Author - J.Molkenthin

JET: Japanniversary

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The view from the hotel Beer Garden in Miemachi

It’s my Japanniversary! So the 3rd August marked my first year of living in Japan, and thus the longest I’ve ever been out of the UK!

As I stride into my second (and final?) year in Japan, at least as a JET, I’ve compiled just a few things I’ve learnt and discovered this year – enjoy!

  • A 3 hour drive actually means a place is nearby
  • Inaka means countryside, so I’m an Inaka JET
  • Beer is a lifestyle, not a drink
  • Without internet, you truely are alone (so get it ASAP!)
  • Things aren’t as far away as they seem, it just feels that way because the speed limit is 80kph/50mph
  • A water jet is a much more refreshing way to clean your arse, especially in hot, summer weather.
  • Nomihoudai (all you can drink) is not a challenge, but a polite offer, treat it as such
  • Your bank card will only work in your prefecture, and the neighbouring ones only if you’re lucky
  • There is minimal graffitti – I can’t recall seeing any!
  • Network, network, network, the people you meet at the orientations will become your travel destinations!
  • Cash is king – what’s a debit card?
  • 3 questions you need to understand and answer in Japanese – “Where are you from?” “Why are you in Japan?” “What do you like about Japan?”
  • Japan doesn’t work harder than anywhere else, they just spend more time in their place of work
  • Walking around naked, around other people, in nature, is nice
  • Konbinis truly are konbenient
  • Tokyo is surprising far away (from Kyushu) to the extent that it’s quicker to fly to other countries
  • When Japanese people drink, they go hard!
  • Even ATMs need to sleep.
  • You pay to access your money
  • ‘Studying’ doesn’t equate to learning, especially in English class.
  • The only difference between school holidays and school is that some of the kids come to school in their own clothes, and you literally spend the day at your desk, not just most of it.

So why stay a second year?

It’s an interesting question. Settling in takes a long time, and I feel that my increasing Japanese can only open doors for me to foster more meaningful relationships, that I couldn’t forge when I had just arrived.

I think a second year of studying Japanese will bring it up to conversational fluency, and that will really help me to understand the culture and mindset better.

Whilst teaching is so-so, it is great seeing the progress of the few kids that want to learn, and some of the kids are just weirdly funny. And whilst a lesson that bombs is pretty distressing, getting it right is pretty rewarding!

Going into my second year, I need to get serious with my money. It’s been a great year, visiting S. Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, and Taiwan, with Hong Kong to come. Within Japan as well, I’ve been to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Osaka, with Tokyo and Kyoto lined up, plus all the littler places. But… it has hit my wallet hard, and pushed freelancing to one side.

With many of closest friends leaving, I think this coming year could be a more self-reflective year, with the time, space, and desire to fit in more hiking, cycling and work, and to work on my professional side in preparation for after I leave the programme.

Whatever happens, I sure it shan’t be like the last!

Taiwan: Hiking, hiking, HIKING!

Finally the summer vacation has arrived and so begins my first trip of the summer – Taiwan with fellow Brit and JET, Emma, who I met in London Orientation almost exactly a year ago!

Saturday 24th July: A quest to find a hotel

After an initial hiccough, wherein we discovered that the airport had 2 terminals. It had been nearly 10 months since I’d last saw Emma, but she hadn’t changed much, so she was easy to spot within in the sea of Taiwanese faces.

Coming into Taipei, we were presented with vast towering appartments, much like the scenes I’d seen of Chinese expansion in Eastern Africa in a Core77 article, shooting up from the earth in striking regularity.

Getting into the main station, I was struck by how wooden and grand, yet aged the building was, especially the main ticketing area with its grandiose hall and high ceiling, creating a cool environment, at contrast to the sticky heat outside.

Emma has the memory and route planning skills of an elephant, and so had us to the Sleepy Dragon hostel in no time. Their ingenious name was the sole reason we had book the hostel.

It was great place, that you could feel was really well considered and planned. The couple Satoru and Shelly bought a floor in the block, and renovated it so that it is (a large) part hostel and part house. The cinema screen, variety of beers and home-handmade breakfasts were all a treat!

The consideration of use extended to the dorms too! With custom built bed units, each with its own curtain to shut it off from the room, and each bed with its own electrical outlet, lamp and fold down desk – hell it even had a cubby for shoes under the bed ! The place is a treat to return to after a day’s hiking.

With a storm looking like it was brewing, we wisely chose to drink beer for a couple of hours, before deciding it wasn’t going to down pour and went in search of the Grand Hotel.

Turns out, I’m now incredibly reliant on mobile internet to navigate, and that Grand Hotel isn’t its name in Chinese!

We first arrived at Shilin station and we had a little wander, figuring the hotel was nearby… We knew it was either north or south of the Shilin markets… We couldn’t see it. We gathered a few people together, they pointed in a direction and told us to take the metro south.

Popping out at Yuanshang, 2 stops down, we still couldn’t see it. We walked past the Expo centre, then further south, before making the call to swing round the stadium. This had an awesome bustling food scene, with little stalls in shipping containers and some big pub bistro restaurants – all very edgy.

After speaking to the Information Man, he pointed us in a direction, and in no time at all, we could see it!!! We made a beeline for it, only to discover the end of the park was fenced off, and we would have to retrace our steps through the park. Then to discover it was on the far side of a metric shit-ton of overpasses and ring roads – cry!

One cool feature we did come across was scooter/motorbike only lanes, running separate to the car roads, which was pretty cool!

The front of the hotel in sight, we could see no access, just concrete express ways rising and falling between us! So we followed the road round and found some steps. By this point we must have been 2 hours down, hungry and hot.

Wasn’t even worth it.

The hotel is a testament to olden architecture. Built in 20th century, it uses traditional Chinese construction methods and Chinese palace design. It was also the tallest building in Taipei at its conception. It does look awesome, if not a little like the building in the opening scenes of Inception!

But the real reason for our visit was the story of the slide. Set on a hill, the hotel has an emergency slide to allow dignitaries to escape.

Unfortunately for us, access for the public is prohibited :’(

Heading back down, we decided to head to the Shilin night market – it was not what I had expected.

Shilin Night Market

It reminded me of the tourist traps from sport-tour holidays in Spain. Narrow streets, with shops on each side selling the latest clothes or Nike trainers, whilst in the middle ran the floor sellers of bric-a-brac and fabrics, helping clog the already narrow streets and forcing people to a slow amble. Supplementing this scene were fruit and smoothies vendors on each corner, and along the edges of the area were the carnival type games; shooting the can, get ball in the milk jug, pop the balloons with the darts. It really had the feel of a travelling fairground, but combined with bright, vibrant shops.

The evening was getting on, and one of our highlights was to be the Cheese and Beer Social house. A little out of the way, we headed their, ordered our obscure beers and a grilled cheese sandwiches. The combined exhaustion of travel, hunger and thirst meant this place didn’t seem overly enjoyable, but had we perhaps arrived earlier, or on a different day, we may have had a more pleasurable experience.

Sunday: Stinkyhead Mountain – 臭頭山

Sunday was to be our first hiking day. We didn’t feel the need to rush, so we enjoyed the breakfast at the hostel, and then set off on the MRT to work our way out of the city. From the end of the line, we caught a bus through the rolling hills of East of Taipei to Pingxi.

To be honest, the view was much the same driving through Japan, with luscious green vegetation disrupted by low rise buildings that line the roads and speckle the distant hills.

Pingxi was far more developed than I imaged, I had images of small farm houses, mostly from the fact I was unable to find a hotel that had a website in the area. But it was very much a small town with shops along the main road, and naturally a couple of konbinis.

The hike was just a wee way down from the bus stop, and so we headed up the trail. Initially it seemed like a small, stoned path up to a temple or something, but it soon gave way to a well trodden path that in turn lead to paths and sections that required more careful footing, hand ropes and at one point a ladder!

Within the first minute or two I was immensely relieved that I had purchased and bought with me a 3L camelbak, so that I could frequently sip at my water. Within no time at all I had drench my tee shirt with sweat.

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The view from Xiaozishan – 孝子山

After scaling the initial peak, Xiaozishan – 孝子山, we descended down the other side, heading towards the next peak. Only when the gentlemen we had met at the top of the first peak started heading back towards us did we realise this wasn’t a circular path, and were walking back towards the road.

Not being able to understand the maps and signposts was to be a common occurrence throughout the holiday!

We made friends with these two guys, and scaled up and down the trail a little, eventually deciding to tackle Zhongyangshan together, then pausing part way down for lunch, and to ring out my shirt and shorts – I was soaking!

Then we split up with Emma and I heading after Stinkyhead Mountain. Everything seemed to be going well, and we followed directions to the grasslands mentioned on the hiking blog we’d read. Then we continued through the grasslands… And this was our mistake… Another 30 minutes down the track, no longer seeing trail flags, no other people, nor any more maps, we concluded we may had gone the wrong way…

Back the Way we Came

A considerable time later we were back at the point near where we’d stopped for lunch, and took the only remaining, unexplored fork left in the path. And not a moment too soon! Thunder rolled over us, and lightning flashed behind us, egging us on to go that bit faster.

After a considerably longer walk than anticipated, we started approaching civilisation and were soon back in Pingxi, drinks in hand, sat on a step.

But we still had to get to Jiufen! It was gone 4 o’clock! Looking for a bus, we decided instead to take the train, allowing us to walk around the old street and purchase one of the weirdest treats I’ve ever had – a multi-flavoured icecream, sprinkled with peanut brittle shavings, and coriander, wrapped up in a rice paper, a bit like a spring roll. It made a delightful treat after all the hiking!

The train was pretty cramped, and we got to Ruifang a little before dusk, and followed directions to the bus stop. By the time we were on the bus, it was dark, and got chatting to a man on the bus.

Jiufen Old Street

We hit up the Old Street, whilst looking for our hostel – turned out I was taking us to the wrong star on my map, and we had to ask a lady in a shop for help. She eventually drew us a map and sent us on our way. After asking a few more people, we had found the hotel, and checked into our cramp little room.

Wary of the hour, I went off for food whilst Emma showered, and after trying some spicy fish balls, settled for stinky tofu in a side restaurant.

It reminded me of Uganda food; plain/weird/not so nice taste, with a foreign texture – best not to sniff it either!

Later, Emma joined me, and I tried palming it off on her – she tried a little, but we had to leave a half filled bowl :/

Back at the hostel, we got chatting to one of the other lads, and with him, went for a night-time explore, wherein we took some drinks in an old tea house, over looking the hillside town and sea, discussing China and travels.

Monday: Sandiaoling Trail 三貂嶺

I finally got through to my bank and I had money!

We took the bus back to Ruifang, then found the bus stop to the cat village. Naturally the bus was covered with cats!

The Cat Village

The cat village was small but nice, a series of ‘streets’ stacked on the hill side, wherein it seemed everybody had decided to own a cat. It wasn’t exactly over running with the fuzz balls, but every shop had things cat related, and so we stroked some cats and grabbed a snack in a cafe, bought some postcards and then took the train a few more stops.

Emma had heard about a waterfall hike we could take, and it began by having us walk along the railroad tracks! Under the exposed sun, it was tough going, but soon we turned off it and began uphill under the shade of the trees.

It was a pretty quiet hike for the most part. Early on we saw a waterfall from a distance, crossed a number of rope bridges and by lunchtime climbed down past the “do not climb down” sign and were paddling in the shallow waters – some fellow hikers even offered me some boil in the bag rice which I gratefully scoffed down!

Then we were at the top of a waterfall, overlooking the valley, and climb various terrains; from some metal stairs to a rope and log ladder.

As was becoming usual, we were a little lost, but came across some handmade signs for Shuifen, which was home to a recommended waterfall – ideal! This way our path became more following the roads, and maybe an hour later my thirst was being quenched by a sweet nectar from the shop next to the waterfall.

The waterfall was kind of anticlimactic. It was essentially a building site, with noisey builders working on  making new viewing platforms from which to see the falls, along with a number of tourist posing for photos – far from idyllic!

Shifen Old Street

By now we were getting hangry, so continued into Shifen, a small town that, like Pingxi attracted tourists based on the premise of customising and releasing paper lanterns into the sky from the train tracks, between trains arriving and departing.

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The tracks at Shifen

It was mostly a single street that lead down to rows of shops on either side of the tracks, with old ladies sat on benches outside houses presumably discussing the world and maybe us.

It was getting dark, and a storm was rolling in, so we looked to find a restaurant we could eat in – no luck for my veggie friend!

We spent a little time looking for a bus, and drinking a few beers as it began to round and we found the bus stop and waited. Exhausted, the weather miserable, we sat on the bus and road back into Taipei.

Sunset over Taipei

Reaching Taipei, the weather had cleared, and so we took a gamble on climbing Elephant mountain to watch the sunset over Taipei and behind Taipei 101, picking up a delicious bagel and beers en route, before having to race up the slopes to catch the sunset. We were sweaty, but happy.

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Photographers love dusk on Elephant mountain

Without the excitement of the sunset, the way down was dark and tiring, but not long after we were settled back into the hostel, drink in hand, watching a film on the projector screen.

Tuesday: Wuliaojian – 五寮尖

Determined to make the most of our final full day, and not be left hiking into early evening, we set off at 6am for our hike South West of the city in Wuliaojian, travelling to the end of the MRT, then catching a taxi to the beginning of the hike.

After setting off a few dogs as we passed, we began the long ascent up the incredibly steep road, it must have been nearly 50° incline at points.

Finding a map near the end of the road was were the initial confusion began. We attempted to go right, the more direct path to the peak, but found workers, cranes and vans blocking our path, and they seemed to gesture that we couldn’t take this path.

We double backed, spotting some hiking tags up a small path, and set about following this, only to find the path disappeared and we lost confidence in this ‘path’.

So in the end, we took the only other path available to us.

Even still, it wasn’t the path we had expected, and soon found ourselves passing through a man-made bamboo forest, and heading out much further west than anticipated – it was going to be a long day!

After getting some directions from a man, we knew where we were on the map, and began the longing loop path up the mountain, climbing near vertically at points! After a few more crossroads, where at we rung out our shirts and snacked, and a few more ups and downs, we began the rockier sections of the mountain. Exposed to the sun, relying on ropes to guide us up, it was a real adventurous hiking style!

Ah… Shit…

Without the trees obstructing the view, we could see all around us, and spotted a peak much more similar to the ones we’d seen in photographs…

Which may explain why we never reached a huge exposed ridge with ropes and guides – oh hey ho!

The final peak was a vertical climb assisted by ropes – on the way down we took the rickety old ladder and wooden-rope ladder – much faster but a little hairier!

Not ones to back track, we continued our circular path, rather than return they way we had come – in the end, this turned out to be quite a flat, slippery, tree lined route, which I was glad we hadn’t traversed at the beginning for boredom!

After a time, we spotted some vans and work men in the distance – we’d looped all the way round and come from behind the men that had told us to go back earlier in the morning!

By the time we got back to the main road, it was only a bit past 12! The early rising had done its job! We asked a shopkeeper if they could book a taxi, and soon were we riding in a swish black car to the station, and back into central Taipei.

Visiting Longshan Temple and its market

Arriving back at the hostel and showering, we decided to have a bit of tête-à-tête time, discussing life, the universe and everything, then setting out for the Longshan Temple and its market.

The temple was surprisingly busy, though a strange mix of worshippers/practitioners and people taking selfies, but with the flurry of incense, and rich woods and golds, it was enough to create a longing to belong and accept the falsities of religion.

Next to the markets!

Maybe we went to the wrong areas, maybe we were too early, but the night markets weren’t much of a sight to behold. Though totally different to Shilin market of the first night, it was more just empty, with small wooden stalls and metal frames, and I remember a lot of offle…

Grabbing some free internet at 7-Eleven, we looked for the famous toilet themed restaurant – Modern Toilet.

Having spent the best part of an hour finding it, we arrived a bit after nine to some bad news – it had stopped serving food – but at least we had the photos!

A craving for western food, combined with the guarantee of vegetarian food, lead us to TGI Friday, taking me back to the memories of spending many a meal and session drinking cocktails in such a place with an ex-girlfriend!

Whilst you can take the JETs out of Japan, you can’t take the Japan out of the JETs and we googled for a karaoke place; we were in luck!

“Storming through the party like my name was El Niño…” Karaoke

We soon discovered Chinese karaoke isn’t exactly the same as Japanese karaoke…

We booked in for a hour, with the price seeming a little high, but we wanted a laugh! As it turned out, part of the cost was a drinks order, so had credits with which to buy beverages – 6 honey beers it was then!

The other major difference is the paper book from which we had to choose songs, and the limited number of Western songs. Japan had spoilt us with the latest hits, new songs every month and a full back catalogue of classics. We have maybe a 100 songs to choose from here!

Thinking about it, this wasn’t so surprising.

Chinese/Mandarin/Cantonese don’t have phonetic alphabets. Each character has a sound, and a meaning, but you have to know them. Japanese and English both have phonetic alphabets. In Japan, western lyrics can be approximated by the phonetic scripture. It’s meaningless, but you can read and sing.

But in Chinese, you would have to choose characters purely for their sound. This would make nonsensical sentences, since each sound and character within itself is a word. Then you’d have to decide which of the same-sound-character you would use, and then expect people to be able to sing this nonsense.

The other alternative would be to translate the song and set it to the music – hard work, expensive – so why bother?

That god I’m in Japan!

After buying a second hour, we had nearly exhausted the playlist, and so set out for a cab back to the hostel.

Wednesday – Home Time

Another delightful breakfast at the Sleep Dragon preceded us checking out and heading to Taipei 101.

Taipei 101 had, at one point, been the tallest building in the world, and was based aesthetically (and probably philosophically) on bamboo!

We’d heard about the Starbucks inside the main business tower and wanted to check it out. Alas, this Starbucks required you to make a reservation! The plan scuppered, we created a new plan of checking out some museums in the Expo park area we had walked around on our first night.

After the first few were shut, we ended up the at the Art Museum. One thing I like about Emma, is she doesn’t dilly-dally, so we could hit the works at quite a pace! It showed a real variety of old to modern Taiwanese art, through to modern pieces that explored the effects of climate change and our advancing society and the consequences of it.

It being lunch time, we headed to the stalls around Expo park to munch on some delicious food.

Shortly after that we parted ways. Quick and without ceremony, it was weird to think that we may never see each other again. Between geography, and some personality clashes it seems likely to be the case, but equally it would be a shame not to spend time with somebody with strong conviction, and unafraid to speak their mind.

Arriving at the main station, I felt a lil like a meerkat as I popped out of a number of underground exits from the station and I looked for the bus stop. Then I was on the bus, phone charging, rushing through row upon row of highrise flats, listening to a bleak podcast on the life of a man who’d been sentenced for murder and 17 years old, and was now in his 40s in prison.

Getting back to Japan, I had overlooked the times, and would be arriving too late in Oita to get the final train back to my town. Thankfully, the JET network is expansive, and I was able to find somewhere to lay my head, before having to depart at 6am, and go to straight to school from the train!

Another exhausting, but enjoyable holiday! Bring on Hong Kong!!!

 

Language: Japanese Language Proficiency Test N5

So I finally made my way into the Kingdom of Geekdom and have attempted to join the ranks of foreigners scrabbling to climb the dizzying heights of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test ranks, starting right at the bottom with level 5.

Edit: I passed the N5!!!

(Originally this what a much longer and detailed post, but since WordPress crashed and lost it, please enjoy this shortened version)

The exam was a Sunday morning, so after a night of non-alcohol based partying for the 4th of July, I headed to my friend’s house in Beppu, ready to travel to APU, the Uni on the hill, for the exam.

Arriving with plenty of time to spare, this would be a continuing theme throughout the day! Amazingly, levels 1 & 2 were actually the most popular, and were filled with what I suspected were international students who mostly went to the Universities in the area, whilst level 5 had a meagre 9 people taking it!

They started chasing us into the rooms with 40 minutes to spare, and so we just had to sit there in silence, the exam lady repeatedly reading instructions about not using biros, but pencils, taking the card off from around our erasers and that we had to turn off our phones, every 5 minutes.

Even when the exam and answer sheet had been passed out, we had to wait another 15 minutes until the actual start time. This happened before each test paper, of which there were 3, and we had a 30 minute break between each exam, which I wasn’t sure if I was grateful for or not…

The Exam Structure

It consists of 3 papers at this level; Language Knowledge; Grammar/Reading and Listening, taken as three separate papers. The answers are all multiple choice (a shock from doing French A-level) wherein you fill in an answer sheets of little circles, which in turn will be read by a machine. As far as I’m aware, this is true for all levels, so amazing, at no point do you ever speak or write any Japanese!

The first paper tests your kanji, and meanings of individual words; the second is about choosing the correct particles, and forms of verbs to convey meaning; the final exam is listening to questions and conversations to pull out answers, with images for context, culminating with a question with no visual prompts, simply listening to a question, and three answers, and choosing the most appropriate.

What not to do in the JLPT

There were at least 2 people in the room of 9 of us that sat level 5, that clearly had never looked at a practice paper! How do I know? Let me share the insights from their failings;

Don’t mark your all your answers in the Question Paper

The first paper is done, “Hurray!” I think to myself. As the examiner goes round, collecting the answers sheets, I couldn’t help but see the sheet of the woman next to me devoid of any black circles, and as clean looking as when she got it 45 minutes ago. The wide-eyed terror and hand clamped to the mouth for the proceeding few minutes confirmed my suspicious; she had marked all her answers in the question book, and the manic giggle of shock was truly unsettling.

Transcribe the all the questions and answers in the final part of the Listening Paper

The final question presents you with a blank page; at the head of which is メモ aka ‘memo’. The speaker comes on, and what do you do? Well, if you’re one of the examinees, you start transcribing the question, and 3 answers for each of the 6 listening questions in the final part.

Too nervous to look around, he followed this course for all 6 questions, and hand no time to mark his answer sheet!

Thoughts on the Exam

The exam is pretty indicative of the Japanese system for foreign languages – it’s super passive, even at the highest level filling in little numbered circles with your HB or No.2 pencil, and I can see exatly why so many of my friends have never sat it. It lacks any real world, everyday aspect; most notably speaking (and writing) and focuses or grammar and reading, perhaps useful for a native level job in an entirely Japanese company, but by itself is no means an assurance you could communicate with colleagues.

Quite how JETs would fair if there was a speaking exam I don’t know, given the huge gulf that exists between how speaking is presented in textbooks, how it looks in everyday plain form, and how it exists in the real world!

Did I Pass?

I’ll be really annoyed if I haven’t! But it’s entirely possible. With no idea how the questions are weighted relative to each other, it possible the mark I feel I got could vary by 10-15% over all, enough to drop into the failing range. I would like 75% overall to feel confident going onto N4. I hope my #100daysofkanji finishing in September will give me a huge boost for the language knowledge sections, and give me time to turbo charge grammar before sitting N4 at Christmas (which I’ll do unless I hideously flop N5), so that I have the summer exam to resit N4 or take N3.

Only time (or rather, August) will tell!

Language: Why Learning a Language is like Freestyle Rap

So when camping the other weekend, at around 1am, whilst Karl lay down a sweet beat, the group started freestyle rapping, and it got me thinking; Learning a language is a lot like Freestyle Rap.

Now I’m happy to admit I’m not Eminem, nor Wordsworth and my rhyming abilities are questionable at best, but I did find that the way I approached improvising lyrics was very similar to how I go about speaking in Japanese (and in French)

Spitting lines and verses, you think I rehearse this?…

So what do I mean? Well, as a non native speaker, when speaking I find myself consciously thinking about the sentence I’m forming as a whole, a strange mix of holding the subject, object, verb and meaning as abstract ideas in my head, as I speedily try and pluck out the vocabulary and rearrange the parts into the correct grammar form, whilst speaking the sentence slightly lagged to this thought process. My thoughts being on where the sentence is going and paying no attention to what is coming out of my mouth.

And it’s this idea, of your mind racing ahead of what you’re saying, quickly rearranging ideas and picking out vocab that makes these two things so similar.

To me it’s like a mouse in a maze, trying each and every route, and when hitting a dead end turning round and running back before a tide of water threatens to block its path and cut it off in the dead end section.

The tide is your mouth speaking the words, whilst the mouse is your brain searching for the the right words and grammar, and if it’s not quick enough, the conversation, or flow, gets stuck, has to stop.

I guess in native conversation, within the realms of the metaphor, the routes are well worn by the mouse, and it simply follows its previous footsteps, with knowledge of where all the paths lead.

So perhaps rapping, like native level speaking, eventually becomes so ingrained that your brain moves through the mental maze carefree.

But for now, I’ll stick with Japanese, and leave the rapping for the weekends.

Language: Learning Kanji as an Adult vs. Child

If you’ve ever taken an interest in Japanese, you will know there are 3 writing systems; Hiragana, a phonetic ‘alphabet’ for native words; Katakana, a phonetic ‘alphabet’ for loan words; and the mystical Kanji, pictograms knicked from Chinese that hold multiple meanings and pronouciations.

Every Japanese student will spend every year of schooling, learning these Kanji. Starting from the first year of elementary, they will learn 80, 160, 200, 200, 185 and 181 kanji each year until they know 1006 kanji. Then continue through Junior and and into High School learning the Jōyō Kanji – the everyday Kanji agreed by the Government and used in newspapers.

It’s no surprise that foreigners are some what intimidated when it comes to learning Kanji!

Learning Kanji as a Foreigner (and adult)

Let’s pretend that this symbol ‘/’ means the feeling one gets when there is an air tension between two people. And this character ‘#’ represents mother.

The ‘/’ is a much simpler object, a single line. Whilst the ‘#’ takes up four lines! Much harder to draw and remember the shape of.

But their meanings are significant. ‘#’, mother is a concept well understood by a 6 year, whereas our meaning for ‘/’ is much harder to explain.

Learning Kanji is about both meaning and the symbol. The kanji learnt by our elementary school kids is dictated by what they can understand, more than what they can remember to draw.

And this is why a foreign adult shouldn’t learn the kanji like a Japanese child.

How being a fluent speaker of a language helps with Kanji.

Our understanding in our native tongue, English, French, etc, allows us to concentrate on learning how to draw the image, and linking it to a meaning, or keyword, rather than getting lost trying to understand the concept.

By building from the simple looking Kanji, and combining these, we can create increasing complex looking kanji, from simpler building blocks, whilst our keyword behind the kanji can be simple like mother, to complex lust, or enlightenment.

Is it easy? No! There will still be kanji with multiple meanings, and we’ve not even learnt how to pronounce the Kanji! But that will come with studying the Japanese language.

As a foreign, adult learner of Japanese, we can at least be thankful that we don’t have to spend a decade or more learning how to write and gain meaning from these kanji pictograms, and instead can, with the right attitude, compress this into the space of a few months, leaving room for other areas of study to build on this knowledge.

Oita Charity Bike Ride: Kitsuki to Aka

So having limited myself to two casual day cycles in about 24 years, I thought Japan would be the best place to tackle a 2-day, 190km round-route, bike race with friends – the 18th Oita Chairty Bike Ride event.

Day One: The Beginning of the Beginning

So despite the event not beginning until Saturday morning, my preparation began Friday night as I finished work, grabbed my gear and made my way towards Oita city to spend the night at a friends, and thus closer to the start point on Saturday morning, and so would begin the first on two nights spent on uncomfortable futons on tatami floors!

We're cycling HOW far? ©Rachael Booth

We’re cycling HOW far? ©Rachael Booth

Departing Saturday morning meant waking up at the regular school time, and taking a 45 minute doodling from South Oita, round Beppu and up to Kitsuki, our starting point.

Thankfully my hired road bike had been delivered to a fellow JETs house, and I even had the good fortune of a drinks holder! A god send since I hadn’t thought to bring a rucksack for carrying anything!

Having managed to scavenged a cycle helmet that had the style of a Mod riding a moped, I was fortunately lent a proper bike helmet with ventilation!

Despite its good looks, this helmet was really hot! ©Scott Kawaguchi

Despite its good looks, this helmet was really hot! ©Scott Kawaguchi

Once we set off, I had music in my ear, my friends at my front and rear and a feeling like nothing could stop me!

With the first kilometre, we hit road works on a small country lane, that forced us off the road and to carry our bikes through a field. Back on track, it wasn’t long until the groups spread out, we popped out from under a bridge, and had no idea where to go. After a few moments, we took a lucky gambled and found ourselves passing checkpoint one.

Not the most confident cyclist ©Scott Kawaguchi

Not the most confident cyclist ©Scott Kawaguchi

The first part of the journey followed a river as it meandered through the hills, and everything looked jolly. About 10 km in we hit the hill, and struggled up a continuous incline for a good 15 minutes, before hitting the delightful peak, and free-wheeling down, body dropped for maximum streamlining, and stopping at the first konbini an hour or so in.

The first of many konbini stops ©Rachael Booth

The first of many konbini stops ©Rachael Booth

Here we were informed that the biggest hill was now behind us, though there was the suppressed undercurrent of thought that it would be waiting there at the end of the 190km tomorrow…

Day 1 Pack ©Scott Kawaguchi

Day 1 Pack ©Scott Kawaguchi

Here we formed a fairly fixed front running group of about 12, though this would eventually drop down nearer to 9 as we approached the end.

In terms of description, I’m afraid this becomes a lot more vague and less interesting as we moved out from country roads onto the main route 10 highway, but being as we were passing through Kyushu, rest assured that there were mountains galore in the distance, and being Japan, a ton of konbinis to rest our weary bodies, and stock up with drinks!

At some point the penned directions disagreed with the planned directions, and around lunch time we found ourselves having passed through Usa, but a bit unsure of where we were suppose to head. Breaking for lunch at a roadside cafe, we eventually spoke to the volunteer team, and found we had taken a wrong branch of route 10, and would need to head back in towards Nakatsu city.

Being the hometown of long suffering friend Rachael, we even managed a photo opportunity outside of her school.

©Rachael Booth

©Rachael Booth

Riding through Nakatsu was a killer, hitting traffic lights every few blocks, and giving rise to a high risk of collision as our bikers sped up and slowed down, desperate not to get too separated from the group.

The straight, flat roads were perhaps the most difficult part of the journey. By now my hands were more than suffering from pins and needles, as were my toes, and the road seemed unending.

At least when there were hills you could pedal at a variety of speeds and difficulties, and get the free ride from coasting down the hill, but on the flat, as the peddling became harder, you knew the only thing that meant was that you were getting more tired.

Eventually we hit the infamous Cosmos shop we’d been hunting for, and pulled off the main highway, and began cycling on smaller, quieter streets – it felt like the beginning of the end.

It wasn’t. We probably ended up cycling for another hour and a half, or more, but psychologically it helped! Especially bumping into another group and knowing we were back on track!

From here the landscape began to thin out again, smalls hills reappeared and it felt like we were getting close.

The End is Nigh

Stopping at a konbini, rumour spread that this was the last konbini and that there was only 5km left to go!

Stocked up with booze, we headed out for the final 5km, cycling alongside a meandering river, and determined to be the first group there!

What nobody had cared to mention was that the second trickiest hill was still to come, and with only a couple of km left, we hit it. It was excruciating, our leading pack began to thin out, and I felt like this would never end.

With only a km left, the incline gave way to a decline, and we rode the final part with style, and arriving first to the camp site.

Being first in meant we had no idea where to go and milled about in the carpark, before spotting the cabins we’d stay in, and parking up the bikes. To kill time we spotted a river and headed out for a cool wade whilst waiting for the others.

Naturally, being Japan, the site had an onsen, and so eventually others turned up and we made our way to the onsen to loosen those tight muscles. Well, loosened until we found the pulsating, or more accurately, the electrocuting chairs, that zap and tenses your muscles into spasms.

Coming out of the onsen, and with some time on our hands, the boys headed into the curry restaurant for a beer, that turned into a quick, cheeky curry.

Dinner Disaster

By 1930 we had word no fire had been started in the camp, thus there was no food, so we stayed back for some more beers. Come 2000 some more of the team showed up announcing that that would be no dinner, and so they came for curry too! In the end about 16 of us we in the curry house and playing drinking games.

Returning to the camp, we discovered the kitchen area, only to be met with an icy reception. As it turns out, there was no cooking team, and it had been expected that everyone would come and help cook – oops! Some miscommunication there!

Settling into cabin J, the party cabin, we finished the night with a few drinks, before throwing in the towel at around 0000.

Day Two: The Long Way Home

With insufficient curtains, I was awake early, and out helping prepare breakfast before 7am (I’d learnt from the previous day’s lesson). Breakfast was an ensemble of scrambled egg, cheese, bread and leftover kebabs (which were delicious!).

With great efficiency, the group managed to all leave by about 9am! Hanging back with the Bungo Boys to clean the cabin, meant I ended up the group with the regular and fittest cyclists, and was apprehensive about getting left behind!

And they’re off!

After tackling the second most difficult hill, we reached the konbini and bumped into a group who had set of before us.  Keen on the sound of their slower pace, I sacrificed my break to cycle alongside the river with them. After a few more kilometers, we hit the hill that marked our leaving of Aka, and promptly overtook this slow-paced group – there’s nothing more painful than doing inclines at a ridiculously slow pace, and soon found myself in a speedy three-way with KJ and Bernie, with whom I would end up spending most of my ride with. We pushed on a mighty place, slowing occasionally when one of us would fall outside of sight from the lights.

Two hours in, we took a hearty rest at a konbini, catching up with our Japanese sisters Megu and Mai, and spotting two of the best cyclists overtaking us. Struggling with a hangover, KJ encouraged us to take a longer break, but within 20 minutes we were on our way, frozen sports drinks melting under the heat of the sun.

Usa Shrine

Passing through Nakatsu, I sighed as we passed the delicious restaurants I knew there, and soon we were approaching Usa and the continuing dreaded flats.

At one set of lights we agreed we’d stop for lunch at Usa shrine, which then turned out to be a lot further away than we imagined! We had a delightful lunch of toriten chicken, and megan getting messages through from Rachael, who was just passing through Usa.

We made the call to wait for her, and she was soon within our mitts, and we decided to explore Usa shrine, turning our lunch stop into an over hour long affair.

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©Bernadette Arthur

The grounds of Usa shrine far outshone the hyped shrine, especially since it had hideous white marquees erected in front of the shrine, but it was nice to walk under the trees, and looked at the various stone pieces and ponds. Maybe I’ll return again since we didn’t have time to explore the entire grounds.

©Bernadette Arthur

©Bernadette Arthur

Back on the road, we were two thirds the way there, but well aware that the hardest hill lay ahead of us.

The riding was pretty easy for the next 10 or so km, with our 4some taking a good spread out formation.

Suddenly we’d lost two of our group, and cycled back to find them stopped outside of a konbini with some of the guys we hadn’t seen since the morning!

The Beginning of the End

They were prepping for the big hill, and made a funny sight. Taylor had chosen to ride topless, and was busy applying sun cream, despite this, he had already again a rucksack shaped tan line. Sean had scuffed and bleeding knees, and Becca had an almighty red graze on her shoulder, cut up knees and legs, and a bleeding hip.

As it had transpired, a woman on a moped had turned without signalling, Martyn had braked, Becca, who was now on her third bike of the day pulled one brake, only on this bike it happened to corresponding to the front brake, and cartwheeled over the bike, causing Sean to brake head and come off too!

I’m glad I hadn’t been in that pack!

Departing from the konbini, we left Bernie behind in tangle of head phones. Next thing I knew I was passing Rachael as the incline began, and had my sights set on KJ in the distance.

Being an unconfident cyclist at best, I tackled the hills in a seated position, lowing my gears from the maximum 3-8 configuration, and by the apex was cycling around 2-2. This hill was exhausting, going on for about 15 minutes, cars passing within inches and I swayed slowly up the hill.

Then one turn around the corner, and the down hill began. I pushed my bike higher up the gears, but to my dismay, my bike would no longer get back up into 3rd gear, and I was capped at 2-8, but with KJ getting closer by the second thanks to my patented streamline position.

Thinking he was miles ahead, he pulled over to slow down as I passed him, and his face dropped as he had to get back up to speed.

The Final Countdown

Whilst I had hoped we only had 2-3 more miles to go, it would eventually turn out to be nearer to 6 miles, but we stuck together through the familiar winding mountain roads. A quick check on the sat-nav informed us we were only one left turn and 3 km away! Spurred on, we raced to back to the station, arriving in unison like true Bungo brothers, and becoming some of the first to make it back!

Between stretching and resting we cheered the other back, until we were all in!

Heading back with Savvy, we discussed how her saturday night hadn’t been so much fun since she had been the head cook :/

But by the time we were in Mie, we were on good enough times that she came and had curry with all the Bungo Boys to see out our weekend.

 

Golden Week’15: Koh Chang

The night bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was a wonderful affair! The bus did indeed offer fully reclined beds. All seating had been stripped out of the bus, and bunk beds built, in continuous lines from front to back. So whereas I thought I’d been clever to get us the bottom floor, away from the toilet, some of the boys did end up back there!

View the highlights video here!

Also, the two seats together were by no means separated. They were just a flat area, twice the size of the single seat, slightly padded, with two blankets – thankfully everybody on our group was on friendly terms with each other! And the bunks were exactly 6’ foot, so sleeping diagonally was required!

The best bit was breaking and taking corners at speed, and at one point feeling Savvy slide down the bed, flailing as she slid.

Back in Siem Reap

Early in the morning we arrived at the terminal, stood in a line brushing our teeth in the toilet, and then began hunting around for a minivan. Slim pickings meant we ended up paying a little more than I wanted, but at least we were on our way by 7am!

After few hours and a little napping we had arrived at the border, and quickly made our way through the familiar border crossing, and were out on the other side, and became popular property. We got chatting to a bloke who would said he’s arrange a bus for us, and after nipping to the rest stop for some food, we bought tickets from a small vending shop.

It was here things began to get a bit sketchy, as we handed over our money, and we told to take a seat and wait.

Keeping an eye on the guy, slowly 15, then 20 minutes passed, and when I saw him hop in the back of a bike, I began to fear we’d been had.

Thankfully, 10 minutes later he returned in our minivan, and we were off to Koh Chang!

Sunday – On the Road to Koh Chang

It was a deceptively long journey to Koh Chang, perhaps due to the indirect route that has to be taken since it’s not on the main BKK to the border route, perhaps because we were impatient at this time to finish our travels!

As we got to the ferry port, the driver suggested we buy our tickets from a particular vendor. Despite being confident we’d get inflated prices, it was the kind of tourist friendly port that made it clear where we could buy tickets anyhow, so what was 50 cent to us?

With a lack of sleep, and lots of travelling under our belt, seeing the price board as we entered having a lower price, some embers of the group we not best pleased, heightening tensions within the group.

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Finally, a whole week without travelling!

Thankfully the very departed shortly after our arrival, and the small on board shop permitted us to have welcome to Koh Chang beers! And by early afternoon we had arrived in the port.

Quite how we get to our accommodation wasn’t something we had thought about…

After hunting for a taxi proved unsuccessful, Martyn and Savvy managed to get use of somebody’s phone, and we had our new landlord come pick us up in his pick up truck – so naturally we rode in the back and enjoyed the wind in our hair.

The appartment was a large house, on a site with a few different rental houses. Off from the open lounge-diner-kitchen areas was two double bedrooms and bathroom, whilst up the stairs at the back of the kitchen was the master bedroom, with ensuite and smaller box room with double bed.

No sooner had I put my bag down in the master room than it was announced that this was to be the girls’ room, and was promptly relegated to the box room. But at least my roommate was Taylor, and with his success with the ladies, I get at least a few nights of the bed all to myself!

As sun set, we headed down the road in pursuit of the food and an ATM, and finding both, were enjoyed a scrumptious Thai meal, and returned home satisfied.

Monday – On the hunt for Elephants

Lyle not feeling up to scratch remained at the house, as the rest of us took a taxi to one of the many town areas around the island, on the hunt for elephants and a waterfall.

The pick-up truck taxis on the island seem to work on an unusual per person basis, resulting in our 200baht taxi turning into a 1400baht taxi! A shocker when the taxi from the airport had come to 400Baht per car! We’d later learn that almost anywhere on the island is between 100-200 baht, so maybe we were had, or it was because we had booked?

Stocked up on bizarre Thai 7-11 snacks, we headed inland towards a highly recommended elephant camp and noteworthy waterfall in which we planned to swim and do lunch! En route we were joined by a number of animals, of note was a black cat we called Shere Khan!

Arriving at the elephant place, we managed to book a tour for 2 days time, and so continued into the ‘National Park’ (with entrance fee) to the waterfall, and met an eccentric Dutch bloke who opened conversation with the cracker “Do you guys like to party?” and would join us on our guest to the waterfall and guarded us from a snake.

Our plans for idyllic waterfall lunch and swim were promptly destroyed we when found the waterfall to be scarcely more than a dribble into a dirty looking pool, created by a very made man looking, concrete dam, and with that we sat on some rocks and laughed at our sightseeing achievement.

Then thankfully, or maybe unfortunately, the heavens decided to treat us to a 40 minute monstrous downpour, that forced everybody (bar Martyn) down to their swimming costume, as we slowly drown on our way back to the small town, via a cheerful, arty, cafe called BlueBlues.

As early evening approached, the drink was calling our names, and we moved around the island to indulge the calling, first hitting up the Happy Hour in Mojito lounge, and playing pool, before taking dinner in an Irish restaurant, and playing rounds of Cage Rage; a drinking game involving two cups, two ping pong balls and a lot of rage.

A few more bevvies, and the girls decided to call it a night, with the boys hitting up the legendary Lonely Beach area.

Naturally, when it was time to leave, travelling back round to the other side of the island, many a broken heart lay soaking in spoilt booze on the dance floor.

Tuesday – Rest Day

After travelling round so much, we took a lazy day, rising late, and spending the day by the pool, where we met the two Dannies – Boy Danny and Girl Dani who would become our friends over the next few days (and would get engaged shortly after we left – I’m sure we helped!).

That evening we chased up supplies for a BBQ – burgers a impossibly hard thing to find – and I showed off my Ugandan fire lighting technique, and cooked the food with Martyn, before retiring for the party inside.

Wednesday – Or, The Best day of the Trip

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Martyn not feeling friendly this day!

Wednesday meant elephant riding day! Picked up early from the house, we shared our experience with a German family. Taking the elephants for their bath time in the river, we got to scrub and climb all over the elephants – they have the grossest, roughest skin that makes me queasy just to think about!

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Spotted a dinosaur I think.

Then after some pineapple, we got to climb onto some seat, and ride the elephants through the forest surrounding the centre – even getting to climb out and ride on the elephants directly, which terrifying as they lurched around, and painful as their ears whipped the delicates tops of my feet!

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Such a natural, must have been all the horse riding…

The afternoon was equally as exciting, if a little adventurous as 5 of us were picked up and taken around the island for a Thai cooking class.

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Fresh Pad Thai is the most delicious Pad Thai!

Set off the main road, in a pleasant forest area, we stood in the outside kitchen, being taught about and preparing a range of food; spring rolls; chilli sauce; papaya salad, a soup and a traditional Thai curry, of which we each made a different one!

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Our little cooking school in the forest.

It was a great experience; prepping some food, cooking it, then making more, until we had a full dinner prepared! All the curries were incredible, teeming with flavour that is so lacking from our food back in Japan!

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The 5 different Thai curries we produced – all おいしい

The only issue? We had already eaten our own lunch, the spring rolls and salad! It was all too much so we had to get takeaway.

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Too much to eat, even if we hadn’t already had spring rolls! So delicious though!

I can’t recommend highly enough taking a cooking class here!

The evening we simply sat together, watching Wreck It Ralph and sitting on sofas – it was lovely!

Thursday – Or, a Close Second Best Day

How ever could we top such a day? Why by island hopping and snorkeling in the Gulf of Thailand – duh!

Meeting up with the Dannies, the 9 of us set forth from the accommodation, and were driving right round the island, past even the lonely beach! Arriving and stocking up on supplies, we learnt that the island has a no booze laws that limit the hours alcohol is allowed to be selled, and so the 7/11 beer fridge was tied shut!

The boat was a brightly coloured affair, that offered breakfast and lunch on board, as well as drinks and booze – so thankfully we were going to be ok!

Breakfast was a pleasant affair of scrambled egg, ham, and breads, which complimentary juice, and then we were off!

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A brightly coloured boat indeed!

We must have stopped off about 5 or 6 times through the day, with the main snorkeling spot being in the middle, and was just a small island teeming with life, which the boys even managed to swim all the way around before we got called back. Rachael and I sharing a moment as we held hands in the warming waters.

After nearly 14 days of holiday, it finally happened – nearly all of us burnt – I know I did!

After a quick shower and refresh, the group was ready to head out for dinner and partying, though minus the Dannies and Lyle.

We chose to check out the tour guide’s restaurant, Shark, which despite calling its milkshakes, smoothies, and its smoothies, milkshakes, much to the confusion of the group when discussing drinks, the food was very tasty, though perhaps a little slow.

Having already scouted the area, the boys were quick to guide the girls around the lonely beach bars, before culminating in the dance bar we’d been in the previous night, that allowed us to catch up with some of the girls we’d previously met, and make friends with some more!

Despite dripping with sweat from tip to toe, I have never been so popular on the dance floor!

But alas, we left broken hearts strewn between shards of glass, ready to be swept up the next morning – we’ll all of us except one lucky guy, who wasn’t so lucky when they had to pay for a taxi back themselves the next day!

Friday – Or, Leaving the Resort in Peace for a Day

Our last full day of holiday, and what once felt like it would never end, was coming to a close.

Once again, enjoying the opulence of having sofas, we reclined and watched I love you Man, which made for a pleasant morning, before heading down for a long afternoon at Whitesands.

Despite what our landlord said, turns out you can’t have lunch at the KC resort and use their swimming pool, as was demonstrated when they kicked us out, so maybe he just didn’t want us using the complex’s pool?

However, our spirit could not be crushed, and we moved down the beach, until we found a perfect spot to sip cocktails and play with a frisbee – though mucking about in the sun was the last thing my sunburnt shoulders needed!

As it was our last night, we spent it with the Dannies, again constructing a BBQ together, before finishing the night with Danny’s projector and Team America.

Saturday – Homeward Bound

Now the real struggle began as we awoke, and set about cleaning the house. Pleasantly, practically the whole group pulled their weight, setting about tending to the washing up, sweeping and disposing of rubbish, though perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise as we’ve all spent the last few years living with friends, and more recently entirely responsible for our own apartments.

Posing for some last group photos, we said farewell to the Dannies, and jumped into the landlord’s pickup truck, who dropped us off at the ferry port.

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The full gang in the landlord’s pickup

Soon we on the ferry, and almost as quickly back off the ferry, and walking round the car park looking for a vehicle big enough to take us. Choice was limited if we didn’t want to take funky coloured coaches, so we settled on a price, and a drop off near to the airport train line, and spent the next 5 or 6 hours travelling back into Bangkok, stopping and having to get out 2 or 3 times to fill the vehicle with gas.

Arriving at the train station we’d selected for its direct line to the airport, we ventured around to check train times, only to discover it no longer had a direct train! But that there were other options that only took 40 minutes or so.

By now the group was cranky, as tiredness and lack of funds began to shorten people’s fuses, but the group was coerced into heading a few stops down to check out a shopping mall for a few hours.

This was like no part of Bangkok we’d seen, with narrow pavements turned into a shopping market, with shops spilling out onto the street on one side, and market stalls on the other, creating a narrow tunneling through which people walking in both directions had to squeeze past. Then arriving at the mall it was ludicrously grand, of Westfield like size and appearance, with every brand you could of think of! So we settled for a Asian/Thai fusion restaurant and ate our final meal in Thailand.

With not much to do, we made our way to the station, onto the airport, and counted down the hours until our flight – a stark contrast to our sprinting through departures and general faff in getting the plane to Thailand!

The only thing Savvy, Rachael and I had overlooked was by choosing seat in front of the emergency isle, we couldn’t recline… A terrible night’s sleep for us then!

Sunday – Back in 日本

Early on Sunday morning we touched down into Fukuoka, felt special as we passed through the special passport control for us, and were soon saying goodbye to Nick as he left for Kumamoto.

Then the Oita lot headed back, and slowly our numbers dropped, until it was just Savvy and I, and by Sunday night I was back in my appartment, thoughts of Thailand and Cambodia drifting in and out of my dreams – that was quite some holiday.

Golden Week ’15: Phenom Penh

Starting the third leg of our holiday, the end was insight for our more restful island vacay! But first were the sites and sounds of Cambodia’s Capital – Phnom Penh

So grabbing a quick breakfast in the hostel, we were picked up by a minibus a little after 0745. It didn’t really look like the coach we had signed up for, and between my dicky tummy, and the lack of a toilet, I was little apprehensive.

Thankfully, this minivan was only a shuttle to the main bus park! The coach we were to ride was there, a fair bigger affair, that even included wifi! We were travelling in luxury! Thankfully my tummy settled to the point that I don’t remeber if I there were even facilities to use!

The journey was a good 6 or so hours, but was much helped by the lack of sleep the previous night, and the bus was so kind to stop a couple of times, including a delicious cafe that was clearly in-cohoots with the bus company since their food turnaround time matched the stopping time of the coach. But it was reasonably priced, and as with all the Cambodian food we tried, truely delicious, especially the 8 mango smoothies we ordered!

As we were approached the city, I’d had the foresight to get up the map of the area on my phone, and was able to see that both the hostel and the bus company were pretty centrally located, and upon arriving, we were met by tuk tuk drivers who took us straight to our hostel – a service kindly provided by the Eighty8 hostel.

That was probably the nicest thing they did do however.

After checking into our 8 person dorm, perfect for our group, we headed down to the bar for some points of interest, and drinks, and were met with fairly blunt customer service, and a very bored-seeming, unfriendly English chap, whose stand-offish attitude tainted my whole experience of the bar area.

Shunning the tuk tuks, we set off by foot to head down to the waterfront on the hunt for happy times at a pizzeria, and indulged ourselves in a few pizzas shared and some sides, before kicking back at the hostel for a restful night in the room – let’s call it bonding!

After a right few laughs, Savvy and I discovered one of the more delightful aspects of the hostel – their mix your own milkshake, with such delightful and diverse ingredients of nutella, peanut butter and coconut, to choose from – definitely to become one of my naughty vices whilst staying here.

 

Refreshed and ready, Blazing Trails had kindly sent tuk tuks to pick us up from the hostel, out to near the Killing Fields, where their quad bikes tour departs and where we were to visiting the monument that marks the Killing Fields.

It was a real delight to travel through and outside of the city, and it reminded my considerable of navigating the old Kampala in Uganda, with half finished buildings cropping up every which way, roadworks in the middle of busy streets, with water (or worse) continuously trickling across them. The way the scooters, motorbikes and tuk tuks darted between the bloated torsos of the unable to move cars, nipping onto pavements, and in turn making their own traffic jam of nimbler vehicles in every crannie cars were unable to penetrate; until the building began to thin out, and slowly but surely we were into the countryside and travelling at quite a pace.

Pulling up outside what looked like, to the uninitiated, a car garage, was actually the base of this quad bike empire. We were asked to sign our lives away and split the group into two; one half to visiting the Killing Fields, whilst the others took land via the quads.

Being in the group to take quads first, I donned my police helmet, and straddled the purring machine, and kicked dust into the Cambodian air.

Riding the bikes was fun for a novice like myself, but highly tame for a pro, with us doddling along in single files as we navigated the surrounding areas along tarmaced and dust roads.

I enjoyed seeing buildings in the middle of the wilderness. In modern times it’s so easy to assume the permanence of road networks and towns, and to see nature as this tamed beast in the form of gardens and parks, and to forget that once these towns too were wilderness, untamed, with homes occupying such a tiny fragment in the grand schemes of a landscape. It was a feeling somewhat like when you view old photos of your town, or a familiar area, and roads are missing, or, the buildings are all one story, or theirs countryside in the background of a now urban jungle – only multiplied ten-fold.

Stopping for a drink and snack, our guide began to grow on me, and I quite liked him by the end.

Then we driven by tuk tuk a crazily short distance to visit the Killing Fields.

So during the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge came to power in the area now known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, and set out creating a self-supporting, communist regime. It forced people out of urban areas, and into the countryside in order to fulfill the self-reliant plan.

During their reign from 1975-79, anybody disagreeing with the regime, from intellectuals, to disgruntled workers, were transported to the killing fields, and killed – later being labelled as a genocide. Between the Killing Fields, and their policies, it’s estimated that a quarter of the 8 million population died. One of their ideas included killing the children of those killed by the government to ensure there was nobody to seek revenge.

The area hasn’t been over commercialised. The ticket office offers an audio guide, which I would recommend, since the signs have limited information, and much of what’s left is empty space, since much was torn down to use reuse as material to rebuild people’s’ lives. The audio guide also offers first hand interviews/reread descriptions of people experiences, and offers an insightful listen during the tour.

As you walk around the area, the filled in pits are perhaps to most disturbing part, as teeth, bones and clothes continue to come to the surface during the rainy season each year; a yearly reminder of the atrocities.

Coming out of the museum, we were driven back by tuk tuk to the hostel, and took a leisurely afternoon by the pool, playing volleyball and splashing the neighbours for a few hours, and met up with Busu’s British friend Tom, who happened to be in the area for a holiday with his parents. As the day passed between play, cocktails and happy hour, we called in an early night.

Our final day in Phnom Penh!

When we finally got our washing back from reception, we threw our bags into the luggage cage and set about exploring the city – first stop? The Irish Pub for breakfast!

Whilst I think it noble to solely eat the food of the country you’re in, there were two main reasons I chose not to. Firstly, a pub serves ‘British food’ but you probably wouldn’t want to eat off that everyday – it’s classic British food, but not a true reflection of what we eay every day, and visiting these tourist hotspots, I doubt we were eating culturally, rather than as Cambodian people.

Secondly, living abroad means I have not eaten ‘home’ food for a long time, and after my holiday, I do not go back to eating British food, but continue living abroad and eating what Japan has to offer me – which is very few of my home dishes, and even then, they have imaginative leaps, or aren”t very good! So forgive me dear reading for indulging in a full English breakfast here and there, but rest assure I sample the cuisine of every country I visit!

Unfortunately for us, the Royal Palace was closed for visitors (whether it always is, I don’t know…) so we circled around it, then made our way towards the central market place…

Which just so happened to be conveniently placed near a mall which contained a cinema that was showing the latest Avengers film – in English! A full two month and half months before the Japanese release!

The central market was a cool piece of architecture, utilising a great dome structure to provide a vast open space, and coolness from the heat, but did sell the same stuff we saw everywhere – sunglasses, jewellery and elephanty harem pants.

By now the day was passing and the moment had finally come… Time to watch Avengers, in 3D, in an air-conditioned cinema, 2 days after release, for only $4 – bargin! As was the giant drink and popcorn! Sometimes it’s nice to do something not cultural, but part of your own culture that you can’t do at home.

With the bus not departing until 2230, we had a few hours to spare. Traversing the mean streets of Phnom Penh, we stopped randomly for a fine, last Cambodian meal, picked up the bags, and took tuk tuks to the bus.

The night bus was a wonderful affair! When I saw options where a top or bottom bed, which two separate floor plans, I was expecting a double decker bus. And though I heard the 2 seats next to each other were friendly, and not recommend for a solo female traveller, I was not expecting what we saw.

The bus did indeed offer fully reclined beds. All seating had been stripped out of the bus, and bunk beds built, in continuous lines from front to back. So whereas I thought I’d been clever to get us the bottom floor, away from the toilet, some of the boys did end up back there!

Also, the two seats together were by no means seperated. They were just a flat area, twice the size of the single seat, slightly padded, with two blankets – thankfully everybody on our group was on friendly terms with each other! And the bunks were exactly 6’ foot, so sleeping diagonally was required!

Back to Thailand >>>

Golden Week ’15: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, whilst not the capital of Cambodia, is definitely its cultural and spiritual capital centre, thanks to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Angkor Wat; the biggest religious monument in the world (apparently…) but it definitely is pretty!

Taking over the Mad Monkey

Arriving at the Mad Monkey, its entrance is down a gravelled alley, about a car’s width wide, that enters onto the pool and lounge area, the reception and a bar, that form the courtyard to the back of the property. The pool is a respectable, small size that really helps to take the edge of the heat, rather than tests your swimming prowess, with big loungers to lie back and tempt skin cancer with.

On the roof of the property is the rooftop beach bar, that offers a sand floor, drinks and cocktails, food and partying until up 0000 every night. And on top of all this, a sun lounge deck.

In what would be a common theme at this hostel, the staff were competent, yet unwelcoming, and took us up to our dormitory.

The hostel also offers ‘free’ vest tops/singlets to those that can complete a number of challenges. Well two, firstly, consume ten ‘grenade’ cocktails – red bull, tequila and jagermeister and win points for your country on the leaderboard. Secondly, purchasing 20 alcoholic beverages (that aren’t grenades) allows you to unlock the second vest. Needless to say, with such an offer available, we pretty much said goodbye to the boys, and left them in the pursuit of the challenge most afternoons!

With only three sleeps in Siem Reap, and the fun fast setting on our first day, we went out to explore and find dinner. Heading down Bug Street, obviously home to a bug cuisine restaurant, we discovered another restaurant that perhaps takes the title for worse ever, with one main arriving, and being eaten before anybody elses arrived, a few orders with the incorrect meat/fish, and that was only if you were lucky enough to have a meal cooked – which I wasn’t.

No longer in the best of moods, we headed back to the hostel for a few bevvies.

Turn it down for Wat? Oh, Angkor Wat…

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Side shot of Angkor Wat – see what I did there?

This was it! We were going to Angkor Wat! Built in the 12th Century it combined some religious iconography, using the fairly standard layout, something to do with facing west rather than… East? All I know is by the time we got their at 9am, the sun was high, it was hot, and the light in the photographs rather flat.

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Inside the outer perimeter building, currently under renovations with support from some aquatic Germans

The tuk tuk picked us up from the hostel, after a swift (full English) breakfast and we were on our way. As you enter the complex of temples (yeah, there are many religious, temple things), non-Cambodians must pay for a special visitor’s past – it looked more authoritative than the Cambodian visas we got! The photo was in colour and the image not at all distorted!

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No experience is complete without the obligatory group shot

Before you get to the entrance, you pass around the huge, square moat of Angkor Wat. Pulling up, the buildings almost appears to be floating above the surrounding lake. The building itself is strangely covered in a heavy dark, almost sooty coating, which helps to camouflage the bas-reliefs. The compound is huge, lined with palm trees, and grass, and in the distant was the famous quincunx of towers.

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This does no justice as to just how hot it was here!

Not one for verbose descriptions… The sheer volume of effort and skill to coat the entire monument with bas-reliefs is a testament to the importance placed upon the building and its construction.

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A close-up (if slightly blurry) close up of a bas-relief

On a side note, my recommendations for visiting Angkor Wat would be to definitely take the sunrise tour, as much for the spectacle as the photo opportunity, and to avoid a lil of the heat – there”s precious little shade for much of it. Secondly, there is very little information for the site, so a knowledge of what you’re looking at before hand would be helpful; I highly recommend the Angkor National Museum before visiting, to learn about Buddhism, Hinduism to understand the reliefs, and to learn about the meaning behind the design.

Next was another temple, it made for some lovely photos…

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Tomb Raiding Taylor with his accomplish KJ

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Seriously though, why did he deem he must be in every photo at this temple?

The we headed to Ta Prohm; the Tomb Raider temple!

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

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Maybe one day I’ll work on a videogame and can make excellent use of this photo

Left to fend for itself, Ta Prohm has been invaded by trees. Trees that now seem to be the only thing holding it together, as the trees’ skirts coil round the walls, and roots meander down into the soil. Parts of the temple have collapsed with time, and lie moss covered and untouched, reminding you of the age and fragility of this place, and providing a sense of over worldliness. The trees also provide a refreshing coolness, and the higgledy-piggledy path through the buildings provides much more mystery than the other temples we visited.

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I think the only thing holding the building up is the tree

Coming back to the hostel for a late lunch time, Martyn, Savvy and I headed out onto the mean streets of Siem Reap, eventually finding a delightful cafe in the back streets around Pub Street, that offered a number a meals comprised of several class Cambodian dishes, the tastiest of which was the chicken Amok.

Amok is awesome as it is traditional cooked within a banana leaf bowl, and makes heavy use of coconut cream, and spicy flavours to make something tear-jerkingly delicious and flavoursome, and definitely the number one dish I would recommend to visitors.

In the evening, I took some time alone to go off exploring, and stumbled across ‘The World Bar’ on bug street. A nice little venue with an open front and small bar, I soon made friends with a number of expats, who, were if memory serves correctly, super friendly, and each with weird stories as to how they ended up in Cambodia.

With some of the boys nursing hangovers, the rest of us headed down the road to check out the National Angkor Museum.

Day 5: Exploring Siem Reap

The building looks grand, almost hotel like, and mercifully features air conditioning! Though its downsides are that you aren’t allowed to carry your water around with you, and the steep entry fee of $12, versus $20 to access all the temples, or $0.50 for a beer.

The museum was well designed, and informative, with displays featuring the histories of Buddhism, Hinduism (between which Angkor Wat has been converted over the years) as well as information about the Angkor Wat temple, and it’s symbolism. As I said before, well worth doing this museum the day before going to Angkor Wat.

After a happy dosing of frozen yoghurt with toppings, and a splash in the hostel pool, the group split down further, until only Martyn, Rachael, Savvy and I were wanting to head out for cocktails, whilst the boys pursued their mission of attaining the free vest tops from the hostel’s challenges.

Taking a more scenic route, we got to see a slightly less touristy side of Siem Reap. I’ve always found hospitals to be one of the more interesting aspects of the countries I’ve visited, and this was no exception. The hospital we passed looked more like a school, filled full of people sat in outdoor seating areas, with only a roof over them. It’s always fascinating to see how much more exposed to the exterior buildings are in hotter climates.

After a few drinks and rounds of Ellen Degeneres, the hunger set in, and we were off on the hunt for some happy pizzas. What we got was ecstatic pizzas, if the name of the restaurant is to be believed – it was a pretty decent pepperoni.

Satisfied, we headed back to the hostel, and began preparations for the traffic light party taking place on the rooftop bar. Shortly afterwards I found myself snuggled on a bed with Martyn and Savvy, listening to the most bizarre, psychedelic, Japanese rock and chill music.

After a couple of hours, I found myself in the mood to join the party and was promptly playing flip cup – much to the detriment of my team, when we lost on a few occasions when the cup stopped on me. Thankfully I wasn’t the only one who held up the whole team during the game!

Alas, then the bar closed, and along with my new kickboxing best friend, we headed out for some late night culinary delights, before hitting the hay at around 0330, ready for our 0745 pick up for Phnom Penh.

It had been an interesting time in Siem Reap. On the one hand it hinted towards the holiday to come – it had a pool and booze! But it had also offered us one of those bucketlist events – seeing Angkor Wat. At this point we had managed to survive one major travel plan, and it had gone off without a hitch, and with everyone on good terms. At this point it felt like the holiday (and the travelling) would never end! Especially with the number of inside stories and jokes we had already accumulated!

Onwards to Phnom Penh >>> and Koh Chang >>>