Highlights from Tokyo

This May, I finally got to fulfil my lifelong dream of travelling to Japan. I spent nearly three weeks there, soaking up as much of this incredibly rich, complex, historically isolated, and enigmatic island nation as I could – although I really barely scratched the surface. My 32GB memory card was luckily just about enough to capture everything that filled my eyes and brain. Because I’m running out of space on my WordPress account, and because Flickr is one of the best services out there, I’ve decided to start saving all my travel pictures on Flickr instead. You can find my Tokyo album here.

Everything was a massive and fascinating culture shock. Here are my top highlights from the Tokyo section of the trip.

UntitledTsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market is a very large, legendary wholesale fish and seafood market between the Sumida River and Ginza in downtown Tokyo. It opens almost every morning at 3am, when fresh fish and seafood arrive by trucks from all over the world, with the infamous visitor-limited tuna auctions starting around 5:20am. Although the market isn’t open to general tourists and visitors from the public until 9am, we ‘didn’t know’ about this rule, and wandered straight in to the market around 8 in the morning one day, to find a chaotic market just winding down after the busy activity of the early morning hours. Market traders were relaxing, taking in the quietness, slicing huge pieces of fish to wrap and sell later, and chatting casually with each other in between the containers and water and fish and knives whooshing through the air and nets and turret trucks.

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Sanja Matsuri

Matsuri is Japanese for ‘festival’, and the Sanja Festival is one of the largest Shinto festivals in Tokyo, in celebration of the three men who founded the Senso-ji. Digesting the morning’s impressions and tuna sashimi from the Tsukiji Fish Market, we wandered around the Sumida River area for a while wondering what to do next, when we decided to visit the Asakusa Temple in Old Tokyo to cross it off our list. As we drew nearer to the temple, we saw more and more people dressed in hakama and other traditional Japanese clothing, either sitting on the streets in groups having jolly conversations or parading mini mikoshis around. Arriving at the temple, we met a spectacularly colourful crowd of people, singing and dancing and playing music in a massive procession. It was astounding stumbling across such a harmonious and brilliant celebration, attracting people of all ages.

UntitledGhibli Museum

The Ghibli Museum was my one main objective of travelling to Japan. Had the weather been terrible; had an earthquake stopped all the trains; had I lost all my belongings for some bizarre reason that’s hard to conceive of because there is no theft in Japan and even if you’re stupid enough to lose your things, the Japanese will still go to the greatest lengths physically possible for them to help you; visiting the Ghibli Museum was the one single thing I had to do in Japan. Words cannot describe how much I love and adore everything that’s been produced by Studio Ghibli. The boundless imagination and the grande philosophical musings of Miyazaki should be experienced by anyone. My Neighbour Totoro in particular will always have a special place in my heart and DVD collection – mostly because I’m a hoarder -, and so I was just like a little kid at Hamley’s when we arrived at the very cute Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, seeing the massive Totoro in the window, and the Laputan robot appearing in the distance. The 20-minute clip from Totoro which can only be seen at the museum itself no matter how skilled you are in pirating actually brought me to tears – something only the likes of Toy Story 3 and Armageddon are able to accomplish (I have good taste in films, I swear.)

UntitledMount Fuji

We were incredibly lucky with the weather the day we decided to visit Mount Fuji. Normally, you can only get a clear view of the entire mountain on crisp and freezing winter days, while in the spring and summer, it’s usually too obscured to reveal more than the ice capped mountain top. By way of magic, we saw the entire side of the mountain on the lovely, occasionally very sunny, 30-degree day, much to everyone’s amazement. We also visited some of the areas around the mountain, i.e. the Fuji Five Lakes. I even completely randomly bumped into one of my old coursemates from my psychology degree right in front of the mountain, on top of a ropeway at Lake Kawaguchiko – how cool is that?

It was by far the best trip I’ve ever been on, and so a couple of weeks after I came back to London, I booked new flights to Tokyo for March. Cherry blossoms here I come!

We went to Stockholm to…

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Soak up the last remnants of Yule.

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Celebrate my quadranscentennial with oysters and wine and meat at Griffins Steakhouse and 7 homemade courses because I’ve even more reason to be pretentious now. Some nostalgic drooling over the baked goods of my childhood did also occur.DSC_0467
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See the stunning Swedish sky in the morning.

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See the stunning Swedish sky in the evening.

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See the stunning Swedish sky at night.

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DSC_0630Coffee. Of course. We were rather disappointed with Johan & Nyström, but Drop Coffee was so spectacular that we went twice. Fabrique in Gamla Stan was lovely early in the morning.

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Observe gamla Stockholmers in Gamla Stan.

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Finally see the infamous Stockholm Metro art at T-Centralen. Very awe-inspiring and immersive. I wish we had time to see the other stations. We will be back.

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Establish that I am a penguin.

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And a surprising amount of other cultural bits and pieces given the short time we had, like visit Fotografiska, which undoubtedly is one of the most impressive galleries I’ve ever visited. So impressive I purchased a Fotografiska flask. Its name is Arthur because the floor gave it a dent. And the lovely Östasiatiska Museet as a warm-up to our upcoming trip to the Far East.

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Scandinavia does kos and mys and hygge like nowhere else in the world.

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Orienting ourselves in the Orient – part V of V: Shanghai

Part I of V: Qionghai & Boao; Part II of V: Dìng’ān; Part III of V: Haikou; Part IV of V: Sanya & Baoting

Our last leg of our trip was somewhere I’d never been before: the largest city proper in the world, namely Shanghai with its 24 million people. 24 million people, and yet Mr Susan and I somehow managed to bump into the same person/new friend in two completely different places of the city, without either of us knowing where we’d be. We met Karen at the great third-wave coffee shop Café Del Volcán on Yongkang Lu as their resident creator of signs, and she gave us lots of tips about where to go, what to see, and what to eat (we ate at Tock’s two nights in a row on her recommendation – almost as good as Katz’s!) (but nothing will ever beat Katz’s). The day after, we went to The Power Station of Art and caught an incredible exhibition called The Ninth Wave by Cai Guo-Qiang; and on leaving the building, we suddenly saw Karen again. In my 6 years in London and our 8 million people, this has never happened.

We obviously visited all the usual tourist stuff, like Yuyuan Garden, Tianzifang, Xintiandi, The Bund, and The Shanghai World Financial Center / Bottleopener. Tianzifang was awesome and quirky and quaint for about an hour, after which it sort of dwindled into ‘What’s around this corner? Oh, more of the same shit.’ (reminiscent of Camden Market). Xintiandi was lovely because we went there early in the morning when the hordes of tourists hadn’t arrived yet. We also visited The Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China whilst there, which was an interesting little museum, as well as Sun Yat-sen’s residence (we’d also have wanted to see Zhou Enlai’s house, but our tummies said it was lunch time). Yuyuan Garden was both interesting and…a very stressful and commercially driven display of ‘culture’, but the Bottleopener with its 100 floors was great – especially considering there weren’t any crowds up there, it being off-season.

What we enjoyed the most, though, was just spending hours walking around the French Concession, looking at the great architecture and leafy streets, seeing the contrasts between old-China and what felt like being thrown into a very humid Paris, getting a sense of the expat community, stumbling across quaint shops and quirky galleries. Mr Susan even got caught on candid camera with me as the accompanying girlfriend for the second time; and we went to a very awesome jazz club one night. We also visited my aunt and uncle’s flat, where we found lots of old and forgotten pictures, many of which I was in as my chubby baby self.

On our last day, we made a trip to Zhujiajiao, which we somewhat feared would be as Liz Lemony blergh as Venezia, but it was actually really lovely; and although full of tourists, it was calm and the markets sold actually relevant and local things rather than a bunch of crap. The food was nice, even the snails; and on our way back into town, we stopped by the Songze Museum, a completely new museum exhibiting the results of excavations of 6000 years old items and people of Shanghai.

So long and thanks for all the fish (we did eat a lot of fish and seafood on this trip).

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Orienting ourselves in the Orient – part IV of V: Sanya & Baoting

Part I of V: Qionghai & Boao; Part II of V: Dìng’ān; Part III of V: Haikou; Part V of V: Shanghai

If you’ve ever heard of and/or been to Hainan, it’s most likely Sanya that you’ve heard of/been to, and you’re most likely Russian. In this tropical beach city in the south of the island, Chinese people are more likely to speak a little bit of Russian than a little bit of English; and shop signs, menus, etc. are often displayed in both Chinese and Russian. Sadly, the place is way too touristy in quite a negative way – people who work there are brusque and don’t really seem to know what they talk about nor care about anything else but to earn money off of tourists; and, to put it very bluntly, what used to be beautiful nature above and below land has been reduced by tourism-driven greed.

Nevertheless! Good times were had. I got to ride a banana boat (not as much fun as it looks) and a water scooter (so much more fun than it looks); and pleasantly spend my upper limit of half a day on the beach before I perish from boredom. We also went to the king of pointless tourist destination that is Nanshan Cultural Park, but ‘ey, at least we’ve seen that (again).

After four days in Sanya, we went on to a beautiful rainforest resort in Baoting, where we indulged in hot springs, massages, and hiking up the Seven Fairy Mountain through the very humid rainforest, leaving us with crippled calves for the next 5 days. Truly one of the highlights of the trip.

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Orienting ourselves in the Orient – part III of V: Haikou

Part I of V: Qionghai & Boao; Part II of V: Dìng’ān; Part IV of V: Sanya & BaotingPart V of V: Shanghai

Haikou is the capital and largest city of Hainan, and although it’s interesting to visit for a couple of days, I’ll have to admit it’s not as exciting as, well, any of the other places we stopped by on our trip. We spent a couple of days there doing some shopping, visiting old town markets, finding an outdoors gym in the lovely Evergreen Park where I got madly enthusiastic over some pullups and deadlifts, buying a Totoro (my other half and I turn into little kids whenever anything related to Studio Ghibli – and especially Totoro – is in the vicinity), winning a massive panda from balloon shooting (you can see how upset my sister is by my gleeful embrace of the stuffed animal) (I shan’t disclose the name we’ve given him from sheer embarrassment over our childishness) (I like to call it retainment of youth) (cue ‘foreeever young!’), and otherwise just eating lots of excellent food. Hainanese Chicken and Wenchang Chicken are local delicacies and absolute must-trys if you ever visit the region – and I’m saying this as a dedicated duck fan.

Three days before we arrived at the island, Hainan was struck by the super typhoon Rammasun, the most powerful storm to hit Hainan since 1973. Damages were huge, with 14 deaths in China and many more elsewhere as well as lots of injuries. We walked around seeing the effects of it: absolutely enormous trees uprooted everywhere – along high streets, in the parks, etc. -, and especially on our way in to Qionghai from Haikou, our view from the train window looked as if someone had taken a massive broom and brushed over what was previously healthy, green landscape and reduced it to horizontally growing trees and endless boulevards of broken trunks. Impressively, by the time we arrived, the capital looked like it had gotten back on its feet more or less, with business as usual. It’s a resilient little (big) island, that’s for sure.

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Orienting ourselves in the Orient – part II of V: Dìng’ān

Part I of V: Qionghai & Boao; Part III of V: Haikou; Part IV of V: Sanya & BaotingPart V of V: Shanghai

After 5 days in my father’s bit of the island, we travelled onwards to a tiny village outside of Dìng’ān, where my mother’s side of the family comes from. We stayed at my grandparents and uncle’s house; as did my aunt, uncle and cousin visiting from Shanghai. Very pleasant and leisurely days in the humidity and 38 degrees were spent eating, reading, and playing with my cousins. Both of my parents are the oldest of their siblings so all my cousins are much younger than me.

We visited two of my aunts’ houses (one of whom delivered my newest baby cousin the week after our visit), as well as my mother’s family’s country house where my great-grandmother still lives and tends the animals. My great-grandmother is 95 years old – the brightest and fittest 95-year-old I’ve ever met – having lived through the post-imperialist turmoil that was the Republic of China, losing her politically active husband during the Japanese Occupation, and the turbulent development that led to today’s PRC. She’s incredibly close to my grandfather, who breeds the best geese I’ve ever tasted in my life and who’s the centre of amusement and hilarity after the bowl of rice wine that accompanies his every meal.

My mother grew up in that country house (where I also lived for some time as a toddler) – it’s wonderfully serene and quiet, and surrounded by amazing food, such as – besides the free-ranging animals roaming around – lots of coconut which we picked down from their trees. Other activities included celebrating my cousin’s second birthday, my sister’s nineteenth birthday, and playing an incredibly sweaty but very fun session of ping pong.

Also, my aunt caught a snake outside her house, so we put it in a bag and ate it for dinner that day.

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Orienting ourselves in the Orient – part I of V: Qionghai & Boao

Part II of V: Dìng’ān; Part III of V: Haikou; Part IV of V: Sanya & BaotingPart V of V: Shanghai

Having just come back from nearly a month in China this week, I’ve given myself a serious case of RSI from wading through the 20GB of pictures and videos from my beloved Nikon (which by the way celebrates 5 faithful years by my traveling side this year). From our busy travels around Hainan Island and Shanghai, we’ve had some incredible experiences, and I’m positive I could write a book about everything we’ve seen and heard and tasted from my notes in my journal. However, I’m exhausted, I’ve DOMS from returning to weights after a month off lifting (bar serendipitous discovery of heavy items in Haikou, the documentation of which you’ll see in a later post), and I’m one of those people who think travel entries are best done with pictures rather than lots of words. And so these posts will mostly be picture dumps.

We began our visit with my dad’s side of the family, which comes from the Qionghai and Boao area of Hainan Island. I spent the greatest part of my year in China at my grandparents’ house in Qionghai; and although I obviously can’t remember much as I was 2 years old, I can nevertheless tell that the city has grown immensely in the 22 years since then. Pristine, green, and vibrant, Qionghai and Boao are packed full of colours, fresh food, friendly people and clean air. The beach was walked, the best food of the entire trip was consumed at a spartan seafood restaurant by the water, our ancestors were paid respects to, my uncle’s chicken farm was visited, as was my grand-aunt (one of the few people who still calls me by my original Chinese name) who did the money gift-giving ritual with both me and my other half despite us being in our 20s.

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We went to Sardegna to…

See some of the most amazingly untouched beaches with the most beautifully clear-blue water with 25-30 degrees of sun and barely any people around.

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Eat proper, Sardinian food: horse steak! Roasted suckling pig! Seafood just caught from 10 metres down the road! Gluten-free food at a restaurant that only serves gluten-free food, because Italy is absolutely fantastic when it comes to gluten intolerance awareness unlike the obesity-ridden disgrace that is Britain!

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Drink proper, Sardinian wine and coffee.

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Visit the absolutely stunning seaside town of Villasimius.

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Explore this wonderfully quaint, historic little gem of an island by foot and bus and bicycle (but unfortunately no boss-sized retro Fiat).

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Arrivederci e grazie per tutto il pesce!