2014 Review and 2015 Goals

2014 Review and 2015 Goals

Unfortunately the blog has been quite inactive, against what I planned last year, but surely I can’t postpone this post! Every year I write the previous’ year review and a few goals for the following year, I’ve been doing this for a few years and here I am again!

A heads up, I foresee that I failed a lot this year, regarding last year’s goals. A lot happened worth mentioning, but also a lot wasn’t done either…, but let’s see.

So, here we go!

2014 Review

English classes

Writing and speaking English is not an issue for me, but I want to take this travel writer thing really serious, and for that I decided to attend for some Advanced English classes which I’ll pay a bit for… but I see it as an investment.

Well, I did this indeed and I didn’t get much out of that. It is the second time I go for the wrong course, I want to improve my writing and the course I attended didn’t give me much of what I was looking for. Well, I won’t add that for 2015 goals either, as a few things will change.

Traveling

I plan to visit another continent, I postponed Africa so or I’ll go to North America or Oceania, I might pick North America first…

Well, this one was a fail… This year, technically, I left the Euroasian plate when I went to Madeira island, but that’s part of Portugal. So, not sure if I could count that as going to a new continent…, maybe I did 😀

Due to this, I’ll change slightly my original plan, in 2015 I want to visit at least three new countries!

Moving away

By the end of 2014 I plan to be away from Ireland or being preparing my move. I learned to like this country, though I feel that I need another life changing event soon.

This one was also a fail, but for a good reason. My personal life changed a lot, so I postponed this for later. I won’t say for when, but it is something that eventually I’ll do.

Discover Ireland

Still about Ireland, I am going to buy a car soon which I intend to use almost every weekend to discover new places in Ireland and share with you all my experiences!

Well, I did this and in fairness not because I had this goal, I actually forgot about it. I bought the car just because my personal life changed and this was a big plus!

I drove a lot, but I haven’t visit that much as expected either, but surely the car helped to get to visit a few places that were unknown to me 🙂

Blog

As for the blog, I want to post at least once a week and avoid long posts (like this one).

And fail…, I started quite well, but the lack of visits to the blog, and comments, affected my motivation. Recently I found out that Google isn’t targeting my blog to the right audience (my fault, I’ll change a few about that). Hopefully 2015 will be better 🙂

Bring it on 2014, I challenge you to become better than 2013, like 2013 did with 2012 😀

Well, it wasn’t better than 2013, but it was a really damn good year! I am happy to write and acknowledge that the last three years of my life were amazing! A few less good things, but in overall I can consider myself as a lucky person!

Three Windows
Façade in a building in Berlin

Now about the blog itself

Regarding travel journal, I wrote 14 posts for the Japan Series, about the trip I did the year before. Two posts about the Romania Series (I still have a lot to do about this one), one post about Stockholm and one post about Eastbourne.

I also wrote two app reviews and a Tips and Tricks post about planning versus preparing for a trip.

As I mentioned before, I also noticed that the stats decreased significantly. In the last weeks I have tried to figure out what’s the reason behind that, and when this happened. I think I finally figured out what’s going on, but I’m not so sure yet how to fix it.

For a few years I follow Chris Guillebeau‘s blog, and honestly I think I got inspired to write these reviews after reading one of his earliest ones. I love traveling, and Chris is like the travel guru for me, I have learned a lot from his posts so I looked at it from a different perspective this time. What do I like there and why I keep following him after he finished his quest to visit all the countries in the world. Shame on me, I realized that for the last years I only looked at his posts and I saw the letters he strategically placed to form words, I never read it.

I spend a few hours re-reading one of his manifestos (279 Days To Overnight Success), and that kind of hit me in the face. My stats dropped because I changed this blog for me and not for my followers, I used to write in Portuguese (my native language) when my target audience were Portuguese native speakers. I wanted to improve my English (which I did, a lot) so I totally disrespected my followers and I disregarded my geo-stats.

I don’t seek Chris’ success, but it would be great to become meaningful and inspire other people like he does to me. My stats tell me that my followers are from Portugal and Brazil, therefore in 2015 I’ll write for them, in Portuguese, and occasionally in English (or maybe duo-lingual posts).

2015 Goals

  • Visit at least three new countries in 2015
  • Become more active with the blog (for real)
  • Paying attention to the stats and to my followers

Three things, it should be enough 🙂

For 2015 I also have a stretching goal, this one will be tough but hopefully I’ll do at least half of it! Ireland has an amazing tourism trail of 2500km, the Wild Atlantic Way. I plan to do this by bike in several different stages, maybe one weekend a month which would be about 200km a weekend… Yep, that’s just a stretching goal 🙂

And Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for you 🙂

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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

Planning vs Preparing

Planning vs Preparing

I used to be a planning-freak, I had to prepare all the details, plan A, B and even a “When everything fails” plan. A friend of mine changed my mind when I did my inter-rail (PT), and almost everything failed! After that I became the opposite, the guy that never prepares nor plans anything! Like everything in life, extremes are not way to go… So I have to readjust (yes, I am using the present tense here).

Planning a trip

One thing you should know about plans, they often fail!

Nothing happens like planned, there are always details that we forget to think about, there are always new things we discover on the way that we want to try that will bend our plans. So, from my perspective, planning is a bit pointless and it spoils a lot the adventure that it is traveling.

Planning a trip also can lead to frustration, mostly if you are traveling with more people. You want your plans to be as perfect as possible, but it is quite hard to handle with different opinions and different moods. Even if you plan your trip together with your friends, there is always that person that wants to try something out of the blue, or that person that wakes up late, or that forgets something important. And these small details, that could make an adventure, often result in unnecessary argues and even more time wasted with pointless stresses.

Planning can also mean tight schedules, and again, hard to bend if we are relaxing at some place but we have to take that bus to point B. One thing I learned with my trips, is that it is impossible to see all I want to see, so it’s better to enjoy the moment and keep the memories of good moments than returning totally exhausted with the feeling that it was just a dream.

Milan Main Train Station
Milan Main Train Station

Preparing a trip

Preparing however, it is almost crucial for me. I don’t mean to be a freak, and read all the guide books and blogs, and spend hours researching, but you should have an idea of what it is around where you want to go.

My last trip, to Japan, I missed a place that I really would love to see and I just didn’t because I didn’t prepare my trip. When I came back to Ireland and I saw that that place was so close to where I was, I kind of felt sad, but then I also had a lot of fun.

It is important to know what you can see, not in an obsessive way that might even spoil the surprise element, but due several factors you might want to know about those other places.

So, these are my tips to prepare a trip:

  • In my opinion it is important to get at least two guide books, and read through them. Using these guides you can get an idea of where you wanna go, which part of the country you want to explore and what you can see there;
  • Having that as a starting point, it is important to know what’s around those places, some times you get to know about less touristic things that you would totally do, like some hiking trail, or night-photo walks, etc;
  • Some safety tips are always welcome. You should research a bit about that, some countries are less safe than others, and there are some small details that can make a huge difference;
  • Health precautions and vaccination. Some countries require some vaccination prior the arrival, contact your doctor or look for a tropical medical bureau, they’ll know how to advise you;
  • Visa requirements, this might seem obvious, but a lot of people assume that for tourism they don’t need a visa. That depends on your nationality and the country you want to visit;
  • Just in case, get some money of the local currency. It happened to me in Peru that all the ATM at the airport were out of money, and sometimes that might not be the ideal. Usually taxi drivers are quite ok with that and they drop you next to an ATM, but if you can avoid that, even better;

Trying to summarize a bit, almost all what I’ve written is common sense, but for me what can improve the experience by knowing what’s around to visit. In Japan even with almost nonexistent plans, I had to change them anyway because of the weather, I still had a lot of fun, but instead of trying to figure out what to do, the decision to go to place X would be easier.

Also, talk with locals! Touristic guides usually are really helpful, but they are for tourists. If you want to experience the culture, no one’s better than the locals to give you tips. Interact with them, ask them what can you do for the day, tell them who you are and they’ll tell you what you can do.

And as a conclusion, my last tip is to be spontaneous! Do things out of the blue, and be open for surprises 🙂

A trip without surprises is worthless to share.


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Planning vs Preparing

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