Tag - Hiking

Kuju: Climbing 久住山

Kota had the wonderful idea of meeting at 9am at his work office somewhere in Taketa – this off the back of a night in Mie trying to finish off all the alcohol in my apartment before moving out the next day!

By 8am we were off, checking in the Everyone konbini for some hiking snacks – like pot noodle and ramen! By 9am we had met, and at 1015 we were setting off up the mountain!

Ten minute later and we had stopped on the side of the tracks.

Rika and Kota had had the wonderful idea to use spikes on the boots – alas your poor narrator had no luck, nor the frivolous cash to expend on such luxuries a week before returning to the UK, and us such would spend most the mountain hike squattedly baby stepping his way up the mountain and especially on the way back down!

In all honesty, it didn’t make all that difference going up, and if anything, I was looking safer, especially after we cleared the made-made concrete paths and got out onto what I suspect was the frozen mud track.

Initially the walk set along easy going hillside, with a few ups and downs, before we hit the first peak of the day. The views of the mountains were intermittent at best, à cause de clouds and mists a passing overhead at such alarming speed, taking us from dull, scattered glow, to luminous sunlight in a just a few seconds, for perhaps only a few tens of seconds before becoming engulfed by the gentle greyness.

Climbing down the scraggity first peak, it gave hint of the fear that was in store later in the day coming back down from the peak, but fortunately the gods smiled favourably, and no accidents were had at this early stage!

The ground levelled out a few more times with only minor inclines, as our surroundings became incresingly white and wintery, snow sticking to the plans to create intricate white brains!

Kuju

The plateau before the lunch hut

After a couple of hours, the ground leveled out and we hit a kind of plateau between the mountains, Mt. Kuju hidden in the distance by cloud cover. It felt almost as if we were hiking through a Scottish valley, or around Hogwarts, and I was almost disappointed not to see any sheep on the hills.

In the distance was a small, thick stoned building, with a flurry of hikers coming in and out of it – it was time to lunch!

Pulling out the kettle from my bag, Rika got the gas fired up and we were moments away from our cup noodles! Alas, we had to wait a further 3 minutes for the water to penetrate and make delicious our noodles, but oh boy were they satisfying after a long hike, sitting in the cool, white interior of the hut.

Where we were headed

Where we were headed

The final accent was a head of us, and as proven so far, snow spikes weren’t really necessary for climbing up! Following the scattered path of rocks dotted with yellow splodges, we were occasionally afforded the sight of the peak were climbing for a seconds at a time as the weather broke and a blue sky appeared.

Gonna bop, bop, bop, bop to the top!

Gonna bop, bop, bop, bop to the top!

A final ascent along the narrow, rocky ridge, the breaking mist showed the summit marker was in sight, as we raced to the top – we had done it!

Rather fortuitously, the weather took a rest from its grey mystery, and gave it near perfect views of the surrounding areas, and we even got some blue sky and blinded by sunlight as we posed for the obligatory photos at the 1786m sign. It had taken around 4 hours to get up to the top.

Kuju Peak

Reads – “Mt Kuju, 1786.5m”

Kuju peak pano

The old pano from the top

As quickly as the weather took to change, we were heading back down the mountain again, and so began the bit I was dreading; descending without spikes…

Things started off well, getting to the lunch-lodge with no real difficulties. Passing by and through rocky outcrops I had my first slips, landing squarely on my arse, but luckily on a fairly flat region of ground and so we continued, trekking through the relatively flat plains, the mists reducing visibility to only 15-20m forward and behind, with no sign of the clear blue skies we had seen at the peak.

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The final descent into the car park

Much of the journey was uneventful, careful selection of footing, combined with reasonably gentle declines ensuring no more falls. Getting closer to the peak near the start of the trail, it’s sheer vertical face wasn’t too much of a difficult climb, with Rika supporting my arse in case I fell (any excuse), and the only major difficulty was the man-made concrete ramps for the final kilometre or so, it’s concrete/gravel mixture filled in with compacted snow and ice to create a slide of terror! A rather short sighted and stupid idea that ensures the most dangerous part of the whole climb is the first/last kilometer.

Having fallen on my arse a couple of times, and knowing I was soon leaving the country, I sacrificed my waterproof trousers to turn the terror in an amusing sledging run!

Why fall, when you can slide? - Photo by Rika

Why fall, when you can slide? – Rika Onishi Enomoto

All in all it was wonderful hike, with, at times, so really beautiful views! I would love to do it again in the summer, to see the views, the nearby mountain lakes and to finish with less bruises on my arse!

The final part of the day Kota threw a yakiniku party as his house for us! After securing meats from the nearby mini super market, he lit the coals outside before transferring them to his indoor fire pit!

BBQ at Kota's

Traditional fire pit built into the floor

We had to have the doors open in order to pull out the smoke from the meats, and it was really cold, but the meats and vegetables were so delicious, it didn’t even matter!

It was a lovely weekend to finish my time in Japan.

Fancy meeting Kota and having yakiniku? Check out his Air B&B listing here!

Yakushima: On a Quest for Princess Mononoke

Cut off a wolf’s head and it still has the power to bite.” Apparently, but alas I was unable to test this hypothesis during my recent trip to Yakushima, aka, the scenic inspiration for studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke/もののけ姫.

Setting off from Oita city with my travel companions, R & L, we didn’t depart until nearly 1830 – with a 4.5 hour drive ahead of us! We were traveling the length of Kyushu, from Oita down to Miyazaki, across towards Kumamoto, and sweep back down to Kagoshima. From there we’d take the ferry in the morn to Yakushima. Arriving around 2300 L made great time.

Saturday – Oh we’re going to Yakushima, da da da daa da da!

Awake at ridiculous o’clock, we packed and in the car with over an hour to spare to the ferry departed, so stocked up on snacks and headed down to the port.

Using my best Japanese we located the car entrance to board the vessel, but poor L had to remain with the car as R and I headed into the terminal. A cheeky ticket raffle saw me win a free draught beer on the ferry – what a good omen!

The ferry is the cheapest way to Yakushima, with the alternative sea-based alternative costing near double, though in half the time. So we stuck with a 4 hour ferry that departed once, each way, a day.

Despite having an onsen, it was out of service, so mucked around on deck, made friends with a German couple and took sweet-ass photos!

Kagoshima/Yakushima Ferry

All aboard to Yakushima!

Coming into port was easy and soon we were on the hunt for some grub, before setting off round the island anti-clockwise.

It’s a pretty small island, 132 km in diameter and so we endeavoured to loop the entire thing during the weekend. It was still early afternoon, so we set off, stopping and exploring everything of interest we saw en route.

Eventually we crossed the threshold into UNESCO World Heritage park on the West slide of the island – suddenly it was darker, the roads narrower and monkeys and deer were every few hundred metres – not a good thing when you need the toilet!

As evening pressed in, no day would be complete without a lil onsen! We checked out one built into a luxury hotel built on a short headland, with large windows that looked out onto the darkening sea, it was pretty cool.

We rocked up to the hotel around 7, lucky we weren’t much later, as the reception come konbini was closing and god knows how we’d have checked in.

We had conveniently arranged ourselves to stay on the East side of the island, since this was closest to the start of the trail head.

Sunday – Old Grampappy Jomon

Of course this wasn’t a convenient trail head, oh no! We awake around 0430 and head down to the Sugui (Cedar) Museum, the meeting point for catching the bus to the Arakawa trail head. These buses only run between 5-6am, and since it was within ‘the season’ there was no public access to the roads.

After a short nap on the bus, we arrived around 0630, just as the sky was quickly lightening. We hurriedly pooped and peed, and set of along the train tracks.

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Oh what a beautiful morning! Near the start of the Arakawa trail

The first hour of the trail follows along the old rail tracks. What were the tracks used for? I don’t know! But it offered high up views of the valley below, and criss-crossed over wide gorges gouged out by rushing torrents and populated with such giant boulders, that between spending so much team watching your feet on the tracks and looking out at the view, the sense of scale was entirely lost, and I could no longer adjust my eyes to take in the entire view without feeling a lil nauseated. So bizarre!

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It’s as if someone just decided to dump all these rocks here!

We passed by the stone remains of a former school that had been used until the 1970s, shortly after which the rail tracks began to fade out.

What we eventually learned was that the whole area had been home to a logging industry, the cedars in the area having grown old and tall due to their difficult accessibility. Up until around the 1600s, logging had been largely unnecessary, thanks to the cedars natural  longevity and immunity to insects, as fallen trees could be harvested and the wood used for building.

Those running the business had set up shop with a long term perspective.

They would harvest an area, bar a few select ‘mother’ trees, would would then go on to seed their surroundings. Many of the new trees would go onto grow up on the stumps of the previous trees, resulting in cool looking trees, stacked a bit like wedding cake, and twisting root formations.

Logging official stopped in 2001, with all products made from sugi nowadays coming from trees fallen in typhoons or from age, making them domaiboku, or buried trees in the ground.

From here the next highlight is Wilson’s Stump. Whilst I had hoped someone had gotten lost, and carved a home from a giant tree stump, it turns out the name is simply because Ernest Henry Wilson was the first person to introduce it to a Western audience. But with its 32m diameter, there is plenty of room to throw down a bit of tatami, lay down a futon and make a comfortable little home.

Getting here around 10am, we were quite hopeful we’d be at our goal, Jomon Sugi in no time!

We were wrong.

Following the path away from Wilson, it didn’t look far at all on the map, and we set off at quite the pace. The steep mountain steeps soon put pay to this.

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Up and down we went – thankfully somebody had the foresight to build stairs

The rain set in, causing mist to wipe out whatever view there was between the tress, and we continued our uncertain walk/climb with and down, in and out of gullies and between trees, briefly pausing for lunch in a nice ravine.

Shortly after 12 we made it Jomon Sugi, and its viewing platform.

Jomon sugi is estimated to be between 2000 and 7000 years old, depending on your testing method, but it definitely made it our sempai! It sits on the north face of the tallest mountain on the island, at an elevation of around 1000m, and no matter what route you take, it’s still a 4-5 hour hike to reach it!

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He’s small for his age. Clearly dangerous since we couldn’t get up close to it

After posing for a number of photos, it was time to head back the way we came! Ever-conscious that the buses only ran between 1500 and 1800, we headed down the trail, and made it back in good time and we back to the hostel before 1800!

What else was there to do but check out an onsen!

This time we checked out the local onsen, a short distance from the premium onsen of the previous day, though it felt more like a world away!

The onsen was a large room, with a few taps and stools around the edge for you to wash, with your own soap, and a large bath that was little under half the room. Along the floor were a number of older Japanese men, contorting their bodies into a variety of shapes along the floor, presumably stretching.

The bath was extraordinarily hot, but after a number of sharp, short breaths I was submerged, and trying to stretch under water, before abandoning all hope and getting dressed. I’ve never finished in an onsen so quickly! But at least I was able to watch anime as I waited for the girls.

For dinner we checked out a lil sushi bar around the town, then being so tired, decided we ought to get a relatively early night.

Monday – To see a Princess

Choices had to be made, and we sacrificed visiting the tidal pool onsen in order to visit the heavy-moss covered forest of Princess Mononoke fame. This in turn afforded us the luxury of lying in until 7am, and then setting off around to the north of the island, and thus completing our tour of the perimeter of Yakushima!

Arriving at the tourist centre, we had survived the scaling, dizzying heights of Yakushuima’s mountain roads, and sought to traverse the 2 hour walk to the Mononoke Hima no Mori in about an hour.

Success! We were soon at our destination – it was ridiculously green and moss covered, but definitely looked like the film!

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If you look carefully, you might be able to spot a Kodama, or tree spirit

The walk back we took a lil slowly, giving us time to play by the river crossing, and take in the nature, before heading back to our comparatively urban lifestyles.

Back on the ferry, the time passed a little more slowly – alas no free beer this time for Molkie, and I spent most of the return on my back, feet on the wall, like a baby, thankful that somebody had designed the ferry with carpeted sleeping areas, because, Japan!

Thanks to Labour Day, we had been able to cram our holiday into a 3-day weekend, and so the girls needed to head back before school on Tuesday morning.

I, however, had taken an extra day off to allow me to visit Kagoshima, and so we parted ways in down town Kagoshima, just as the clouds parted and a torrential storm hit.

Instincts kicked in, and as a Brit, naturally I headed to the nearest pub. Online, labelled as an Irish Pub, the name Big Ben, coupled with Union Flags said otherwise, but all I remembered is that they did a lot of beer, including a good Guinness, and that Justin Bieber had A LOT of tracks in the UK Top50 as MTV played in the background.

After a good 5 or so hours, I set out with new bartender friend Luke for a night of adventure. Unfortunately Japan wasn’t so ready for us, it being a Monday night and all.

Unperturbed we set off from the pub and onto the streets, where by luck or design, we bumped into the very same German couple we had seen on the ferry on the way TO and FROM Yakushima, and suddenly we had a party on our hands!

After asking a number of drunk Japanese business men, we found ourselves a snack bar, and I introduced my new friends to the joys of Umeshu, shochu and my singing for a full 90 minutes.

When the show was over, I was still left the task of negotiating my way to my Tatami Time-share bed I had requested (a JET run network of people offering beds to fellow, but travelling JETs). Thankfully she had left the door unlocked, I crawled into my futon and welcomed some rest.

Tuesday – Home James, and don’t spare the horses

Obviously my host had school the next day, and so I was up at 7am and out the door not long after. What a prime opportunity to capture some sunrise photography I thought to myself as I sat in Starbucks munching on a panini.

On the itinerary for today – the Museum of the Meiji Restoration. This covered an interesting period of Japan when it was uncertain of its future as westerners forced Japan to open its doors to the world, bring with it new ideas and methods. That being said, this was still a turbulent Japan, with political and social tensions and divisions, merely added to by the adoption and rejection of foreign ideas.

Next stop? Kumamoto! Home of Kumamon!

This 170km journey would be completed in under an hour thanks to the ridiculously expensive, but oh so cool shinkansen! With its spacious seats it sure beat an aeroplane!

Turns out Kumomoto is a lil quiet and empty – either that, or the shinkansen stops a bit outside the main town – i’m not sure… But there was a temple!

Final leg of the journey was the 170km from Kumamoto back to Miemachi – an easy 2.5hr ride… WHY?!?

And back in time for curry!

Oh what a strange and beautiful holiday it was!

Tokyo: Conquering Mr. Fuji

For the final instalment of my adventurous Summer holidays, it was time to climb Fujisan! Famous from its appearance in  ukiyo-e block prints, its a iconic status can only be matched by anime and crazy Japanese electronics.

Thursday: Arigatou Mr Robotou

Always a joy to shorten the work week, I woke up at 0515 on a Thursday morning, and caught the first train out of Mie, enabling me to get the bus to Oita airport at 0655.

I love domestic flying! Within 5 minutes of arriving at the airport, I was through security and sat waiting. Landing in Tokyo, I was messaging Savvy arranging to meet up (she was flying home in 48 hours – forever!) and we agreed on meeting at Asakusa station, to then take Rob and Becky to Senso-ji temple nearby.

Struggling to get in contact with Rob and Becky, Savvy and I headed off and… bought Dominos pizza – yum yum YUM!

Eventually we met up, dropped R&B off for sushi and we ate the dominos.

Senso-ji was busy! And coming from Kyoto, R&B were pretty templed out! So we didn’t stay too long, and walked over to the Sky Tree – boy was it expensive! After trying to figure out how high we could get without paying (not very…) we walked across to another building and got a 21st floor view of Tokyo – it sufficed!

By now we could check in, did so, and headed out to the ROBOT RESTAURANT!!!

Zoom, zap, zap! Pow, boooong!

What a weird show! From scantily-clad, taiko drummers, snakes and dragons to robots and bikini clad robots! Even a fight between aliens and forest dwellers -so weird! Not to mention the Daft Punk inspired lounge band!

Next we joined Savvy for dinner, with some of her Tokyo friends, at a Nabe pot restaurant – it was tabehoudai, all we can eat!

Finally we got back to the hostel around 2230 – still to shower and pack for Fuji.

Friday: Ain’t about what’s waitin’ on the other side; It’s the Climb

Another morning of waking 0515, Rob and I quickly set off to the station to rise to Shinjuku and the bus stop. Becky had decided not to join us for the full pilgrim walk, from Fuji station to the top, saving herself 4 hours of walking.

From the station, we made our way to the Kitaguchi Fuji Sengen shrine.

Surrounded by the straightest trees in the world, the grand, red tori gate is almost as thick as the trees themselves!

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The Tori gate at Kitaguchi Fuji Sengen shrine

The lower part of the walk was through general forest. Unfortunately for us, the whole area was covered in mist, and would continue to be misty right until the 5th station, and persist even as we went higher than that.

Weaving through the forest was fun, though undermined by knowing there was a smooth, easy to walk road only a few metres away, and we tried not to dwell too much on the numerous watch out for bears signs…

After a time we hit a cafe, and knew the longest stretch of walking was over, and that the time between landmarks was diminishing.

Getting towards the 1st station, things began to get much tougher. The incline began to increase very quickly, and into the path, were cut surface water run-off channels and dams, presumably to channel melting snow off of the walking paths. The route began to consist mainly of 12 inch or higher steps, which started to take their toll on my knees.

The sun was getting closer to being over head, but still the mist persisted, and it gave the forest a strange defused lighting, like a photo studio. In clearer parts, you could see the mist roll and wash over us – really cool! Like a Narnia, or it reminded me of childhood days at my aunt’s house.

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The mist moved so fast, and was so thick

The old 4th and 5th stations were pretty dilapidated, collapsing on themselves and creating some wonderfully atmospheric feeling, like nature reclaiming space back from man.

Finally we hit a road, and knew we were near the 5th station – it wasn’t even 1200 yet!

Alas, the station was still a kilometre up the road from where we were! Off we trudged to find Becky.

After 20 minutes of no luck, we headed in for a bit of food before hitting the main ascent to our hut for the ‘night’.

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Our first view of Mt. Fuji at the 5th Station

The previous path had been pretty empty, we’d overtaken maybe 3 groups of 10-15, and a few couples, but on this path, there were so many people! So many groups in bright coloured jackets and trousers, round foreigners huffing up the hill with their poles and rucksacks, then Rob and I in tee shirts and shorts!

The first part was dull. The clouds were tight to the mountain, so we had no idea of how high up we were, or how high the mountain was. The mist rolled along the paths, and we simply zig-zagged up the hill, the earth of the mountain held back by huge metal barriers and cages – as if we were in a post-apocalyptic war, storming the alien stronghold.

We passed Becky pretty early on, leaving her with her new-found American friends.

Perhaps an hour in, and we began to hit the 7th station huts. By now the price of drinks and food was increasing substantially! 400 yen for a water, instead of 100 or less!

Rob and I found that by far the quickest way to climb Fuji is not to follow the person in front of you, but using the full width of the path to get round tour groups. My god! The groups are slow, pausing every few stretches and just climbing slowly. No wonder it says it takes so long to climb fuji! They’re especially slow as it begins more of a climb than a walk.

By 3 o’clock we’d reached our station for the ‘night’ – it had barely taken 2 hours! But now what to do?

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Our accommodation for the ‘night’

We took off our stinky clothes, and changed a little, and took a nap to wait for Becky!

About an hour later she had arrived! Yay! We’d been worried she’s just walk past!

With the gang reunited, we waited for our dinner! As we waited, the clouds cleared and we could see the view above and below us! We were so high up! Thank goodness! We’d walked so hard without seeing the fruits of our labours!

Dinner was a light affair of mackerel and curry rice, with a lil cake, and they gave us our breakfast – boil in the bag rice!

Nearing 7pm we decided to call it a night!

Saturday: Sunrise on Fujisan

Waking at 0000 to a cacophony of alarms, we clearly weren’t the only ones to have read about leaving at midnight for the sunrise!

After having dressed, and eaten breakfast, we left at about 0030. We were at the bottom of the 10 or so 8th station huts, so we had a lot of people to overtake and beat to the summit!

It was a race to the top! Headlights illuminating the way, we had many tour groups to get past, taking risks climbing on the outer edges of the path and sneaking our way up the hill, whilst trying not to get too sweaty!

As we finally got above the tour groups, the lights ahead began to diminish, and the occasional head touch began to merge in with the stars above us, whilst below there was a snake of blue-hued lights illuminating the entire path up here, and disappearing into the clouds.

Out beyond the mountain, the nearby towns twinkled through the cloud, and help provide some hint of how far Rob and I had walked that day!

At the 9th station, little more than a hut, was a man asleep in sleeping bag – had he been there all night?

Through a tori gate, and then bam! A stone pillar, that read (in Kanji) Fuji Summit – very proud of my Japanese there!

So it was 0215 – 3 hours until sunrise!! Luckily there are seats at the top, so Rob and I took position at the front, surrounded by less than a dozen people. Time for jumpers, jackets, trousers and waterproof trousers – it was gonna be a cold night!

Forty-five minutes later Becky turns up, joins us under our blanket and whips out… her tablet and we watch the Amazing Spider-man! Which turns out to be a great distraction as you freeze your ass off!

After a long wait, the first rays of light broke out from the clouds, and we began the sunrise.

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A sea of clouds as the sun teases us on at the summit of Fujisan

It was a beauty! The double clouded sky framed the sun wonderfully, and watching the hills and lakes below arise from the darkness really emphasised the height we had scaled – about 3700m.

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Adventure Time… The sole reason I made this hat

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Conquering of the sky

The way down was far better than the climb up! The weather held nicely, giving a great view of the base of the mountain, but also a double layer of clouds above and below us.

The path was mostly loose shale, on a shallow incline zig-zagged path – no rocky faces to climb. It was almost laughable how regularly and clearly you could see the route down the mountain below us, but pretty easy on the knees.

We set off around 0545, and were at the 5th station by 0745 – super quick! Our bus wasn’t even leaving until 10am!

Time for breakfast – american pancakes – and postcards to right and send (with the official Fuji postoffice stamp!). We managed to get onto an earlier bus, 0930 back to Tokyo and were back in before midday – and Becky had been so worried she’d miss her 9pm flight – ha!

The group split up, and Rob and I headed to our capsule hotel for the next two nights, over in Shibuya. Split over 10 floors, there were a number of bedrooms, a lounge, locker room and onsen. This was a problem for us, and we spent a lot of time going up and down trying to sort out laundry, changing for onsen, finding the onsen was closed etc.

But after a couple of hours, we were off exploring Shibuya!

First stop was the Shibuya Crossing made famous by the film “Lost in Translation”. I read in Timeout magazine that it was the best attraction in Tokyo as voted for by visitors.

Jesus!

I mean, it’s a crossing, it’s busy, and you cross from many points at once, but it is just a crossing in quite a small area.

We then checked out the highly mentioned Shibuya 109 mall – I mean, it’s a small-based, tall mall, for women with waists the diametre of my thigh… Not so good for Rob and definitely not good for me!

The day was passing, we chose a restaurant to check out, and munched. It wasn’t enough so we hunted down a Dominos pizza, walked there via a small temple surrounded by towering blocks, and munched it on the side of the street.

Having been up since midnight, we took the night pretty easy and got some much needed shut eye.

Sunday: Anime in Akihabara

After a nice lie in, and after discovering that the capsule hotels have porn on the built in TVs, we headed out to Taco Bell!!!

It wasn’t as good as I remembered in Korea…

Off to Akihabara to indulge in otaku culture!

Akihabara is the home of anime and video game culture in Japan. The streets are lined with shops selling anything and everything related to any and every anime and manga, from figurines, to outfits to trading cards and memorabilia.

We mostly went there for the arcades, and after exploring for an hour or so, headed into one. After 2 or 3 floors of UFO/ the claw machines, we made it into the games section. There was a super cool pokemon stadium game, were you actually played your moves in real time, and reacted to the opposition! Super cool!

On the next floor we found what we were after, and jumped into a 2 person Transformers shoot’em game! We sucked, throwing in yen after yen after yen! Then next was an immersive fighter pilot game – it had a massive curved screen that filled your vision and made me a lil sea sick…

Finally we finished off with a game of air hockey – though a version with a weird multi-puc mode that allowed me to win! 🙂

Off to the AKB48 cafe for some drinks! AKB48 are a band, with rolling membership, but what really differentiates them is that they have a permanent performance centre. Every day of the week you can go in and watch a performance. This gives fans permanent access to the band, and to counter exhaustion, they have nearly 50 members from which they choose a few to perform each day. And the name? An abbreviation of Akihabara > AKB, thus spawning a splurge of sister groups based in other areas of Japan.

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AKB48 Cafe next to Akihabara station

It was a nice enough cafe, but the music video of all the members performing on the beach in bikinis was a highlight!

A whistle stop visit to the Anime centre (little more than a room, but a fascinating seeing loose line work turned into fully inked manga panels/anime cells) lead to us checking out the 3331 Art centre.

The 3331 art centre is set in an old junior high school, with the classrooms rented out to different business, artists and exhibitors. A cracking idea in principle, but a lil empty on a Sunday, or perhaps it hasn’t taken off yet – I’m not sure.

Next we headed to Shinjuku. Like Akihabara, it was strange exploring these places I’d been to the previous year, back when I was completely green, totally lost and had no idea of the geography of Tokyo.

We walked amongst the illuminated signs that screamed for our attention, that scrambled and clung to every vertical surface, and informed us that all 10 floors in every building had something to offer us (though what it was offering I had no idea!).

We went in hunt of ‘Drunk’s Alley’ and ‘Piss Alley’ and eventually found both, or so thought…

We definitely visted Piss Alley, I’m almost sure of it, its description as a small network of alleyways, next to the tracks departing from the northwest side of Shinjuku. Two short streets lines with tiny little restaurants.

The other area turned out to be the Golden Gai. A piece of traditional Tokyo that managed not to be burnt down by the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia), it is now a favourite haunt of people with artistic tendenacies, and with its ‘Patrons only’ mentality, is pretty niche. It’s a much larger area of alleys – perhaps 6 street – with bars located in the basement, first floor and second floor levels. It looked pretty cool, but perhaps not at 8pm on a Sunday night.

Ultimately we headed back to the capsule hotel, taking aboard some ramen at a nearby eatery. Capping off Rob’s Japan experience in a truely japanese way – by buying your ramen by ordering from a vending machine.

Hong Kong: Reunion

My second vacation during the Summer Holidays saw me visit Hong Kong, and reunite with my best friend, Ginger Rob!

Friday 7th August

So after a stressful morning of having my yearly medical, of being told I shouldn’t have eaten, and may have to rearrange my medical that afternoon, I was aboard my 1207 Miemachi train and on my way to Hong Kong to meet Ginger Rob!

As always, the trains ran fine, and in no time at all I was through security and waiting to board the plane. Three hours passed and before I knew it, it was night and I was wondering through Hong Kong airport, passing customs and out the other side.

And who was there? Why Ginger Rob of course! Handmade sign to boot, to welcome me to Hong Kong!

He is sooo ginger!

#AdventureTime

#AdventureTime

After collecting my free Hong Kong rubber duck, we tried on our adventure time hats and headed out to the airport bus – and boy was it hot outside!

Only discovering as we attempted to board the bus that you had to pre-buy tickets at a special counter, a short ride later we were in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST), the Southern tip of mainland China closest to Hong Kong Island. Thankfully I had watched the hostel’s “How to Find Us” video, and we soon debagged, beer in hand overlooking Hong Kong from the balcony; it was like nothing had changed in a year!

Saturday – Kayaking in Sai Kung

Not ones to dilly-dally, our first day involved a 0630 departure to get to our Kayaking meet point of Sai Kung. The best the site could offer as guidance was a bus number and MRT station to get to. We managed this much, buying ourselves Octopus cards (think super useful Oyster cards) and arriving at the MRT stop, buying breakfast and lunch en route.

Ignoring the website’s (incorrect) directions to the bus stop meant we eventually found it, and attempted to board the minibus at the stop, only to discover it was full, and the queue at the bus stop was actually waiting for the next minibus of the same number.

Heading to the back of the queue red faced, we waited inline, and were soon being whisked out to the countryside.

Many of the buses in Hong Kong are actually minibuses, designed to carry 16 passengers, and thus run pretty frequently given the few people it carry. What is most convenient is that though (they seem) privately run, they do in fact take Octopus cards as payment 😀

We arrived with time to spare, and so had the opportunity to explore the area.

As whenever abroad, the issue of getting money reared its ugly head, and Rob’s money card was not complying! Thankfully, for once I didn’t have an issue and so we could at least survive.

Survive we did and much more! Buying super awesome hats to protect our faces and sausage bread things for breakfast!

Unfortunately, just because we had arrived on time, didn’t mean others would, and it wasn’t until after 9am that we headed out to the kayaks via a speed boat – luckily our cool new hats had handy strings to keep them on our heads!

Docking at a small island, on side was the pier, the other a beach with kayaks laid out on the sands. After a quick lesson on kayak technique – the front person’s the engine, the back the steering, and paddle on the same side together – we were on our first jaunt to a nearby beach.

“Not too bad this kayaking malarkey” I thought to myself, and to be honest, I was right!

After a bit of splashing and posing for photos, we were back on the kayak’s and heading across more open water to the next beach. The open water made it much harder to paddle in a straight line, but we kept ahead of the pack, kept off the coral and landed the boat onto the beach, allowing us to watch the others, especially the family with children, get forced over the coral and along the rocky shoreline before getting onto the shore..

After a few snacks provided by the company, we hiked up through the low, densely back shoreline forest, and up the rugged hills to the small peaks on the top of the island, receiving a cool breeze for our efforts, and some stunning views down to the rocky waters below.

By the time we returned, the sea was now full of party boats – apparently many of the big companies have boats its employees can hire out, and so expats often have parties on these.

The speedboat then took us out to a sea arch a bit too far out and open to kayak round to, and we posed for the obligatory photo in front of it.

The final leg had to most exciting part to it – kayaking through a sea arch! After what felt like an age of paddling, and being pushed into the rocks by the sea, we reached the arch!

We were the first pair to go through. We lined up, and were told to time it so that the swell would carry us through the arch…

Whether we actually did that, I don’t know, but we paddled away, entering the cool, echoey sanctum of the arch and watched the water rise up and build in front of us. We paddled hard trying not to get to washed back out, only to then have our speed boosted as we rode back down the swell. Approaching the rocky side at speedy, I had to rudder and turn the nose of kayak to the left, then the right, narrowly avoiding the sides of the arch, and then we were clear, and back into the heat of the sun – we’d done it!

Thankfully, the return journey was in the speed boat and we shortly back on the island and ready to board the boat back – at least Rob and I were.

Turned out we had to sit in the restaurant for over an hour, as the others in the group dined in the restaurant and the guides cleaned out the boat.

By this time it was late afternoon and we headed straight back to the hostel, ready for the BBQ in the hostel that evening.

Beers in hand, we sat in the small common room, beers in hand and chatting to our new hostel friends. Come 2030 we were wondering were the BBQ guy was to take us to it – turned out we hadn’t confirmed our places early enough and it had been cancelled!

Gutted, but enjoying our company, we headed over to Lan Kwai Fong (LKF) on Hong Kong island, an area dedicated to bars and restaurants, for a night out.

What we hadn’t anticipated was the beer festival.

The lines of stalls along one side of each street created a bottleneck and slowed a mass crowd to a snail’s pace. Within 30 seconds the group had gotten split in two, with the others never to be seen again!

After a sandwich at 7/11, and a thorough explore of the area, we gave up! Finding neither a dance floor, or anywhere sufficiently cheap enough to drink – all in all, the famous LKF had been a let down, and we finished the night with a cheeky Maccies.

Sunday – Peak and Party

Taking our time to rise, we grabbed some food from a local cafe, before setting out to Hong Kong island to board the famous tram to Victoria Peak.

Victoria Peak was formerly home to the colonising elites, who chose it for its cool breezes and lower temperatures than the rest of the island and neighbouring territories. Due to the heat, these elites didn’t like to climb the slopes of their home, so employed people to carry them up in sedan chairs. Eventually in the 1880s Alexander Findlay Smith began construction and opened the first tram up to the peak, helping to speed up the area’s development and popularity.

Today it takes tourists (and maybe some locals) to the Peak and the two shopping malls located there.

On top of the World!

On top of the World!

Whilst the history is interesting and the ride fun, it does feel kind of empty to be let out into an airconditioned mall, filled with restaurants, and a DC shop – slightly surreal!

Heading back down into more central Hong Kong, we’d heard that Sunday afternoon is a great party time in Hong Kong, since all the employed house staff are required to leave their employers houses on Sunday, many of the choose to party.

And so at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon, we found ourselves transported to 1am on a Saturday morning, dancing to an eclectic mix of Western, Indonesian and Filipino music.

After getting a good sweat on dancing, the club began to empty out, and as we picked up drunken takeaway food, it was about 7pm – surely it was bed time though?

Back to the hostel, we spent a few hours on our devices before hitting the hay, feeling worse for wear.

Monday – Exploring TST and home foods

It was time we took to the streets of Hong Kong, so phone in hand we followed a route of the TST area, and learnt about its more opulent and glorious past as the gateway between the island and mainland, and the buildings that welcomed its elite.

We hit up the Avenue of Stars, a gangway that juts out over the waters, and is perhaps the Asian equivalent of the Hollywood Walk of Fame – a series of plagues, many of which with hand prints of named star, and a few statues here and there. To be only honest, I recognised 3 names – have a guess who they were…

Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Bruce Lee!

Next we found a delightful French bakery that had a turkey and brie sandwich on artisan bread (it had nuts and honey) and I nearly cried it was so good. Then I nearly cried when I’d finished it.

As I’ve said before in other posts, leaving Japan is a time when I get to enjoy home food, be that a pizza hut, pub grub or a good sandwich! But in Hong Kong especially, this idea of ‘local’ food vs ‘western’ food is exceptionally blurred, given 150 years of British history in the area.

We then headed up to the Science museum – it’s super cool! We spent a good couple of hours doing their fun puzzles, life science and experiments, the mirror world and many other things!

Lunch had come and almost past, so we headed to Pizza Express for a much needed pizza fix – OH MY GOD it was so good! I’ve missed it so much! So pizzary and the base is dry, with normal toppings! Again, I nearly cried!

Finishing up the tour took us past some former school, and through a park next to the hostel. Walking around we came across a really nice supermarket with cheap fruit (compared to Japan) so I bought tons and gorged myself!

As the late afternoon drifted into night, we set up going to the Temple Street Market – after all, it’s in all the tour books!

What a disappointment!

I should have learnt from the famed markets in Taiwan. The market was just some stalls in the street selling stuff for tourists – leather wares, electronics and jewellery. Even the ‘delicious’, ‘plentiful’ street food was lil more than a few restaurants on the side of the street, food served on plastic bowls under harsh fluorescent lighting. It was a sharp drop from the joys of lunch, and cost almost as much – I do wonder how the tour books can advertise these markets and something extraordinary? Perhaps the only extenuating circumstance was that it was a Monday rather than Saturday evening?

Tuesday – Beaches, beaches, beaches

With the weather looking hot and sunny, it was beach day. What neither of us had realised was that… we are not beach people. Between burn and boredom, there was no real reason why we would be beach people!

Setting off we caught the bus round the island to the first beach, Deep Water Beach Bay, swam to the platform in the water and then ran back for the shelter of the trees.

We walked around a platform/gangway to the next beach, Repulse Bay, and to our relief, it was much more developed and had shops! After exploring the streets, we picked out a Cantonese restaurant on the beach front, and enjoyed a lunch of noodles, BBQ rib rolls and Chinese donut roll – the last item was very strange – a donut wrapped in the white translucent ‘paper’ of a spring roll. Followed down by a (very expensive) cocktail in a shop further down.

After crisp sandwiches (I was still hungry!) we set off for South Bay beach on the hunt for the bio luminescent algae that lived in the waters.

Unfortunately, it was still about 5pm when we arrived, and so we had to wait out the sunset. We do so with a lil swim, some smoothies and a number of handstands as the sun was setting.

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Handstands at South Bay beach

Yet even in the dark, we saw no glowing algae, and eventually had to admit defeat.

Thankfully for us, as we showered in the beach washrooms, we got talking to a Malaysian guy who lived in Hong Kong, who offered a lift back in his Mercedes, and took us all the way to the Star Ferries port!

It was most surreal driving around Hong Kong, the fast and strong contrast between dark hills, then towering buildings gave it a real video game quality!

Crossing on the ferry gave us the nighttime panorama of the Hong Kong island lights, again upr surreal.

Our final aim of the day was to hit a guidebook restaurant! So in our finest swim shorts and vest tops, we followed the guidebook to a cheap cantonese restaurant, into a mall, up the escalators and into a posh restaurant filled with men in shirts and women in dresses…

Shit!

Vastly underdressed, but if the staff were bothered, it didn’t show, and we ordered a feast of dumplings, and noodles. They were delicious! My beef stew full of flavour, and tender chunks of beef – a good food day!

Wednesday – Riding the Dragon

On top of the Dragon's Back

On top of the Dragon’s Back

We’d been putting it off cos of the heat, but today was the day we’d tackle the Dragon Back ridge. It was another bus jobby, popping out of a station on the island, and catching a bus round towards the bottom of the island.

Why is a dragon back? I don’t know. Why is it a ridge? Again, I don’t know, it was particularly steep on either side. Was it a good idea to do it in near 40C heat? Probably not, but thankfully it was pretty short!

The initial climb is up some rugged terrain, exposed to the sun, and continues that was until just after the main peaks. The peaks over views of Stanley to one side and the SOuth China sea to the other, oh, and a golf course!

Compared to Taiwan the previous week, the hike was really nothing, but did offer contrasting views of nature against the sprawl of urbanisation.

The latter half of the trip is spent in the shade of trees, winding their way back down the hill, then round to Big Wave Bay. By the time we reached the bay, we had been hiking for maybe 2.5 to 3 hours.

Big Wave Bay is far more european than the beach we went to, with a number of small shops selling refreshments and hiring beach equipment, and the beach had many more sunbathers and people in bikinis and speedos than elsewhere we’d been. After a dip and drying off, we headed back into the bustle of central Hong Kong and to the escalator street.

Called the mid-levels, it’s a strange area, with a number of outdoor escalators that take you up (and not down) the streets, and on which are a good number of restaurants and bars.

Capitalising on happy hour, we got some wine and beer, before looking for somewhere to eat.

After trying to get served in the Butcher Club burger house, and being ignored, we ended up a wee bit further up the street at Cochrane’s Bar & Grill, which not only served us, but gave us free monkey nuts and came with fries – deliciously pleasing.

Thursday – History of Hong Kong

A slow start saw us heading to Pizza Hut for a brunch – and boy was it fancier than I was used to! With a full menu, not a whiff of a buffet bar and nicely furnished but… the pizza did taste like McDonalds though :/

We had planned to go Macau, but looking at the options, it was going to be expensive, so we had to cobble together a plan.

The Hong Kong History Museum was that plan. Funnily enough it was next to the Science Museum, and annoyingly, had been free on Wednesday! Oh well!

The museum was well put together! Covering Hong Kong history from well over 340 millions years ago, right up until 1997 when Hong Kong was handed over to China when the 99-year lease ran out.

It was fascinating to learn about the 4 ‘native’ peoples of the area, and traditions, and the insight into the effect of British and Japanese rule. The museum has full sized replica buildings that house the exhibits and displays – great for keeping the kids entertained imagine – it certainly kept Rob entertained!

Finishing up at the museum, we decided to get a drink, and spotting a tea house on a second floor, headed up. It really was a tea house! You bought dry tea, boiled your own water and made your own tea!

Weirdly, you had to buy tea per person… And let’s say it worked out a lot more than a Starbucks!

The Phoenix Tea House

The Phoenix Tea House

I don’t think I’m a tea person :/

Our final night in Hong Kong required us to celebrate in style – Korean BBQ style! We visited a few restaurants, before settling on one and pulling up our seats at a lil BBQ table – it was just like being back in Korea! We chose some garlic skirt meat and chicken to BBQ, and some pork rice to go with all the sides we got – it was pretty damn tasty!

We took a quick trip to the Irish bar, Delaney’s, as it was celebrating it’s final last call (it was shutting down permanently), but it didn’t even have diddly-diddly music, so we didn’t stay long.

With the free time we gained, we went back to Temple Street, only a different part which we hoped would be cooler – it wasn’t. But we did get cool friendship bracelets, then headed back to the hostel.

Friday – Back to Japan

Wanting to get to the airport with a fair amount of time to spare, we hoped to check out of the hostel at 0900, get breakfast and head off at 0930. Only, the cafe front of the hostel had its shutters down! With the hostel taking my driving licence as a deposit, we had no choice to wait around, then find some wifi, then ring the hostel.

Finally they showed up and we checked out. Thankfully, it was a quick couple of trains and we were at the airport, messaging our friend Becky about our evenings plans in Fukuoka, and when we were to meet and what we were going to do.

Friday night fun in Fukuoka

Friday night fun in Fukuoka

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!!!