**STOP PRESS Mako gave birth to a baby girl this morning – congratulations the Harper’s!!**
We had to accept defeat in our quest to be secure a Russian visa. The Trans-Siberian dream was put on hold for a later adventure. We decided instead to look at the Philippines and Hong Kong as destinations to visit before returning to the UK but first it was time to visit friends in Japan. We travelled from Seoul on a bullet train bound for Busan in the South East of the country where three days later we could sail on a ferry across the Sea of Japan to Osaka.
The Korean KTX bullet train sped along smoothly at an average of speed of 152mph mph. We sat in a carriage which doubled as a cinema. There was a huge projector attached to the ceiling and a retracted screen half way along the carriage, although during our journey there was nothing showing. Busan was a larger city than we had anticipated, a bustling metropolis which dominates the coastline in the South East. We visited the Jalgachi Fish Market and wondered how it was possible to sell so much fish. There were hundreds of stalls selling all manor of sea creatures, the colours, shapes and sizes were an impressive sight. On the the upper level there were sea food restaurants but £18 for a bowl of fish soup seemed excessive so we avoided that pleasure in favour of a walk through Gamcheon Village, the part of the city where traditional Korean life and architecture have been preserved.
The colourful traditional houses in the village perch precariously on the hillside affording glorious views out to the sea port below. We walked through the village following a map issued to us by the tourist office, at each of the major sights there was a stamp which we could impress and then keep as a souvenir. We enjoyed lunch in a roof top cafe before a late afternoon walk to the shopping mall. Shopping malls in Asia have been generally been impressive but Busan’s Lotte mall tops them all. The mall comes complete with a roof top garden that was a good tourist destination in its own right. There were binoculars in the garden and we could see the ferry in the port below that we were due to take to Osaka in two days time. After Gamcheon, we walked back into the city and I was interviewed for a Korean English speaking radio show.
The second day in Busan was spent at the United Nations War Memorial Cemetery. We arrived late and had to whistle stop our tour, but the 2,300 memorial stones of lost soldiers in the well kept, peaceful gardens were an emotive illustration of the loss of life during the Korean War. The memorials are set out according to the nationalities of the buried service members. The thousands of names on the wall of remembrance were a further reminder of the world’s brutal history.
The next day, we boarded a ship bound for Osaka The vessel had seen better days, a theme that seems to have accompanied us on all our sailing adventures. There was a noticeable lack of passengers on the boat which lead to a noticeable staff apathy and it quickly became apparent that this would be a journey rather than any kind of cruise.
We were two of only three Westerners aboard the ship. In the evening there was some token entertainment laid on by way of a magician and a singer who doubled in the respective roles of manager and ships receptionist. We were given a tiny cabin with two bunk beds and were grateful that the other bunks were unused. The room was boiling hot, it was going to be too hot to sleep. Other people on the corridor had left their cabin doors ajar in an effort to disperse the heat. Our cabin was placed opposite a traditional Japanese style room with about ten mattresses on the floor. The occupants were well stuck into bottles of raki and sojo which were fuelling a rowdy party which prevented us from leaving our door open. By 1am the heat and the noise were too much to bear so I staggered round to ask the singer/receptionist if we could move. The receptionist pretended not to be able to understand my English until I asked to speak to the manager, I was a little worried that the magician might reappear but thankfully I secured a key to another cabin and we then managed to get some rest.
I awoke again at 3am and decided to take a walk to the upper deck. By chance we were sailing under the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the second of four impressive bridges that were promised on the route. I was alone on the rear deck in the still of the night, the only noise coming from the distant ploughing of the ships engines. It was eerie standing on the deck close to 3am as the ship sailed gracefully under the massive concrete structure just meters above my head. The bridge was huge and I watched it become smaller as we sailed up sea towards Osaka before It was time to return to the stuffy cabin to try again to get a little more rest.
We arrived in Osaka to be met by our host Richie. I lived with Richie in Liverpool whilst studying there at University. After University, Richie did his own world adventure and he ended up in Japan trying to look for work teaching English. Thirteen years later, he has got more than he bargained for, a job, a house, a car, a wife, a child and another baby on the way! It was good of the Harpers to put us up especially with Richie’s wife Mako being in the later stages of pregnancy. We had a fun time entertaining Richie’s son. Sean has been raised bilingually, Richie speaks English to him and Mako speaks Japanese. One morning the three year old humbled, perhaps humiliated me as, during a quiet moment before breakfast he turned and said to me, “you can’t speak Japanese can you?” my negative reply was met with the the unspoken pride of an adult as he wryly smiled, and knowingly nodded his head!
It was coincidental that the Sumo was happening in the city whilst we were there. We spent an interesting afternoon watching the bouts and trying to understand the traditions and rituals which precede the fights. Those wrestlers are huge, the ethics of the sport did cross my mind. It is known that wrestlers have lower life expectancies and many succumb to weight related conditions like diabetes. The bouts are short, it takes seconds to bound an opponent out of the ring but I was nonetheless surprised at the dexterity and balance of the colossal figures that stalked the bamboo ring. It took a while but I plucked up the courage to ask a wrestler for a photo, I feared a slam dunk but I got a friendly (if sweaty) handshake and a good one for the album.
The food in Japan comes near the top of my ultimate world list. We were taken to a sushi sashimi restaurant where you order by digital key pad and a plastic train trundles your fish to the table (now we know we are in Japan). We ate yakiniku, meats and vegetables grilled on a table top hot plate, a sociable way to eat and at it’s height included world renowned kobe beef which melts on the tongue. Apparently the cattle are regularly massaged and fed the greenest of grass in order to achieve that melt in the mouth meat moment.
Despite the pleasures of raw fish and melting meat, my favourite food was found during a visit to a Japanese curry restaurant chain Ichibanya or Coco’s curry house . Any trip to Asia should be preceded by a Google search to see if one of these establishments is in town. The restaurants are traditionally Japanese housed in a small room where it is possible, perhaps best, to eat at the bar. The curries are served according to preferred spice strength. The resulting curry sauce is amazing, the experience could only be bettered by consuming the curry with a hangover – its that kind of comfort food. One night in Kyoto we met another friend from Liverpool. Dave’s a Scouser and Scousers do things differently. There is no shortage of ‘different’ things to do in Japan and so it was that Dave had arranged for us to eat in a restaurant run by ninjas. A Ninja rolled out to meet us, another Ninja did magic on us half way through the meal and a female Ninja later chased us down the street to thank us for coming, a most bizarre and entertaining evening!
I reluctantly accepted an invitation to play five a side football with Richie’s friends. I tend to avoid football with concerns about picking up an injury that would interfere with my love of running but this would be a justified exception. It was fun to step out under the glow of the floodlights on the five a side pitch in the night of Osaka City Centre watched only by Tracy and the skyscrapers that surrounded us above. It’s a long time since I stepped on to a football pitch but I was happy with my performance, scoring goals and running repeated rings around Richie, leaving him to flounder and demand the presence of a referee! Tempers were diffused to a degree in the post match fish restaurant where we enjoyed more raw fish, oysters and sea bass.
Japanese onsens are an accessible luxury that I wish were a part of British culture. Hot baths, cold plunge pools and saunas are frequented in a similar way to a public swimming pool in the UK but like everything else in Japanese society they are far more refined. It was great to visit Richie’s local onsen and laze about in the scented hot pools, scrub myself with salt in the steam room and chill out with other locals in the large sauna watching the TV. I left the onsen having never felt so clean. The onsen has two sections male and female and participants use the indoor and outdoor pools fully naked. I was lucky that Richie could explain the stringent etiquette involved and I wondered how Tracy would be faring alone at the other side. It is important to have a through shower with soap and water before getting onto the pools. A dirty Englishmen stepping dry into the pools or a latent sud of soap polluting the waters could result in the entire place having to be evacuated and drained.
We visited Kyoto where we walked along the river beneath the green mountains which are flanked by traditional Japanese trees and bamboo forests. We visited Tenryu-Ji temple before evening fell and we moved to Gion for a bit of Geisha spotting. Geisha are notoriously difficult to see on the streets of Kyoto. The girls breeze through the pedestrian streets like spirits of the night. There is a small window of opportunity to see the Geisha as they leave their homes as dusk falls and they walk the short distance to the entertainment venues where they work. We didn’t see any Geshia during our first visit to Japan four years ago, which for me, only had the effect of heightening the mystery which surrounds their aura. I was then elated to almost collide with a Geisha as she rounded a corner shuffling hurriedly along the street in her wooden slippers. I paced unobtrusively behind trying to get a photo whilst marvelling at the mystery of the ghost like figure making off in the first of the evening night. Two more Geishas walked along the same street some time later and we observed from a respectful distance as they breezed by.
We had a great time with the Harper’s but it was time to move on. During our trip to Osaka we planned the last legs of this amazing trip. We booked a flight from Osaka to Cebu in the Philippines and then a flight on to Hong Kong 28 days later. We will spend 8 days in Hong Kong before returning to the UK. The only pleasure to be gained from the previous sentence is that we managed to book a flight on Emirate’s A380 which should negate some of the sadness about the returning home.