. WE were also lucky enough to stumble into the building across from Borderless called  Megaweb Toyota city Showcase. It seemed to have some kind of fair going on. Apart from the display of Toyota cars there was a display of samurai dancers and  loads of stalls with food samples from all over Japan, and huge mascot dolls who wished to hug you and have your photo snapped with them for some reason! Another thing we did was to walk a lot. Specifically to see the Tokyo Illuminations, which are all over the city in late November. The Japanese love illuminations, and they do them very well. Practically every plaza and shopping mall is full of them.

To wrap up our trip we met up again with Aki and Mayumi, as we had promised to take them out for dinner, to thank them for being such amazing hosts. They were joined by Endo, another Servas host whom we had not met before, as he had just had a new grandchild when we first came to Tokyo. They took us to an izakaya, sort of pub/restaurant, where we sat on the floor at low tables, and proceeded to order dish after dish of  fish and vegetables, washed down with sake, and some other alcoholic drink. It was all amazing, even the fugu. I told Aki he had to eat it first, and if he didn’t fall down dead I would try it. Frankly it just tasted like fried fish, nothing that exotic. The Japanese at the table behind us were all totally rolling drunk, their ties unknotted and their suit jackets who knows where. It was all a great adventure. Japan was a great adventure. It will take some time for it all to sink in. Hope you enjoyed it. Stay tuned for our next trip…

 

Hiroshima- not what you thought

Of course Hiroshima was high on my list of places when I planned a trip to Japan. The sombre heavy thought of what happened on that terrible day , August 6, 1945, is etched in the memory of anyone born in my generation.But what was it really like to have been there? What did the eyewitnesses feel and see? And how did the city rebuild itself? I had only ever seen pictures of the famous dome, and never seen anything else about the city. So armed with this lack of knowledge, and many questions we boarded our train from Kyoto to Hiroshima, changing at Shin-Osaka. As we arrived in Hiroshima it began to rain. I had found that our hotel, The Park Side Peace Park, was, logically enough a short walk from the Museum and Peace Park, which is served by a loop bus which circles all the main tourist sites, beginning and ending at the  Shinkansen Train station, and is free with the JR pass. Perfect! After asking at tourist information we easily found the bus and scrambled on board. It did indeed stop at the Art Museum, the Castle, the Atomic Dome and somewhere else I forget before stopping at the Peace Park. The hotel was one block away from the river which runs right by the Peace Park. We checked in and walked around a bit (in the rain) to get a feel for the place. My first impression was of a wide boulevard (called the Peace Boulevard) tons of tourists swarming around the museum and park, and lots of groups of uniformed schoolkids (like at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem) but also of a city with a positively calm vibe to it. There was bustle but not like Tokyo. There were crowds, but not like in Kyoto. WE immediately loved the place, but it was hard to define exactly why. There were trams clanging around, pedestrian streets with a food festival being set up right at the back of the hotel, and all in all a feeling of a city just getting on with the business of living.

Next day of course we started off by visiting the Peace Park and Memorial Museum. These were as sombre as one would expect but we felt that the emphasis was less on “oh how poor we are and how terrible it all was” but more on “Let’s achieve world peace by making sure nobody has nuclear weapons”. In other words it was less about the Japanese and more about humanity. Outside the museum we were interviewed by some kids for their school work and we also saw the folded paper cranes that are sent to Hiroshima from all over the world as a committment to world peace. Everywhere in Hiroshima people give you folded paper cranes.  From the museum we went walking right along the Peace boulevard up to Fujimidai Observation point, which I had noticed on the map and thought would be fun. The layout of the city is such that you are always walking along near the river, as the island on which the Museum is built is between the Kyobashi River and the Motoyasu River, so you continually see bridges, something which I had not known. The walk was most enjoyable and the views at the top of the hill very nice, also enhanced by a can of hot coffee from a vending machine. This is something great about Japan, that wherever you are you can get a hot can of coffee from a machine for 130 yen. Heaven!

From there we walked on to the Shukkien Gardens which were simply superb. I will probably put in too many pictures because the fall leaves there were just so spectacular, as was the walk along the river bank to get there.

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Shukkien Gardens

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Bamboo grove in the gardens

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Some nice ladies who took our photo

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Walk up to observation point

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Next day we took a day trip out of Hiroshima to visit Miyajima Island which had been recommended to us by pretty much everyone who had visited Japan. Even though the famous “floating torii” gate was being repaired and under scaffolding we were assured that the island was still worth the trip . And anyway it was a short train and ferry ride from town, all included in our JR Pass. We got on the train and about 30 minutes later reached the port. It was easy to see where to go, just follow the crowds. The 10 minute ferry ride was pleasant and the sun was shining. After we disembarked, most of the tourists ran off to climb the peak and take the cable car. So we ambled slowly through the small port town, enjoying the sunshine, the beach and the many deer that wandered around hoping to snitch an ice cream cone or some chips off the tourists, and occasionally succeeding. It was all very pleasant. Climbing up the peak to the ropeway was also pleasant as the foliage was really at its best. WE opted not to do the ropeway as it was expensive, crowded and we felt the view was fine just as it was. (but who knows,maybe it would have been amazing). After eating something in a tortilla (egg?) we wandered around some more, talked to some Japanese girls on a day trip just like us, and returned to the city, to wander around some more.

At night we walked once again along the Peace Boulevard, where a long row of illuminations had been placed, mostly fairytale characters, witches, pirate ships and castles, but so many we could not photograph all of them. We departed the next day, feeling that Hiroshima, like the Phoenix, has risen beautifully from its ashes and is doing a good job of showing the world how to live peacefully.

Japan Jaunt Part 2 – Kyoto- gets its own section

Right, before we continue our tour let us take a moment to consider culture shock. Because, of course, a journey is not just a geographical jaunt but also a cultural one. This is especially true when you live in the Middle East and you go to the Far East. How shall I put this? The Japanese are good at respect. They love order. The Israelis…. less so. Order and respect are not high on the list of adjectives that spring to mind in the Middle East. It seems that everything in Japan was designed to make you feel respected, or at least  comfortable. This applies to the uncanny quiet on a crowded subway train, where nobody speaks in a loud voice on their mobile phone. They don’t walk and eat. There are designated places in the food market where you should eat (because … no trash cans anywhere). Similarly  the orderly lines of people waiting to cross at a busy intersection and being careful not to knock into anyone. And in the  ubiquitous  convenience stores (konbini) where there are footprints and arrows on the floor showing you where to line up. Wherever we went locals were quick to come to our assistance whenever we paused to examine Google Maps. They bowed profusely when addressing us.  The station guards, bowing, are happy to direct you politely and not ignore you. The newsreaders bowed on TV. And the toilets! Oh my god, the TOILETS are just awesome. They play music so as you won’t feel embarrassed by your bodily noises. They are heated and they squirt water at you from all angles. All of this was a cause of constant wonder. And so to Kyoto.

We got a fast train to Kyoto, but not the fast train we were meant to get. We had a short connection at Nagoya and I was so worried we would miss it that we belted on to the platform, stood at the correct place (marked so you know which carriage you are boarding) and hurried to our seats that were occupied by two Japanese gentlemen. I showed them my tickets and one shook his head sadly and said “Wrong train”. Aha. But this train IS going to Kyoto, right? I asked nervously. Yes he said, Nozomi. The Nozomi is the SUPER fast train not covered in our JR Pass because it is faster than the REGULAR fast train. A young guard hurried up when he saw our confusion and said that we could just walk through the carriages to the first one where the non reserved seats are, but by the time we found a seat we were arriving in Kyoto, 20 minutes before we were supposed to. Never mind. I learned a new thing, that the trains have names ( Sakura, Hikari etc) and that it was not enough to know the time, the platform, the carriage and seat number but one also has to check the name of the arriving train before boarding.

Our arrival in Kyoto was D’s birthday and to celebrate we went up the top of the Kyoto tower at night which was quite a lot of fun. We then repaired to a nearby izakaya and ate stuff.

 

Kyoto is a bit difficult to tackle because it has become a victim of its own success. By that I mean that it has hundreds of temples, but the really popular and famous ones are overrun with tourists so if you want to see them you have to get there at the crack of dawn. And Gion, the geisha area, is totally overrun with tourists at any time of the day or night. WE only tackled a few of the popular temples because after a while one gets pretty overwhelmed. SO we first picked Kiyomizu-dera which was pretty bearable when we arrived and totally packed by the time we left. It was nevertheless very impressive, even when swamped with tourists and school children.

WE then walked along the river bank up to Gion Corner, where we met an Israeli tour guide called Shimrit, from Kfar Saba, who is  married to a Japanese guy and lives somewhere near Kyoto. She directed us to the Geisha area, where we observed NO geishas. Moreover there are now signs up barring photography ,since the geishas are fed up with rowdy tourists shoving cameras in their faces when they try to enter a tea house or a taxi.There are countless police and guards trying to maintain order. The main street of Gion was so stuffed with tourists that you can hardly move and is not an enjoyable place in my opinion.  We beat a hasty retreat and set off for Nishiki Market which was utterly wonderful, and full of all manner of exciting things, both edible and whimsical.

Our next touristy site was next morning,Fushimi Inari, a short train ride from the train station near our guest house. This site, I had been warned, is highly popular with the Instagram brigade, so if you want to see it in its glory, be there early in the morning. We arrived there at around 8 am, which seemed to be early enough. The instagrammers, however were there and snapping away, with and without selfie sticks. There were also some school kids who asked us some questions. We then visited Tofukuji where the entrance to the gardens cost money but as you see was well worthwhile.

Another “must see” I had read about is called Arashiyama and it boasts a very widely instagrammed bamboo forest, a river with a “romantic train and cruise” and numerous temples. Again we set off early to avoid the hordes. Arashiyama was my first experience of being underwhelmed in Japan. Since Japan is such a highly tourist destination, there are many “must sees” and not all of them are what they are touted to be. For us Arashiyama was one such. There is a bamboo “forest” but it is more of a grove and no great shakes. The “romantic train” was packed and we could not get on it until 3pm ,so we gave it a miss. The area was ok but not wildly exciting. We returned to Kyoto city and decided to give Gion another try, but on the way we found Maruyama Park which was far more rewarding.

Day 5 of Kyoto (we allocated it 6 days because there is such a lot there) we headed for Nijo castle. Not overly crowded and rather lovely. Shoes were removed and photography not allowed inside, but the beautifully landscaped gardens were certainly worth a shot or three. Thankfully not the instagrammers were not in abundance.

We rounded off our time in Kyoto with a far less touristy site, in fact we were totally alone there. It was a rather quirky place, quite a long way from all the hot spots, mentioned online as “Monster Street”. There were not a whole lot of monsters, but hardly any people either which was a blessing. We rather liked it there.

And so to Hiroshima…. stay tuned.

At last- wacky Japan, the trip that finally was.

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Part One- Tokyo, Kanazawa , Takayama and Shirakawa-go

After much planning and three postponements for various reasons, this actually happened. With so much anticipation I was afraid we might be disappointed, but far from it. Japan turned out to exceed our expectations, and certainly was weirder than I thought in some ways. The weirdness expresses itself in an obsession with technology, and lifesize doll mascots for everything amongst other things.  It was definitely cleaner, ( ah Japanese toilets!) , incredibly organized and efficient.  So buckle up and prepare for the (probably long) ride. A 24 day trip to multiple cities will need a lot of words. Please feel free to skip the boring bits. If you are not actually researching your own trip you may find some of the practical info not to your liking, so I shall not be offended if you ignore those bits.

We specifically picked November to see the autumn leaves about which we had heard a lot. They did not disappoint and the timing of the route worked out perfectly. We were rewarded with mostly crisp warmish days and blue skies, with cooler evenings and only a couple of days of rain towards the end. On arriving back in Tokyo for the last few days trees were already bare, and rain falling, so I felt the timing was great. Our route was as follows: 4 days in Tokyo, then fast train to Kanazawa for 3 nights, bus to Takayama for 2 nights, then a long train ride to Kyoto (5 nights) , a 3 night stay in Hiroshima, 2 nights in Hakone (another VERY long trip) and return to Tokyo for a final 5 nights . Here we go!

WE flew LOT Polish airlines via Warsaw. Not much to report except that they  inaugurated the direct flight Warsaw to Sri Lanka that day, and were giving out free Indian food at the press opening with the Sri Lankan Ambassador! Yay for free food.

On arrival at Narita Airport Tokyo at 8.30 am we traded in our Japan Rail voucher for our wonderful JR pass, which would give us free rides on the JR railways for 21 days. Since our trip was 24 days we activated it from day 4 , as the first 4 days we would remain in Tokyo. This worked out very well. The whole process took 5 minutes, and we got our first taste of Japanese politeness and efficiency. We then hopped on a Keisei bus which took us to Tokyo central station. To say that the station is huge would be an understatement. It is massive and you could easily get lost in it for a week or so. Anyway we  eventually got out and walked to a subway that took us to our wonderful Red Planet Hotel Asakusa. This  fabulous place is located in the heart of Asakusa neighbourhood (not to be confused with Akasaka) near  the famous Senso-ji Temple  the oldest and most important temple in Tokyo. The little pedestrian streets around the temple are full of tourists and locals coming to pray, and also with little shops and restaurants.You can  also go to an owl cafe, or rent a kimono for the day.  At night the neighbourhood was quiet and had an old world charm.

The next day we walked to the Sumida River and got on a cruise down to Hamarikyu Gardens. On the boat with us were a whole class of school kids and their teachers. A guy started talking to us, and turned out to be the school principal. Talking to the kids was a lot more interesting than the cruise as the buildings along the way were mostly pretty boxy and modern. There were a lot of nondescript bridges. We all got off at the gardens which were quite lovely.

 

 

After that we took the metro to another neighbourhood called Akihabara, known as Electric Town or Geek central. This is where all the gamers and punks hang out, streets of gaming parlours. There are also the famed Maid Cafes, which are rather hard to describe. Let’s say they are where the very formal Japanese businessmen can let their hair down and indulge their fantasies. There are girls all along the street advertising these establishments, so it isn’t hard to find one. The waitresses are dressed as maids, and do all kinds of odd things like miaowing and singing in high pitched voices. On the spur of the moment we decided it was an “Only in Japan” moment, so for 500 Yen we entered the weird world of Maid dreaming   Let’s say it was a one time experience. Most of the time we had no clue what was going on, and we just laughed at it. It was simultaneously hilarious and disturbing.  We went home both amused and baffled.

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Next day we had arranged to meet Nobuaki Fujii, a friend from Servas, who said he would pick us up at our hotel and take us around the neighbourhood. We had a fantastic day with him as follows. First he took us to a Japanese pharmacy full of all kinds of weird and wonderful “natural” treatments some of which we got to taste (hmmm). Next we went walking around Kappabashi, the centre of kitchenware. That may sound kind of boring, but was in fact fascinating. Firstly the Japanese take their knives very seriously (think Samurai swords). Secondly, most restaurants and hotels display plastic versions of the food so you know exactly what you are getting (down to the correct number of peas) So there are shops that specialize in this stuff.

 

 

Next Aki took us to a massive upscale department store ( quick glance at a temple and the public library) where we each bought a bento box for lunch which we would eat at his office. There we met his partner Mayumi who is a jewellery designer and adorable person. Aki is a  freelance graphic designer. He then taught us how to make tea, did some calligraphy and we ate our bento. Then he announced we were going to a fire walking ceremony. This was simply amazing, as it was a neighborhood thing which we would never have come across if he hadn’t taken us there. The people gathered outside the temple, some priests built a fire, beat a path through it and then everyone (including small kids) walked through it, including Aki and Mayumi. We declined. It was all fascinating. They then walked us back to our hotel and we said goodnight , promising to be in touch when we returned to Tokyo at the end of our trip.

The last day in Tokyo (for this section) we got on a very weird monorail to visit Odaiba, an artificial island part of Tokyo known for its hi tech and robotic amusements, as well as various entertainments. It all felt like being in Blade Runner.  We passed over lots of impressive bridges and highways, and got off next to the Statue of Liberty and the giant Gundam robot. I can’t explain so I will just show you a picture. We wandered around stupefied for a few hours, and also talked to a scarily real robot information lady. ( apparently I can’t post that as it’s a video)

In the evening we walked back to see Sensoji at night and found it enchanting, even though the streets were deserted as the stalls and restaurants had already closed.

And so to Kanazawa, a city rightly famous for its wonderful Kenrokuen Gardens, and Castle, as well as for its Edo period Samurai houses and Geisha district. We stayed in the amazing Emblem Stay, a cross between a hostel and guest house, which had a bar. This turned out to be most fortuitous as the night we arrived there was a meetup in said bar, where we made the acquaintance of a lovely Portuguese couple Tiago and Isabella  and their daughter Madalena, who all spoke perfect idiomatic English. They run a museum in a place called Caramulo. After chatting with them for a while, we then sat with some local Japanese who came along to practise their English. All great fun.

Kanazawa Castle and Gardens were nothing short of stunning. I will leave it to you to judge.

 

We continued to tour the Samurai district of old preserved houses and the Geisha quarter before going off in search of dinner, which we found in a stunning Chinese restaurant  called Mei Mei with a huge log fire, in which we were the only customers to devour a massive, delicious plate of something cooked inside a clay pot (chicken and rice?) Kanazawa also has tons of other things to see such as the Omicho Fish market , the 21st Century art museum (too packed and hot) and the wonderful Noh Theatre Museum which we visited the next day. Much hilarity ensued.

And so on to Takayama. The original plan had been to stop between Kanazawa and Takayama to visit the UNESCO heritage village of Shirakawa-go. But I could not get a bus ticket from there on to Takayama, so we took a bus directly to Takayama and bought bus tickets to see Shirakawa as a day trip from Takayama the next day. I was very excited to see the village as I had heard it was special, with thatched rooves and a traditional way of life and with wonderful autumn foliage. It was overrun with tourists but big enough to be able to stroll pleasantly around the carless village and get a sense of calm. It was indeed very beautiful. There were a few houses that you could go inside and see how the traditional lifestyle has been preserved here.

I now need to explain a Japanese phenomenon called the Onsen. Apparently the Japanese have a thing about nude bathing with strangers. They do it all over the place, in hot or cold water, outside or inside, and in any season. We were not really crazy about this idea .But I found a wonderful alternative. Some places do “family onsens” meaning you are not with a bunch of strangers. Our hotel, the Wat Hotel and Spa in Takayama had public onsens, but also 4 such private onsens where one can bathe in the open air (on the roof) in private with one’s significant other, or one’s children . People with tattoos cannot enter the public onsen, so this is also a good solution for them. We went in this onsen twice and it really was a relaxing experience after a long day of touring. Takayama was a nice small town which also had an old district full of little restaurants and shops. It was here that we met the Ramen Lady. We went into her tiny shop and she asked us where we are from. When we said Israel she immediately put on an Israeli song called Naomi’s Song  by Hedva and David, which was apparently super popular in Japan in the 1980’s .She played it in Japanese and then in Hebrew! What fun.

Let’s take a break here. We still have 15 days of the trip left! So will leave them for Part 2.

 

Australia Part 2-Beautiful Brizzy

I continue with our drive up from Sydney to Cairns, which mostly consisted of stunning beaches one after another, and I apologize that I didn’t note down the names of all the beaches. We tried stopping off at a couple of points where locals assured us we would see whales, one of these was Woolgoola Headland, and you could just about see them with binoculars. But this just whetted our appetite – see Whale- watching later on.The one place that we spent a couple of days in and enjoyed immensely was Yamba at the mouth of the Clarence River Estuary. We stayed in the cute Yamba Beach Motel, which had everything that one needs for a comfortable stay and was reasonably priced by Australian standards. We then just wandered around the tiny town (lots of huge hills leading to the lighthouse) and took a book to read on the various beaches( one was called Pippi beach). Highly recommended. WE also had a very nice pint at the Pacific hotel, which has a splendid bar  overlooking the sea, and touts itself as “Australia’s best sited hotel”. Could not argue with them.

One final place I would like to mention that we enjoyed on the Central coast before we reached Brisbane was Dorrigo National Park. 

This lovely place is a short drive from Coffs Harbour and we spent a few happy hours strolling through the forest paths which are clearly signposted and not overly taxing. There is a short boardwalk at the beginning of the park and then a  few circular paths of varying  lengths, with waterfalls and so on. There is also a visitor centre where you can watch a short movie on the flora and fauna in the park. Our only problem was discovering that our car battery was flat when we returned from the walk (and of course it was a Sunday, our phone had no reception, which is common in isolated areas of Australia, and there was no internet reception either.) Fortunately a lovely couple in the car park came to our aid with jump leads and got us started up again.

It is really hard to get a sense of the rainforest from the photos, because the trees tower above and all around, so the photos really don’t capture the vastness of the experience.

On the way back to Coffs Harbour, the motel owner had suggested we stop at a quaint little town called Bellingen which we were passing through anyway. He specifically used the word “quaint”, adding that since I am from the UK I will understand. The town,set in farm land, with lots of horses and cows dotted around, was indeed quaint, with many interesting old buildings, and a museum, which sadly we did not manage to check out.

 

From Yamba we continued up the Pacific Highway to Brisbane. We had expectations of Melbourne and of Sydney, but Brisbane was a city about which we had heard very little. And we were blown away by it. Since we saw that we had plenty of days of our trip to make it up to Cairns, and had decided not to continue driving but to get there by plane, we decided to extend our stay in Brisbane and chill out a bit there, as moving every one or two days gets tiresome. As soon as we walked around in central Brisbane we felt at home. It’s hard to say exactly why. Our air bnb was in a wonderful quiet neighbourhood called Hawthorne, and came with a kitchen, garden, a swimming pool and a dog called Oscar. It was also 5 minutes walk from the Hawthorne Citycat Stop. Citycat is a ferryboat service that plies up and down the Brisbane river and is a far more useful form of transport than the bus.It runs frequently, and up until after midnight 7 days a week. All you need to use it is an electronic  Go Card that you top up with money as you go. It is the same card for buses, trains, ferries and trams. You can just get on it and go all the way up one end of the line and then back again for about $6.

We immediately bought our Go card and started exploring. The first part of the city that we discovered was the central area of the Queen Street Mall which we returned to many times during our stay. It was both relaxed and buzzing, full of life and great for people-watching but not in the way that large cities are. It was always fun to sit on a bench and watch people, and we also took a tour later on with a Brisbane Greeter, (volunteer guide) who introduced us to some less well-known corners of the city.

There are lots of things to see in Brisbane- we particularly enjoyed the Southbank area and the Parklands- a long riverbank promenade that was built after the World Expo of 1988 and consists of a cultural precinct (Museums, art galleries, concert halls, theatres) a Nepali Peace Pagoda, grassy areas and free public swimming pools. There is also an Epicurious garden, where fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown by volunteers, and distributed free to people. The Southbank was the location from which we watched the fantastic Riverfire firework display at the end of the Riverfire festival which happily coincided with our stay in Brisbane. This display was preceded by air displays by army helicopters and jets. It was a great day, no less impressive in that the crowds dispersed in a quiet and orderly fashion at the end. The festival also included lots of free performances all over the place, which added to our stay. We also enjoyed walking around Roma Street Parklands, another park area near to the second place we stayed Spring Hill Apartments. We wanted to add more days at the Airbnb but it was no longer available, so we took the apartment for a week, which was a bit pricy but also included a washing machine and dryer! The only drawback to this accommodation was that it was indeed at the top of a hill. But there was a free bus that stopped right outside the apartments, and deposited us in the city centre in less than 15 minutes. So as the Ozzies say “No worries”.

Other places we loved in Brisbane were the Botanical Gardens and the old Regent Theatre which is now a tourist office, but part of the interior of the old theatre has been preserved. Just travelling on the ferries up and down the river and looking at the iconic Story Bridge from different angles was great fun. WE were continually amazed that every time we went down town something was going on- one day they were distributing free ice cream in Queen Street; another day there was a farmers’ market next to Victoria Bridge; there were lots of free performances in the Mall area too- one day we saw a display of Aboriginal dancing there. Our stay was also enhanced by meeting up with our friend Steve from Virtual Tourist, and then Gary and Roger from Servas, all of whom came out for dinner with us. WE also made new friends in Vera and Paul, a lovely couple we met on a Saturday morning when we went to the Farmers’ Market at the PowerHouse  and who also met us for dinner another evening. All of these meetings impressed on me that nice as sightseeing may be, the really memorable parts of our travels are always the personal contacts we make with locals. The openness and warmth we received from all the Australians that we met was just phenomenal. So thanks Ozzies!

Then there was one of the highlights of our whole trip- whale watching at Redcliffe. After a lot of humming and ha-ing we decided to go for it. It’s after all one of those “once in a lifetime” things right? It’s expensive but definitely something to remember. I checked out various companies and found that the most highly recommended one was called, strangely enough, Brisbane Whale Watching , and it had tons of recommendations on Tripadvisor. They guaranteed that we would see whales. But I was not prepared for how many! We bought a package which included a pickup from a location near where we were staying, transfer by minibus to the cruise jetty, the hour or so  trip out to the bay near Moreton Island and a buffet lunch. We even had a brief look at Beegees Alley before boarding our boat.

Very soon after reaching the bay we immediately started seeing humpback whales and some even jumped up right near the boat.It was truly amazing, and it was important to stop taking pictures (most of which missed the whales jumping) and just look at these lovely creatures. I still did manage to get a few good shots though! Each time there was a sighting, the crew shouted 11 o’clock, or 3 o’clock, and everyone rushed to the appropriate location of the ship to see the whales. There was even a mum and baby but I didn’t manage to get a picture.

Finally it was time to leave wonderful Brisbane- so I will just leave you with a few more pictures before we head for our last stop in the trip- tropical Cairns, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Monks on a bus and monkeys on the roof

Now I’ve got your attention. This had to be the title for this blog entry, especially after I saw the number of “likes” my monks on a bus photo got on Facebook. Here it is:

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Travelling to school

Anyway, how to sum up this crazy experience of a month teaching Buddhist monks in Bhiksu University, Sri Lanka? Was it what we had expected? Of course not! Things never are. On the plane over to Sri Lanka we again looked at each other wondering whether we were totally insane. How bad could it be, we thought? We had spoken via Skype to the Reverend Mediyawe Piyarathana, the English lecturer in charge of the program, and we had been interviewed by Paul Ellmes of http://www.giveafigvolunteering.com, who also lived there in the city, and seemed to be a nice, friendly chap.  Just for a month….. what could go wrong, we thought. Well one or two small inconveniences did occur. I hobbled home on crutches  with a sprained foot and a touch of gastroenteritis. Both of us were exhausted.. but to say that the month wasn’t the most fantastic experience would not  be doing it justice. Things are never straightforward when you fly halfway around the world. We certainly learnt as much from the monks as they did from us. But mostly not about meditation, Buddhist philosophy and so on, but more about how people are just people everywhere. The monks were all MA and PhD lecturers in Buddhist culture and philosophy, Sanskrit, comparative religions and other subjects. But they were above all lovely kind open-hearted people with whom we talked about anything and  everything in class.

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Our first colonial abode

The first few days after our arrival were the full moon festival or Poson. This meant that thousands of devotees, dressed in white, had flocked to the town to celebrate and visit the many holy places. Anuradhapura, a UNESCO heritage site,  is the old capital and a famous centre of Buddhist worship that houses the famous Boddhi Tree and many other important sites. Our Reverend took us to visit many of them, including  MahintaleRuwanwelisaya and Abhayagiri where we met the Chief Incumbent monk himself, and actually had tea at his house. He was a lovely laughing chap who had been to study in China so we exchanged a few Chinese words, which was all rather amusing. Anyone who entered the house bowed and kissed his feet, and we were directed to low stools while he sat on a higher chair. Apparently we were told by Paul that this monk is pretty much the second most important guy in the country after the President.

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Full moon celebrations at Mahintale

The Reverend took us to the holy sites to experience the tradition of dansale at the celebration. People had travelled from afar to cook meals and distribute them free to others. We saw huge lines of people waiting to receive meals, sweets and even free ice cream. The Rev took us in to eat something and (embarrassingly for us) passed in front of the whole line since he is a monk. It was useless to object. The monks are revered by all. This happened again in supermarket queues and elsewhere. Sometimes people would come up to him and hand him gifts in exchange for prayers and blessings.

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Family in dansale tent

One evening the Rev took us to visit a nunnery. The kids seemed quite well cared for and happy. The Reverend himself became a monk as his mother had to travel to work in Saudi Arabia and so she entrusted him to the monastery. He speaks to her frequently on the phone and doesn’t seem to have any problem with her decision. He loves his work helping people and is extremely devoted to the worshipers, and all the monks are very keen to help their devotees by giving them advice and hearing their problems. They help with all kinds of problems, and are always available to help in any way they can. The monks seem to have a far better life than many of the poor rural people and have a great education and live comfortably in their temples.

 

All in all, we were royally looked after during our whole stay. Everything was paid for by the University, including our board and lodging, and trips to Wilpattu Safari Park  and Sigiriya  Lion Rock (where I slipped and sprained my foot after managing to ascend and descend all the steps successfully) . The accommodation provided by the University was a little spartan: the initial place we were given looked amazing from the outside (a gorgeous old colonial building) but was somewhat run down inside, and had no hot water or functioning wifi. We therefore asked to move to a hotel but the inimitable Reverend Piyarathana who was responsible for us flatly refused and said he would find alternative accommodation. This proved to be the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge which was equally impressive from the outside, and actually did have hot water, good wifi and a/c. This is not to say that it was palatial, but it was okay. The original place came complete with a cook.So now we had no cook. “No problem “,said the Reverend. Every day he would send his chauffeur-driven car round to fetch us and transport us to Mango Mango, the local Indian restaurant where we could get good food just like in London!

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The Reverend’s driver Sisera enjoying his bettel

At night we heard jackals and dogs fighting outside, and monkeys jumping on the roof. There were loads of monkeys and wild dogs wandering around the campus. In fact I have never seen so many dogs in my life.Apparently because they are Buddhists, the inhabitants cannot get the dogs neutered, or do anything to deplete their numbers- many looked mangy and neglected- so sad. We also saw innumerable cows wandering around, mongoose and a snake .And one evening a tiny frog jumped out of the toilet!

Every day we went off to class either by tuk- tuk (called a three-wheeler in Sri Lanka) or on the school bus together with all the monks. Class was from 8 till 11.30am with a 30 minute tea break , and again in the afternoon from 13.00 till 16.30 with a similar break. In the break we got tea, bananas, and a host of other (mainly spicy) unidentifiable foods. We did find it amusing to see a load of saffron robed monks all sitting around munching on their bananas. In class we did much the same as in any oral class I have ever taught- debates, discussions, pair work etc, on any topic we wished. The monks were lively , highly knowledgeable and fun to work with. We had internet and projector in the classroom and as much photocopied material as we needed.

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Monks in class

After our 20 days teaching were up we were presented with a gold- plated award for our work, and the students got certificates for completing the course. Many students had come over to visit me while I was laid up  with the  sprained foot, and had presented me with gifts such as home made curd, sliced bread, marmite (!) , fruits and other goodies.  Our next door neighbour monk, also called Piyarathana (and hence christened by me Piyarathana number 2) came over and brought us many fruits, and on our last evening invited us into his place for a cooked meal, which he cooked personally.They were all incredibly kind and hospitable and I will miss them all.

We then had 3 days at the beach resort of Trincomalee on the north east coast,where we relaxed and took a sailing boat to see dolphins, and visited the historic site of Fort Frederick. This was a nice way to wind down our trip, and then finally we spent two nights in Colombo, where unfortunately we couldn’t see much due to my sprained foot, but we did see the Galle Fort promenade, which was enjoyable.

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Fishermen on beach at Trincomalee

So if this has piqued your appetite and you are interested in teaching in Sri Lanka please contact Paul Ellmes at http://giveafigvolunteering.com/ or the Revered Mediyawe Piyarathana at revpiyarathana@busl.ac.lk  or on Skype at piyarathana78. You too can have an unforgettable experience and do something worthwhile!

NOTE: Paul Ellmes says that in future all accommodation arrangements will be taken care of by his organization so I am sure all will run smoothly! So go ahead and message him on his webpage. You will have a fantastic time!

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View from the top of the Sigiriya Lion Rock Palace

 

 

 

Mid Autumn Festival (the bigger picture for my bro)

Well today’s post will be a little cultural/anthropological in orientation as my brother read my blog and complained it was too personal and focused on food and trivial details.So today I want to give a bit of background on the current holiday in China,which is called the Mid Autumn Festival.This festival is a popular harvest festival celebrated by Chinese people on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Lunar Calendar. It is also known as “Mooncake Festival”, Lantern Festival” or “Moon Festival”.It is customary at this time to visit your family and friends and to eat a celebratory meal,and to go to beautiful places to look at the full moon.Since it is a National cultural heritage holiday there is an official holiday so that people can travel and visit their relatives.But in Xiamen where we live,there is a special tradition which is only observed here.IT is called “Bobing” and it is a kind of gambling game.

“WE experienced it for the time last year,when our university took us (all the foreign teachers and some Chinese ones) to a lovely five-star hotel.There we were given a buffet lunch and then after that we went upstairs to some tables,where we rolled six dice in a porcelain bowl.The rules are a little complicated but basically the number four is your friend.According to the number of fours that you throw you can win prizes.

Explanation as follows:(skip if you aren’t interested in the details)

“The 300-year-old custom of mooncake gambling dates back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The inventor, Zheng Chenggong (1624-62), a general of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), stationed his army in Xiamen. Zheng was determined to recover Taiwan, which was occupied by Dutch invaders since 1624.

When every Mid-Autumn Festival came, the soldiers naturally missed their families but fought with heroical determination to drive off the aggressors.

General Zheng and his lower officer Hong Xu invented mooncake gambling to help relieve homesickness among the troops.

The gambling game has six ranks of awards, which are named as the winners in ancient imperial examinations, and has 63 different sized mooncakes as prizes.

From the lowest to the highest, the titles of six ranks are Xiucai (the one who passed the examination at the county level), Juren (a successful candidate at the provincial level), Jinshi (a successful candidate in the highest imperial examination), Tanhua, Bangyan and Zhuangyuan (respectively the number three to number one winners in the imperial examination at the presence of the emperor).

Game players throw the dice by turns. Different pips they count win the player a relevant “title” and corresponding type of mooncakes.”

In simple language:-

If you get a six on all the dice you get the jackpot.If you get 1 through 6 that is the highest score.But even if you only throw two ro three fours,you can win something.So we all went home with tubes of toothpaste,soap ,blankets,boxes of mooncakes and other prizes.

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Mooncakes

This year we were informed that due to budget cuts and suchlike from the Government we were not able to go to a hotel so we only did the gambling game in a room at the University,and the prizes were only mooncakes from small to large.But when I got home I was invited by a neighbour, whose husband is a University teacher,to the neiighbourhood  Bobing game downstairs outside our building.There the residents had clubbed together to buy various prizes and there were two tables of gamblers,one for kids and one for adults.I joined in there but didn’t win anything.It was great to watch the faces of the kids as we all threw the dice in turn.

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Our neighbour’s daughter Ray shaking the dice

Yesterday we went for a walk around Jimei (our neighbourhood) and checked out the new Wanda Shopping Mall that has opened here.It was being built when we left for the summer holidays and now it is open and was buzzing with people because of the holiday.It has 4 floors,one floor completely devoted to restaurants,and there was a sort of traditional dance show  going on when we arrived,but I think it was just an ad for a cellphone company or something.Anyway,the mall has an IMAX cinema complex,Haagen Dasz ice cream and all the usual Chinese -American favourites ie Pizza Hut,McDonalds and so on.But it looks very upscale and expensive.IT is also spotlessly clean (for now!)

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Dance show at the Mall

 

We also met up again with our friends Jennifer and Hamburger last week and went with them to Jiageng Stadium near our house where there was a very silly exhibition of trick art or 3 D pictures where you can insert yourself into the picture and take a photo.This is kind of childish but amusing fun especially if you have small kids or friends who behave like kids.We took lots of silly photos,and it felt good to be back with our Xiamen friends again.There are quite a few new teachers at XMUT,and we have not had time to make everyone’s acquaintance yet.I hope we will have the opportunity to do that,once the holidays are over.Next week is National Week and we have 8 days off so we are off to Taiwan -t’s kind of like the Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur-Succot period in Israel when you can’t really get anything done until after the festivals.So far the classes I have seen have been very nice and with quite a high level of English.More after Taiwan!