How I had five amazing days in Istanbul

After a few tries, I finally ended up visiting Istanbul! A few misadventures prior to that and unforeseen changes of plans that lead to cancel the trip once, this time I flew alone and I ended up having a memorable time in this ancient city! So memorable that I decided to split this article by days.

First Day

Going to the airport…, hop into the bus early at 6 in the morning, and queueing to check-in…, again… Once at the check-in desk, the lady asks how to pronounce my surname – Sousa – which made me laugh immediately, and I say it out loud “It is Sousa, not Susa“. The lady from the next desk starts laughing uncontrollably once I say that. In greek, lowercase “Y” is represented by a symbol that resembles “u”, and the combination OY is equivalent to the sound U, “Susa” in greek means popping a wheelie.

Not long until reaching Istanbul from Athens, and right on international soil I tried to pass the boarder, which I learnt that I need to pay visa…, I assumed that all EU citizens could get in freely, considering I knew greeks and even french people friends of mine who just visited Istanbul without any visa, but back then I had to pay 15€. No questions ask, I just paid and that was it. Once I passed the passport control, I did my first money withdraw in that new currency, and I headed towards the city center by metro. I had to wander around for a while since my couchsurfing host couldn’t meet with me until only after lunch.

The tram trip was something, I never imagined I would meet so many nice people, actually, I think I never did! One old man, who couldn’t even speak a word in english, started a chat with me (I speak absolutely no Turkish). He was trying to figure out where I am from and trying to help me with my stop. The guy sitting next to me saw my face of desperation, and he helped with the translations, plus a few other tips. First hours in that amazing city, and that was the reception I got! I couldn’t be better impressed!

I got out in Sultan Ahmen, I went for a walk to visit the mosque and the nearby area… I had to pay to drop evidences…, and there were people everywhere trying to sell me water. It seems every country have those annoying sellers with a particular characteristic. In Portugal we have the quéfrô (I won’t even explain this), in Greece the vérynaíce and apparently in Istanbul they have the su (which means water in Turkish). The area is really pleasant and totally different from what I was expecting, and for better! The park was what surprised me the most, I was not expecting to find Istanbul as such a green city, mostly right after coming from 6 months living in Athens…

After a few hours wandering in the European side, it was time to cross the canal and set foot for the first time in Asia! As a matter of a fact, the first time I left Europe! Does this even count? That’s when I met my host and the couch where I would stay for the following days, and then a shower before scratching one of my Istambul ToDo Items! Play backgammon and smoke narghile with a Turkish person! A friend of his also joined us for the very pleasant afternoon. Unsurprisingly, I won the first match! Though, I am pretty sure he did let me win…

While we were playing and smoking, a street food seller came by with oysters with rice. That’s just delicious! Street food is definitely the best thing ever! After that we went to Taksim for a walk, SO MANY PEOPLE!!! The area is really pleasant, filled with bars, restaurants and a few pubs. Loads of people outside, which reminded me of home, like a night of Santos Populares, the most known street party in Lisbon and in Portugal.

And to end such an amazing day, my host took to to a roof restaurant, if I am not mistaken, that’s even the name of the restaurant itself, where we dine with the view to the Golden Horn! What a view! Once back home we kept talking, I was absolutely wrecked but still really eager to keep talking like if he was a flat mate. Yes, like a flat mate, that’s how comfortable I felt with such a welcoming day in Istanbul!

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque

Second Day

There’s no better way to start a day than with a brunch! My host invited me for a brunch at one of his friends’ place, whom also treated me the same way like he did, like an old friend. Two hours eating, chatting and trying all those Turkish delicacies, the first time I had tea at breakfast, which I really did like and it is something to repeat.

Back to the ferry and back to Europe, or at least the European side of the city. It’s amazing how easy it is to cross from Europe to Asia and vice-versa 😛 We went to the Spices Bazaar, where I took several photos to all those stalls filled with spices, colors and smells of the Oriente. I fell in love with that place! Next to the Spices Bazaar there is a really nice park, maybe a bit also too European style, that totally fascinated me, mostly because of what they were selling there! Leeches!! And in that same park we ended up drinking another Turkish Coffee and play a bit more backgammon 🙂 I play like in slow motion for Turkish standards, but who cares? I am Portuguese, not Turkish 😀 And the rest of the day? Loads of “shots” of tea! Oddly it seems to refresh more than cold water…

How I had five amazing days in Istanbul
How I had five amazing days in Istanbul

We went back to the avenue that starts in Taksim and goes to the Tower, though this time during the day, and again, filled with people! It seems that that Avenue never sleeps! And the fact that cars are not allowed, it makes it even scarier by the quantity of people who passes there. I am not much into crowded places, but I have to admit I did like that atmosphere. We had a late lunch (or early dinner) in one of the restaurants by the University, or is it a school? I am not much into meat, but that was exactly what I ended up eating, when I travel I always make an effort to try the local flavors…, it was nice, but I still prefer other things 🙂

After dinner we went back “home” again, and while my host went to practice some sports I stayed with his friends at the place were we had the brunch, probably more than one hour always chatting with them. And to end the day in a great way again, we went to the park by the sea to drink beers and more chats! We talked about everything, I reckon we stayed there for over two hours, and to finalize it, we went for an ice cream to a place nearby. Probably one of the best ice creams I have ever had! The ice scoops dropped into hot chocolate, which solidified instantly. Simply perfect!

Third Day

Visit to the Historical Peninsula, again…, but way more paced! I went back to the park I been to on the first day, but instead of just crossing it, I explored it a bit further and I noticed how “prepared” the local culture is…, Istanbul is an amazing mix of religions and cultures, no one cares about what the other is wearing, burkas or tops, everyone minds their own business. At the park you can find really cute and romantic corners, perfect for couples to date with a bit more privacy (but not too much). It is really a cosy park.

I went back to the Blue Mosque, and this time I actually got in. I had to take my shoes off and what I saw inside totally amazed me. Nothing alike what the catholic religion got me used to, inside kids were playing, people were taking photos and talking freely, though there is still a segregation for praying. Women and men are apart, and there silence is requested. A sacred place  where you don’t feel tied to religion, but where the same religion also constraints you. A bit like an oxymoron, no?

I get out of the Blue Mosque straight to the Historical Bazaar, right next to the Mosque. There I bought some tobacco for my narghile, orange flavor! Let’s see if it is any good…, the odd moment of the day was the fact that more than one guy offered to clean my shoes… for free! I bet they looked really dirty…

Since I was still in the Historical Peninsula, why not trying to get lost? I opened my map, I saw some kind of a draw, and I headed towards that place without looking at the map again! I passed by a graveyard where supposedly is buried some sultan, which I didn’t find, and then I kept walking towards that draw I saw until I stumble with the Grand Bazaar! Another amazing Bazaar! Though this one seems to be very tourist-oriented, but still amazing. I walked, walked and I kept walking, though I didn’t buy anything… I am not a tourist, I am a visitor 🙂 And from the Grand Bazaar I went back to the Spices Bazaar. I have no idea how I got there…

Since I was enjoying my time, I thought I could do something cool to please my host as a way to thank him for the amazing experience. I remembered that the day before he wanted to buy a watermelon for me, so i did it for me 🙂 Though, when he got home he said “Gil, I have some fruits for dinner“, to which I replied with a bit smile and a “Me too…, check in the kitchen…“, he went back to the living room really pleased by that! Something so simple, though very personal. And that’s why I love couchsurfing, you don’t need to buy something expensive, instead something personal works way better.

But the day wasn’t over…, we crossed the canal again towards Europe! And again on our way to Taksim, we stopped at a tiny food stand, so small that only had a table and three chairs! We ate what they described as “meatball without meat“, something REALLY spicy, but REALLY GOOD!!! Thank you Ozan for this! And as a beverage I drunk a juice of…, peppers our something alike…, interesting, but not that good… We had to wash down our throats with some beers afterwards 😀 Another rooftop bar (I really love rooftop bars…), with another amazing view! And to end the third night in a great way…, we went to a bar with gipsy music, great atmosphere! That was also the greek night, where something interesting and funny happened to me, one of their friends joined us and said “Geia sou fili” (hello friend, in greek), though my brain was already ready to not understand anything that I didn’t even considered that it could be greek, so I looked back at my hosts awaiting for a translation… which I shouldn’t need… And it was time to go back “home”…

Fourth Day

Something I forgot to mention about the third day, I wrote on Istanbul CS group if anyone wanted to join me to the islands next to Istanbul, and only a 46 years old woman replied. Though I changed my mind regarding that, only 5 days in Istanbul, why leaving the city to visit more islands? She still joined me for the day…

I went (again) to Taksim, and I waited for her about 45 minutes (gotta love punctuality), until she finally showed up. Since my plans were only to enjoy the city, we decided to cross the whole avenue and go to the Tower, in a very paced way. Then we would decide where to go. On the way we stopped for tea and for a chat, and after the tower another stop for a freshly squeezed juice (where she starts complaining that it was too expensive…).

We then went down to Karaköy, and while she went to an internet café, I tried to find a map for her in some tourist office. When we met again at the internet café, she was again complaining about the prices. Though this time I started to be annoyed, she KNEW beforehand what the price was, why did she complain again? To ease the moment I suggested to go to a bazaar of cafés (where I smoked narghile on my first day) to drink some tea or a Turkish coffee…, and again, she complains again about the prices. I was really starting to be fed up of her by then… From there we went to the Palace where Ataturk died, unfortunately we arrived right after closure time. We decided to stay in the area for another tea (I think my kidneys never worked that well before…), and again…… she complained! This time she had some reason, all waiters couldn’t speak english, and the café was next to the palace, a very touristy area. Though, if they don’t speak english…, why would one complain to THEM in ENGLISH???

I walked her to Takim where she would meet with her host, we drunk a beer and I went back to my host’s place! My host was tired, and I was tired of the company I had for the day, so we decided to stay at home!

A view over the canal
A view over the canal

Fifth Day

Last day in Istanbul…, and that was the day I realized I actually like to suffer…, I met again with the woman from the day before! At the Historical Peninsula! I went to Hagia Sophia from inside, a bit expensive (10€), but still quite interesting, and the local history is just amazing which fueled a bit more the pet-hate I have for the catholic church! Besides the way the destroyed the Parthenon in Athens, with Hagia Sophia the other religions proved to be way more respectful towards art from other people and religions.

Hagia Sophia was originally a Cristian Cathedral, you can find loads of references and art related to Our Lady, Christ and other Cristian symbols inside the church, however the muslims conquered the church (I am not sure about this part), and instead of destroying the symbols that are not related to their believes, like the Catholic Church did with the Parthenon, they kept it all! Is there a better way to show respect than this? Everything related to the catholic church that is more damaged is mostly due lack of preservation instead of destruction. It is amazing to be inside a catedral that resembles more like  a Mosque but that it has symbols from both religions! Amazing!

Then we went to the Castle, I was not much in the mood to get in at the time…, I was a bit hungry and I was not particularly curious to get it. She wasn’t either, so we decided to go for lunch. After lunch we visited the Basilica Cistern, A M A Z I N G!!!! Half the price of Hagia Sophia, though the surprising factor was twice as much! Something REALLY amazing! I highly recommend a visit, I can’t even describe it besides the obvious, an underground basilica! Flooded with water and FISH! Something really amazing!

After the Basilica Cistern, we went (again) to the park, where she started complaining again…, though this time I understood where all that rage was coming from. Her Turkish ex-boyfriend knew she would be there, and didn’t say anything to her. Apparently I was the perfect target as a punch bag…, it seems like my karma… We ended with an ice cream at the hill with a view to the Canal, and after that I went to Kadiköy to meet with my host and get ready for the night.

We had a light dinner, we bought some beer, and we went to the park by the sea. My third wish in Istanbul! CS Meeting! Amazing night, where I found out that my accent sounds absolutely like Russian, or at least when I get a bit more tipsy… unfortunately that night also meant that my visit was close to an end….

Back home, I said my goodbyes, and a few hours to nap before the very early wake up. I crossed the canal to the European side (my last crossing), and last moments to enjoy of both sides of Istanbul. Got the tram, passing through Sultanahmet, another last look at the Mosques that welcome all the visitors when they arrive. Arrived at the airport, where I met more Portuguese people, though they were unable to have a chat, besides asking how is the weather in Athens. I just politely dumped them and I tried to focus on how amazing those days were! What a trip!

Istanbul left a big mark in me! Amazing city!

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UNESCO in the Closet

UNESCO in the Closet

We, travel bloggers, often write about our amazing experiences, how lucky we were handling some situations, how knowledgeable we are when looking for the best ways to get from A to B or how to find the best accomodation. Only great experiences… But lately I’ve noticed a few articles pointing in another direction, after all, traveling isn’t only a peaceful sea, sometimes we also have to deal with heavy storms and we have to find the way to keep sailing and get to a safe port.

Another thing I notice a lot, is solo female travelers asking for safety tips, which countries are safer for women to travel solo (or even a group of women). Safety, safety, safety. Who doesn’t want some peace of mind while traveling? After all, that’s why so many people travel, to have some peace of mind.

But what if…, you’re illegal?

I mean, not that you did something wrong. Not that you’re being hunted by INTERPOL. I’m not even talking about crossing borders illegally.

What if…, you are just illegal.

What if…, the person you are is breaking the laws of some country you want to visit?

How can one feel safe, when he/she is that way? Born this way?

There are so many places in the world I want to visit, and life is so short. Of course one can’t see everything. But why would I have to scratch from my Bucket List so many places, just because I could face imprisonment, of even worse, death penalty, for loving someone? For solo travelers this should be fine, not that we would be advertising to the world our sexual orientation, that doesn’t even make any sense. But…

What about couples?

Imagine that you can’t be with your loving partner when on holidays? That doesn’t sound right, right? So basically, a gay/LGBT person has two options:

  • Don’t go there.
  • Go back to the closet while in there.

This doesn’t sound right either to me…, but this is the world where we are living in…

I combined two lists together to see how much one can miss in the world, just for not being legal. The UNESCO World Heritage List, and the list of countries where homosexuality is illegal. These two lists together made me realize which wonders are theoretically unreachable for so many people.

Egypt

Wow…, where should I start? So many amazing places there! But certainly, the only remaining ancient World Wonder is known to everyone, if you don’t, you shouldn’t even be in this blog! The Pyramid Fields, from Giza to Dahshur, a UNESCO World Heritage.

Giza Egypt
Giza Egypt ©Sue Kellerman

India

Another World Wonder, now one of the new ones, who never heard of Taj Mahal? And India is just the country that has more UNESCO Heritage! I was so surprised when I saw the list, such a place full of history and heritage, for sure in so many people’s Bucket List…

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal ©Ville Miettinen

Morocco

Another country full of heritage, and a lot of amazing places to visit, and not only UNESCO sites. One can experience so much in Morocco, the Medinas, the desert, the amazing beaches, contact with the nomadic tribes. And so much more!

Place Moulay Hassan
Place Moulay Hassan ©Ángel Hernansáez

Singapore

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to see this country in that list. I’m highlighting it here because I bet most of you would think that Singapore wouldn’t have such discriminative laws. Regarding this list, even though it is a small country, it has its Botanical Gardens listed as UNESCO World Heritage.

ONE
ONE ©Sheu Hau Chow

I could highlight so many other countries, so many amazing places that make it hard for some people to visit just because they were born illegal79 or 81 countries where being gay is illegal. 26 of those that don’t have any UNESCO World Heritage site listed, but I bet they have so many amazing things to see, and so many amazing locals to meet. Covering a total of 226 listed UNESCO Heritage.

The list below is only regarding countries that have UNESCO Heritage and also have anti-gay laws. Numbers not always put things into perspective, maybe listing wonders will?

Afghanistan

  • Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam
  • Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley

Algeria

  • Al Qal’a of Beni Hammad
  • Djémila
  • M’Zab Valley
  • Tassili n’Ajjer
  • Timgad
  • Tipasa
  • Kasbah of Algiers

Bangladesh

  • Historic Mosque City of Bagerhat
  • Ruins of the Buddhist Vihara at Paharpur
  • The Sundarbans

Barbados

  • Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison

Belize

  • Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System

Botswana

  • Tsodilo
  • Okavango Delta

Cameroon

  • Dja Faunal Reserve
  • Sangha Trinational

Dominica (See)

  • Morne Trois Pitons National Park

Egypt

  • Abu Mena
  • Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis
  • Historic Cairo
  • Memphis and its Necropolis – the Pyramid Fields from Giza to Dahshur
  • Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae
  • Saint Catherine Area
  • Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley)

Ethiopia

  • Simien National Park
  • Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela
  • Fasil Ghebbi, Gondar Region
  • Aksum
  • Lower Valley of the Awash
  • Lower Valley of the Omo
  • Tiya
  • Harar Jugol, the Fortified Historic Town
  • Konso Cultural Landscape

Gambia

  • Kunta Kinteh Island and Related Sites
  • Stone Circles of Senegambia

Ghana

  • Forts and Castles, Volta, Greater Accra, Central and Western Regions
  • Asante Traditional Buildings

Guinea

  • Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve

India

  • Agra Fort
  • Ajanta Caves
  • Ellora Caves
  • Taj Mahal
  • Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram
  • Sun Temple, Konârak
  • Kaziranga National Park
  • Keoladeo National Park
  • Manas Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Churches and Convents of Goa
  • Fatehpur Sikri
  • Group of Monuments at Hampi
  • Khajuraho Group of Monuments
  • Elephanta Caves
  • Great Living Chola Temples 12
  • Group of Monuments at Pattadakal
  • Sundarbans National Park
  • Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks
  • Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi
  • Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi
  • Qutb Minar and its Monuments, Delhi
  • Mountain Railways of India
  • Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya
  • Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka
  • Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park
  • Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus)
  • Red Fort Complex
  • The Jantar Mantar, Jaipur
  • Western Ghats
  • Hill Forts of Rajasthan
  • Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area
  • Rani-ki-Vav (the Queen’s Stepwell) at Patan, Gujarat

Indonesia (Aceh Province and South Sumatra)

  • Borobudur Temple Compounds
  • Komodo National Park
  • Prambanan Temple Compounds
  • Ujung Kulon National Park
  • Sangiran Early Man Site
  • Lorentz National Park
  • Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra
  • Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philosophy

Iran

  • Meidan Emam, Esfahan
  • Persepolis
  • Tchogha Zanbil
  • Takht-e Soleyman
  • Bam and its Cultural Landscape
  • Pasargadae
  • Soltaniyeh
  • Bisotun
  • Armenian Monastic Ensembles of Iran
  • Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System
  • Sheikh Safi al-din Khānegāh and Shrine Ensemble in Ardabil
  • Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex
  • The Persian Garden
  • Gonbad-e Qābus
  • Masjed-e Jāmé of Isfahan
  • Golestan Palace
  • Shahr-i Sokhta
  • Cultural Landscape of Maymand
  • Susa

Iraq

  • Hatra
  • Ashur (Qal’at Sherqat)
  • Samarra Archaeological City
  • Erbil Citadel

Jamaica

  • Blue and John Crow Mountains

Kenya

  • Lake Turkana National Parks
  • Mount Kenya National Park/Natural Forest
  • Lamu Old Town
  • Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests
  • Fort Jesus, Mombasa
  • Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley

Lebanon (See)

  • Anjar
  • Baalbek
  • Byblos
  • Tyre
  • Ouadi Qadisha (the Holy Valley) and the Forest of the Cedars of God (Horsh Arz el-Rab)

Libya

  • Archaeological Site of Cyrene
  • Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna
  • Archaeological Site of Sabratha
  • Rock-Art Sites of Tadrart Acacus
  • Old Town of Ghadamès

Malaysia

  • Gunung Mulu National Park
  • Kinabalu Park
  • Melaka and George Town, Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca
  • Archaeological Heritage of the Lenggong Valley

Mauritania

  • Banc d’Arguin National Park
  • Ancient Ksour of Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt and Oualata

Mauritius

  • Aapravasi Ghat
  • Le Morne Cultural Landscape

Morocco

  • Medina of Fez
  • Medina of Marrakesh
  • Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou
  • Historic City of Meknes
  • Archaeological Site of Volubilis
  • Medina of Tétouan (formerly known as Titawin)
  • Medina of Essaouira (formerly Mogador)
  • Portuguese City of Mazagan (El Jadida)
  • Rabat, Modern Capital and Historic City: a Shared Heritage

Myanmar

  • Pyu Ancient Cities

Namibia

  • Twyfelfontein or /Ui-//aes
  • Namib Sand Sea

Nigeria

  • Sukur Cultural Landscape
  • Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove

Oman

  • Bahla Fort
  • Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn
  • Land of Frankincense
  • Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman

Pakistan

  • Archaeological Ruins at Moenjodaro
  • Buddhist Ruins of Takht-i-Bahi and Neighbouring City Remains at Sahr-i-Bahlol
  • Taxila
  • Fort and Shalamar Gardens in Lahore
  • Historical Monuments at Makli, Thatta
  • Rohtas Fort

Palestine/Gaza Strip

  • Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem
  • Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir

Papua New Guinea

  • Kuk Early Agricultural Site

Qatar

  • Al Zubarah Archaeological Site

Saudi Arabia

  • Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih)
  • At-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah
  • Historic Jeddah, the Gate to Makkah
  • Rock Art in the Hail Region of Saudi Arabia

Senegal

  • Island of Gorée
  • Niokolo-Koba National Park
  • Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary
  • Island of Saint-Louis
  • Stone Circles of Senegambia
  • Saloum Delta
  • Bassari Country: Bassari, Fula and Bedik Cultural Landscapes

Seychelles (See)

  • Aldabra Atoll
  • Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve

Singapore

  • Singapore Botanical Gardens

Solomon Islands

  • East Rennell

Sri Lanka

  • Ancient City of Polonnaruwa
  • Ancient City of Sigiriya
  • Sacred City of Anuradhapura
  • Old Town of Galle and its Fortifications
  • Sacred City of Kandy
  • Sinharaja Forest Reserve
  • Golden Temple of Dambulla
  • Central Highlands of Sri Lanka

St Kitts & Nevis

  • Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park

St Lucia

  • Pitons Management Area

Sudan

  • Gebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region
  • Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe

Syria

  • Ancient City of Damascus
  • Ancient City of Bosra
  • Site of Palmyra
  • Ancient City of Aleppo
  • Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din
  • Ancient Villages of Northern Syria

Tanzania

  • Ngorongoro Conservation Area
  • Ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Ruins of Songo Mnara
  • Serengeti National Park
  • Selous Game Reserve
  • Kilimanjaro National Park
  • Stone Town of Zanzibar
  • Kondoa Rock-Art Sites

Togo

  • Koutammakou, the Land of the Batammariba

Tunisia

  • Amphitheatre of El Jem
  • Archaeological Site of Carthage
  • Medina of Tunis
  • Ichkeul National Park
  • Punic Town of Kerkuane and its Necropolis
  • Kairouan
  • Medina of Sousse
  • Dougga / Thugga

Turkmenistan

  • State Historical and Cultural Park “Ancient Merv”
  • Kunya-Urgench
  • Parthian Fortresses of Nisa

Uganda

  • Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
  • Rwenzori Mountains National Park
  • Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi

United Arab Emirates

  • Cultural Sites of Al Ain (Hafit, Hili, Bidaa Bint Saud and Oases Areas)

Uzbekistan

  • Itchan Kala
  • Historic Centre of Bukhara
  • Historic Centre of Shakhrisyabz
  • Samarkand – Crossroad of Cultures

Yemen

  • Old Walled City of Shibam
  • Old City of Sana’a
  • Historic Town of Zabid
  • Socotra Archipelago

Zambia

  • Mosi-oa-Tunya / Victoria Falls

Zimbabwe

  • Mana Pools National Park, Sapi and Chewore Safari Areas
  • Great Zimbabwe National Monument
  • Khami Ruins National Monument
  • Mosi-oa-Tunya / Victoria Falls
  • Matobo Hills
Sources:

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Last Day in Tokyo and Back to Europe

Last Day in Tokyo and Back to Europe

Nothing much to say about my last day in Tokyo, just that hangover can be a big mess! I had some plans for the day, and it isn’t pleasant to wake up with no will to do whatsoever when you are 9 hours timezone-away. But well, party is also part of the fun and vacations, nothing to regret!

By the end of the day I went back to Akahabara to the camera shop, though my goal wasn’t that huge shop but the one next to it… a 7 floor sex shop! What an experience!! Yep, sounds strange, but an experience worth to live! A few curious people like me, a few people actually there to buy toys, and… a few creeps too! Well…, nothing too surprising about that place, expect some of the toys that I really don’t even want to imagine how people use them!

And with this, my day was pretty much over! I went back to pack and prepare for the long day I would have ahead, about 23 hours traveling!

Going back to Europe!

The hellish next day started at 4am! I was so afraid I couldn’t wake up, that I set a few alarms, though I woke up with the first one! Got ready, and walked to the train station on an empty street! Strange to leave a place and knowing that your vacations are over…

Getting at the train station I get an email from KLM informing that there are disrupts at AMS airport due heavy wind! This can’t be good… But before I need to get to Osaka, let’s not over think this yet!

Getting to Haneda Airport it is pretty easy, transportation in Tokyo look a bit scary, but if you know where you wanna go, you easily get there. At the airport, I got to find out that the flight to Osaka wasn’t a connection flight, so basically I had to check-out and check-in again. The luggage would still be a hassle, which I thought I wouldn’t have to care about it until Cork. Nipon Airlines doesn’t work directly with KLM, this is the reason.

Kansai International (Osaka), picking up my luggage was really fast, maybe because it was a national flight. But then, having to check it in again…, the guys at the check-in desk warned me that the tripod could be an issue, it was too big, but I managed to convince them to pass with it, after all I didn’t have any problem anywhere else with that same tripod. Though, just in case they would hold my luggage for a while.

As they predicted, I had issues with the tripod… The securities didn’t let me pass, and apparently it was just a matter of two or three centimeters! This was really odd for me, I really never had problems with my tripod  before! But this wasn’t as simple as it sounds here, during those two weeks I spent in Japan I experienced that very few people have good knowledge of English, which is totally fine for me, I am the foreigner I should adapt to them not the other way around. Though, as a tourist I expect some places to have someone who can understand me and communicate with me, one of those places is definitely an international airport. That was not the case in KIX airport. I knew exactly what the problem was and how to solve it, but instead they tried to check if I could pass with it, and the tripod passed from one person to the other, and another one and my time to catch the flight was getting shorter as probably my luggage was up to be finally sent to the cargo. I got really stressed, and unfortunately I ended up yelling at the security asking if they had anyone there that could actually speak english! Things got sorted out, I added my tripod to my luggage and I was ready to go to the departure gate!

KIX airport is quite cool, they even have a monorail between gates! Fast and efficient! I got to the gate, and I had to wait…, and wait…, and wait! At the check-in area I thought I was getting tight with time, at the departure gate I had to wait a long time! But I boarded at last! One of the first to get inside the plane, and I still got to sit at the wrong place! I wonder how I got confused between a 34 and 35… But at my new place I was luckier! 3 seats just for me!! Yeahhhh A lot of hours flying and I could lay down! Until…, a couple asked to sit there, because they were placed apart 🙁 Damn them! And double damn them because they were really nice during the whole trip, I couldn’t even feel angry at them!

Arriving in Amsterdam, last stop! I was up to meet with a friend of mine that lives there, but…, the bad weather blocked our meeting! All the trains were canceled, I couldn’t leave the airport, he couldn’t get there either! 5 hours there, alone, waiting for the next and last flight…, but soon all would be over! Got to Cork and went straight to bed! What a long day!


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Last Day in Tokyo and Back to Europe

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Another Day in Tokyo

Another Day in Tokyo

Lazy day, nothing much to tell unfortunately. After the late night awake, I let myself sleep a bit longer. I left the house and I went to Shinjuku area to buy a new action camera for me, a new toy bought in Japan 😀 I’ve been in Shinjuku before, on my first days in Japan, but I used my time alone to enjoy the area by myself as well. When I decided to buy the camera, I was already expecting a duty-free discount, though it was really good to know that I also got another discount because I paid with VISA card! A discount on the top of another discount! Jackpot of purchases! 😀

Nothing much more to do, I just went back to Elma’s place, and I got ready for the Halloween party that would happen later that night! What’s scarier than me wearing a costume? Me wearing a Bavarian german costume 😀 Ridiculous and funny! Loved it!

For dinner we went to a very cool restaurant, and one thing I noticed while I was there is that there are several restaurants that have private rooms for dinners, not the typical western restaurant where you dine around 30 or 40 people, instead you have a room for you and your friends, you are totally comfortable, silly or even a bit louder and no one will be upset! I loved the place! Also many other people preparing for Halloween, the guys on the room next to ours worn a match-outfit, all alike, on a mix of creepy and funny! About 10 Ronald McDonalds! If one is already creepy enough, imagine a group of them!!!

After the dinner we went out to party, what a night! We went back home with the sun already quite high! Needless to say, that the next day was totally wasted resting…, but party is part of the adventure 🙂


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Another Day in Tokyo

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Back to Tokyo

Back to Tokyo

I have a very good bio-rythm, mostly when I am tense or even stressed. It is normal to me waking up a few seconds before the alarm rings, and this time was no exception. I had a train to catch, back to Tokyo!

All the usual stuff, packing, check-out and going to the train station. Since it was raining a lot, I decided to go to Tenma Station. Not the best option, since I had to change twice, but considering that I could avoid a lot of rain through the shopping street, which is under a roof, it wasn’t a hard decision to make.

Osaka Train Station is a nightmare! Huge, crowded and when in stress I took a while to find the correct platform. That was the first change, still in Osaka, I had to do, my goal was Shin-Osaka Station. But being ready and on time, I got to the right place with some time in advance 🙂 I used my trip to write some drafts on my blog, and a bit of relaxing time. The weather was looking really bad outside, perfect day to travel and not feeling bad to be missing great spots outside 😀

After dropping my luggage at Elma’s, I went for some shopping and souvenirs, I spent the afternoon not sightseeing! One thing I realized while in Japan, as a tourist, is that it isn’t easy to find a “souvenir store“, I don’t know why, that was my perception while there! I went to three places that I consider as a nice start for souvenirs, Oriental Baazar, Kiddy Land shop and the Takeshita Street.

The Oriental Baazar was my favorite place, three floors of things to buy, from clay objects to kimonos and yukatas, a lot of traditional Japanese things and not expensive. I bought most of my souvenirs there, the quality there also seems to be quite good, I recommend the place!

About Kiddy Land shop, it is the perfect place to buy toys! Most of them you’ll get the feeling you can buy them everywhere, but that’s not entirely true, some things there I doubt you can find them anywhere outside Japan! I didn’t buy anything there because I didn’t get the japanese thing with the toys there, whoever would get that as a souvenir would not relate that to Japan.

About Takeshita Street, I’ve mentioned that on a post before, it is a narrow street packed with people and stores! A lot to explore over there 🙂 After that I just went back home, I bought my dinner on the way and then I met with my hosts 🙂 Chatting a lot, and going to sleep late, not feeling the jet lag anymore 🙂 Until… Earthquake!!! A small one, but for me was quite strong! Impressive how big brother watches everyone over there, a few seconds later and all tv channels had information about the Earthquake with life-view of the port where they were expecting a tsunami! Nothing happened, but it was an interesting experience! I’ve been in Japan and I felt an earthquake while there 😀


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Back to Tokyo

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Second day in Osaka

Second day in Osaka

That feeling that things are getting back to normal, when I wake up at 8am and I know that I finally beat jet lag!! I meant to use this day for the waterfalls, but at the hotel they were quite convincing to avoid any where near the mountains, and mostly if traveling alone… Ok, time to improvise! Osaka is a big city, not much of history left due the Second World War, but for sure they have interesting stuff to see.

Hello Penguin!

The day before the Australian guy recommended to visit the Aquarium, not much of what I would expect to visit when traveling to the other side or the world, but why not? I had a nice breakfast, and I went to the Aquarium that opens at 10am. I spent about 2  up to 3 hours inside, and during that time I took about 240 photos! Well, most of them are garbage, but I hope I can get a few good ones… The problem with these kind of places, is that they are also popular for primary schools to take kids there, and that can be a bit of a big spoiler… Though, also there I met a Scottish girl, I was quite proud that I recognized the accent the moment she spoke to me! After a few years in Ireland I already can get some accents even if they are not strong 😀

Yellow Jellyfish

I am not sure why, but after the Aquarium I got a huge headache, I ate something around and then I went back to the hotel. Since I was on vacations, I couldn’t let the headache destroy my day, like if the typhoon hadn’t done it yet, so I text the Australian guy I met the day before for some food and drinks later that day.  I arrived a while before, so I went to Tennouji area to walk around a bit, the area is quite nice but I didn’t have enough time to explore much, but enough time to get lost while trying to find the train station to Shin Imamiya! Another underground city in Tennouji!

Yellow Jellyfish

We met, and then we went to Namba, were we ate octopus balls! Delicious thing and really hot too! We passed through Doguyasuji Street, another food/shopping street! Maybe a street food paradise! He had an exam the next day, so we didn’t stay longer, we went to Shinsaibashi Area for a small walk, and then we went both our ways, bot not before grabbing another set of octopus balls to take away! One of the most delicious things I ate in Japan!

Shinsaibashi


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Second day in Osaka

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Exploring Osaka for the First Time

After finally getting to the hotel and dropping my luggage there, I decided to explore the underground city, Umeda Underground Area, a real city underground where you can find everything! It was raining, so I couldn’t have chosen better, I spent a lot of time walking around, trying unsuccessfully not to get lost and just looking around amazed by the gigantic mall without sunshine. While wandering around I tried to make a plan for the next day, the Akame 48 waterfalls was the initial plan, but because of the typhoon I had to think about other thing, most probably staying in Osaka…

Wet Osaka
Wet Osaka

 

The moment I got back to the streets I tried to figure out where I was, I wasn’t that far from the Umeda Sky Building and it was close to sunset, so I decided to give it a try. Osaka skyline, what does it look like? 🙂 The Umeda Sky Building has an amazing view, and a “Floating Garden Observatory“, a circular path where you can see all Osaka, 360º around! A pity that I was under rain again…, but it’s totally worth it! Those afraid of heights, be aware that the elevator might be a bit scary 🙂

According to the guide, Umeda Sky Building is where you can see one of Japan’s top 100 sunsets, so I ordered a cappuccino and pancakes while I was waiting for it. Pricy food, because of the view, but really low quality… the pancakes weren’t made from scratch, instead they warmed them up in a microwave, I don’t recommend it at all… And about the sunset, well…, rainy day, clouds spoiling the fun. It was nice, but not as nice as I was expecting. Still, the view’s totally worth it and they made it quite romantic with several sightseeing points for couples (2 people sofas next to strategic windows). After the sunset, I went back to the Observatory, at night the view is way more beautiful!

 

Then I went back to the hotel, to check-in, and for food I decided to go to the food market street that I passed through when I hop off from the train. A never-ending shopping street! I had sushi, I had an ice cream, I walked a lot, I relaxed a bit and that street never ended! Later, when I got back to the hotel, I found out that that “tiny street” it is just no less than the longest shopping street in Japan! 2600 meters long! Its name is Tenjinbashisuji Shopping Street, another place that is worth to visit, and have some dinner at 🙂

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Koyasan and way to Osaka

Koyasan and way to Osaka

My initial plan? Wake up really early and go and see the monks praying.

What have I done instead? I woke up really early (for my usual time), and I went to the onsen one last time!

I feel like I haven’t appreciate properly the pleasures of a good onsen, actually, I think I only tried the not so good ones. But waking up early, and having a very nice and long relaxing bath it was really a boost for my day humor. Yes, I was on vacations on a very awesome and special place, it would be strange not to be with a good mood, but that relaxing way to wake up is something we miss in Europe!

The Temple's Gardens

And after that relaxing experience, I had an even more intense one when I got to my bedroom, I had already my bedroom ready for the breakfast! I sat and waited for the feast, and what a feast… a superb vegan breakfast! Yes, vegan! And yes, superb! Some things I have no idea what they were, some  of them I mixed on my way, but every single combination was like an explosion of flavors! So good! Maybe that paid off on the accommodation’s price…

I had a few hours until I had to go back to “civilization”, initially I meant to stay the full day in Koyasan, but the weather wasn’t much inviting to stay, so I did a walk towards the forest following the very basic map I had. At some point I think I was lost, but I was indeed somewhere inside a forest, though following a national road with several signs saying “be aware of the bears” and “don’t walk alone”. I didn’t care much, I was going through the road so I assumed it wouldn’t be of a big danger anyway, but the rain… It reminded me home, oh Ireland…

Through the woods

I spent a few hours lost, so I decided to go back to town and do a walk before taking the bus to the cable car, and going to Osaka. Again, the same astonishing route through the mountains, until I had to change trains again I think I didn’t even sit just to admire the view.

At some point, maybe near Nara I am not sure now, the train was already a bit packed and a guy sat in front of me, he definitely was a foreigner like me and he smiled at me which I assumed we met before, I said hi and that started a very pleasant conversation. He is an Australian guy that was in Osaka studying Japanese just because, and because he had 3 months on paid vacations that he decided to use as a learning experience which I think it is just an awesome idea! Another travel friend, another random person I met while traveling. I am sure that the chances to meet random people like this are higher when we travel alone, we are more willing to meet people and not closed inside a circle of friends.

Temple and Autumn Colors

Arriving in Osaka, I got into the wrong train. I mean, the wrong direction, but thankfully that was a circular line so I ended up going to the right place without having to chance again. Too early to check-in, just dropped the luggage and I went for a walk.


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Koyasan and way to Osaka

Koyasan’s Graveyard

Koyasan’s Graveyard

It sounds odd when I tell someone I spend a full afternoon at a graveyard taking photos, more strange when I say that I went to a remote place mostly because of that same graveyard, but yeah, that’s what happened!

What is so special about this graveyard?

Not just that it is a graveyard with a few centuries old, but also that is where are buried several Japanese feudal lords, monks and some lesser people. But even more important than all of that, it is in that same graveyard where the Okunoin Temple is, where Kobo Daishi rests, the founder of the Shingon Buddhism. And again, I am really glad I met Katsumi, otherwise I would read most of these information afterwards and I wouldn’t appreciate properly the site.

Entrance to the Graveyard
Entrance to the Graveyard, Katsumi on the left

Note that I said that Kobo Daishi rests, the monks and the other believers believe that he is not dead, he is in eternal meditation waiting for a future Buddha. And to pray there next to the monks, one has to pay a good amount of money, or should just pray a bit further. It is odd that even Buddhist temples charge big amounts of money for these things, until then I wrongly assumed that Buddhism is a very non materialistic religion. The same applies for the accommodation, which was overpriced for what got, I like to think I paid for the experience instead…

Shrines and Tombs

Katsumi, the japanese man we met, was the perfect guy and at some point I felt closer to his opinions, he gave us a very detailed tour and with a bit of irony on what regards religion, as an atheist I noticed that and I ended up asking his opinion, he is agnostic and he agrees that over charging the way they do it is almost like a sin. Yes, they need fundings, but Koyasan is a very touristic place and that’s almost pornographic values.

I think we can “divide” the graveyard in two parts, the old and the new. The new part shows a lot about corporate Japanese culture, at first was odd to see several corporative graves, some very well-known companies. In Japan an employee is not just a number for the paycheck, an employee is part of the big family that the company is hence the graves. They are buried as family. Still, I wouldn’t like to see a corporate logo on my grave…

Statue at Koyasan's Graveyard

Back to town

When I say that the graveyard is indeed very beautiful, I mean it and not as a creepy way, it is indeed a very mystical place totally worth seeing. Several guides also recommend to do a tour at night, which I also tried… Well, it was time to go back to town, and to say goodbye to Katsumi that was going back home.

Autumn Colors, entrance to the new graveyard

We walked a bit trying to find a restaurant and we ended up eating at a very cozy place, since Jorge had to take the last cable car and train back to Osaka, we just went for a small walk around the graveyard after sunset. But the rain didn’t help much, also the typhoon alert for that night was not much encouraging to be there alone, and adding to all of that, several signs warning about bears at night…

I have to say, it was really cool at night, though for night shootings I like to take my time and even if no one rushes me, I always have that awful feeling that someone is getting bored because of me, so we did a not so long walk back to the bus stop. After that I considered going back alone to the graveyard, but the rain was getting stronger, so I decided not to take a chance in forgetting the time and being left outside the temple and I went back.

Graveyard at Night
Graveyard at Night, spoiled by a few raindrops

At the temple / hotel

Checking-in, and the first thing I noticed was that my room was the number four, which is odd considering the japanese superstition for the number four. Probably that’s why the assigned an european to that room… After unpacking some of my stuff, I went for a relaxing bath at the onsen, and again, very disappointed. The name of the temple is advertised as Koyasan Onsen Fukuchiin, I got really disappointed. The onsen is nothing special at all, quite small, smaller than the one I tried in Kurashiki, and I was expecting an exterior onsen, but nope… Well, it was very relaxing after a full day walking, so, I am not complaining (much).

After my relaxing bath, I went back to my bedroom and I found the futon already placed. Another detail about the temple, you can’t close your bedroom’s door from outside… I had to trust no one would take any of my stuff. So, after reading I went to sleep, I had my breakfast scheduled in advance for 7:30, so, another early wake up.

I honestly meant to wake up to see the monks praying, but instead I went to the onsen again and I spent way too long there, I walked a bit through the small gardens, which are really beautiful, and it was time to pack again. They were nice and they kept my stuff for a few hours, so I could go for another walk around Koyasan before going to Osaka, and getting lost somewhere already outside Koyasan (and with a lot of signs warning about the bears…). I really liked that place, a shame I didn’t stay longer…


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Koyasan’s Graveyard

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From Nara to Koyasan

From Nara to Koyasan

After a restless night, people snoring, packing during the night, etc, it was my turn to wake up early and even a few minutes before the alarm rang of. I packed everything and I double checked if I hadn’t left anything behind, and back to the train station!

How to get to Koyasan from Nara

Looking to the map, it is normal to think that the best way to get to Koyasan from Nara is a straight line, but it isn’t. Osaka is kind of the hub of the area, the best way to go anywhere around is passing through Osaka. I took the JR train to Osaka Shin-Imamiya, and from there the train to Gokurakubashi (the base that connects to Koyasan). The JR Pass is not valid on this route, you’ll have to buy your ticket, and it’s worth to buy the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket, that covers the train, cable car, bus and several temples and museums. One ticket, less hassle.

The world is tiny, and gets smaller when you are a tourist. By chance, I met with Jorge (the CS guy) again at Shin-Imamiya train station, we were really next to each other when I looked to the guy next to me and I recognized him! We immediately start chatting, and after a while a very nice old Japanese man joined our conversation, obviously in English. He traveled to Europe a few times and was really comfortable with speaking in English, a very pleasant surprise in Japan 🙂

On our way there, at some point, we had to change to another part of the train. That was the part where the mountain train starts, next to each station you see the station’s altitude and the ones right before and after. We were lucky because that nice man explained us every thing about our trip to the top, it wasn’t just a regular train ride!

Koyasan

At the arrival we said goodbye to the Japanese guy, his name’s Katsumi, and we went directly to the temple to do the check-in. In a very funny way I got threatened, the doors close at 9pm or I would be left outside. They doors close at 9pm sharp, and most temples are not flexible with it, while some others are. Considering that there was another typhoon alert, it wasn’t the best option to sleep outside, I guess 🙂

Garan Complex

The main buildings of the Garan are the Kondo Hall and the Konpon Daito Pagoda, the first one is quite recent since it burned down a few times over the centuries, the last reconstruction dates from early 1930’s. We walked around that area, but we didn’t get inside any temple, though I totally regret not visiting the Pagoda. According to what I read and I’ve been told, it is a must visit place! And it is included within the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket.

Konpon Daito Pagoda

Since one of the main attractions is the more than one thousand years old graveyard, and that’s right outside the town, we went for an early lunch on our way to the graveyard, and right after our lunch we met again with Katsumi. I couldn’t ask for a better guide, a very interesting person, passionate about Koyasan and the area and with knowledge about the places we visited.

Kondo Hall

 Karukayado

On our way to the graveyard, Katsumi recommended us to visit this museum about a tragic story (or legend) that happened in Koyasan. Sadly there is very few information in English about the story and the museum. Summarizing it a bit, it is the story about a father that never knew he had a son, until his son looked for him in Koyasan with his mother. Though, by then, Mount Koya was a place restricted from women and she wasn’t authorized to climb the mount and see and recognize her former lover, the son did. There he met his father, whom swore to give up of all his former life when he joined the monastery, and therefore he couldn’t tell his son who he really was, so told him that his father died instead. The son went to the bottom of the mount to tell that to his mother, but when he got he found out that she got really sick and died, so he became an orphan. Without father nor mother, he decided to join the monastery, and so he spent 40 years of his life next to his father unknowing who he really was. I totally recommend a visit to this place, it tells a lot about Koyasan, I am not sure if this is a tale or a real story, but it is a very famous story in Koyasan.


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From Nara to Koyasan

Kōfuku-ji and the Five Story Pagoda

Kōfuku-ji and the Five Story Pagoda

 Kōfuku-ji and the Five Story Pagoda

Kofuku-ji is another millenary temple in Nara and one of the eight Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The site of the temple consisted of more than 50 buildings, though today just a few remain, one of them is the Five Story Pagoda that is also the second tallest in Japan and considered as a symbol of Nara.

I walked a bit around for some photos, and honestly, at the moment I didn’t know important that site is just until a few moments later I read the flyer I was given to. At first I thought it was just another temple in Nara, but I think it is important to keep in mind that Nara is the ancient capital, even before Kyoto. So, it shouldn’t be surprising the amount of important sites in that small city.

View of the Five Story Pagoda at Kōfuku-ji Temple site

I few meters below there is a lake with a lot of turtles, I enjoyed a bit of time around that lake, maybe a bit too much because of that I missed other stuff I was planning to visit, but well, vacations 🙂 On my way, I got some stamps and I assured my postcards would reach their destinations 🙂 And then, passing through another temple that unfortunately I arrived just a few minutes after closing, the Gango-ji Temple.

With everything else closed, I went back to the lake where I saw an amazing sunset and a few more photos to remember one day later 🙂 Nothing else left to do, so I went back to the hostel to write the postcards, and I have to say, even though the hostel was quite nice people staying there weren’t much backpackers-alike, a very awkward silence at the common space, we were like 10 people there reading, writing and no one was talking. Very very awkward, something I didn’t expect at all…

Sunset at a Lake in Nara

That said, I also didn’t bind with anyone for dinner, so I ended up going alone to the local Food Street looking for some nice food, which I decided to go for some sushi. Japanese people might not have the warmth I am used to, they might not be the best communicators either, but for sure they are helpful! I didn’t manage to get myself understood about what I wanted to eat, so, we both went outside and I just had to point to the plate I was craving for. Most of the restaurants have a plastic representation of the dishes they have available, which is really useful when you are trying to decided where to eat, or, how to order your food 🙂

One thing I learned that night, never ever leave your camera behind! I went for a walk, alone, and that night was full moon! I have no record of that view, but I enjoyed it a lot with my moments of solitude and peace.


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Kōfuku-ji and the Five Story Pagoda

Tōdai-ji Temple and Kasuga Taisha

Tōdai-ji Temple and Kasuga Taisha

Another day, and again, time to move! It was nice to stay a few nights without having to pack again, but it was time to move to the next city. Kyoto indeed it is a fantastic city, with a lot of history, cosmopolitan, a very good connection with nature! It was a strange first impact, but I got in love and I honestly think I could live there for a while 🙂 But it was time to move, time for Nara!

Nara

Getting there from Kyoto it is really easy, for those that have the JR Pass you don’t need to pay extra for that, it just takes around 45 minutes to get there. Once there, you’ll have to walk a bit to get to the interesting part of the city, but the city also has a circular bus route very handy mostly when you have a heavy luggage with you.

Alike Kyoto and Kurashiki, the first impact in Nara wasn’t the best either. The train station is right on the other extreme of the fun part, lucky me, my hostel was close to the temples. Which also means, I had to cross the city… on foot… Distances never are as close as they look like, lesson learned. I think…

The hostel has a very nice hall, the bedrooms are also quite nice though the stairs to the first floor a bit too steep, going down with all my luggage was challenging… After all the checking, paperwork and dropping the luggage, it was time for some sightseeing. And that’s when I started to love Nara!

Tōdai-ji Temple

Most of the historical area is inside of a small forest, some temples and some pathways for very cool and relaxing walks. My first stop was at the Todai-ji Temple, where you can see the largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, which I didn’t know and totally made my jaw drop. Part of the temple is under reconstruction, it was interesting to see one of the ways they asked for funds, you could buy a tile and write whatever you want there. You would leave not only your money to help rebuilding the temple but also the temple would have something really yours. I really liked that idea, simple and a more personalized.

Tōdai-ji Temple

I was really lucky with the weather, really sunny and I could walk a bit through the gardens and buy a few souvenirs before my next stop, the Nigatsu-do. The Nigatsu-do is one of the main structures part of the Todai-ji temple, with an amazing view towards Nara! I had a brief stop there for a cup of green tea, something that I was already getting used to in Japan 🙂

Lanterns on the way to Nigatsu-do

Kasuga Taisha

Traditionally, the Kasuga Taisha has been periodically rebuilt every 20 years for several centuries, though, this custom was discontinued by mid XIX century. Nowadays they are restoring some parts of the roofs using the bark of some local tree, hence the protecting you can see around most of those trees so that they can collect the bark.

Lanterns on the way to Kasuga Taisha

One of the main characteristics of this temple, if not THE characteristic, is the amount of lanterns they have in and around the temple. The lanterns inside the temple are made of bronze, while the ones outside are in stone. These lanterns are lit twice a year, in February and August for their Lantern Festivals. The amount of stone lanterns is really amazing, I wonder how long they take to lit all those lanterns.

Bronze Lanterns at the Kasuga Taisha

As I previously said, the surrounding areas are very relaxing, nice pathways through the woods where I found one restaurant for my lunch break, even though that’s a very touristic place, the restaurant wasn’t even pricy. I proceeded with my walk through the woods, and at some point I stopped again at a Garden Café, really nice and that day was just amazing! Perfect for an outdoor tour 🙂

Stone Lanterns


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Tōdai-ji Temple and Kasuga Taisha

Visiting the Kinkaku-ji Temple and Gion at night

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji Temple, also known as the Golden Temple, the temple was initially a villa until one of his owners passed away and by his wish it was then transformed into a Zen Temple. The temple that we can see nowadays is a reconstruction of the original temple, that in 1950 was burned down by a novice monk.

Visiting the Kinkaku-ji Temple and Gion at night
Visiting the Kinkaku-ji Temple and Gion at night

To get there, the best way is by bus, Kyoto bus system is really well-organized and quite easy to use, with a daily pass it might even be the best way of transportation inside the city. Kinkaku-ji it is by the edge of the city borders, but there are more sightseeing around for those that don’t want to go there just because of this temple. Though, I dare to say that it is a must see, a bit overpriced, but still, a place that should be visited. A pity it was raining, I couldn’t enjoy properly my time there, even though I had a very nice walk through its gardens which are also fantastic!

There was a lot still to see, but I wasted a lot of time trying to get to the temples I visited, and to play safe I decided to go back to Kyoto Station and book my ticket back to Tokyo, which I was more than glad to find out that it was the wise thing to do, the train was close to get fully booked already 🙂 And again, another stop at Starbucks (I swear I am not promoting this company!!), where I wrote a few more postcards and a few more notes for my blog posts.

Wet, tired and hungry, and getting dark! I decided to go back to Gion, for a night walk and get to eat something. While waiting for the bus, I met three Indian girls that seemed even more lost than I was, we chat a bit and we realized we were towards the same direction, we hop off in different stops but by chance we ended up meeting each other again later that night while walking around. Oh, I felt like a tourist wandering among other tourists 😛

And still hungry, time for some food! I kept walking around Gion district trying to find a nice restaurant, but then I crossed the bridge and I went to the Food Market Street. When I was getting there I decided to keep walking around and try a restaurant instead for a change. I got lost, which was awesome, and was getting even more hungry, my pickiness to find a restaurant was slowly vanishing… I found a Portuguese wine bar, and honestly I felt very tempted to get inside, but my traveler-sense mandated otherwise. I was in Japan… A few meters ahead I found the restaurant for me, by the river with a nice view and I again I was just one! I sat at the counter next to a couple.

My dinner was more Japanese, I think, I ordered a hot sake and some other stuff. As a side dish, I got my first green soy beans! Actually, it is really good, though, it was the first time I was eating that and I just didn’t know how to eat it so I ate the full string bean until I realized that the empty bowl could be for the string beans… Yeah, it tastes WAYYYY better just the soy bean 😛 In the end, I paid less than 20€, really good food, drinks and not expensive at all 🙂

Street in Gion at Night

When I travel alone I am also more relaxed with strangers, I didn’t reach yet the point of starting random conversations, but I don’t mind to pull one or two chats. The couple next to me were trying to take a selfie, I thought I could be nice and help them with their people/food/photo task 🙂 I am used to different accents and languages, but I honestly got confused with both, she sounded totally German and I managed to understand a few things, the guy sounded totally like Dutch or probably just a very strong german accent, but when they talked with me was in total American accent! It was interesting to hear 🙂

Riverbanks of the Kamo River

After having my food and paying, I decided to head to the hostel, I would have to wake up early the next morning again, and who did I find again just right I left the restaurant? The Indian girls! Three times the same night, in such a huge city! Oh tourists, we are like ants, following the same paths…



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Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Nine days since my arrival at the land of the rising sun, I was still jet-lagged! Honestly, I am not sure anymore if it was jet-lag, or if it was just tiredness forcing me to sleep earlier and therefore waking up earlier as well. Again, 6:30 and I was wide awake! I did my morning routine, and then I went to the living room to take a look at my still unplanned days. The transportation was mostly the issue, I wanted something central that I could take a option B and that I still had chance to do what I wanted to do.

Planning the last days

By a friend’s recommendation, I really wanted to see the 48 waterfalls of Akame, so basically, another hiking day with a lot of photography. Getting there was a bit tricky, I had to take a train that was not covered by the JR Pass, a bus from the middle of nowhere to nowhere land and then the hike that normally would take about 4 hours. Considering that I would spend a lot of time taking photos, I was already planning to spend around 8 hours there (yep, a bit too much I know). So, for all of this, I needed to stay overnight somewhere that I could have an alternative plan and not too far from the waterfalls. Initially I considered Iga because of the Ninja Museum, but finding online accommodation there wasn’t easy and I was not up to take the chance to go to the middle of nowhere without a place to stay (maybe if I had more than two weeks around, I would do it). So, Osaka was the place! A lot to see there, and 1 hour away from the train stop near the waterfalls.

Autumn Colors @ Nijo Castle
Autumn Colors @ Nijo Castle

 

Nijo Castle

With all of that considered, it was time to enjoy my last day in Kyoto! First thing to see was the Nijo Castle, another World Heritage Site in Kyoto, the castle of the Tokugawa Shoguns. One of the main characteristics of the castle is the Nightingale floor, basically an alarm system against intruders. Walking through those corridors while hearing the chirping everywhere is really amazing! Myth or not, some say that this was a defense mechanism against the ninjas, the corridor is quite wide and around the palace, so I bet it was quite hard to pass through it undetectable.

Gardens @ Nijo Castle
Gardens @ Nijo Castle

 

I have to say, when I got there I was a bit disappointed with what I saw, the entrance isn’t appealing, and until I got inside the palace I was a bit bored, but Nijo Castle is definitely one must-visit place in Kyoto! The palace is fantastic, the old paintings really beautiful, and you really can feel history while walking through the corridors. For me, everything was so amazing! A pity that it was a rainy day, walking through the gardens wasn’t that pleasant, and it is an amazing place! But to be enjoyed on a sunny day… I got totally soaked while trying to take photos, the rain drops on tree leaves are fantastic! And I could really see that Autumn was really close, some golden colors already 🙂

And since being soaked is not much fun either, I went to the lounge area to dry a bit, and on the way I saw another Japanese wedding! After drying out, more temples to see! And a very wet day ahead…


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Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Tōfuku-ji Temple

Tōfuku-ji Temple

Tōfuku-ji

I kept walking in direction to the city, and I passed through another temple, the Tofuku-ji Temple and the Zen Garden, honestly for me the garden was the most enjoyable part. The Tofuku-ji Temple is a Buddhist Temple founded in 1236, one of the five great temples of Kyoto. The garden is more recent, designed in the last century, with the very Japanese maple trees. I just regret coming to Japan in October, a few weeks later and I would get all the autumn colors, it was already changing a bit, but that place covered in golden colors must be even more magical! There is a fee to get in though, but for people who like that kind of landscapes it’s totally worth it, besides, the entrance fees usually aren’t expensive, with 500¥ you can get inside most of the temples.

Corridor @Zen Garden

 

It was also at the Garden that I saw a Japanese monkey, unfortunately he was faster than my reaction to take a photo, but I don’t mind, better enjoying the moment than wasting time trying to capture it. The garden is very beautiful, not too big and very relaxing. I walked through the garden for a while, I even spent a few minutes there enjoying a book before I moved again.

It was that time of the day that I needed to satiate my addiction, I went back to Kyoto Station and I spent a long time trying to find a Starbucks. I was at the wrong side of the station trying to find a street that was totally at the other end…, but well, I managed to find it after a while. While having my dose of caffeine, I used that relaxing time to write a few postcards that I would send later that same day. I guess they all arrived at their destinations, I have no complaints yet 🙂

Maple Trees @Zen Garden

While at the Starbucks, I checked the map to see what was around and I considered going towards the city center passing through another temple, though on my way I changed my mind and I went back to the hostel to take a fast rest before dinner.

Even the dinner was a challenge, I spent a lot of time trying to find a restaurant not too full nor too empty, and I got even kicked out from one because it was too full. Well, that’s what they told me, I saw free places but for couples, so I guess a solo tourist wasn’t the best for them… I ended up eating something again at a small street restaurant in Gion, not fancy at all but a very nice experience, and with a lot of Japanese people unlike the other restaurants. So in the end, I think I had a more local experience and less touristic 🙂

After the dinner, again, I went back to the hostel to write a bit on this blog, and to get ready for another long day ahead!


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Tōfuku-ji Temple