Saturday, March 29, 2014

The first solo travel (Part 3): Nara - Kobe


I made it to Nara at midday and spent several hours walking around Nara Park and checking out some spots here. 

Like Kyoto, Nara used to be the capital city of Japan and is visited by many people. It is famous for Todai-ji Temple where is house of a giant Buddha – Daibutsu - as well as Minami Daimon Gate. In addition, one of “Nara’s specialties” (that can be called) is deers.  They are around the park, on the streets, in front of temples, everywhere. They are cute but somehow dangerous, especially if they see you eating, they will attack you right away. When I was eating my pineapples on the street, some of them came attack me. That’s the reason why there is a sign warning not to feed the deers. 

Deers in the park
Deers in front of temples
I visited Kofuki-ji Temple (but didn’t get in), Todai – ji and Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The entrance fee for those places is 500 yen but actually they look better from outside. There is nothing much inside the temples, except for some statues or bells. The staff at the information office at the station told me Kasuga Taisha Shrine was the most famous sight in Nara, but I was disappointed when I got there even though the path leading to the shrine was pretty with stone lanterns lining at both sides. 

Todai ji
Nishi Daimon Gate
Path to Kasuga Shrine
The stone lanterns

Kasuga Shrine
Inside Kasuga Shrine
Golden lanterns
I wanted to go and see more but it was rainy and cold so I finished my walk in Nara at a random restaurant near Nara Station. I ate dinner quite early with Nara style’s sushi and a big bowl of udon. They were so good (maybe because I didn’t have lunch) and cheap. After that, I got back to Kyoto and had a lovely night with my host and other surfers.

Nara style ' sushi
The inside

 Udon with egg, mushroom and tofu


Kobe was my last stop. Before starting my trip, I got a message from a Japanese guy on couchsurfing saying he could show me round the city as he saw my post on the forum, and I said yes right away. We met each other at the station and had the third who is a Middle East guy, Ỉmaran, who is working in Kobe at the moment, then we all were off to see Chinatown as our first place. Chinatown in Kobe is not the biggest one, but looks good and very Chinese with big gate, red lanterns, stone lions and many kinds of foods. Next, Yusuke, the Japanese guy’s name, took us to Kobe Port to see the Port Tower and the views around before having lunch at a Chinese restaurant. We had a big lunch with gyoza which is Chinese dumpling, Sichuan tofu, fried rice and one meal with kimchi. The meals were very good and not expensive at all. 

Yusuke, Imran and me at Kobe Port
Chinatown - Nankin Machi
Kobe Port Tower
After getting a full belly, we went to check out the foreign houses called Kitano Ijinkan which is one of touristic spots in Kobe. As Kobe is a port city, foreigners started setting their feet here from the 1900s and building some residences. But we didn’t get in those houses as we had to pay the entrance fee, so we decided to walk around then off for the sake brewery where we tried some sorts of Japanese sakes. 

Starbucks near Kitano Ijinkan

Ikuta Shrine - the most well - known one in Kobe

a street in Kobe
In the afternoon before having dinner, we went to a cozy Japanese bar to have some drink. It was when I could sit down and talk more to my friends. Yusuke really amazed me by stories about his life and his traveling and couchsurfing experience. While Japanese are shy, a bit distant and conservative, Yusuke is very extravert and easy to talk to. He wants to make friends with other people, especially foreigners. One year study in Germany as an exchange student has made him more and more open – minded and understanding. He also loves traveling and has been to many countries in Europe, which I always dream of. Yusuke is special. Not only has he brought me another image of Japanese who is fun, active and outgoing, but he also has helped me to get to know more about Kobe which is a very lovely city. My trip ended with a dinner with Kobe beef and rice cooked in Japanese style at a small but nice restaurant. 

The three eating Kobe beef
Kobe wasn’t in my travel list at the beginning but due to some suggestions of my teacher who comes from Kobe, I decided to give it a try and I wasn’t disappointed. Kobe got hit terribly by a giant earthquake in 1995 but it quickly recovered, reconstructed and became a dynamic city. The scent of the sea, the friendliness of people and the harmony between Eastern and Western cultures make this city unique and authentic. For me, this city is more special because of the people I have met, who are beyond awesome! 

It’s always true to say “Traveling forms a young man”! You can broaden your mind with what you see and people you meet on the move. Before I did my trip, I had received many advices and warnings from my friends and family that it’s dangerous to travel alone. I really appreciated but I still did because it’s what I always wanted to do. Now when I look back, I realize this trip is the most awesome thing I have done so far even though one week's not long. Traveling on your own is risky but interesting in its way, and you will never know how awesome it is if you don’t do it. One week traveling on my own helped me know the overwhelming sense of absolute freedom, meet many amazing people and learn a lot from them, challenge myself with my humble Japanese as well as get to know more about the lands I have been to.  They are all great and I will never forget them!

The first solo travel (Part 2) : Kyoto

            Finally, I got to Kyoto, the land of history, culture and tradition of Japan after 9 hours on bus. My mission at that time was finding the way to get to my host house from the station. I used couchsurfing to ask for a place to stay instead of booking hostel and luckily, I got accepted by a Japanese man called Shoji. 

Since Shoji had sent me the direction, I found it quite easy to get there. It was a traditional Japanese house located in the southern part of the city, taking 20 minutes to go to the city center by subway. The house looked very nice, warm but what impressed me the most was tons of messages that previous surfers left on the wall. A Polish guy who was staying there at the moment welcomed me with a smile, gave me a short introduction about the house including its rule and showed me my place. Took a quick break, then I started roaming Kyoto. 

Every city in Japan has its own transportation system. In Tokyo, I chose to move with JR train and 1 day pass ticket (although I’ve got a Pasmo card), while in Kyoto, I bought 2 day pass ticket offering unlimited rides for buses and subways. Buses seem to be the most convenient public transport in Kyoto as they send visitors to every attraction. That’s the reason why travelers often buy 1 day bus ticket or 2 day bus and subway ticket. And don’t forget to take a map with you since it’s a helpful friend of yours on the move.

I went to Gion first as it is one of the main centers here. It’s easy to catch a sight of geiko and maiko (geisha) walking on the streets in Gion. Temples are everywhere, it seems every 100 meters 1 temple. The house architecture here is different from one in Tokyo. While Tokyo is full of high and modern buildings, those in Kyoto are just small and very traditional, which somehow reminds me of The Old Quarter in Hanoi or Hue in Vietnam. 

Geisha on the street
Before getting to Kiyomizudera Temple, I spent my time wandering Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka which are two nice streets lining with old wooden houses, traditional shops and restaurants. Lots of things are sold here, from snacks to souvenirs. I couldn’t resist stopping at every shop because they were very lovely and appealing, especially the snacks. If you are a matcha fan, Kyoto would be your paradise as they sell lots of things made from matcha here like matcha ice cream, matcha buns, … and ahhh, a lot, I can’t write all. However, there were too many tourists visiting here, which somehow ruins the beauty of these places. 

It's easy to catch a sight of girls wearing kimonos on the streets in Kyoto
Kiyomizudera is one of the most famous temples, also one of 17 properties of the world heritage sites in Kyoto. It has a unique architecture, from the main hall, we can see a fantastic scenery which changes with four seasons. It is very beautiful in spring with cherry blossom and in autumn with momiji. However it was a bit sad as there were no cherry blossoms at that time, the temple still looked absolutely magnificent though.
Outside of Kiyomizudera

The main hall

I stopped by Chion in Temple after Kiyomizudera, looked around the temple then off to the city center because it was nearly 5pm which is the closing time of all spots. While walking around the center, I saw a small street looking like a market with the word “Teramachi” on that so I decided to hit it up right away. And it didn’t make me disappointed. It’s absolutely amazing, the coolest place in Kyoto ever. Foods from fresh food to dried ones, from meat to vegetable, even snack were sold here. I stuck around the market, stopped at every shop and got a full belly with awesome food. I even got lost in that maze but it was a fabulous maze and I got wonderfully lost. Later, when I got to read guidebook, I discovered that street was a part of a market called “Nishiki”, best known for “the kitchen of Kyoto” where you can find every kind of food. Ahhh, wicked! 

a small shrine in Teramachi
food sold in teramachi

dried fishes
snack I ate - made from sweet potato

On the second day, the Polish couple and I headed south to see Fushimi Inari Shrine which is famous for thousands gates. We were impressed by the shrine since the beginning and spent lots of time there to go up to the top as we wanted to go through all the gates as well as the top. But it was very fun. The gates seemed to be endless, gates were everywhere. And the way leading to the top was super long (because of thousands gates), every time we looked at the map we all said “oh my god, where is the top?”. When we reached that (after some small breaks), we were stocked! Finally, we were on top! 
where the gates begin
with Alicija - my house mate in Kyoto
with Jacek - Alicija friend - another surfer
me with the endless gates background - my favorite photo
one more photo with the gates
endless gates
Then we separated at Kyoto station as I wanted to ask about a Pass through ticket for my trip to Nara and Kobe. After that, I was off to see Ginkakuji (or Silver Pavilion Temple in English) which is a Zen Temple. The architecture is very unique with corporation of temple and garden with a sand mountain resembling Mt. Fuji. On the way from the bus stop to the temple, I joined a group of Filipinos who were all from Manila. 

 garden with the sand mountain in Ginkakuji
zen garden
Ginkakuji - the silver pavilion
I planned to see Kinkakuji, another Zen temple after Ginkakuji but my time ran out as it was almost 5, so I went to the city center, strolled some shops, then looked for the Udon Museum where displays and sells all kinds of udon in Japan. However, I couldn’t find the museum (maybe my google map was wrong), so I ended up eating dinner with okynomiyaki at a random restaurant in Gion (but it was good). 

On my plan, the day 3 was spent for Nara but I missed Kinkakuji the day before so I decided to visit it before hitting Nara. Like Ginkakuji, Kinkakuji is a complex of Zen temple and garden, best – known for the Golden Pavilion. It looked fantastic but it was rainy that day so I couldn’t capture the best views of it. Moreover, I needed to go to Nara after so I didn’t spend much time there. 

Kinkakuji - the Golden Pavilion
a japanese traditional house
Kinkakuji - back side
In the evening after getting back from Nara, I met some new surfers from Poland (we had 6 Polish in total) and our host, Shoji – san, and had a great chat with them. Shoji – san is friendly and very inviting. Talking to him is extremely interesting. He has offered thousands travelers the CS house as a place to stay for 5 years, and gets request messages from surfers around the world every day. Other surfers who were staying there were very nice as well. I just met them for several days, even just a few hours but I could talk and share many things with them. Some of them share the same interests with me; for example, two of the Polish are crazy about Haruki Murakami just like I am. The time staying at his house, talking and exploring Kyoto with other travellers, who were my house mates, is fabulous and unforgettable! It can be said my first experience with couchsurfing went well! 

Last night in Kyoto with my host and other surfers
Match ice cream - one of popular snacks here
My time in Kyoto was short, which is not enough for me to explore this city but it’s always the time I will never forget. When giving quick hugs to other surfer, a thought of when I can meet them again popped up in my mind. I don't know but hope that day will come soon!

Monday, March 24, 2014

The first solo travel (Part 1) : Tokyo

I just got back to Fukuoka after my first solo trip ever. I have had a bad memory with group travel so I decided to travel on my own, hitting Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Kobe. 


I left for Tokyo on the 16th and slept over at my friend’s flat in Chiba for 1 night. Manami, my friend, picked me up at the station near her place and we were off for dinner after that. I met Manami last year when she came to Vietnam to volunteer in the organization I was working for also as a volunteer. After that, we even had a small reunion party at Manami’s flat and did some talks before going to bed. Even though we met each other for only 1 night, I was so happy to see her again in Japan, and hope for the same to happen in Vietnam some day.

with Manami
The day after, we said goodbye to each other early as Manami had to go for a soft ball match and I was off to Tokyo. My first stop was Asakusa as it’s on the way to go to city center from Chiba. I got off at a random station, then let myself walk to Asakusa following guidance of Google map. It was early at that point, the city was sleeping so streets were deserted, only a few shops opened. After walking for a while, I got to Asakusa. The most well-known spot here is Sensoji Temple which is the oldest one in Tokyo. It’s famous for its main Kaminarimon Gate, where a giant lantern hangs. As here’s a sightseeing spot, there were a thousand of people coming to visit. I got stuck in a sea of people from different countries with various languages, especially Chinese and Thai. Lining along both sides of a street from Kaminarimon Gate to Hozomon Gate is Nakamise shopping street with many stores selling souvenirs, rice crackers and other snacks. I came by some shops to buy some post cards and try some snacks which were very nice. One of my experiences on travelling to temples in Japan is staying hungry before going, then getting full at the temples by eating stuff there. You may think I’m just kidding but no, you should try because the foods there are very appealing that you find it hard to resist eating them. 

snack made from mochi - japanese sticky rice
a fried pumpkin cake that I ate

Asakusa and the temple are one of my favorite places in Tokyo with large space, nice view and from here you can see Tokyo sky tree. Sky tree and the temple, modern and tradition, are distinct features of Japan. However, there were lots of tourists, which makes this place somehow commercialized. Anyway, it’s understandable because it’s one of famous sights for tourism. 

Sky Tree
 From Asakusa, I walked to Ueno via an arcade where many traditional shops are located. I like wandering at those arcades in Japan as stuff which is sold here are mainly traditional with reasonable price, and sometimes you can even purchase some cheap things with sale campaigns here. 
Ueno in Edo period was considered “shitamachi” or “Lowtown”, where was home to working classes, merchants and artisans. At the moment, the feeling of “shitamachi” even retains with not crowded streets, small houses and especially the market Ameya Yokocho in which people sell abundant of foods from meat, fruit to dried ingredients and other stuff like shoes, clothes and so on. I strolled there, stopped by every shop, and even almost got lost in the crowd. But that’s what I love. I know I can’t do like that if I travel with a group of people. When I travel on my own, I can do whatever I like, go to any where I want to go.  After getting stuck in the market (but I did have fun there), I was off to Ueno Park where I saw cherry blossom coincidently. Cherry blossom season is coming but it often starts from the south where is warmer than the north, but it’s quite warm this year so some trees bloomed early. I didn’t have any guide book with me at that time so I just walked around the park, then ended up being at some shrines and temples. 
cherry blossom at ueno park

Ameya Yokocho
A shop at Ameya Yokocho
 I was off to see my friend at Tokyo Tower around 3pm via the Museum of Nature and Science where you can get to know about Japan nature including animals, lands and human along with the world’s ones through seeing displayed objects and trying real stuff at experiment spaces. However, the disappointing thing of this museum is almost explanations are in Japanese that I couldn’t understand all of what they say, except for some at the Global part but they are only a few, which is not enough. Anyway, it’s a nice place, suitable for kids to explore Japan and the world. 

I met my Vietnamese friend, Linh, who was my university mate in Vietnam and works in Tokyo at the moment at Tokyo Tower. Apparently, it is a famous spot in Tokyo but for me there is nothing much. Moreover, it’s super expensive. You have to pay 820 yen to go to the 150m high observatory to see view of the entire city, and if you want to go higher and see more, you have to pay 600 yen extra to go up to the special observation. It’s not worth (although we did). The tower looks better from outside. I think seeing it from far is enough, don’t need to get in.

Taken from Tokyo Tower
Next, we left for Shinbuya, the biggest crossroad and also the most crowded area in Tokyo. In the evening, when all the lights are lit up, the city looks more and more vibrant and bustling. In front of Shibuya station is statue of Hachiko, which is the dog remembered for his loyalty to his owner, even many years after his owner’s death. When we got there, many people were lining up to wait to take photo with the statue. We quickly escaped from the crowd to be off for dinner as I was starving. My friend took me to a small restaurant serving beef steak and rice. I had a big bowl of fried rice with cheese and corn along with salad. I don’t eat that much when I’m home and I really care about what I eat but as I was on my way travel , I ate everything I met on the move. The meal was very nice with good taste and reasonable price (780 yen for a large size of rice dish and 100 yen for the salad). 

Then, Linh showed me round Harajuku and Shinjuku. However, it was late, almost shops closed so I couldn’t see the way people dress which is known for Harajuku style. Therefore, I decided to come back here the day after with my Japanese friend. After that, I said goodbye to Linh and took train to go to my friend’s flat where I stayed during my time in Tokyo.

On the second day, my friend, Hikaru, and I went to Meiji Jingu and Imperial Palace after strolling a bit in Shibuya and Harajuku. Takeshita Dori is a street lined with miscellaneous characters and idol goods popular among teens. Thousands of people, especially youngsters, come here every day. There is no space between people, and I almost got lost in the crowd. But if you go to Tokyo, you’d better check this place out as it pays off. You can have chance get to know about Tokyo youth as well as their lifestyle.

with Hachiko
eating crepes near harajuku
girls dressing harajuku style

Takeshita Dori 1
Takeshita Dori 2
Our next stop was Meiji Jingu, the largest shrine in Tokyo. It is a Shinto shrine built in 1920. Both sides of the path leading to the shrine are covered by thousands trees, which makes a very beautiful view. The shrine is like a treasure hiding itself in a solemn forest. This is a very lovely place, well worth visiting. Despite the fact of being located near Harajuku, one of the most crowded places in Tokyo and visited by millions people all the year round, Meiji Jingu still brings to me a different atmosphere, something ancient, mild and taciturn. Furthermore, I was lucky to see two traditional Japanese weddings at the shrine. They were so impressive. Undoubtedly, this is one of my favorite places in Tokyo.

in front oF meiji jingu
the biggest gate in japan

the path leading to meiji jingu

wedding no.1
wedding no.2


Before moving to the Imperial Palace, Hikaru and I stopped over at a restaurant to have lunch with monja and okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is my favorite Japanese food, monja is a Tokyo okonomiyaki style with less flour and wetter than other okonomiyakis. 

making monja
tokyo station
in front of imperial palace
the famous bridge at the palace
Tokyo Imperial Palace is the main residence of Emperor of Japan, located near Tokyo Station which is the newest station (maybe the prettiest one) in Tokyo. It’s a park – like area with a large ground in front. Most of the parts of the palace are not open to the public, except for some like the East Garden, but you need to come up with the time as when I got there, it was almost 4:30 which is the closing time. 

the park in front of the palace
the palace's neighborhood
The area close to the palace is full of modern tall buildings, mainly offices, multipurpose or complex facilities. 

I went to Odaiba after the Imperial Palace alone as my friend was tired and wanted to get back home. Although I used a 1 day pass ticket with unlimited rides by JR train, I still had to pay extra fee for the train to go to Odaiba as it’s a new opened line. Odaiba is a large artificial island where is home to the Rainbow Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. The Rainbow Bridge looks best at night, from a park that I forget the name. There are several shopping malls, entertainment centers and offices like Decks, Aqua City, Diver City, Palette Town or Fuji Television Headquarters, etc. From Aqua City, you also can enjoy view of Rainbow Bridge and the statue of Liberty. 

rainbow bridge and the statue of liberty

While eating dinner at Aqua City, I read quickly a Tokyo guide book I picked at the information desk. At the beginning, I planned to go to Yokohama on my last day in Tokyo, but after reading the guide book, I realized there were still many places in Tokyo I have never been to so I decided to go to those instead of Yokohama.

Before going to Kokubunji, I went to Korean Town near Shinjuku. Although it was over 9, it was still early for shops to open, but anyway I did see how the town looks. The Korean atmosphere probably comes from bunches of Korean restaurants lined both sides of the street the most. I bought tokbokki which is my most favorite Korean street food to eat. It was so yum, especially its spiciness. It has been a long time I haven’t eaten Korean food ( but will have them soon, maybe in August).

korean town

After Korean Town, I left for Kokubunji. It’s a small town 30 minutes away from Shinjuku by train. The town is small, quiet, different from an animated, dense and modern Tokyo that we have seen. I went to see Tonogayato garden which is considered a National Treasure. It’s a pleasant place with ponds, trees, bamboo forest, waterfalls, many kinds of flowers and tea house. It looks much better in autumn with momiji or in late spring with sakura or cherry blossom, I think.

in the garden
the garden
An old Japanese man asked me something in Japanese as he thought I was Japanese when I was looking around the garden. I told him that I wasn’t, just an international student. After talking for a while, he said he could take me to places I wanna see. We went to Otaka’s Path, which was named in Edo period, and some temples around. There is a small stream alongside the path. According to the old man, the water of the stream is very clean so residents often come here to take some home. And it’s true as I saw an old man taking water of the stream when we walked pass the path. 

the sign of otaka's path
otaka's path
I kept chatting with the old man in Japanese while walking around with him. My poor Japanese works sometimes (and it helped me a lot in this trip). He was so kind to me. Not only did he show me around, but he also bought me water at a vending machine and even invited me to have lunch with yakisoba as I said that was my favorite Japanese food. However, I wasn’t hungry and I needed to leave for some places as it was my last day in Tokyo so I just said thanks and denied the lunch. His kindness is enough, no words can describe my gratitude to him. 

In Edo period, Nihombashi played an important role to the lives of people as it was a town of merchants with a big fish market, and at the moment it’s a base point of commerce and finance.

Although it is a crucial part of Tokyo, especially in terms of economy, Nihombashi still retains its old vibrant downtown shitamachi atmosphere with old shops selling Japanese traditional meal – tofu and other stuff which you can easily find in Amazake Yokocho street. In addition, this area is not as crowded as the city center and not many foreigners come here to visit. In Nihombashi, you can get a boat at Nihombashi Pier and enjoy spots around. 

amazake yokocho street
snack and food sold in amazake yokocho
sakura ice cream

Shibamata is a small town in Katsushika Ward, near Chiba rather than Tokyo’s city center. Here is home to Kyoeizan Daikyoji Temple, Taishaketensando and other spots. It’s a bit far from the city center so I had to change train to get here. It was not difficult for me to find the places as there are some signs and those places are located near the station. It took a short walk from the station to Taishakutensando, which is the oldest shopping street in this area. Both sides of the street are lined up with local food shops selling dumpling and rice crackers. After passing the street, I got to see the Temple. Next, I was off to see Katsushika-ku Yamomoto –tei, which is actually house of Yamamoto, a businessman in Taisho era. This house is open to public but when I got there, it seemed to be closed. Then, I took a short walk to the neighborhood where I saw a big river with a very large play ground and road for walking and cycling. 


the temple
I got to Hikaru’s flat around 5pm, took a quick shower and had dinner with her. She is a great cook. As I said I loved tofu and vegetable, she cooked me salad and some meals from tofu. She was so nice to me. Once again, I was speechless along with grateful. 

It was my last day in Tokyo. 3 days is short but I had great moments with this dynamic, bustling but still traditional city, and with great people I met. Giving Hikaru a quick hug, I left for the station to take an overnight bus to Kyoto. After 3 days walking around Tokyo, my feet were swollen. But it was a half of my trip, another one was waiting for me.