Osaka gives Japan a flying start!

15 Oct

Osaka's massive sprawl of concrete boxes is second only to Tokyo as an example of Japan's urban phenomenon. At night time, this ugly duckling of grey buildings and highways is transformed to a flashing neon madness. During the day, Osaka had us happily staring at metre long tunas being sliced up in the market, at spectacular fish in one of the best aquariums in the world or simply at each other in mild disbelief over the friendliness of Osaka's residents.

Because only a day into our stay in Osaka, the Japanese had firmly pushed the Thais off their throne of being the friendliest people we'd met in Asia. Most people will help a confused tourist who approaches them, but only the Japanese actively seek you out to offer their help. Standing with a map on a street corner, looking confused left, right and centre, only minutes would pass before a Japanese person would come up to us. Do you need any help? Can I help you? What are you looking for? Same, a slightly confused look in the metro and whoops, there was the ticket controller helping us to push the right buttons on the ticket machine.

We were unaware of this at the time, but people in Osaka are known to be the friendliest in Japan. (As it happens, the city is also the hatchery and haven for the country's stand-up comedians.) Not surprisingly, Osaka gave our first impression of Japan a flying start. Although the city is home to 2.6 million people (and more than 3.5 million during day time thanks to the many commuters), it felt surprisingly easy to navigate its streets and metro system. Maybe it was due to the many kind offers to help, the rather compact city core or the fact that the Japanese have visibly gone to great lengths to make it easy for visitors through the use of bilingual signs or opting for colour codes or symbols.

Before we get to the food and the cost level, here are some photos of the city:

Osaka is Japan's third largest city, yet it only gets a fraction of the tourists. When people make their travel itinerary for this notoriously expensive country, Osaka rarely makes the cut. For many, it becomes a matter of two places: Kyoto and Tokyo. Yet, if you have time – consider adding a short stop also in Osaka. For starters, it is a fun, edgy city with amazing food, a brilliant aquarium and a compact city centre that is easy to explore.

Depending on your travel plans, travelling to Osaka might also save you money. Most people who start and end their trip in Tokyo opt for the Japanese rail pass and rely on the bullet train for transport around the country. Though, if you fly into Osaka and then out of Tokyo, you can get transport on the cheap(er). Compared with flying in and out of Tokyo and then taking the bullet train everywhere / buying the rail pass, we saved several hundred euros on flying in to Osaka and then out from Tokyo. From Osaka, you may hop on a local train or the metro to Kyoto (which is so close that many who live in Kyoto work in Osaka. Our metro (!) ride took 30 minutes). From Kyoto you may then choose the bullet train to Tokyo so that you also get the experience of travelling at a plane's speed on ground.

A few more words on the prices. One of the largest surprises in Japan have been the cost level. I never thought I'd hear myself say out loud in Japan that something was reasonable, but often it was. Sometimes it was even downright cheap. The price level seemed similar to most of continental Western Europe, and considerably cheaper than Norway. Instance: Accommodation will undoubtedly take the biggest bite of your budget. Yet, in Osaka, we stayed at Hotel Taiyo for 27 euros a night (so 13.50 euro each). That got us a neat room with two futons on the floor, a small fridge, each our kimono and complimentary toothbrushes as well as the friendliest staff imaginable on the ground floor, impeccably clean communal showers and a small osen (hot bath). If you're heading to Kyoto afterwards, the hotel is also very conveniently placed in terms of metro lines running close by.

For food, we headed to the markets, the smaller eateries where locals sit down for some quick sushi bites or we simply followed the stream of younger people with less deep pockets to their hangouts.

We also opted for the fantastic conveyor belt sushi places, where a plate with two sushi will set you back somewhere between 105 to 260 yen. After about an hour of gorging ourselves on the best sushi we've ever had, the bill (in three different places) invariably came to around 3200 yen for both of us. That's about 26 euros, so 13 euros each. Sure, we gave the fancier restaurants in Osaka a miss. But, even the cheap stuff was way fancier than any sushi I've ever had in Europe.

 

 

Sushi in Japan

8 Oct

Wacky wonderful Japan has us running around every day to take it all in. So until I find some time to sit down and write a few words about our stay in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, here's a film about our main activity while here!

 

So, what does Gangnam look like?

27 Sep

“Pali! Pali!” everybody likes to say. Faster! Faster! South Korea has been sprinting down the road to recovery since the end of the Korean War. As fast as PSY’s “Gangnam Style” anthem, mocking Seoul’s Ferrari-and-furs nouveaux riches, galloped to the top of the Western music charts this year, the city has emerged as one of the most hip (and most underrated) cultural capitals in the world. Cruise-line-proportioned flagships, architecturally bombastic headquarters, museums celebrating traditional houses to handbags, haute and hot restaurants are all competing for the attention of its 10 million increasingly affluent residents.

'The Reincarnation of Seoul' – New York Times

 

The love locks of Seoul

26 Sep

Reportedly, Koreans are the Asians that to the greatest extent wear their hearts on their sleeves. So N Seoul Tower might actually be the most loved up place in all of Asia. Kitschy lovey-dovey? Perhaps. But I loved it.

 

 

Seoul’s Fish Market

26 Sep

Noryangjin Fish Market puts even most large-scale aquariums to shame. Octopus is the market's unrivalled king; from tubs with squirmy baby octopus to stands offering more than a metre long octopus tentacles. There's the expected abundance of fish, prawns, oysters and clams, but also the more odd delicacies, like sea pineapple, sea squirts, sea cucumber, live abalone, sea acorn, sea snail and lots of other slimy things I'd never seen or heard of before – let alone expect to be eating half an hour later.

Koreans tend to drink beer with their sea pineapple. I'd recommend lots and lots of Makgeolli instead, the national 'farmers alcohol'. So toss back most of it with the orange, wriggly dish in the middle in the first photo below which is indeed the infamous sea pineapple. But, be sure to throw in some shots as well when you work your way through the exotic sashimi varieties known as frozen (!) and chewiest ever (apparently Koreans love the chewiest white fish around). Worst meal so far on our trip, but undoubtedly one of the most entertaining!

 

North Korea and the scariest place on Earth

12 Sep

I went to North Korea today. My sister claims my three-minute stay doesn’t really count, but since Bill Clinton once called the Korean Demilitarized Zone the scariest place on Earth, I say it does.

Because the real thing is not happening. It’s not because my curiosity is not begging me to go. But I can’t get past the comparison in the front of my mind. How would it be any different from time travel to Nazi Germany in the hope of peeking over some barbed wire to see the atrocities for yourself? There’s no need for some additional money in Mr. Kim’s pocket, and there would be no good coming out of that visit beyond a satisfied curiosity (which I assume would be offset by the grating moral thoughts kicking you in the stomach while there).

So, instead we went to the most heavily armed border in the world for a few minutes and some selfies.

As the name hints at, the Demilitarized Zone is a 4km wide strip of land between North and South Korea that serves as a buffer between the two countries. Running from coast to coast along the 38th parallel, the countries are cut almost cleanly in half.

On either side of the 250 km long divide, two countries are ready to go to war at a moment’s notice. The entire area is bristling with watchtowers, barbed wire, landmines, tank-traps and heavy weaponry.

The buffer zone dates back to 1953 and the Korean Armistice Agreement, which ended the Korean War. Once one of the most intense fronts of the Cold War, it’s still its relic and still strife with tension, hostility and also death. The North Koreans are unpredictable, and 500 Korean soldiers and 50 American soldiers have been killed along the DMZ since 1953. A fact I very much wished I had learned after and not before I walked towards the demarkation line myself.

Although the trip started as a cheerful outing with a bus load of tourists departing bright and early from Seoul, cameras in hand, it slowly got more exciting, as a dimmer switch beyond our control until tension filled the air. From the edge of Seoul and for the next 40 km, we drove alongside barbed wire and guard posts flanking the Han river. As we drew nearer to the Joint Security Area in the middle of the DMZ, we passed tank stoppers with dynamite and forests doubling as minefields. And we picked up a few American soldiers as our tour guides.

For me, and I assume for most of the thousands of yearly visitors, the highlight of the day was the visit to the blue house’s conference room. On top of the demarkation line – the formal border between North and South – in the middle of the Demilitarized Zone a few blue buildings host the talks between the two countries.

 

Coming out of the Freedom House (intended as a meeting point for relatives between North and South, though never put to use as the North suspected most of theirs would simply defect if given the chance), you see these blue houses as well as a myriad of South Korean soldiers frozen in battle stance, fists squeezed tightly, before your gaze goes upwards to the grey large building in front that’s across the border. And that’s where there’s a tiny guy with binoculars staring back at you. Laughable, if it hadn’t been so eerie. If that little guy were to walk down the steps and across the demarkation line, the US would automatically be at war. South Korea is formally still at war with the North, as no peace agreement has ever been signed.

Tourists are taken to the blue houses (also painted blue inside) on tours both from the North and South. For my tour group from the South, the excitement was obviously about walking around the massive desk in the middle – where the Armistice Agreement was signed and that straddles the border between North and South and onto the North for a few minutes.

 

 

From time to time, North Korean soldiers have been known to walk up to the windows and look in while tourists vastly overcrowd the place. But not today. I know, because just like everyone else I was posing by these windows, making sure I stood just behind the desk and on the North side of the border.

 

Among the other highlights was the walk in one of the tunnels dug secretly by the North Koreans under the DMZ for use in a potential invasion. Four have been discovered so far, though the assumption is that there are dozens.

Along with the few minutes at the Dora observatory tower, where ten-folds of binoculars are lined up so you may look into the North, the tunnel and the demarkation line meet my needs for peeking into a communist dictatorship and I’d much rather continue my stay down here in the South. It’s an interesting peek into history for a tourist, though a sad reality for Koreans.