Japan – Week #5

Kumano Kodo – old old pilgrimage routes, and UNESCO World Heritage site. Did some walking of those, including visiting each of the three major temples; bathing in Japan’s oldest onsen/hot-pool; playing badminton with a human net (myself); visiting Japan’s highest waterfall; etc.

Back to Osaka – with lunch being a big chunk of raw tuna, and dinner being the deadly puffer-fish (fugu).

And another shot at Tokyo, this time just spending a few days in the Ueno region, not doing much more than making friends at a small standing bar.

Japan – Week #3

Tokyo – went to watch some rugby, NZ vs Namibia; visited Honda’s terrifying robot; wandered around a small number of Tokyo’s more esoteric neighbourhoods; bought my first gachopon; and had a beer at the top of Asahi’s HQ building.

Overnight sleeper train from Tokyo…

Hiroshima – wandered past the old castle, and the “Atomic Dome”… the building left in ruins to demonstrate the horrors of the A-bomb; and then the museum. I couldn’t really stomach looking at/reading about every single piece in there – it was soul-destroying. I did as much as I could handle, and left. They’ve done a LOT of work in building the museum and dozens of monuments/etc… to just highlight how horrible a nuclear bomb is. Sometimes subtly, sometimes… not so much. Just… hard work.

So… as a counter to the general depression brought on by visiting Hiroshima… onwards to Kokura, and the Toto Museum. Nothing better to offset learning all about the horrors of nuclear warfare than… toilets. The best toilets ever developed by man, no less. And it really was quite cool. The building itself is a modern marvel of every feature they could think of to make it “ecologically friendly”, and the museum itself… informative, and amusing. The toilet-motorcycle, came as a surprise. The history of how Toto decided that toilets should have “bum-showers” in them, and the research… cool. Well done Toto – well done… the Washlet should be in the reckoning for any discussion about mankind’s greatest invention, right up there with the wheel.

Eventually, after a very long day – we got to Beppu, to check into the first hotel with proper Japanese style sleeping… ie: tatami mat flooring, and some bedding to put down on it. And the hotel had an onsen… great stuff.
And rugby – went to watch Wales-Fiji at Oita stadium, where once again it was very strange to see the queue for merchandise being extremely long… I suspect it was taking at least 30 minutes to get from tail to head; while beers… near instant service.
After the rugby, I mingled with locals and fans in Beppu, well into the early hours; chatting with locals who were super proud of some All Blacks having had drinks at the same place recently.
Following day was spent ticking off a few of the obvious tourist things to do in the area, cable-car is one that I remember; and eventually – trying to find a restaurant serving the deadly fugu/puffer-fish. One woman seemed shocked we were actively trying to find it… but in any case, we failed. For now.

Heading back north – stopped off in Himeji, and visited the rather impressive Himeji Castle. Really quite impressive.

And back to Osaka – where Japan vs Scotland was watched in a tiny local bar/BBQ-joint… and much cheering was done. Also met up with young Cazz, and visited the top of the “Sky Building”, travelling up the world’s most scenic (and terrifying) escalator to get there. Had another evening of drinks at a little standing bar discovered last time in Osaka… chatting with locals until well after last buses were gone.

Japan – Week #2

Kanazawa – wandering around one of the Geisha districts, lots of winding back alleys, dozens of temples, and then wandering through the old Castle/Park – AMBUSH! Craft beer festival. Managed to escape with only moderate damage, and managed to watch the Japan-Ireland game in a tiny “standing bar”, with the locals very bemused by my enthusiasm. Afterwards, a couple more drinks at another tiny standing bar, where an elderly lady complete in kimono kept putting her hands all over me (first of many, I seem to be an elderly-Japanese-lady-magnet), and sneaked behind the counter to stick one of my stickers on the wall.
BeNina arrived – and we pretty much repeated most of the stuff I’d done previous day.

Osaka – saw a big castle. Watched some rugby, drank too much beer with the locals, and a day-trip to Koyasan, a rather sizable religious complex – where I bought the first of a growing collection of “charms”.
Visited Kyoto on the way out – with only enough time for Inari-san… but that was enough to acquire another “charm”.

Japan – Week #1

A quick start of summarising the last month, before the rugby quarter-finals start, and I’ll probably be too distracted to do any updates for another week or two.

Sapporo – brewery, watching rugby in Fanzone (after brewery, super nervous about South Africa, and therefore reasonably drunked)

Hakodate – typhoon, and seafood… particularly squid. Dancin’ squid. Trying to eat the entire body of a squid while it’s moving, and with suckers which latch onto one’s lips/teeth… difficult. Next morning, while trying to get some squid noodles – once again I ended up with dancin’ squid. This time, the lady showed off the dancin’ to me, then took it away, and chopped it up into manageable pieces. I wonder still, whether the first restaurant was intending to do that, but then decided to enjoy the show of the foreigner trying to eat the whole squirming mess.

Morioka – castle remains, a cherry blossom tree growing out of a rock. Not much else. But – Wanko Soba. A woman looming over one, refilling the small cup of soba noodles constantly. Begging for mercy doesn’t help, putting one’s hand over the bowl doesn’t help… she’ll only stop when you put the special lid over the bowl. I managed 111, just so that I could get the special plaque for >100… but a bit more so that it wasn’t so obviously “just get the plaque, without throwing up”, I decided on the “Nelson” as the stopping point. The guy sitting next to me got through 200… but he came dressed for the occasion… when you see a guy wearing the loose denim overalls… you know he’s come to do some serious eating.

Tokyo – first experience of a “capsule hotel” – although these were rather large capsules… standing-room, and effectively a double-bed. A nice gentle introduction to the concept. A night wandering around Ginza district, and a day-trip out to visit another brewery – Ebisu this time – along with a lazy hour (or two) in a craft beer bar I discovered on the way.


Getting rather bored typing all these up so long after the fact, especially with Japan blowing my tiny little mind every hour or so.

But, some other highlights from the trip, to jog my memory when chatting in the future…
Kindergarten – creepy/crazy… 5 year olds playing piano/violin perfectly, and then a group “show” for the tourists… horrifyingly good. But mostly horrifying.
More big statues and monuments.
Mount Paektu – where I did some stupid stuff taking advantage of getting access to Chinese cell-towers with the border so close. But also – a rather beautifully scenic spot in itself.
Some waterfalls, of various quality.
Change of plans re: airports and hotels, due to some missile testing.
A ski resort… next ski trip: North Korea
International School Children’s Camp – complete with an aquarium boasting some fish and mammals I’m sure are illegal to be kept in captivity elsewhere in the world
The bus breaking down
A “Collective Fruit Farm” – effectively a massive group of orchards… all with apples literally falling off the trees – making me wonder… are these ever going to be picked, or are they just left there for the tourists to see?
A typically North Korean “Buddhist Temple” – complete with “Buddhist Monk” extolling the virtues of Juche and the Kim Dynasty, and how they totally fit in to the Buddhist Way
The Museum of International Friendship – the two massive underground complexes displaying every gift ever presented to any of the Dear Leaders… this really does deserve a full write-up, but… in short – typical of DPRK – an insanely great idea, a great insane idea, and lots of numbers/facts/statistics that don’t really add up under scrutiny
A country-side hike, during which I took the opportunity to lag behind, and instead just get lots of photos with locals
A final day’s walking and tram-ride through Pyongyang, dinner on a riverboat with weird live music show.
And then – all over. Final bit of confusion at the airport, where they saw my two passports, and I’m pretty sure I am now on record as entering DPRK on one passport/nationality, and leaving on another.


Day #6
Oversized monuments – the Party towers (giant concrete hammer, sickle, brush), the Juche Tower – a massive phallic celebration of the Juche “philosophy), and then down to the West Sea Barrage, or the Nampo Dam… a rather impressive structure damming an entire river mouth.
And finally – a shooting gallery, with the option of shooting live animals (a coop of chickens was clearly visible at the end of the gallery… waiting for somebody to sate their blood-thirst). The “kill a living being” option was NOT taken, but I did fire a few rounds from a “sniper rifle” (mixed success), an automatic rifle (AK47 or similar) (zero success), and a pistol (reasonable success) – and was then gifted a prize teddy bear by the ladies, presumably from having a near 50% success rate with the pistol. Teddy bear was proudly displayed to the bus driver, and became the group mascot, in the windshield.

Day #7 – 9.9 (Day of the Foundation of the Republic)
The big national holiday… but not the big military parades one thinks of when it comes to North Korea’s celebrations. Instead – we visited the boyhood home and birthplace of Kim Sung Il, then watched some “mass dancing” – a highly organised big crowd of people pretty much “line dancing” – and then marching off in rank-and-file, men in one direction, women in the other. Very odd.
Visited the Water Park – but with not enough time to actually get a swim in. Instead we were just shown all the local citizens obviously having so much fun… by order.
And then, an opera… and true to form, I slept through most of that.
I managed to wake up for the next stop on the agenda – a “local beer bar” – where we were supposed to be able to try a few beers elbow-to-elbow with locals. It was deserted… not a single other person in the bar.

Day #8
A quick visit to the “Science Street” – which the government is clearly very proud of – a recent district dedicated to science/education. Not particularly interesting.
The War Museum – however – very good… we only got to see a fraction of it, but it was a beautiful massive complex, including…
– USS Pueblo – the US spy ship which was captured… along with a video bragging about this, and stressing the DPRK’s version of events around the whole thing. Interesting stuff.
– A collection of enemy tanks/planes/weapons captured during the Korean War… showing off
– A video explaining how the Korean War started (it doesn’t, actually, it just stresses how evil the US was, and how brave the North Koreans were in repelling the yankee imperialist aggression)
– A 360 degree mural based on one particular battle – with effects as the battle is described. Not sure I’m describing it well, but it was quite well done.
Anyway – in the afternoon… caught a flight up to Orang, on one of the only old-school Soviet-era IL-18 (I think) aircraft still in service… just happens to be the same one which was previously the “presidential plane” for the Dear Leaders.
Saw some of the eastern coastline… and stayed the night on Chongjin, ready for visiting the nearby Mount Paektu.