Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mt Fuji, Kyoto and Goodbye

For my first ever experience with backpacker accommodation I chose K's House backpackers in Mt Fuji. What we got was a single room with a table and mats and in a cupboard just behind the camera were floor mattresses, sheets and pillows. At night you pushed the table to the side and set up beds on the floor. They were surprisingly comfortable for me and were good on my back and neck, though Elizabeth did not find them as agreeable.

There was a shared kitchen, complete with utensils, pots and pans, lounge area and then each floor shared a bathroom and with a nominal fee, a laundry. We went to the supermarket and started cooking normal meals with more fruit and vegetables than you normally eat while travelling. It was ideal for my tricky diet and we did the same thing in Kyoto. There were always fellow travellers wanting to converse in the lounge, and it was here we met a lady from Copenhagen who has offered to put us up when we are in Denmark, bonus. For the social and eating aspects as well as the cost we will probably try and find more backpackers accommodation in the future.

Vending machines everywhere!!!

Mt Fuji itself is an imposing and impressive sight over the town. But July and August are the recommended climbing seasons and due to climate variability and cold all we could do was take walks around the nearby lake and smaller mountains, which was fun and relaxing on their own. With our now extended Japanese family I can see ourselves getting back here in the future and hopefully attempt the climb.
Lake at Mt Fuji

Next on our whistle stop tour was a single day in Kyoto. The day was Elizabeths birthday and Kyoto had been on her bucketlist for a long time. Due to the short nature of our trip we decided on a full day tour that covered 6 temples and shrines with magnificent gardens and included a scrumptious Japanese lunch. One Shogun Palace had all these cool defensive systems including a floor that would squeak like a little bird when you walked because of little attachments underneath the floorboards, the idea being an assassin could not sneak up on anybody. It was a really nice day.

Then it was the end of our Japan portion of our trip and we leave behind special memories of our new extended family and a Japanese wedding, being kids again in Disneyland and the peace of Hiroshima.

We did all our travelling by train and had purchased a 14 day JR pass. This must be purchased before you come to Japan and are only open to foreigners and with our long trips (Hamamatsu up to Tokyo down to Hiroshima up to Mt Fuji down to Kyoto and down to Nagoya) we estimated 50% in savings. Apart from this it is very convenient to just flash your pass through train stations and just hop on trains without worrying about tickets. There are non JR trains but the long trips are covered and train staff are really helpful, just go up and ask and you will be on the right platform in no time. We always preplanned our trip using Hyperdia first and never missed a train, the bullet train is blistering fast and they are virtually always dead on time. When using hyperdia just uncheck the Nozomi checkbox as they are not covered by the pass.

We have found Japan incredibly friendly and clean. For instance when Elizabeth could not find a supermarket and was unsure where she was a passerby went and got her car and drove her back to the hotel. In Kyoto, with bags, raining and standing on a street corner trying to work out a map that had streets missing, a guy offered to help and walked us to our hotel and did not leave  until we were safely inside, not wanting anything in return. Definitely on our return list.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Honouring Hiroshima

Hiroshima - 10th to 12th May 2012

8:15 am August the 6th 1945, the Enola Gay, an American B29 bomber, dropped the first atomic bomb to be used as a weapon. It was given the nickname 'little boy'. The damage it caused was far from little though and this one bomb directly killed 80,000 human beings with nearly that amount dying slowly and painfully over the following years. This was approximately half of the city's population. The bomb also levelled a large portion of the city's buildings...

I was greatly interested in Hiroshima from a historical perpective as being the location of the first destructive use of nuclear weapons and coming here was my idea. I expected the place to be fairly depressing because of this fact but to my utter surprise this was one of the most uplifting and peaceful places I have come across on my travels.

The people of Hiroshima rather than degenerating into hate and depression from the near annihilation of their city at the end of World War 2 instead decided to make it a symbol of peace and a centre to focus the push for the eradication of nuclear weapons from this planet. Peace Park was created on an open field left by the bomb where buildings had stood. It is immaculately kept and full of monuments to the victims and for peace.

There is the statue of a little girl with arms outstretched that represents an actual girl named Sadako Sasaki, who died of leukemia from radiation exposure. She was folding paper cranes util she died, believing that after making 1,000 cranes her wishes would come true. A school remembrance ceremony was happening at this site while we were there. The Peace Flame will stay alight until nuclear weapons have been eradicated.

There are bells for world peace, the bells themselves are covered in a representation of a world without borders and you are encouraged to hit it. The spot where it hits has an atomic symbol on it so that you are ridding the world of atomic weapons by banging it.

The A Bomb dome is strikingly both horrifying and beautiful as the ruins of a building mostly destroyed by the bomb. You can see it from virtually anywhere around the park and regardless of the time of day the light seems to accentuate it and it stands out from all the green surrounding it. There were many more memorials such as gates with Peace written on them in different languages, a cenotaph with victims' names, a counter with the days since the bomb dropped as well as the days since the last atomic test (155 days) and we spent many hours here wandering the gardens soaking in the symbols for peace and remembrance of the victims. We jogged/walked the park both mornings as our hotel (the Comfort hotel) was less than five minutes walk from it and we spent an afternoon here on a tour. It was difficult to leave.

There is also a museum, conference centre and hall, which goes through the history as well as showing efforts made here for the eradication of nuclear weapons. The museum was very sad with actual artifacts, like the burnt tricycle of a little boy, shoes, clothing, and even the shadow burnt into the steps of a bank where a man was sitting. Very difficult to look at.

We also visited Miyajima Island, the home of a magnificent Shinto temple, with its protective Torii Gate in the water itself. Unfortunately the gate had been damaged by a spring storm stronger than our tour operator has ever seen in 22 years and the gate was covered for repair. The island itself was a beautiful experience and blend of the Shinto religion and nature.

All in all Hiroshima was our surprising favourite place in Japan and we left the place feeling uplifted and peaceful after seeing how people can recover and what they can accomplish after such devastation.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Kid for a day.

On the 9th May, Elizabeth and I spent a day with the kids at Tokyo Disneyland. This place really sends you back to your childhood, which is really great for me as I am a firm believer in the fact that growing up is overrated and I refuse to participate.

We began by getting to all the rides that will fill up fast before they got too busy, successfully getting on Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain and Space Mountain in a fairly timely manner. Space Mountain deserves special mention as it is a high speed roller coaster in the dark and while you are in the line there are numerous exits for you to chicken out called escape pods. This is a bit disconcerting as they don't have it at any other ride and there are so many of them. Adrian admitted later that he thought I would bail but I hung in there and hopped in the coaster. In the end I thought it was a really cool ride, all space themed with stars all around and stuff and really fast feeling. Being in the dark, if anything, was less scary as you could not see how high or how fast you were going. The scariest thing was Elizabeth screaming next to me.

The Mickey Mouse 3D movie was phenomenal, I was sticking my hand out trying to touch stuff, amazingly real, it included actual water splashing on you and the seats moving and shaking at appropriate moments and finished with an actual physical event (I won't spoil the surprise). The space blaster ride had us going around with a laser gun shooting the bad guys with my score being comparable with Adrian's and Andrew's. We even sat on the road and watched the disney float parade and did the cute 'its a small world' ride where to the song of 'its a small world' you saw moving dolls of children in costumes from different nationalities (I don't think I quite went back far enough in my childhood to get the full benefit from this one).

Surprising enjoyment was had on the spinning teacups which I thought would be either having me throw up or be fairly lame, but it was hilarious in practice. Elizabeth, Andrew and I took a teacup where we kept spinning to a minimum until near the end and I filmed the other big kids spinning themselves into a frenzy. It was a great day, unfortunately coming to a premature end due to rain settling in before dark.

The rest of the time in Tokyo was taken up exploring some parts of the city during the day and night. The lights in the city at night were as overwhelming as all the movies have you expect it to be and during the day we found a statue of liberty. Special thanks to our tour guides Adrian and Mariko who gave up part of their honeymoon to show us around and are bigger kids than I am, which made it great fun.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A merging of cultures

The 28th of April 2012 Perth, was the day of the Australian wedding of Adrian and Mariko. It was a rainy day, not traditionally the kind of day you would wish for a wedding. Elizabeth had a different interpretation though as she remarked that water brings life and is typically a symbol of renewal and growth. In this respect rain is a positive symbol for a marriage.

It was a traditional church service with the priest making a beautiful analogy between this wedding and an SBS TV show that he had been watching recently. The idea being that this was a merging of two cultures, Australian and Japanese, and that the family was now increased to include both families and not just one. In that way I am now part of the family in Japan just as the family in Japan are now a part of mine. As the Australian family is already blended and already includes the family of my daughter's marriage it seems to be growing exponentially. Especially as my family has a lost history and currently only goes back as far as my mum and dad. Would definitely be an interesting exercise for that tv show 'Who do you think you are?', as we have tried but failed to find any living relatives (hint hint).

The rest proceeded as normally as possible. Many pictures were taken, most under cover, though brief periods of sunshine allowed some pictures in Kings Park to be completed. From the initial ceremony at 2pm to the reception at 6 and through to the leaving of the bride and groom about 11pm. The reception included the normal speeches, a very entertaining one from the best man outlining the groom's very chequered past as a cheeky troublemaker, and a very heartfelt one from Adrian, partly in Japanese, to his new family and his new wife. Cutting of the cake occurred, the first dance and then much partying and drinking.

Exactly eight days later in Hamamatsu, the Japanese wedding was much shorter, with a lot packed into a short space of time. It omitted the actual ceremony to make the marriage official as that had already been done in Australia. The bride and groom first arrived in the normal wedding dress and suit as in Australia and took their seats at the top table. In this setting they were alone on the table. Some speeches occurred, of which I understood virtually nothing, the shoe being on the other foot in this hemisphere, but I am sure were all heartfelt and warming judging by the tears and laughter. Food started being served and at a certain point Mariko's sister Tomoko escorted the couple out. While they were out each table received their own little wedding cake and the means to decorate it and we enthusiastically brought our energies to the task (well Jackie did anyway).

After a short while the couple reappeared having changed into kimonos, and Adrian suddenly looked like some Samurai warrior. They went around and judged the cake decorating, feeding each other the winning cake and making the losers (worst cake) eat vegemite (or some fascimile just as repulsive judging by the look on their faces). After that was a hilarious game hosted by two of Mariko's friends where they needed to decide yes or no to an unknown question and then were shown the question. More speeches occurred, including Adrian's, and Mariko's dad Masataka's. It finished with us all holding lighted candles and then blowing them out, with me being last because I was both trying to film my candle as well as having no idea of what was going on. The guests left at about 3pm after it all starting around 11:30 in the morning. Elizabeth looked amazing in a kimono herself thanks to the generous hospitality of Mariko's mum Kaori in lending it to her.
In the end there was much more similar in the two weddings than there were differences. Much laughter and crying occurred, thousands of pictures were taken (literally, the paparazzi having nothing on enthusiastic families and friends), and they were both a gathering of friends and family to celebrate the public commitment of two people very obviously madly in love with each other. So raise your glasses and let's toast the happy couple, to Adrian and Mariko, live long and prosper.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

South Africa

Our South Africa leg started in Johannesburg and we stayed in a hotel across the road from Nelson Mandela Square, a huge shopping and food complex. I found my first Nandos since leaving Australia, yummm.

Blyde River Canyon

From there it was a massive 15 day coach tour from Johannesburg to Cape Town down the east coast. Some highlights included Blyde River Canyon and Bourke's Luck Potholes, with absolutely beautiful views reminiscent of what I imagine the Grand Canyon to look like (I will find out :-)).

Bourke's Luck Potholes

Some of the animals at Kruger
Shy Hippo
A full day at Kruger, but we didn't find any cats. A brilliant boat cruise at St Lucia Wetlands, where we got our best ever views of hippos including one shy hippo who was peeking out from behind a bush and then made a run around the bush to get into the river, amazingly fast but comical in his timidity. I mean these things are supposed to kill more humans each year than lions.

Rhino Horn Mountain
2 nights at Southern Drakensberg Mountains. Finally and for the first time since South America, some mountains to climb. We have come to the conclusion we are walkers and we like walking on mountains. We spent 6 hours walking every track we could find. We had the lady at the front desk worried as our last walk started at 4:30 and took us past dark as it was about a 2 hour walk. When we picked up our key she said she had been warning the guides that they might need to go up looking for us. Lucky my trusty phone (android based) has a really bright torch. Even in the morning with an 8 o'clock leaving time we got up at 5 and did a walk to watch the sun come up on the mountains.

Beautiful beach at Mbotyi overlooking the Indian Ocean. We walked along the beach in the water and I remarked that it was our ocean and by walking in it we were connected to Perth. I took a picture of the sunrise from our room the final morning. First time ever for this Perthite to see a sunrise on our ocean.

SUNRISE on the Indian Ocean from our room

From the lookout, looking back to where we started.

Tsitsikamma National Park which had another magnificent walking and viewing opportunity at Storms River Mouth. We had to race to the lookout as our guide only gave us an hour and it took 40 minutes to get up there (with hearts thumping) and 20 minutes to get back.

Knysna Elephant Park, where Elizabeth was getting in the way of his feeding so he gave her a gentle shove with his trunk (see video). Feeding them was great fun, they grab a piece of fruit out of your hand with their trunk and before you can get another it is down the hatch and the trunk is back searching for more.

One hotel organised a Zulu dance and then they did the old get people up to try it out. I feigned the old knee injury but Elizabeth was quick to get up. Personally if I am offered a show then I want to watch the show, not BE the show.

Cango Cave
Cango Caves, which were huuuggge, dwarfs anything I have been in before. Then into Cape Town where we had a day tour down to the Cape of Good Hope and finally on the morning of our last day we went up Table Mountain.

A very busy time and a full on non stop tour. A bit too full on with not a lot of breathing room to smell the roses. I am really looking forward now to our next leg where we will be doing the Northern Hemisphere without any significant forward planning. It will probably be a lot more messy but we can do things in our own time frame. We will soon see if this is a more or less fun way to do a holiday...

He just pinched a muffin from the car

Penguin sanctuary

Hout Bay on the way to the Cape of Good Hope

Cape of Good Hope

On top of Table Mountain

Ostrich Farm, Elizabeth loved eating them with rice