Sunday, February 25, 2018

New Zealand: A Backpackers Guide


Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
I developed a curiosity about New Zealand relatively recently, when a friend mentioned they were interested in going. It seems strange that a country so close in proximity to Australia is in some ways so foreign to me even though the culture is very similar.

I knew so little about the country, despite meeting people from there in Melbourne and often vaguely hearing information about New Zealand weather, or politics, or simply how nice Queenstown is. I wanted to understand how it varied from Australia and what kind of place the people I met from New Zealand came from.

Expectations did, for the most part, meet reality. New Zealand is a country of nature with both its islands offering something different. North Island features rolling green hills, beaches and geothermal activity while South Island is mountainous and filled with crystal clear lakes.

I didn't quite know what to expect in New Zealand as a solo traveller, and I didn't know where would be best to go. Despite my best efforts to read Lonely Planet's travel guide and read travel blogs, there wasn't a plethora of information like other travel destinations. Perhaps partly due to the remoteness of New Zealand from the rest of the world as well as its high price.

Nonetheless, I made the most of my three (short) weeks, endeavouring to travel from Auckland, in North Island and leaving from Queenstown in South Island. While it's possible to see both islands to some extent in that time frame it was not enough time to do everything that I would have liked to do. I would recommend instead choosing an island to focus on, especially if you are interested in hiking or anything to do with nature.

In relation to backpacking there, I found it a harder destination than other places I've visited. This is partly because many of the travellers I met were longer-term as they have working holiday visas whereas I was moving comparatively quickly from place to place. This made it difficult to connect in the same way as I would with people with the same time frame and plans as me.

In addition, the best way to get around New Zealand is either somehow acquiring a car, taking buses (coach services such as Intercity or Naked bus were useful, you can also pay more and use hop on hop off bus tour services such as Kiwi Experience or Stray, which I did not use) or hitchhiking. This means that travel isn't as effortless as other cities with more comprehensive travel networks such as in Europe. It also makes it difficult to visit more out of the way places unless you have a car.

Another factor that diminished its appeal is that the price of many of the activities are very expensive, meaning it is dangerously easy to go over budget and it constricts what you're financially able to do in New Zealand. That being said, there are free things to do there if you know where to look especially in terms of its nature, which is without a doubt the highlight of New Zealand rather than its cities.


For those that are interested, my travel itinerary began with Auckland where I stayed for four days, then Paihia in Bay of Islands for three days, down to Rotorua for two days, then to Wellington for three days. I then flew accross to South Island, first visiting Chrustchurch for a day, then Tekapo for another day then to Wanaka for four days and finally ended the trip Queenstown where I stayed for six days with a day trip to Milford Sound.

If I could change my trip, it would involve greatly minimising my time in the cities and concentrating on smaller areas such as Tekapo and Rotorua, as well as other places where nature abounds because that is where New Zealand excels. Another note to mention is that I visited in high season, meaning that popular places such as Queenstown were booked out weeks in advance. As someone didn't want to plan too much, it would have been wiser to go at a quieter time so I could have more flexibility in how long I stayed in certain places.

Milford Sound, New Zealand
While New Zealand wasn't always the easiest place to backpack in some respects, the friendliness of its inhabitants and the breathtaking nature in certain areas makes it a lovely place to travel too, especially if you have plenty of time to make the most of it. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Holidaying in Wilsons Prom, Victoria

Norman Beach, Wilsons Prom, Victoria
There's a special feeling on the eve of a new year. There's a collective sense of anticipation, and after midnight strikes of exhilaration. 

Together, we shout happily, "Happy New Year!" to strangers and friends alike. 

One year has ended and the other has just begun. 

The early hours of midnight, and for some time afterward are ripe with opportunity and potential before the year becomes more and more set in stone.

There is a level of uncertainty. What will the year bring? Will it be better? What will I do? 

Questions that each day will soon answer.

I spent my New Years in a (relatively) remote area of Victoria, in an area called Wilson's Promontory (Wilsons Prom), or actually, in Yanakie, a neighbouring town. This is because the camping spots in Wilsons Prom are so sought after during New Years they had sold out two months prior.

Wilsons Prom is a large stretch of parkland located southeast of Melbourne that provides a variety of different areas to explore.

This includes the well-known Squeaky Beach, which has sand with grains so fine that they squeak if you walk on them the right way. As well as Norman Beach, a lifesaver patrolled beach with strong waves that are fun to swim against or with depending on your preference and swimming ability.

There is also the Melba Gully walking track, referred to as a 'rainforest' walk, which provides coastal views at certain parts of the hike.

Tongue Point, Wilsons Prom, Victoria
While staying on the grounds of Wilsons Prom would have been preferable, Yanakie was still a nice place to stay and was in easy driving proximity to the park.

We stayed in a rented cottage opposite plots of land filled with nothing but grass and rolls of hay, and the house next door had a flock of sheep in their backyard.

Exactly the serenity we were after.

New Years was spent in good company with good food, music and surroundings.

A perfect way to begin 2018.


Norman Beach, Wilsons Prom, Victoria

Monday, December 11, 2017

Away: Lake Eildon, Victoria

Sunrise at Lake Eildon

Why don't we go away more often?
It doesn't need to be far, in fact it can be close.
As long as it's somewhere else, somewhere other that isn't the always.
Why do we have to wait for the best time, for the right time?

Why not just go?

I spoke to someone on the phone, for work. She said she was waiting, always waiting, to go away. The time to go came close, and then, as you would expect, her life fell apart.

Now, she can't go anywhere.

Stuck.

I went away to Lake Eildon recently. A strange choice for some.

"You're going where?"
                                          "There?"
                                                                      "Really?"

I liked it there. It was quiet. You could see the birds when you went outside, with their large red plumes, perched on the veranda. Coming from the city, they looked almost exotic, and yet at the same time, so familiar.

You need a car there, in Lake Eildon. To go far, to get almost anywhere, you need to drive. Driving up the cliffs, searching for waterfalls, for a nice view of the lake. Driving.


Shaking my legs, back on the ground. I prefer to walk. You can go nowhere but take in so much more.

I remember the creek, the water mossy green and brown tinged with the sky's blue.

The aged tree reaching out, its arms greeting the water. A handshake.


We adventured away to a place where the fear of snakes slithering through the grass to our legs was not enough of a deterrent to stop us. We walked to an area where for that moment, we had the world unoccupied.

Eventually, as the sun began to fade and our surroundings became increasingly finite, we left.


Saturday, June 24, 2017

Exploring Miyajima and Hiroshima: A Travel Guide


Cranes at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial 
Learning that Hiroshima was closeby to my next destination, Miyajima, I decided I may as well do a day tour to Hiroshima prior to settling down for the next couple of days.

Travelling from Osaka I arrived at Hiroshima, and after dropping my bags off at the lockers located at the station, I began my explorations of a city that many of us have heard so much about.

Hiroshima is quaint. It feels like a typical metropolitan city but with a nice river and old tramcars adding to the ambience. 


Okonomimura, Hiroshima
Japan has different varieties of Okonomiyaki (oko-nom-e-yah-ki), a dish that can be likened to a vegetable pancake although in Japan it often has myriad meat products added.

There is both the Osaka style okonomiyaki, arguably the more well known, basic version, and Hiroshima style. 

Seeing as Hiroshima has a whole okonomiyaki style dedicated to the city, you can tell they like their okonomiyaki. 

Okonomimura, located in the central area of Hiroshima, offers four levels completely dedicate to okonomiyaki that is cooked right there in front of you. Heaven!
The Atomic Dome

Hiroshima's sad history is ripe at the Atomic Dome by the river. 

It's certainly a bleaker side to Japan, but the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is a poignant way to to understand the aftermath of the nuclear attack and the devastation it caused for Hiroshima's inhabitants and infrastructure.

The Hiroshima Memorial Park, in view of the dome, provides a message of hope and peace for the world and illustrates mankind's ability to rebound in the face of devastation. 
A deer in Miyajima with the Itsukushima Shrine behind it

After spending a semi-exhausting day trying to see everything of relevance in Hiroshima, using my Japan Rail pass, I travelled onwards to Miyajima.

Miyajima is home to the celebrated Itsukushima Shrine.

Shrines, multiplicitous in Japan, are a boundary between the spirt and the human worlds and a well known symbol of Japanese culture. 

The Itsukushima shrine, which appears to float on water if you visit at the right time is an icon of Miyajiama, and makes the village a beautiful place to visit.


The shrine is over 1400 years old and magical to look at, especially at sunlight or dusk, coupled with the friendly deer that inhabit the island. 

It's a lovely place to walk around, with food stalls dotted around the water front and Omotosando shopping street, which felt authentically Japanese despite being quite touristy.

There is also a five story pagoda to crane your neck and take photos at, plus a mountain to hike if you're feeling particularly energetic (Mt. Misen).
Smiling woman on the ferry to Miyajima

I stayed at Miyajima backpackers hostel for this part of my solo travelling trip. 

It was one of the few areas where I felt like there was backpacker culture. At the backpackers people paused their lives there for a little while and worked at the hostel. 

As such, it had more of a feeling of homeliness than other hostels in Japan due to the familiar faces and friendly atmosphere.  

The highlight of Miyajima, besides the shrine, was the onsen recommended at the hostel at the Aki Grand Hotel. 

It was around 500 yen, completely empty when I visited and ridiculously tranquil.


 I didn't stay at Hiroshima or Miyajima for that long, so I don't have many recommendations for when you visit, but I do recommend visiting if you have the time spare. 


I've also written guides about Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka and Naoshima

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fate in Naoshima: A Travel Story

Visiting the art island of Naoshima was one of those days that, looking back on it, felt like a dream.

A cyclist appreciating the view at Naoshima


After figuring out how to get to Naoshima, I left the picturesque seaside town of Miyajima to take the train to Hiroshima, changed to the Okayama bound train and finally arrived at Uno station.

Relieved to move my legs after the two hour journey, I walked out of Uno station and located the ferry port that would transport me to the island of Naoshima. 


I walked to the ferry terminal, assuming that soon enough I'd be on my way to the island. 


However, I found out pretty quickly that the ferry to take me and the other visitors at the terminal wasn't arriving for another two hours, and additionally, only one of the six galleries was open that day. 

Disappointed and unsure what to do, I left the terminal to explore the seaside town of Uno. 

Ten uneventful minutes later and I felt like I'd explored it all, especially since nothing was open that day. 

Reluctantly, I decided to give up and go to Tokyo earlier than planned. I walked back to Uno station and checked when the next train was.  
45 minutes flashed on the screen.


I sighed.


"Today is just not meant to be," I thought to myself. 


The only realistic option was to keep walking around the town and make the most of it. 


Naoshima
I walked in the direction of the water, guided by no real reason except that I felt I should go that way. In the distance I saw a large boat. By chance, I'd stumbled upon another ferry company providing rides to Naoshima. 

It was boarding shortly so I bought a ticket and walked into the unexpected ferry, watching out the window as the boat sped through the water and the waves bounced up beneath it. 


When I arrived at the island I was confused by what I saw. Naoshima looked like nothing special. 

"Where's the art?", I thought. 


Relieved, I noticed by the water what I'd hoped to see, one of Yayoi Kusama's, a celebrated Japanese artist, iconic pumpkin sculptures. 


A beacon of hope that the island was going to live up to my (high) expectations. 



Yayoi Kusama's Red Pumpkin
Inside the Red Pumpkin

Now all I had to figure out was how to get from this red pumpkin to the more well known Yellow Pumpkin, as well as the only gallery open that day, the Benesse Art Site. A gallery known for its contemporary art.

I realised it would around 45 minutes to walk to the gallery. Time was limited on the island. 


If I spent almost two hours getting there and back, I would't have much time at the museum. 

Luckily, out of the corner of my eye I saw a bus covered in polka dots and yellow pumpkins, iconic of the artist Yayoi Kusama's colourful and eclectic art work. A sign.





I walked towards the bus, and without knowing if it was going in the right direction, I payed the 100 yen fare (~$1)and found a seat. A slow meandering bus ride later, I disembarked the polka dot bus. 


In front of me was a concrete shrine and behind it, pale blue ocean gleaming under the summer sun.  


I walked down onto the sand that lined the shore and saw what I'd been waiting for, the only thing I knew about, the Yellow Pumpkin that I'd seen in photos countless times. 



Yayoi Kusama's Yellow Pumpkin

It felt so surreal that I was lucky enough to see it.


The dotted pumpkin sculpture contrasted with the ocean surrounding it is such an obscure combination, but there's something so peaceful and harmonious about it. 


After enjoying the iconic Naoshima view, I walked along the winding road uphill to the gallery, passing more outside sculptures on the way, with sublime views of the ocean encircling the island. 






That walk to the gallery, surrounded by nature and the occasional cyclist, was one of the most relaxing and serene walks of my life. 




Eventually, after some adventuring and some time watching the ocean melding into the light blue sky, I entered the Benesse Gallery.


I walked around without speaking, without trying to break the silence, without taking photos, without internet, and explored the museum deep in my own head, at my own pace, accountable to nobody. Free. 


I didn't plan that day at all (except the bare minimum) and yet everything fell into place. 


As if it was always meant to be that way. 




I've also written guides about Kyoto, TokyoMiyajima, Hiroshima and Osaka.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Bored in Osaka: A Travel Guide

As the title of the post implies, there isn't a whole lot to do in Osaka. 

Dotonburi
However, I'd still recommend visiting the city because it feels authentically Japanese in a different way than other places in Japan.

Osaka fulfils this idea of Japan I had in my head as this futuristic otherworld where there is colour, flashing lights and movement everywhere you look.

Gone is the traditonalism of Kyoto, replaced by a new version of Japan embracing the future with its distinctly Japanese flavour. It's dirtier than other Japanese cities, as well as grungier and less restrained. It's another side to Japan and if you have time then it's worthwhile visiting. Just not for too long.

Osaka is a city of food and partying. 

In a way it's refreshing because unlike travelling other areas where there is an infinite list of things to see, visit or do, Osaka is just a place you're in. Despite the ebb and flow of people constantly moving, Osaka is a pitstop. It's a place where you can take a day or two to indulge in food as the main destination and bars as the dessert without feeling like you're missing out.

So, you ask, what's there to do in Osaka?
Not much. 

But here's a guide to help you figure out how to spend your time there anyway. 

I stayed two and a half days in Osaka, which in my opinion was more than enough. 

Dotonburi Canal 
THINGS TO DO IN OSAKA

Places to visit:
Dotonburi 
The main strip by the Dotonburi Canal is in one word, crazy. Not only is it crazy, it's also cool, colourful, manic, confusing and trippy. Cue any other adjectives of that kind. My photos don't do it justice, it's mesmerising.

Shopping strip near Dotonburi

Osaka Castle 
It's probably nice inside too but the exterior of the castle peeking out from its fort was enough for me.

Osaka Castle

Kuromon Market 
Japan has good markets, and Kuromon market close to the centre of Osaka is no exception. Kuromon market has plenty of street food to try as well as restaurants and souvenirs. It's a good place to try new authentic food, and seemed like it catered to locals rather than tourists like the main market in Tokyo, Tsukiji fish market.

Octopus on a stick (with egg inside it no less) at Kuromon Market

Ohatsu Tenjin Shrine Flea Market
I coincided my dates staying in Osaka with this market and it was a wise desicison. Kimonos everywhere, antiques, second hand clothing and random nic nacs. The market goes on for ages, twisting around the venue. There's even a shrine if you want to satisfy your daily Japan shrine dose. I was able to get a kimono for 500yen (around $5). They also serve plenty of food, such as Osaka style Okonomiyaki.



Bars to visit:
Kama Sutra Karaoke Bar
We were luckily enough to stumble upon this place, and it salvaged what could have been a very average night. It's a small bar up a few floors, but it's not too hard to find. The bartender who runs the place is lovely and genuinely cares about his guests having a good time. It is homely and cosy, not something you would typically associate with a karaoke bar, but somehow Kama Sutra Karaoke Bar achieves this.

Cinque Cento Bar 
Everything at the bar is 50o yen (around $5). It's a bar for tourists so it's hardly authentic, but its cheap, you can order in english and the cocktails are delicious. 

Stores to visit: 
Stumbled on this gem because it was close to my hostel. Sells cute cat themed post cards, glass blown clip on earrings among other Japanese trinkets. 

WEGO
It's just a chain store and it's available in every main city in Japan. Usually a level devoted to vintage and has very on trend clothing. 

Vintage stores
There are vintage stores dotted around everywhere. I remember a lot of them being around America-Mura but I didn't note them down! 

Crazy big octopus in Dotonburi

I hope you enjoyed this short guide to Osaka. 


If you get really bored theres an Instant Ramen Museum 45 minutes away or Nara less than a hour away via train to go see some deer. 


I've also written guides about KyotoTokyo, Miyajima, Hiroshima and Naoshima

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Solo in Kyoto: A Travel Guide

Out of all the cities I visited over my three week travels in Japan, Kyoto was by far my favourite place.



Kyoto, 
the former capital city of Japan, is much more relaxed than Tokyo. The city moves at a slower pace and feels more distinctively Japanese with many shrines and traditional buildings spread around the city. 


Tokyo brings to mind, contrastingly, either an image of overworked people in black corporate attire or stylish Tokyoites dressed rebelliously. 

Taking the middle ground, Kyoto's style is more representative of Japan's stereotype as refined and minimal. 


Their street style isn't subversive like in Tokyo (or even Osaka) but as other travellers I met remarked, they look so put together. It seems like people in Kyoto, and Japan as a whole, dress like they care how they present themselves to others. 




Kyoto's minimalist street style is coupled with the occasional kimono clad men and women walking the streets, adding colour and a sense of traditional culture to the city.




 In terms of navigation, it's also much easier to get around the city with most attractions in walking distance or a short trip away. Around the outskirts of Kyoto are beautiful places to visit such as Arashiyama, home to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove but also the Kastura river and a picturesque village area. 



I was lucky enough to arrive in Kyoto during cherry blossom season. I spent most of my five days there in awe, looking up and the pink hued cherry blossoms and wishing they would never go. 




As a destination it's a perfect place to solo travel too. It's a relatively small city, there's less to do and as such, people are more inclined to stick together and explore the city together. I met so many people in Kyoto, and feel so thankful to have been able to explore the city with them.



At a bar with friends I made at the hostel 

I stayed at Khaosan Kyoto Theatre Hostel and would thoroughly recommend it. Japan isn't known for it's hostel culture and while Khaosan isn't a solo traveller mecca, it definitely understands the hostel spirit with a downstairs bar and a rooftop area, as well as a vending machine selling cheap beer and other drinks. 



The hostel was also in a good location in Kyoto, located on a street affectionately referred to by a fellow Melbournian as the Brunswick Street (a trendy street in Melbourne) of Kyoto. 

The neighbourhood surrounding the hostel has a collection of cafes, boutiques and vintage stores as well as close proximity to labyrinthine shopping centres and Japanese lamp fringed bars along the Kamo river.


Around 4-5 days is a good amount of time to spend in Kyoto, depending on what you want to do. 


THINGS TO DO IN KYOTO

Galleries and museums to visit:
Kyoto International Manga Museum 
Most of the manga and associated information for the exhibits is in Japanse, but it's worth it for entry to the gardens where there are people dressed up in Cosplay.

Places to visit:

Arashiyama 
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a path completely surrounded by pale green sticks of bamboo in every direction. There is also a monkey park, the gardens and house of a deceased Japanese celebrity (Okochi Sanso Villa) and the main Arashiyama district area alongside the Katsura river. Well worth a visit. 

Nishiki market
Located in the central district in one of the many shopping centres in Kyoto, it is an all day market selling all manners of Japanese fare. 



Fushimi Inari Taisha

There are so many shrines in Kyoto,  my favourite being Fushimi Inari Taisha. It's located at the base of a mountain in Kyoto. Walking under many orange shrines you can make your way to the top of the mountain, rewarded with a great view and a feeling of accomplishment. 




Kyoto Imperial Palace
The palace is free to enter and a great way to experience the imperialist history of Japan. It's also surrounded by a park if you're in the mood for a picnic.

Gion

Gion corner is the best place to go geisha spotting in Japan, and home to a busier, more touristy side of Kyoto.




Parks to visit:

The Philosopher's Path
During cherry blossom season in particular this path is wondrously beautiful. The path follows a small fish filled canal and is surrounded by houses and cute little shops. 


The Philosopher's Path
I've also written guides about TokyoOsaka, Miyajima, Hiroshima and Naoshima