Steve and Rachel are returning from Montreal to the UK via Japan and China.
You can follow their progress here... 

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

7:49 PM - Fantastic hostel - Rachel

UPDATE Our new friends Craig and Mary are also blogging their trip - it's much more professional than ours and has some great pictures too. Take a look here.

After a very long day's travelling, we are finally in Beijing. The ferry arrived two hours late into a very murky port. Seoul was foggy/smoggy, but this was far worse. We had seen a handful of 'white people' on the boat, and when it came to disembark, the crew herded us all together. We were first off the boat, possibly because we and our big rucksacks were completely in the way, unable to understand the queueing and luggage instructions! There was a shuttle bus outside the terminal to take us to Beijing. We all filed on...and then waited there for another hour while the rest of the ferry emptied. This was a complete contrast to Japan. We were wedged into tight rows (the lads folded their legs around as best they could), and as more people were packed onto the bus, their luggage was piled up across the back window and then along the aisle. All in all a cosy setting for the two hour journey. So 3 hours later, we finally arrived in the north east part of Beijing. Traffic was heavy, but a taxi whisked us round to the south side of the city to our hostel: the Far East International Youth Hostel. And what a place!! It looks like a hotel, with simple clean corridors (white walls, wood detail) full of spacious dorm rooms containing large bunk beds that look brand new. Everything is clean, spacious and very pleasant. I'd be happy to spend the rest of the holiday here.

On the ferry we got chatting to two canadians, Mary and Craig. Last night, the four of us headed out to explore the local streets, which are a maze of little streets full of street vendors selling clothes, fruit, skewers of meat. You have to stay fairly alert though, as the rickshaws and bikes skim past you. There are a lot of tourists in this area, and from every restaurant or rickshaw that you pass, you are greeted by loud (and repeated) "Hullo". They are very cheerful and very persistent, but it's all good humored. It is clear that this is a very colourful and lively place, and we are looking forward to getting out there to explore...just as soon as we've sorted out our laundry crisis.

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7:31 PM - Boat to China - Steve

We got to the ticket office at the ferry terminal in Seoul just as it opened and we were glad to find there were indeed some tickets left for the overnight ferry to Tianjin. We had to have a 'deluxe' cabin though, which meant we had our own tiny bathroom, a dvd player and a TV, but alas no window. We would have to go 'royal' for that. The journey began just after lunch and took 26 hours in all. The food on board was a bit crap - Korean Kimchi (their ubiquitous spicy pickled veggies) accompanied dinner, breakfast and lunch.

The above picture shows Rach been welcomed aboard - and was taken a split second before she tripped over the step and fell gracefully into the arms of the waiting hostesses. Nothing like making an affectionate entrance, eh love? Shortly after we met a couple from Canada, Mary and Craig, who had just completed a year teaching in Korea. It was great to hear their impressions of the Koreans, and also hear about their travels plans. We're a bit jealous actually - they are taking the Trans-Siberian railway across to Europe over the next few months whilst we fly back around the world the other way.

The crossing itself was amazingly smooth - the sea was flat and calm all the way across, and we had to keep reminding ourselves we were actually at sea, especially when in our windowless cabin. The weather, from Seoul all the way to Beijing has been uniformly grey, misty and impenetrable. The picture of the cranes above was our first view of China, as they loomed mysteriously out of the thick mist.

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Monday, August 29, 2005

6:32 AM - Plans - Steve

Before we left for Korea we had hoped to be able to arrange a visit to the DMZ, a 4km wide buffer zone between the North and South of Korea - the two countries are still technically at war. Only foreigners are allowed into the DMZ and the US military runs tours on certain days, including to the UN building which straddles the fence and is used for peace talks. We thought it would be a interesting chance to learn a bit more about a conflict we don't know a great deal about. Sadly it was not to be. After many phone calls and being put on a waiting list, it finally transpired today that the tour tomorrow does not have space for us, which is a bit of a shame. So instead, we're going to China. If all goes well at 1pm tomorrow we'll be sailing off on a 24 hour ferry to Tianjin. We don't have tickets yet, but we have it on reasonably good authority that there are a few left. We have no idea what the internet situation is like in China (except that the bbc website is banned so the cricket will be harder to follow!) so watch this space.

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5:59 AM - Deokjeokdo - Steve

Since we may well be spending a good part of our remaining trip in urban areas, we thought today might be a good opportunity to get out of town and explore a bit. We decided to head for Deokjeokdo, a relatively small island an hour's ferry ride from the last subway stop on the Seoul metro. We were pleasantly surprised how rural and undeveloped it was considering it's proximity - the local fisherwomen who greeted us on the pier tried their best to sell us some live squid. We were even more impressed with the beach we found a short bus ride away at Seopori. Not only was it sandy, 2km long and 50m wide, but it was virtually deserted. In fact there were precisley two other couples there, one of which was a pair of Honeymooners. We knew this because, as Korean Tradition dicates, they were wearing matching outfits. What a super idea.

So we whiled away a lovely day, reading and splashing in and out of the shallow water before reluctantly catching the ferry and metro home.

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5:54 AM - Seoul - Rachel

We arrived by train into Seoul (five minutes late, which would have been unheard of in Japan). After dumping our stuff at the Backpackers Hostel, we headed out to a nearby palace called Gyeongbokgung to see the colourful changing of the guards. It was even more visually stunning for its backdrop (see picture). It is a huge palace complex containing large courtyards, and a maze-like complex of pagodas and other buildings, a wonderful place to spend the afternoon exploring. Towards sunset, we caught a taxi up to Seoul Tower cable car. Seoul Tower (closed at the moment) is on top of a hill called Namsan from where you can get stunning views of the city, according to the guidebook. Unfortunately, it was incredibly hazy, even murkier than Tokyo had been. It gave the city a rather mysterious air. On the way back to the hostel, we wandered down a lovely street that is pedestrianised at the weekend. It is full of craft shops, galleries, restaurants, and street vendors selling all sorts of fayre, such as fried fish, fried rice sweets, and skewered meats. A wonderfully atmospheric (and aromatic) walk. We walked on further to find an internet cafe, and found ourselves in an area full of international chain stores (we saw Clarkes shoes), neon, and noise. A slight clash of styles for the evening!

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Saturday, August 27, 2005

10:14 AM - Hanjeogsik? - Steve

We had been exploring Gyeongju all afternoon and had started to get hungry. It looked like it was going to be a lovely sunset so we decided to get a quick meal and come back out to watch. So we walked straght into the first restaurant we found, and sat down. No menu was offered, and within a minute a huge array of small dishes began arrving at our table, unloaded from several very large trays. We were, as you might expect, a bit bemused by this and couldn't begin to fathom where we might start. We fished out the Lonely Planet and think what we'd been presented with was 'Hanjeogsik' - "a banquet that includes fish, meat, soup, tofu stew, rice, noodles, steamed egg, shellfish and lots of cold vegetables amongst many other items". It was entertaining to pick through and discover what was what, but with over thirty dishes to go at we were stuffed well before the end....

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7:22 AM - Busan to Gyeongju - Steve

After a quick scoot around Busan this morning to procure an adaptor for charging the camera, we took the metro out to the bus staion and headed north to Gyeongju (thanks for the tip Jennifer!). It was a rather posh bus, equiped with reclining laz-e-boy type seats that were so big they could only fit three per row, and set us back only about $4 each for the hour long journey. It's pleasant to see how much futher our money goes here than in Japan.

Gyeongju was home to the Silla Dynasty 2000 years ago, and today is pretty much an open-air museum with tombs, temples and pagodas in all directions.

After a slightly farcical hour spent shuttling across town looking for a hotel, we headed out to explore - starting with the Tumuli Park. The park contains 23 tombs of Silla monarchs and from the outside they look like giant grassy hillocks - much more subtle than Egyptian pyramids, but they serve the same purpose. Their rounded profiles and soft furry green covers make for a slightly surreal landscape which is somehow very pleasing to look at. One of the medium sized tombs (50m diameter) is open to visitors and it shows a cross section of the construction - basically a small wooden hut containing the body and associated trinkets buried in a vast heap of rocks and then covered over with a 5m layer of earth. It is virtually impossible to loot which is why the many tombs are still yielding new treasures today.

We spent the afternoon walking around the area, looking various of points of interest including the Far East's oldest astronomical observatory - a chimney like cylinder of rocks arranged in a complicated manner with all sorts of astronomical references. Later we stopped briefly for a surreal meal (see above) before going to watch a concert at the Anapji Pond pleasure garden.

Various acts performed during the show, but the highlight was certainly the troupe of drummers whose energy and skill was mightily impressive. We wandered back to the hotel where we had been suprised to discover this monring that our bargain room has it's own PC with internet - which means I can check the action in the Premiership matches that have just kicked off while I write this! Oh, and the Championship matches too. (Norwich 0 - 0 Leeds, half time)

In the moring we wave goodbye to the friendly green hillocks and catch the train up to Seoul.

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Friday, August 26, 2005

5:21 AM - New Korea - Rachel

Hello everyone! I have finally crawled out of my hotel room, having exhausted Osaka's tissue supplies. I don't know how the japanese cope with having a cold when they are not allowed to blow their nose in public. It was worth it to see the aquarium though (see last entry by Steve).

We made a shinkansen dash from Osaka to Fukuoka this morning to catch the ferry to Busan in South Korea. It was a very smooth crossing. I slept for most of it, but Steve assures me it was beautiful sunshine (he certainly has a nice pink tint from sleeping on the deck). He was very excited by the cargo ships unloading as we passed by. Me, er, not so much.

I haven't had much success with the food yet. After some thought (yeah, right), I passed on the octopus. Apparently it can be served chopped in small pieces, but the suckers still work which can cause choking. Mmm yum! Sorry Jason, not even for you. Instead, I ordered a tasty looking vegetable stew, but I had forgotten the number one rule here - red = spicy. I tried, but with thimble sized water glasses, was soon defeated, and Steve nobly took over. Try again tomorrow...

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

5:30 AM - Big Fish - Steve

With Rachel feeling somewhat better, we had a great time exploring the impressive Osaka Aquarium today. The central tank is huge and the manta ray and whale shark that patrol it each have bevvies of hangers-on, seeking protection and forming an ever-shifting cloud of activity.

We also went on what claims to be the largest Ferris wheel in the world - though the one we saw in Yokohama also claimed that. Either way, it`s very big and the view from the top as the sun went down was magic. The wheel also serves a useful dual purpose - it lights up different colours to indicate the next days weather. Tonight it was green, meaning tomorrow will be cloudy. Which sounds mild in comparison to the typhoon which is currently lashing Tokyo further up the coast. Fortunately we are heading in the opposite direction - back down to Fukuoka. It transpired that the overnight ferry from Shimonoseki to Korea is full tomorrow, so we`re going to settle for the less romantic but quicker ferry from Fukuoka which should have us in Busan this time tomorrow (Friday) evening if all goes according to plan.

I think we might like to come back to Osaka one day. The city is the third largest in Japan (after Tokyo and Yokohama) so it is rather large - if fact we learnt today that the Osaka region has a greater GDP than Canada. Half of that must come from the Pachinko (a mixture between slot machine and pin ball) parlours alone. We have been especially wowed by the entertainment district around Namba where we are staying, and we haven`t even really had time to scratch the surface.....well actually - we do have 10 hours left until the train leaves.....

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

6:34 AM - Osaka - Steve

We decided that Osaka might be a good place to fulfill another of our ambitions - to stay in a capsule hotel. So last night we entered the Namba entertainment district and sought one out. It was a great experience. Ours was called the `Capsule Inn Namba` and was a fairly old one, so it had a kind of seventies retro feel to it (and was also very cheap). Women and men go on different floors (pink carpet, blue carpet) and you get two keys - one for your shoe box and one for a locker. The capsules are basically bunkbeds that you enter from the end rather than the side, but they come with a TV, alarm clock-radio and reading lights which all make for a very cosy space. It was just long enough for me to stretch out in - 1m x 1m x 2m. Also (for the men only!) there is a roof top spa room with huge Jacuzzi bath and sauna. Rach, sadly, had to make do with a shower.

Speaking of Rachel, she is currently paying the price for our ill-advised trip to the sand dunes in the rain back in Tottori. She has developed a very sniffley cold and has gone to bed early tonight in an attempt to shake it off for tomorrow. We`ve moved on to a much more spacious hotel by the way - capsules make you check out at 10am and there is no facility for leaving luggage which would have been a big hassle for us..

Meanwhile, big plans are afoot over the coming days. Sadly our rail passes are due to expire at the end of the week and we`ve decided that the best way to get to China is to go via South Korea. So (if we`ve decoded timetables correctly) we`ll be taking the overnight ferry on Friday from Shimonoseki to Busan in Korea where we`ll spend a few days working our way up to Seoul from where we can catch another boat over to China. We acknowlege all these boat trips may be ill-advised during typhoon season but it will be much more of an adventure than flying. Having said that, we will be flying back - probably from Shanghai to Tokyo on the 12 September.

So that leaves us with tomorrow to explore Osaka before heading back down south. They do things big here - if she hasn`t recovered by morning Rachel might well be off to the world`s largest spa and we both want to go to the aquarium where they have the world`s largest fish-tank - home to a whale shark, amongst much else.

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6:12 AM - Train to Himeji - Steve

I know that I am in grave danger of becoming a total train geek, but I`ve discovered yet another joy of train travel here. Driver-cam video screens! The train through the mountains from the north to the south coast had these and it really does make the journey fascinating. Each carriage has a TV screen at each end showing the driver`s view of the tracks so you can see the oncoming view - including other trains coming, the entrances and inside of the many tunnels and bridges, and the wildlife darting to get out of the way. It even meant we didn`t have to argue about who gets to sit next to the window as usual! Fit them in all trains immediately, that's what I say.

When we arrived all too quickly in Himeji we took a stroll to see another castle. This one is more famous having starred in the Bond film `You Only Live Twice` and also more recently in the atrocious `The Last Samurai` with Tom Cruise. I persuaded Rachel that it was best viewed from a piece of more modern architecture; the Museum of Literature by Tadao Ando. Later we explored the neighboring gardens before catching the bullet train up to Osaka.

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5:16 AM - Tottori - Steve

Next stop along the coast was Tottori. On the way there we stopped at the Adachi Art Gallery, renowned for its gardens which are said to be among the best in the country. They are certainly impressive. Impeccably manicured to the point that they don`t look real, the gardens are all designed to be viewed from the galleries as additions to the artworks on the walls. This is very effective, but a little frustrating because you really can`t explore the gardens. In fact, if you did, you would discover that they are much much smaller than they look with roads and even the train tracks cleverly hidden by the foliage. Hills and other scenery beyond is `borrowed` so that the chosen viewpoints offer you a perfect vista - it`s very clever stuff and must require a phenomenal amount of upkeep.

Later, after arriving in Tottori, we decided to head out and explore the nearby sand dunes despite the light drizzle. Unfortunately the drizzle was the edge of a rather severe storm which was sitting over the dunes, making the whole thing a total washout. Rach insisted on going for a run around anyway, and as you can see we got totally drenched! Oh I do like to be beside the sea-side...

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5:01 AM - Matsue - Steve

We moved on from Fukuoka along the northern coast to explore some more remote areas. The journey along to Matsue was lovely, with the train tracks often right on the edge of the sea. On arrival we stayed in the Terazuya Ryokan which turned out to be our best accommodation experience of the trip so far. Not only did we have a vast room to spread out in, out hosts were wonderfully friendly. When we came down for breakfast in the morning the mother demonstrated the elaborate Chinese Tea ceremony for us. Later her son showed us how to write our names with Japanese calligraphy pens and the father sang some incredible old songs which were all about Sake. It was great fun, and a treat to find people so enthusiastic to share their culture.

We also had fun exploring their town, with it`s castle and moat. We went for a boat trip around the lake which turned out to be a bit surreal. You can see from the pic that we went under some very low bridges which meant the roof had to come down so we could squeeze through. Our fabulous guide also decided he would sing for us, which also brought the roof down...

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4:53 AM - Typhoon - Steve

After nearly four weeks of travel without a drop of rain, I guess our time had come. Our arrival in Fukuoka coincided with the beginning of the Typhoon season, and there was one sitting over the city waiting for us. This meant we had to rediscover items burried at the bottom of our packs such as jackets, umbrellas and trousers. Torrential rain does not make for great sight-seeing. But in Fukuoka, as with all big Japanese cities, there is oodles of fun to be had indoors. So we entered the neon world of the Amusement Arcades to investigate the teenage photo-booth phenomena. These are called Purikura, and they are basically jazzed-up photo-booths where you and you friends pick a theme and background and have a few snaps taken. You can then digitally enhance them with any number of hearts, rainbows or kittens before printing them out on to paper or as little stickers. Then you swop them with other friends. You can see ours here - anyone want to swop?

That, and the other machines in the place, passed a few happy hours and during a brief let up in the deluge we walked across to the entertainment district which looked great with its flashing neon signs reflected in the water.

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Friday, August 19, 2005

6:30 PM - Tsubame - Steve

Thanks for all your comments and concern about the small earthquake that hit Tokyo and a few other regions yesterday - but the first we heard about it was this morning in the newspaper on the train. We were in the right part of the country to avoid this one - in fact about as far away as we could have been, so no scary moments for us there. Our newspaper, however, made no mention of England been beaten 4-1 by Denmark. Surely that can`t be true?

We`ve been traveling on the bullet train again this morning. This time it was the newest addition to the network and is known as "Tsubame" - it opened in March 2004. In fact, only the southern most portion of the route is completed, so the entire trip takes only 45 minutes and at least 50% of that is in tunnels. They are currently working on the connection to Hakata and the rest of Japan. The trains themselves are great fun. We watched in amazement as the team of cleaners lined up waiting for the train to arrive, and actually bow as it passes them along the platform. They then scurry along each carriage dusting all the surfaces whilst the seats slowly rotate in a synchronized motion to face back the other way. They then retreat and form a line at the door to bow again as we board. Once in motion, hostesses with wicker baskets distribute sweets and towelettes, and the impeccably besuited inspector bows before leaving each carriage backwards. As if we didn`t feel out of place enough already, our smelly island attire really didn`t seem altogether appropriate.

On our arrival in Fukuoka a little while ago, you can probably imagine my excitement to discover that our hotel room looks directly down onto the Shikansen tracks below, so I can sit and watch the various varieties glide in and out to my hearts content. Rachel was almost as excited to find a hair dryer in the room.

Fukuoka is a very modern place and tomorrow there are some great buildings to explore, but now we are about to start doing a bit of research into plans for the rest of our trip. We have just over a week left on our rail passes before we hope to go to China for a couple of weeks. As yet we have no idea how to get there, but a 48-hour ferry journey might be one option.

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5:55 PM - Japanese food - Rachel

People think of japanese food as sushi. I know a lot of people were worried about me coming to Japan with my declared dislike of seafood. Fair enough, they do love their fish and seafood here. But there is plenty of other styles than just sushi. We are trying as many different types as we can.

At first, we played it fairly safe, ordering the readily recognisable `kairi raisu` from the array of plastic food plates outside tourist-friendly restaurants. This is a non-spicy curry-flavoured stew served on rice. It does the job. Then we ventured into the noodle bowls range in the plastic display. This proved misleading, as what I took to be vegetables and noodles in broth, actually had squid and prawns in it. Guess the plastic food shop lacked the right model. (BTW any requests for plastic food? - there`s a plastic food shopping district in Tokyo. Really, it`s no hassle). Anyway, I gave it a go, and turns out the squid was very tender and edible.

Steve decided it was time for sushi. We had great fun trying to recognise items as they passed on the conveyor belt. I was very excited to spot what looked like a satay/peanut type mix wrapped in seaweed. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a traditional japanese dish called Natto - fermented soybeans. They are kind of sticky, with a distinctive, hard-to-describe flavour. Even Steve couldn`t stomach this one. The friendly chef helped us explore more options. `Challenge?` he`d say. I think the best was salmon, cucumber and cream cheese wrapped in seaweed. Very good.

On Yakushima, we tried some more unusual dishes, thanks to some very friendly japanese people we met there. Naoto gave us some dried japonica plums. I managed only a bite, but Steve thinks he could develop a taste for them. We also came to our first restaurant with no english: `Tsubone`. The ladies prepared us a whole range of dishes. We had fried potato balls, served with green tea powder, fried chicken, and then a particular favourite, okonomiyaki. It means `Man`s meal` and is an omelette with bacon, ginger, herbs, and beautifully decorated with mayonnaise and a brown sauce (thick soy?). Very tasty. Steve tried a local liquer called Midake - kind of like a gentle whiskey. They gave us passion fruit to finish, and filled Steve`s halves of fruit with more Midake, a combination he particularly liked. It was all so good, we had to go back. This time, we tried some shellfish steamed in alcohol. They tasted great. Yes I liked them. Unfortunately, it seems shellfish doesn`t like me. Ah well. A big thanks to Soari who came back to the restaurant with us and interpreted for us.

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12:44 AM - Yakushima - Rachel

Yakushima is beautiful! The mountains in the middle of the island are covered in dense forest full of cedars. Some of the trees are thought to be 3000 years old. We spent two days exploring some mountain trails. The local buses take you fairly high up, along the most precarious narrow windy roads I have ever seen. We crossed tiny concrete bridges with traffic cones still marking the edge, next to a precipitous drop into trees far below. Yet the bus driver merrily swings along, reversing where necessary to let cars pass. Several times I was holding my breath!

One of the highlights was after a couple of hours of wandering through the woods, bursting through to a fanstastic outlook, with views of the surrounding peaks. Another was meeting the local wildlife. The yakushima macaques played in the branches above us, and occasionally strolled on the ground past us, ignoring us on the most part. Then the local deer came to join in. I felt a connection with the monkeys - as Steve pointed out, they have sunburnt faces like me!! We could have watched them for hours, only we had to hurry to catch the last bus down the mountain. Otherwise it`d be a very long walk home.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

1:06 AM - Up the volcano - Steve

It turned out to be really good fun climbing the volcano. We were a little disappointed at first by the crowds around tacky tourist shops near the cable car station and the unsightly concrete bunkers next to the crater, but as soon as we started climbing further up we left all that behind and entered a mysterious and smelly world of clouds and brightly coloured rocks. It seems the Japanese, while they clearly venerate their natural heritage, prefer not to have to exert themselves in its appreciation. This meant that we had the steep and sweaty climb around the caldera to ourselves as we coughed and wheezed due the sulfurous clouds that swept all around. The views back down over the crater were well worth it. The pristine white clouds billowing from the active crater mixed with the slightly darker clouds beyond and, depending on the direction of the wind, changed the visibility from a few feet to miles within the space of a moment. The lovely green hills beyond made for a great backdrop. We managed to catch the train we were aiming for and spent the night down in Kagoshima ready to catch the ferry the next morning to Yakushima...

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

1:28 AM - Aso - Steve

We`ve just arrived in Aso, a small village located in the largest volcano crater in the world. The crater is 120km in circumference and the train on the way up here had to change direction twice on the steepest section to sneak through a narrow chink in the caldera wall. It is equipped with nifty seats that rotate so you can always be facing the right direction. Five smaller volcanoes have grown up inside the huge one, and one of these is still active - this is the one we hope to climb in the morning. It looks lovely at the moment in the evening sunshine, but it is apparently very hot and smelly up there. If we`re lucky and it stays clear of cloud, the view should be great.

In the evening we head down to Kagoshima at the very south of mainland Japan before catching the ferry early the next day for the island of Yakushima, some 4 hours south. We`ll be staying there the next three nights, exploring the ancient forests (it is a UN world heritage site due to the 5000 year old trees) and perhaps lounging on the beach. Internet will likely be sparse, so don`t panic Mum if nothing appears here for a while...

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1:13 AM - Toyo Carp - Steve

We went to see the baseball while we were in Seattle a couple of weeks back and we couldn`t really make head nor tail of it, and last night we had the chance to see if it made more sense in Japanese. Baseball is huge here and the experience was certainly more impressive than in the States. The Hiroshima Toyo Carp were playing the Nagoya Dragons and between the two sets of fans there was a constant din of choreographed shouting and cheering throughout the whole nine innings. It seemed a little strange to see the usually placid locals get so worked up about a bunch of guys in pyjamas. They certainly know how to have fun though - the highlight for us was when the whole crowd blew up big whistling balloons and let them off in unison filling the sky with a frantic cloud of colour and noise for a few seconds. Hiroshima won on the night with a final innings home-run that sent the faithful home happy. We left concluding that the Carp fans wouldn`t get hooked on the Seattle Mariners anytime soon....

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Saturday, August 13, 2005

2:05 AM - Hiroshima - Steve

The A-bomb dome that stands in the peace park in Hiroshima is a poignant monument. The building has been preserved exactly as it was left on the day of the bomb. That it survived at all is remarkable; virtually every other building within a 3km radius was destroyed, either directly by the blast or by the fire that followed. Today the building stands at the head of the Peace Park which is at the heart of this lively modern city. It all seem totally removed from the detailed scale models of the city on 6th August 1945 in the Peace museum which illustrate the extent of the devastation. It is a shame we could not have been here a week earlier, the 60th anniversary of the bombing. However, the experience has been moving enough without the added significance of that date.

140,000 people perished here because of the bomb. According to some estimates, that is a similar number to those killed in the ongoing conflict in Iraq. As the Museum points out, Peace seems a long way off; even nuclear proliferation continues apace.

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Friday, August 12, 2005

10:43 PM - Kyoto - Rachel

We could spend a long time exploring Kyoto, but unfortunately we only have a couple of days. We seem to have spent about half our time in the huge and bizarre station building which contains the tourist information office, post office (adjacent), and lots of restaurants and shops. Yesterday we visited Nijo-jo, a castle built by a local governor to show the emperor of the time who was really the boss. The rooms are tatami matting and decorated screens (where did they keep anything??). the surrounding corridors have floors made of dark wooden planks, that squeak when you walk on them. It is called a Nightingale floor, because the squeaks are very melodic and really quite bird-like. We didn't find out how this works.

Today we went to explore the eastern part of Kyoto. It is gorgeous. You could spend days exploring the alleyways of Gion and Shimbashi, and the temples around the area. We saw a fabulous temple, Sanjusangen-do, that contained 1000 statues with 40 arms each. They were all life size, and arranged in rows, 500 on each side of a large central figure who was twice life size. It really was an awesome sight. We explored some beautiful cobbled streets of shops, coming down the hill from another temple, Kiyomizu-dera. They still drive cars and vans down these streets, even though there's hardly room for them to pass pedestrians! We saw a couple more temples in the afternoon (the pretty Kodai-Ji is the first picture above) - each has its unique style and atmosphere - then in the evening we went to the very exotic `Pig and Whistle` for some British fish and chips plus a pint. Well you have to explore a mix of cultures you know...

After dark, we walked along an enticing alley next to the Kamo-gawa River, in the Pontocho district, where geisha used to work. There are lots of restaurants that have balconies facing the River - a little out of our price range, but the alley itself was fascinating to walk along. Every restaurant front had its own style and lighting, and there were these little back alleys leading off to mysterious doors, that are beautiful or eery or atmospheric in their own right. It`s not a very long street, but we spent a long time walking down it.

There`s lots more we`d like to see here, but we are heading for the small island of Yakushima, off the southern tip of Kyushu (the south western part of Japan). So the next few days will be quick stops at Hiroshima, and Aso (a volcanic crater) on our way to the ferry that takes us to Yakushima. Yay, lots of bullet trains...

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5:38 AM - More Grapes - Steve

Looks like those really expensive grapes we saw back in Tokyo were in fact a bargain. In the basement of a Kyoto department store today we found these little bunches at CAD$90 or 45 pounds. Surely that is a record?

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

5:08 AM - Slipper Etiquette - Steve

Recently we have been staying in Ryokan, a kind of Japanese Inn. They tend to be friendly places with very simple rooms and tatami matting on the floor. You sleep on futons and they also have lovely screens across the windows. One thing that tends to befuddle us though is the slipper etiquette. You must always remove your shoes on the first step at the entry and place your outdoor footwear in the little cupboard provided. Then you must don a pair of slippers which you may wear to your room - but beware - they must be removed before entering your room. Bare feet or socks only on the tatami, please. Next, if you wish to use the bathroom you must put your `house` slippers back on to get there, then remove them to enter the bathroom and then put on the pair of `bathroom slippers` that await you. All this can be very tiresome at night when you need a pee. Especially when they are all several sizes too small and won`t stay on your feet. Especially on the polished wood staircases....

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1:34 AM - Gifu - Steve

We spent yesterday wandering around Nagoya, and found a park on top of a shopping center that had a lake on the roof. Strange idea, but quite fun. Later, Rachel went shopping for sandals and shades whilst I went to the Toyota industrial museum to watch robots building cars.

In the evening we headed a little way out to Gifu to watch the Cormorant fishing after the sun had gone down. This old craft involves specially trained birds which are tethered and held onto by a man on a long narrow canoe like boat. A brazier lights the dark waters and the birds dive for fish. Rings around their neck prevent them eating the catch which is delivered back to the fisherman. Very clever. It is now very much a tourist show with many boats gathered around to watch, but the spectacle is nevertheless quite enchanting. Afterwards we took the ropeway up to the castle which afford great views over the city as is sprawls away towards the hills.

Now we have moved on to Kyoto which is a mere 45 mintues away on the ridiculously fast bullet train, which we are growing to love for more than just its air-con. We could see the whole country in a weekend on that thing.

Kyoto looks great and surely has the worlds most overblown modern train station, but more on that to follow.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

7:07 PM - Expo 2005 - Steve

As we left the roykan yesterday our host said "ah-Expo! - walk walk walk, queue queue queue, hot hot hot" so we were well prepared for what lay ahead. The Expo seems to have really captured the imagination of the Japanese and a quarter of a million of them visit the site each day. That is quite a crowd, but as we have come to expect, the hi-tech transport system set up to cope with them is remarkably effective. We used trains, a maglev monorail, and a gondola to get around and the huge site which is very impressive. The queues for the most popular pavilions were obscene - up to two hours or more - but we scooted around the more obscure areas (Chad, Qatar, Lithuania, etc - and also the UK pavilion which people were avoiding for some reason) without queuing at all.

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Monday, August 08, 2005

7:30 PM - Nagoya - Rachel

We`ve been on our first bullet train. It's very spacious, very fast, tilts round corners, and makes your ears pop when you enter and leave tunnels. Very punctual too, we missed one by 30 seconds. We're staying in a lovely family ryokan (japanese inn). The corridors are very narrow - I almost got stuck near the entrance with my backpack on. But our room is beautiful, with tatami matting and sliding screens. (and air-con, not that we:re obsessed...) The owners are so friendly. Tomorrow we are going to Expo 2005, and they offered us maps, fans, and little camping seats to sit on while waiting in queues.

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3:55 AM - Mysterious Mountain - Rachel

OK, they told us there was this really big mountain around here somewhere but, at this time of year, at least, it is very elusive. Mount Fuji was invisible from Tokyo, fair enough, but it was still only visible as pretty much a shadow through the clouds, or rather haze, when we arrived in Kawaguchi-ko. This is the place to come for 'beautiful reflections of Fuji-San in the lake'. Hmmm. Well anyway, Steve and I waited on top of Mount Tenjo (a small nearby hill), while the sun went down, and the clouds did clear a little to improve our view. Then we had a beautiful evening walk down the hill, surrounded by hydrangias, ending in a lovely courtyard with dragon fountain.

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Saturday, August 06, 2005

4:54 AM - Sidetracked - Steve

Making the most of the free internet before we leave Tokyo....!

Today I got a bit sidetracked. I was supposed to be searching out more buildings to look at but somehow ended up at a huge Toyota garage where they whisk you around in little automatic electric cars. And then there was the amusement arcade which made Blackpool look a bit tame...

(Oh - Rachel went to the world's only parasite museum, but you really don't want to see the pictures of that...)

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Friday, August 05, 2005

7:50 PM - Grapes - Steve

Competition time! What is the most you have ever paid for grapes?

We know Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world - but we were doing okay until we fancied some grapes. These beauties are about CAD$20 or 10 quid. Yikes - we had some Pocky instead.

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7:34 PM - Star Architecture - Steve

Tokyo (and Yokohama) have offered us a smorgasboard of hip buildings to see. While there may be other ways to arrive at a opinion on these works, our sole criteria has been the icy-ness of the air-con. Thus the best building by far is the Prada store by Herzog & de Meuron, which also has the added bonus of snowy white carpets throughout. Positively Siberian.

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4:28 PM - Terrific Tokyo - Steve

At first glance it seems as if this city is in the throws of complete anarchy. Its only when you look closer you realize your mistake - not chaos but hyper-efficiency. It is slightly baffling how easy it is to get around and how polite and respectful everybody is in such a seething metropolis. A station we visited yesterday has 2 million users a day - yet every train leaves on time, in smooth air-conditioned bliss. Every inch of space in the city seems to be considered used - the residential area where we are now staying is perhaps the antedote to the sprawling American suburb. Tiny cars fit into driveways with an inch to spare either side, the skinny roads have no sidewalk and gardens perch precariously on balconies. Air conditioners hum.

It quickly became clear that it would takes months to get to know this city in any meaningful way, a luxury that we do not have at the moment. Besides, it's way too hot. 35 degrees Celsius with 100 percent humidity makes for very sweaty sightseeing - we've become expert seekers of air-con.

We went for a meal with Elina and Shinji. It was a bit of a random encounter. Elina is a friend of Claudia, who I met at a conference in Arizona last year, and who put us in touch. The bizarre bit is that we found out over dinner that Elina studied at Royal Holloway in EGHAM for 3 years. What are the odds of 4 people meeting up in Tokyo that have all been to little old Egham?! Tomorrow we're heading up to Mt Fuji, where hopefully the air will be cooler, and the buildings sadly less eye-popping.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

3:25 PM - Tokyo - Steve

We arrived last night in Tokyo safely after a very smooth flight (no sign of thunder or lightning whatsoever fortunately) . Somehow along the way we managed to lose a day - we were behind everybody, but now we`re way ahead. Something to do with crossing the date line I think.

We were very proud to have negotiated the noodle-like map of the Tokyo underground system without any hitches on our first attempt. Whether our luck will last is another thing. We woke up very early today, so we are about to head down to the port to watch the fish market in full swing - and maybe find Rachel an Octopus for breakfast.

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