Highs and lows in Japan

Tokyo did not give the Johnsons a warm welcome. George got kicked on the metro and our hotel refused to let us check in until we’d paid for an extra room. The hotel had us over a barrel, it was the beginning of the Golden Week period when the majority of Japan is on vacation and accommodation in Tokyo was rarer than a bleu steak. When you get a bad first impression of somewhere it can be hard to move on. I spent our first couple of days in the capital in a foul mood feeling like the whole place was against us. And I didn’t even see Bill Murray.

Our accommodation woes followed us to Kyoto. Where we were informed that children weren’t allowed in the room we had booked and we would have to pay more for a different room. We sucked it up. Clearly this was how they rolled in Japan. The guest house, owned by an ancient matriarch, was run down and infused with the delicate aroma of cat piss. It was interesting to stay in a traditional japanese house but with the warning from granny to keep the children quiet I didn’t warm to its paper-thin walls.

Happily our digs with their lumpy futons were the lowest point of our stay in Kyoto. The neighbourhood was great. Although a way out of town we were right next to a massive temple complex, with exquisite gardens, a playground nearby and wonderful local restaurants. We made the most of our Japan Rail passes, enjoying day trips to enchanting Arashiyama and to visit the tame deer in Nara.

And so it was we went from the ridiculous to the sublime. A yurt, on a smallholding, in the Japan Alps. Our own space where the kids could run around and make as much noise as they liked. Yuu and Megumi run a book shop/cafe/gallery space as well as guest house accommodation. There are a couple of fabulous installations in their grounds including a giant organ and camera obscura.

Our days were filled with happiness: hunting tiny frogs, hiking in the Alps and soaking in the local Onsen (public bath). Our evenings were spent feasting on Megumi’s wonderful food, sipping sake and conversing with their artist friends. On our last night we were treated to a mini-gig from Yuu’s band. The hills were alive with the sound of Beatles covers.

We were dreading leaving our haven in the hills and we bickered our way through the bus journey back to Tokyo. We’d had no luck finding somewhere to stay but Yuu and Megumi came to our rescue, securing a place to stay with a family friend in the suburbs.

That’s how we found ourselves at Maki and Yossy’s house where we were embraced as part of the family. They live in a lovely old house in an inspiring community and run ’Alumonde’ a workshop space where people can use tools to fix their stuff or swap unwanted items for things they need. They live near a city farm where we gatecrashed a bbq and got to make gelatinous rice cakes. We hiked a nearby mountain, enjoyed a full moon dinner party, ate Wagyu beef and experienced the intensity of a Japanese festival.

We didn’t  see a Geisha, Sumo wrestler or Mount Fuji but Nick did manage to soak himself pressing the wrong button on a high-tech toilet. The trains are super fast and the food is sublime. However it was away from the stereotypes that we saw Japan at its best. We got to experience a side of Japan that many visitors to the country would not see. I certainly would not have missed our haven in the hills or the sense of community we had for all the sushi in Japan.

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Friends, fresh air and food in South Korea

Our time in South Korea could be summed up with three Fs: Friends, fresh air and food. Or, come to think of it, three Ms: mates, mountains and meals. Or maybe three C’s; chums, countryside and cuisine… Ahem. You get the idea.

The spring sunshine and blossom in Seoul was a delightful backdrop to our explorations of this vibrant city. We enjoyed the changing the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung palace.

Wandering along Cheong-gye-cheon, a stream that runs through the centre of the city. Riding the cable car up to Namsan Peak for love locks and city views. Visiting Insa-dong’s quirky shopping district. Seeing the beautiful blossom at Yeoido spring flower festival. And dancing on Gangnam Street’s  eponymous stage. For the children there were numerous museums and parks. But the real highlight was catching up with friends that we’d made whilst trekking in Nepal. Yuni and Jo were wonderful local guides and it was great to have their insight into Korean culture.

From Seoul we spent two nights in Busan but the wind and heavy rain meant it was hard to explore. We ended up succumbing to pester power and shelled out to visit the Busan Sealife centre. The boys enjoyed it but I cant help but think they got just as much enjoyment looking at the tanks of fish, eels and octopi in the seafood market.

Jeju Island was the destination for the second part of our trip. We arrived at our accommodation in Seogwipo by chance with the aid of a helpful coffeeshop manager. We had snuck in to use the wi-fi and having struck up a conversation he phoned his friend who worked in a hostel round the corner. Kenny the owner of Slow Citi hostel did us a great deal and we got a free night on the understanding that our boys would play with his son. Now thats a win:win. The sign on the reception wall reading ‘Don’t be inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise’ was rather apt.

Jeju is a volcanic island to the South of the mainland. It is a big holiday destination for the Koreans. This is probably why there is a museum/theme park for everything. From sex to dinosaurs; teddy bears to chocolate. Happily we managed to avoid these and spent our time enjoying the fresh air whilst exploring Jeju’s stunning coastline. It was sunny but the sea was pretty chilly, that didn’t deter the boys from taking a dip at Jungmung & Hyeopjae’s beautiful beaches.

The football fans amongst you may recognise Jeju as one of the venues from the 2002 World Cup. Many of the islanders we met claimed to have met David Beckham et al and would let us know at the earliest opportunity in our conversation.

We used Jeju’s extensive bus service to get around and at a bus stop one day we met some Neuro surgeons who were on Jeju for a conference. They couldn’t figure out which bus to get and ended up hailing a taxi. It was a little complicated but certainly not brain surgery.

We spent a day climbing Mount Hallasan. The route up was not particularly scenic but the views across the island from the top made it worth it. Hiking is somewhat of a national past time in Korea. There are an abundance of outdoor clothing stores and people get kitted up in technical clothing for the shortest stroll. Even in Seoul we saw older people on the metro decked out in vibrant rain coats (we dubbed them the ‘Goretex grannies’). We must have looked woefully underprepared. As we learnt in Nepal, Koreans take a good supply of treats with them on a hike and the boys were kept happy by a steady stream of sweets and chocolate.

I couldn’t write about our time in Jeju without mentioning the incredible Haenyeo. These female free divers collect sea products by diving to depths of up to 20m. It is somewhat of a dying art as young women no longer want to take up the profession. Many of the remaining Haenyeo are in their sixties still diving to collect sea slug, sea weed and other such delicacies.

Which brings me round to the last F; food. Korean food is delicious and with the help of Yuni and Jo we managed to navigate some dishes that we may not have known about (or dared try) otherwise. Culinary highlights include: Naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles in cold broth), Hotteok (pancakey thing with a sweet gooey middle), Pakeon (green onion pancake) Bindaettok (mungbean pancake), Jokbal (pig trotters), Modeumhoe (mixed raw fish/seafood platter – I’ll pass on the sea slug next time) and of course the famous Korean barbecue.

It had not been high on my list of countries to visit on our round the world trip. In fact I didn’t know much about South Korean apart from kimchi, Gangnam Style and the troublesome neighbours in the North. But I soon fell in love with the warm people, beautiful scenery and delicious cuisine. The one downside was that we only spent two weeks there. Annyeoghi gyeseyo Korea. I hope we meet again.