Published: May 3rd 2007May 3rd 2007
Starting this blog a bit back to front today, with today, in Bangkok. Mainly because I'm having a bit of a lonely day, and I haven't spoken about this really, but it's part of my travel experience, being a solo traveller, and probably part of the stuff that changes you along the way, painful as it can be sometimes. Just a quick reassurance that this is nothing to worry about as I know particularly my sister will panic a bit on reading this - but I know that other solo travellers have these times and maybe people don't mention it that much on travel writings - also might help me feel a bit better tonight!
I know I've spoken previously about the challenges of meeting and parting with people in very quick succession - that you get to know people very intensely over a short period of time, share amazing and challenging experiences, spend large amounts of time together, and within a couple of days or a week, you or they move on, leaving you with big emotional wrenches going on nearly all the time. (this is still getting more rather than less intense as time goes on) Another
thing is when you don't necessarily meet people at a time when you have a day or two when you don't want just your own company, or you've just arrived in a new place, or you really don't want to eat alone that night; or else you do meet people but still feel a kind of loneliness of being around people who are great but who you hardly know. So, I arrived in Bangkok in the early hours of Saturday morning, and had a bit of a whirlwind 24 hours from there; I was looking for somewhere to stay and couldn't find anywhere, and ended up chatting to an English guy who lives over here, who offered me to crash at his flat for (what was left of) the night, which was a really nice offer; so I was with him (sleeping from 6am) till the following evening, when I arrived back in the Kao San area of Bangkok to renew my search. I found a guesthouse straightaway, and was feeling the need for company, so headed out into the town after I'd had a shower and got myself sorted. I was lucky enough to get talking straightaway to a
German guy called Matthius, who was on the next table to me in this cafe; he had to go off and meet a friend but we arranged to meet later on. I was just sitting at the same table when suddenly in the street alongside, I saw a guy stop and look at me and smile, and it was Reiner, a really nice German guy who I'd met a couple of months ago in Rajasthan, and we'd had a loose arrangement to meet in Thailand, though he wasn't originally due here till early May, so I hadn't thought he was around. So it was really nice to see him, and we went out after going to meet Matthius who didn't actually turn up, or maybe had but we were a few minutes late. We were out with Reiner's other friend until about 4am this morning, then arranged to do a bit of sightseeing in Bangkok today. I was feeling a bit tired and emotional myself, having had barely any sleep the last 4 nights, and still catching up with being in my fourth new country in under a month; so was a bit out of sorts, feeling a bit moody,
disoriented etc; it was also incredibly hot and humid out and both of us were finding it a bit much. At some point we lost each other at the Grand Palace which we'd gone to visit. We had a bit of a misunderstanding about where to meet after we'd separated for a bit, and as I waited outside the entrance to the palace for nearly an hour, I started to feel almost a ridiculous sense of loneliness and abandonment, and I was standing there, literally fighting back tears. Eventually I thought I should just head back, and as I walked through the crowded street market lining the road from the palace almost all the way back to Kao San, tracing my steps the way we'd come incase I saw him, I began to feel more and more upset, and more and more lonely; and having had a long period of feeling like I could just travel forever, was suddenly hit by the feeling of wanting to go home, and being tired of the constant tension of: what will happen when I arrive in a new place, how will I feel, how will I find it, how will I find the
culture, will I enjoy some solo company exploring the place, will I feel lonely, will I meet people, etcetcetc. I also always have excitement mingled in with all of that, and the apprehension is not always so prevalent, but in my current state, this is what I remembered of my experiences of moving on and moving on and moving on. At some point I also started to reflect that this is an inevitable part of the experience. I have chosen to travel alone, this was something I needed to do alone, and it gives me incredible freedom, to do pretty much what I want to do, and when, without the compromises that go along with having a permanent travel companion. The flip side to this is that you're sometimes lonely and alone when you don't want to be, and there's no getting away from that aspect of it. I was still feeling pretty crap by the time I got back, but I went round to Reiner's guest house a little while later to see if he was there, to discover he'd only just got back as he had been waiting for me outside the palace all that time. (after all
that we were both waiting for each other in the same spot but somehow missed each other). He was with another friend too, and we all went to get something to eat but my lonesome feelings had set in too stubbornly by this time, and a while later, when the two of them wanted to go somewhere else, I started to go along but then decided not to, didn't know what to do with myself, and went back to my room and just had a really long cry. After I'd cried and then had a shower I went for a walk thinking maybe I'll bump into someone, and was swinging between ' I can't bear to spend the evening alone' and 'it's fine to be alone, and maybe I could do with the space anyway'; eventually I went back to my guest house cafe, read my book, then came to use the internet here. Nothing any more enlightening to say on this topic, but just wanted to write about it; as I said, it's as much a part of the experience as the seeing and experiencing new places and cultures, meeting different people, having amazing adventures and journeys. Sometimes it's
just this - a confrontation with these feelings, loneliness, a bit of isolation, etc. Then it passes again. Last week I had my first day in Kyoto (japan) by myself and completely enjoyed my own company, the peace and space, and the freedom of feeling perfectly happy in a strange town thousands of miles from home, enjoying the cherry blossom and the solitude. So it's a mixed bag, and you never quite know how you will feel in any given situation: alone, with people, in a new place, in a place you've been in for a while. In a way, the same as different days at home - it's just that things change much quicker in the travel context, so emotions and moods change more often with the changing circumstances.
Anyway, enough of this, and on to the last few weeks. Rewinding to 1 April, when I left India and arrived in Singapore, to meet my friend Tracey from England.
The first thing I noticed before I was even off the plane was that Singapore looks orderly even from the sky. Out of the plane window as we were coming into land, all I seemed to see were neat
lines of street lights, straight roads, tall buildings.
The airport seemed really quiet despite the fact that thousands of people were milling around - everything carpeted and calm, passport control smooth and simple. I walked along the moving walkways struck by the number of white people I could see around me, both westerners and Singapore natives (Singaporeans?) after having been in India for so long and being used to being the only white face around much of the time.
It was lovely to see Tracey again and we had a good time catching up that night over a pizza and a beer (slightly jaw dropping for me that this cost me about as much as a week's accommodation, food and living expenses in India - surprising how quickly I'd slipped into the Indian cost of living after having been in London all my life).
The next day we hit the shopping malls of Singapore. This is kind of an inevitable experience in Singapore as most of the country is made up of shopping malls - except when you suddenly need something and look around for a shopping mall and can't find one. I had a good time
in M&S choosing brand new clean and fresh underwear at last, and was able to bin my manky old knickers finally (too much info, sorry); but got in a bit of a state in the Body Shop when I went into get some shower gel, and the shop assistant was suggesting this type, that type, and I couldn't handle the choice, after so many months of the choice being either Medimix ayurvedic soap or Lux or sometimes neither if the shops haven't got any or there isn't a shop at all, maybe, and you just use have to use your shampoo instead as a body wash. I was just thinking, I don't care, I just need some shower gel, anything will do. I think it's good to have put a dent into that shopping thing, having so much to choose from all the time and trying to get happy through having aloe vera gel rather than vitamin E, or whatever; I don't necessarily think there's anything noble about living in developing countries and for people to have to suffer so much through lack of essential amenities, but going back to basics in some ways is a good thing; finding other
things in life to enjoy apart from the quick thrill of a shopping spree (though I did enjoy my new knickers, and am not saying there's anything wrong with enjoying stuff you have).
Singapore, as I touched on before, is a sanitised, ordered, squeaky clean environment, where it is a criminal offence to cross the road on a red man, or drop litter (no bad thing). We found it a bit of a shame when wandering through 'Chinatown', that you could hardly see it was Chinatown, for all the cleaning up that seems to have happened in the area. It's seemingly a sort of 'Pleasantville', with traffic running smoothly and quietly, almost no sign of poverty anywhere, and (with the help of all the shopping malls) the illusion that all you need is not love, but the latest things available in the stores, and an environment that runs like clockwork. This was almost a fascinating observation for us at first but as time went on almost became a bit sinister, and Tracey and I began to suspect that a cross between a Stepford Wives and Truman Show scenario was happening here, and that actually we would never get away...
Still, in the absence of a richness of culture, we thought we may as well embrace what there is to embrace about Singapore, ie enjoy the clean toilets, the easy luxury, etc. So we had nice meals, Singapore Slings at Raffles Hotel, a posh dinner at the revolving restaurant at the top of a top hotel...
Other sights are few and far between. We dropped in at a few interesting looking temples around Chinatown, spent a nice evening in an Irish bar in the 'Little India' area of Singapore; visited the evening markets in town, and one day took a nice cable car ride across to Mount Faber, where you get good views of the Singapore skyline and on a clear day can apparently see Indonesia from there. Another day we took a long walk up Fort Canning Hill where there were also apparently good views which in reality were substantially hidden by all the trees - though the trees were actually amazing in themselves anyway; and spent a long time following the signs to the cafe and toilets which led us all the way up the hill and all the way back down again along these snake
paths, without ever leading us to either. (so not always so ordered and perfect after all). We also took a boat ride on the river which happily became a good story to tell (and you know how I need my travel transport anecdotal tales). The boat man pulled into the side of the river where a few of us tourists waited to get on for a half hour trip up and down. Tracey was fortunately looking behind at the boat man ( a handy intuitive sense of mistrust I think) as he backed out into the river (not looking behind) straight into the path of an oncoming boat, and said to me ' there's another boat - has he seen it?' I looked around and saw the imminent crash about to happen, and (unlike in film scenes, where people say things in the nick of time) was suddenly unable to think or speak but managed to point wildly to him and shout something like 'ba ba ba aaa ooo aa' which of course is Malay for ' stop we're about to crash'; and he turned around and managed to move the boat away, then started gesturing angrily to the other
boat, and turned back to me, indignantly explaining at length in Malay (which I could understand perfectly) about how that near miss was not his fault at all, but completely the fault of the other boat which should not have been in the water anyway, or under the guidance of its boat man, who should not keep his job or even be allowed to exist anymore.
The other near-excitement we had was taking a trip on the 'DHL' balloon, which we paid for along with our boat trip ticket. This hot air balloon doesn't travel anywhere as it is roped to the ground, but goes up I think about 150 metres for about 10 minutes where you get, again, good views of Singapore. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) they will not do the trip in anything other than completely still, dry conditions, and from the time we bought the ticket to the time we left Singapore, it was quite breezy and windy so we never got to go. Interesting though: not much of an advert for DHL...
We left Singapore after four days and made our way to the airport to catch our flight to Hong Kong, where we felt
we would definitely have a bit more sensory stimulation, culture and excitement. We arrived later that day, at our hotel off Nathan Road on Kow Loon Island, which is opposite Hong Kong Island. (I didn't actually know any of this before arriving in Hong Kong, that Hong Kong is actually a network of little islands, only one of which is actually called Hong Kong Island). Tracey was struggling to take in the sensory stimulation mentioned above, which unfortunately came in the form of an onslaught of neon signs overhanging every road on either side of the road, with a space of approximately 2 centimetres in between each one. Even more disappointingly, several of them were advertising things like 'Burger King', 'Pizza Hut' and '7-Eleven' rather than anything more authentically Hong Kong/Chinese-like, though this may have been a blessing in the end, because the main authentic Chinese culture in Hong Kong turned out to be most obviously shown on dinner menus, which offered dishes such as 'sheep's lung' or 'cow's brain fried with eye of chicken and eel's stomach'
Hong Kong is another shopper's heaven, and apparently what people come to Hong Kong for, which neither of us were that much
interested in. Clothes, electronics etc are available for presumably a fraction of the price that they are elsewhere - presumably a FRACTION because this obviously also has to be offset against the cost of your flights to and from Hong Kong to get to the shops, as well as your accommodation and your sheep's lung breakfasts while you are there.
We took a breezy, cloudy trip across to Hong Kong Island on our first day, on the Star Ferry, and took a ride up the 'world's largest outdoor escalator system' which eventually takes you high up into Hong Kong Island, where you don't feel so closed in by the overwhelmingly tall skyscrapers which dominate the whole place. Later on we wandered down to ........(area I can't think of the name of, has good cocktail bars though), where we enjoyed some really strong red cocktails and met a nice woman, originally from Hong Kong, but now living in England.
Having ground to a bit of a physical and mental halt due to still acclimatising to being away from India and in such westernised places again, as well as taking on different currencies and climates, I felt I needed a day
of nothing, and as I didn't feel like I was missing such a great deal in not being out in the Hong Kong shopping experience, I spent a day emailing and writing my last blog (pretty much the same kind of day I'm having here in Bangkok to write this now...), which helped to have a bit of space, and the day after that was better as we decided to go back to Hong Kong Island and take the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak (views etc). This was actually a really nice day; we were lucky with the weather, the tram was quite exciting, travelling as it does on an incline of at least 60 degrees for 5-10 minutes to take you to the top of Victoria Peak, where there were great views actually, and another opportunity to feel on top of things a bit in Hong Kong, rather than hemmed in and drowned in them. We had originally had an agreement, instigated by Tracey, that we wouldn't have any sushi until we got to Tokyo even if we saw it elsewhere, so that we could really enjoy it once we were in Japan, but this resolve started dissolving
pretty quickly with the dubious Hong Kong menus and we crumbled completely in the Victoria Peak complex when we came across a great looking Japanese place to eat, so we really enjoyed our lunch that day (then divided the rest of the week's meals pretty much between sushi places and pasta places, in understandable recoil from everythig else which was on offer...).
The other main nice day we spent was taking a tour ('Splendid Tours' no less, complete with having to wear a 'Splendid' sticker whilst on the tour) to Lantao Island - we decided to book the tour more for easiness than anything else and it turned into a nice day once the first tour guide finshed scraping the bottom of the barrel in her monologue about how Hong Kong was about to build a building which was 102 storeys high and therefore taller than another building which was only 101 storeys high, and how the suspension bridge we were passing was 97 metres longer than the Golden Gate Bridge in the US (the significance of the 97 being that a) so it could be bigger and better and b) because Hong Kong became an autonomous region of China
in 1997 - several organised events, building works etc etc in Hong Kong are therefore dictated by the number 97; 97 metres longer, 97 storeys higher, 97 ways to bore a tour bus of 'Splendid' tourists...), and highlighted the first part of the tour by taking us to a '6 star toilet facility', and finally left us part way through the trip and was replaced by a much more interesting tour guide, who was with us for the rest of the trip, which took us to a last remaining fishing village of Hong Kong, called Tai O, also one of the only visible remaining signs of Chinese traditional life, then to the Po Lin Buddhist Monastery, where we visited the Giant Buddha, who was almost entirely hidden by the freezing fog which had descended, and where we actually had (at last!) some really good Chinese food provided by the Monastery; the only down side to the lunch was ending up sitting on a table with a couple who spent the entire time warning us not to take a day trip into China as it was so Chinese and 'third world', and how Hong Kong was amazing because of all the
shopping and this is why they were here for a month. On the way back we took a 25 minute cable car ride (thankfully managing to avoid being in the cable car with the just mentioned couple) which would have been spectacular if we could have seen through the fog, which eventually cleared enough towards the end of the ride to give us some great views.
Back on Kow Loon Island, where we were staying, we took in the nightly 10 minute laser show on the harbour, which you can watch from there, from Hong Kong Island, or even take the Star Ferry at about 8pm so you can catch it from the boat.
The rest of our time in Hong Kong was spent wandering around a couple of museums, visiting the Temple Street night market, and dealing with the endearing Indian contingent population in Hong Kong, who stand around Nathan Road at distances of approx 25 metres, and mumble 'Copy handbag? Copy watch madam? Ladies Tailors?' as any westerner approaches - this was at least for me a sweet nostalgic journey back to the days of 'madam madam!' that I was/am so missing despite it driving me crazy at
Tokyo was calling loudly well before we left HK and so was the sushi. We were rewarded by the spectacular view everyone imagines of the city which we had from our hotel when we got there; and were then almost immediately challenged by the reality that English is neither spoken nor written much in Japan and simple things like eating and getting around are not so easy.
On the first night we found what looked like a good place to eat, and then were given a menu
which was entirely in Japanese and didn't have pictures; so close to getting the food we knew was probably there, but with no hope of either identifying it or asking for it; fortunately in the end we got talking to two western men sitting around the counter from us, who handed us (thank god) an English menu they had used.
Food continued to be a bit of an issue, and ended up being driven by going to places that had pictures and/or English menus. The very nice restaurant on the corner of the road very nearby our hotel had an English translation of the menu, which had obviously been
done very carefully and painstakingly, and the result was what would happen if I was to take a few sentences and phrases in English, go and get a Japanese dictionary and translate them into Japanese by looking up each word, choosing the first translation option of each and writing them down in the same word order. Consequently, the menu offered delicacies such as : 'Thing eats with flavour of nostalgic and crotch of chicken with salad of length potato'...
Tokyo was not what I expected; various TV images and 'Lost in Translation' had given me the impression that it was fast moving, really noisy, overwhelmingly neon-lit, etc etc. In fact, although it has huge video screens on every corner of most main roads, and big columns of neons lining the streets and the corners, it doesn't feel overpowered by them. And apart from the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, noise and bustle are strangely minimal for such a large capital city. If Singapore can be described as a clean, sanitised place and highly ordered environment, I don't know how Japan compares; in one way you can say the same thing, but there's a difference; maybe you could say Singapore is
the 'showroom' of orderliness, whereas Japan is the living practice. Maybe. Not quite, but difficult to describe. Again, absolutely no chance of anybody jay walking under any circumstances; everything appears to run smoothly and calmly and like clockwork, including hte way people walk down the street. Inner city Tokyo streets are spotless, and although the roads are filled with traffic, horns are barely sounded. There's no question of anybody in Japan being anything other than extremely polite, friendly and helpful; but as with everything, there seems to be a shadow side to this. Shopping (again), computer/video games arcades, smoking cigarettes and drinking all seem operate to a really large degree, as if the pressure to conform, look happy, and abide by rules is just too much. Also, there are frightening statistics on teenage suicides in Japan. The thinking is that pressure to perform well at school and get good results tips a significant number of adolescents over the edge. On my last day in Japan, when I returned to Tokyo, I took a few subway rides back and forth as I was going between places, and in about a 3 hour period, there were 3 different 'accidents' on the subway,
aka incidents of people throwing themselves in front of trains, which in Tokyo is the favoured suicide option, and apparently the response to this has been to develop a record time in which the 'accident' can be cleared up in order to resume normal service on the subway again (about 2 and a half minutes, so I was told by one person).
Another thing with Japan, is despite its huge interconnection with the rest of the world, foreign trade, Tokyo itself being a big international business metropolis, most ATM's don't accept foreign bank cards, and the Japanese mobile phone network operates in a different way to everywhere else in the world, meaning that foreign mobile phones do not work in Japan. We also noticed that even a lot of tourist attractions have signs and guides mainly just in Japanese - there are English translations in places, but not guaranteed - not that there necessarily should be, but just an interesting observation to note that probably thanks to Sony, Sanyo, Toyota, Nissan, etc, tourism does not have to be so much of a priority
What didn't surprise me so much, though was much more prevalent than I expected, was
the gadgetry, which I particularly noticed in toilets. Most toilets in restaurants and shops can actually be quite scary: the seats are huge, with a control panel on the right hand side which provides settings for a fan, heating of the toilet seat, and various spray/shower options. This in itself isn't too diffcult; what's more worrying is when you go into a loo and there is a panel on the wall, with instructions in Japanese. On this panel you get options for sound settings, eg fake flushing sounds to drown out the sound of anything you might be doing on the toilet, music, and instructions for activating the real flush, though it isn't made obvious to the non -Japanese speaking person how this is done. In Japan, there are several possibilities for the way the loo might flush: 1). 3 or 4 different kinds and shapes of manual flush; 2). flush activated by waving your hand over a sensor panel which may or may not be invisible; 3). the loo will flush itself automatically when you are finished (or when it thinks you are finished, or whenever you move vaguely in front of whatever sensor is activating the auto-flush, like
when I was in the airport loos changing my clothes for my flight back to Hong Kong, and the loo got extremely confused at the constant sensor activation and was flushing itself madly and obsessively every 2 seconds).
I won't even get started on the automatic toilet lids.... overall, it's a wonder I ever left Japan, because there were times I was stuck in the loos for 10 minutes or more either trying to get out of the way of the auto toilet lid , or working out how the loo flushed, meanwhile managing to have no problem activating the showers, sprays, fake flush sound, radio, and scent of rose and jasmine diffuser.
In between the times of being in the loos, we explored Shinjuki a little, as I said before a bustling shopping, entertainment and eating area (where we also found a really nice sushi bar - great option and such a relief to just be able to see the food and take if off the conveyor belt and eat it, without having to work out anything); had a look around the Kabuki-cho area of Shinjuku, which is the red light district, and also full of little alleyways
lined with bars only frequented by men...also near Shinuku is the Park Hyatt hotel (where Lost in Translation is filmed) where you get amazing views of the city and can have champagne cocktails etc. At least, you can as long as you are wearing proper shoes, which I wasn't. One of the waitresses came up to us as we were waiting for a table and asked if we wanted smoking or non smoking, then went away to be replaced by another who came over to me, looked down
with disappointment at my dusty black flip flops and said, 'sorry, we don't take customer with this sandal.' It was about 5.30pm and we'd spent nearly an hour walking around trying to find the hotel (another thing about Japan is that only main roads have signs, and sometimes not even those) and I could see the champagne cocktails and was not going to leave without a fight, so I politely asked if she could make an exception and let us in (and we would be sure to hide our feet under the table). Eventually she nodded and said 'this time only' and showed us to a table far away from anyone who
might be offended by my flip flops.
The weather in Japan was really not all that great, quite rainy and even cold, and I don't have any shoes with me, just sandals, so gets a bit chilly wandering around in those conditions - also the reason I am in the same clothes all the time in the photos in Japan is because I only have one pair of jeans, one cardigan etc etc - sorry for looking boring. One rainy afternoon, stuck for stuff to do, we went along to the Sony building in Ginza in Tokyo, where you can have a go at new Sony gadgets, some of which haven't been released for sale yet, like (or maybe they have been released but I am quite out of touch with stuff like this) MP3 players where you can play films on a tiny screen on them.
We also took in a Kabukiza theatre performance - these are sort of epic plays which start from about 11am and continue until about 4 or 5 in the afternoon, so it's common practice to go along for one act only, which is maybe an hour or an hour and a half
long. This was one place where helpfully an English language translation to what was going on was provided via earphones, which was really useful. The actors are heavily made up, and also are all played by men, though probably more than half of the characters are women. Strangely, several of the actors seemed also to all be related to each other, as was told to us by the earphone guide. Mid way through the act that we went to see, the play was halted while there was a ceremony for one of the actors, who was taking on a new name in celebration and honour of the history of his acting career.
One really nice thing was meeting up again with a lovely Japanese girl who I know from the ashram I stayed at in Kerala several months back. Miwa lives just at the edge of Tokyo and came over to see us one rainy afternoon where we were forced to stay indoors and have a few drinks. It was so nice to see her and catch up after so long, and to actually have made it happen, from a throwaway conversation one day during a chai break on
an October monsoon afternoon at the ashram in a remote corner of Kerala, of: 'yeah, maybe I'll come to Japan and we'll meet up,' to 6 months later, here in Tokyo, and here we were!
Tracey left for home after the week in Tokyo, and I had arranged to stay on for an extra week in Japan, and was heading down to Kyoto, a city a few hundred miles south of Tokyo. I had booked a ticket on the 'Shinkansen' train, the famous 'bullet' trains of Japan, and arrived at Tokyo station in good time to catch my train. I was standing idly on the platform waiting for the train to arrive, and gradually noticed little lines of people dotted along the platform at evenly spaced distances. On closer inspection I realised that people were standing obediently
along paved paths which then turned at 90 degree angles towards the tracks, spaced at where the doors of the train would stop, and everyone on the platform apart from me and the circular clusters of people standing round the large trough-like central ashtrays planted periodically along the platform, were standing on the paths. When the train came in, everyone got
off and then a group of pink and blue people came along, all carrying large bags; at least, women dressed in pink and men dressed in blue, who turned out to be the carriage cleaners. The pink ladies and blue men got on the train, and the first thing they did was swivel all the seats around, which had all been facing forwards as the train came in, so that they would all face the right way for the outward journey - clever hey? these Japanese... After they have done this, they replace all the head covers of the seats, collect the rubbish, sweep and mop the floors, and wipe down the seats. Then they put all their cleaning stuff back in their bags, step down from the train and stand to attention (yes!) outside their carriage until the cleaning inspector comes along to check they have done their job properly, then they are dismissed.
I couldn't help wondering what would happen if you were to swap over half the inhabitants of Tokyo, and half the inhabitants of Delhi just for a day, then just stand back and film what happens...
The bullet "shinkansen" train itself is really roomy
and comfortable, and (with explanations in English) has special multi-purpose rooms on the train for, as it describes, mothers to breast feed, and for "the passenger who is not feeling good". Was quite curious to go along and see what might be in this room to help you feel better; ie free chocolate, dvd's to watch, advice, a new love etc etc?
I expected the bullet train to literally fly along the tracks like a bullet, and be so fast I would not be able to see what was passing out of the window. This wasn't the case of course, in fact it didn't really look or feel that much faster than your average Virgin Intercity but must have been as it covered larger distances in shorter times. In just over 2 hours, including stops, I was in Kyoto, a good few hundred miles south of Tokyo. It was nice to get off the train and feel that it was warmer here, after being cold most days in Tokyo. After one or two false starts in different directions, as I had come out the opposite side of the station to what I had thought, I found the right direction
to the hostel I was going to try, called the Tour Club,
and got there before too long; luckily they had room and it was a nice place, being in Japan of course the dorms were spotlessly clean as were the bathrooms, and we also had a little kitchen and living area, and they provide free coffee and tea which you can help yourself to. On a couple of evenings they also made sake for us, which was very nice. The kitchen especially I was quite excited about as, in way more than 6 months, due to travelling, I have not so much as made a cup of tea for myself: no cooking, no food shopping, no washing mainly (as most places you stay in like to make money from the laundry service they offer by banning hanging washing up in your rooms). Sounds great I know and is, most of the time, but every so often, you just want to cook your own food, or be able to have some tea as soon as you wake up, and also I don't want to forget how to do these simple tasks because at some point I will need to
look after myself again...
I took to Kyoto much more than I had done to Tokyo, mainly because you get more of a feel of Japanese culture there, though it is also a big westernised city in parts. I liked the journeys on the buses, where they announce things all the time (this I have to say too, was also in English too,) and every sentence ends with 'arigato gazaimas' , which means thank you very much and which I spent almost the entire two weeks in Japan obsessively saying, in response to everyone else's 'arigato!'s and 'gazaimas!' s, which you get all the time whenever you leave anywhere, and when you arrive somewhere, like a shop or cafe, everyone who works there calls out to you in greeting (maybe 'Konichiwa'! which is good afternoon) - the first couple of times this happened it was a bit disconcerting, as it almost sounds like they are calling out urgently to tell you something, like "Konichiwa! Your dress in your knicker!" or something.
I had a long walk along the "Philosopher's Trail", in North East Kyoto, which follows a path along a canal which at the time I was there was overhung
with cherry blossom - so nice to see as we had missed it in Tokyo. The trail takes you to several temples and shrines along the way, most of which I have forgotten their names and left my Lonely Planet in Japan, but it is a great walk, and some of the shrines and temples, particularly the latter ones along the route, are really beautiful. The Eikando temple also has a zen garden, a sort of sparse rectangle of raked white gravel and maybe one or two plants, which at first looks stark, but I have to stay if you spend some time sitting there, it begins to feel quite peaceful.
A lot of my time in Kyoto, and also in Nara, a city an hour or so away, was spent in and around temples or castles, but I have to say the temples were particularly beautiful, and especially the Todaiji temple in Nara was completely spectacular and magnificent, also retaining its grandness because it hadn't actually been too restored, so you really got a sense of its age.
It was (and continues to be here in Thailand too) an interesting journey for me too, suddenly visiting, by going to
Japan, what is predominantly a Buddhist country, and visiting Buddhist temples, seeing Buddha figures and Buddhist art everywhere. I hadn't really thought about it before, and if I had have done, I might have thought that maybe I would have a bit of a reaction to it - because of my Buddhist past - but actually, I have to say I started to feel the stirrings of something - not that I could see myself becoming a Buddhist again or anything like that, but maybe in a way the memory of something, some of the good things about that time, some of the good effects it had on me; and especially in visiting Zen gardens, not really expecting to feel anything, but as I said at the Eikando temple, and then also at the Rock Gardens near the Golden Temple in Kyoto, they definitely have something about them, just a feeling of spaciousness, maybe; I don't know, but something. Maybe also the history you get a sense of in Buddhist countries, whereas in the West, Buddhism is relatively new and recent.
I met quite a few people at the hostel while I was in Kyoto, and was surprised to
meet one or two travellers who were also going on to South East Asia, as I thought I had come off track a bit by coming to Japan, but I guess it just shows there are always travellers who are doing similar routes. It was especially nice to meet Daniela, originally from Ecuador but living in New York, who is now coming to Bangkok while I'm here, so we'll hopefully be hooking up. A few of us who met there, Daniela, Martyn, Gareth, both from England, also Cindy from Australia who I'll hopefully be seeing in Sydney (Cindy in Sydney), spent quite a lot of time together, visiting places, going out in the evenings - all really lovely people. Had a couple of evenings out in Gion, which is the famous Geisha area of Kyoto though I didn't take any photos of the few geishas I saw as it didn't really feel appropriate to take them; it's also a really interesting area, with some very old quaint architecture.
I left Kyoto the day before I was due to leave Japan, so I could get back to Tokyo and get to the airport early the next morning to catch my
flight away. I wanted to visit the Tokyo National Museum and also I thought I might spend the night in a "Manga" cafe - these are like internet cafes, but where you get your own booth with a reclining chair or simple sofa, and for a flat rate can stay the night, surfing, watching DVD's or reading. I planned to go to one in Shinjuku, so after arriving back in Tokyo, leaving my rucksack at the station in a locker, and visiting the museum, which was good except they had a Leonardo Davinci exhibition on which I couldn't go to as I hadn't taken enough money with me, I made my way on the subway to Shinjuku. I couldn't work out where the Manga cafe was, and for all the organisation in Japan, getting around can be really confusing as only main roads have name signs, so I wandered round for some time trying to work out where it could be. I'd almost come across it (I think) when a guy on the street came over to me, and asked if he could help, saying he'd noticed my Lonely Planet and thought I might need some help. He was originally
from Lebanon and had lived in Japan for a few years; he was really helpful and walked around with me trying to find this place, which we eventually found, then went to get something to eat in an Egyptian restaurant and had a really nice evening chatting, eating, drinking - it was a lovely and unexpected last night in Tokyo, and afterwards he came along with me to the Manga cafe and spoke in Japanese on my behalf so I could get the booth I wanted etc; really a nice guy. So I got to the Manga cafe around 11pm, sent a couple of emails though was really too tired to do much, and eventually slept for an hour or so, before getting up to leave just before 5am to make my way to the station, fetch my bag, and catch the train for the airport.
So that was the last few weeks. Sorry if the blog seems flat this time; still finding it difficult to shift the mood I've had since arriving in Bangkok; still tiredness, I think and the humidity here, and also new indecision about what to do next. So writing is a bit hard at
the moment. As usual there are more pics if you scroll down and a couple of pages of them, so till next time xxx
There are more photos below