Tag: Travelling Insights

Thoughts on Japan

Thoughts on Japan

We are sad to be leaving Japan; 15 days here was simply not long enough.

It’s a first world country that’s so different to ours. So an easy place to be a traveller, but also authentic, quirky and compelling. Here are some observations we are taking away….

Past and future
Japan was our gateway to the futuristic world (Korea and China are to come), but it’s also a country that cherishes a past of civility and manners.

It’s this perfect combination that makes the place so lovely to be in. When we were young, we read and saw films about a 21st century where technology and machines, coupled with a new human kindness, created an enviable lifestyle for all. Is Japan the closest we have come to it?

French tourists
We queried why so many French visitors come to Japan, with a French language exchange student; “It’s because of animation” she told us. We queried further, so she explained that the French and Japanese share a love of animation and from an early age French school children see anime/manga, a massive cultural export, and become intrigued by Japan and its way of life.

Face masks
A significant number of Japanese wear face masks. We were unsure if this was to protect the individual from inhaling smog or catching a disease, say at exam time, or possibly to protect others from any cold/flu that the wearer had. However, our helpful Hong Kong student (the one who told us about Japanese toilets) said that teenagers also wear these masks to cover up acne and other issues with their faces.

2020 is coming
Everywhere, buildings and temples, such as the Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto which was covered in scaffolding, are being buffed up for the 2020 Olympics that Japan will host, and there’s a real push to get the country tourist-friendly. No doubt, the country will put on a great show, and all the hard work will be worth it. But, because of the heat, we don’t envy the marathon runners.

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The Olympic Flag takes pride of place in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices

Old houses not valued
We were surprised to learn there is no market for old houses; purchasers inevitably knock down the existing house and build afresh. Also, Homebase and B&Q wouldn’t do well here, as there is little appetite for home improvements that will never pay back. Back in 2008, this meant there were no toxic loans or housing bubble to burst.

Regretfully, this thinking has also applied historically to public buildings, most of Japan’s famous castles were demolished in the 1880s, leaving just a handful for the millions of tourists.

Avoiding the hills
As we travelled the length of Honshu by train, we noticed that the housing is squashed into the valleys, whilst huge areas of forested hills, that in other countries would be prime real estate, have no buildings.

Our Japanese expert Sophie tells us it’s because of two things: the threat of earth tremors which happen on an almost daily basis and the fact that the Shinto religion, adhered to by 80% of Japanese, believes that hills are sacred places.

Happy jingles
Travel by public transport and you constantly hear little jingles reminiscent of happy, childish ditties. Used ahead of public announcements, each route or company seems to have their own version, a kind of audio branding.

Whilst places in the UK and elsewhere take pride in being “announcement free”, Japan simply loves all forms of public address, either pre-recorded multi-lingual on the bullet trains or personalised by the conductor on the buses.

Keeping Japan tidy
Japan is spotless. You could sit down and eat your lunch off the streets, anywhere. (Which we sometimes did). In local parks there is no litter, tramps, dogs or general squalor. There must be thousands of people involved in keeping Japan so clean, but we saw few of them, and ironically finding a rubbish bin is near impossible. Perhaps it’s simply because the Japanese don’t create the mess in the first place.

Deceptive ages
When asking some women how old they are, we’ve been stunned by the answers. Women with no wrinkles, who look to be mid twenties, are actually in their forties or fifties. And girls that appear to be 13 year olds are often much older. What creams do they use?

By contrast, Japanese men seem to age before their time. Roger spent an hour talking with a Japanese father who looked about 65, and was surprised to discover he was only 52. Maybe, in this gender-unequal society, there is far too much pressure on the men to be the sole breadwinner.

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This Japanese lady told us she was 50. And by the way, don’t the Japanese men look smart
Tokyo people

Tokyo people

It’s the people who have caught our attention. Mannered, calm and with a Japanese twist of shyness, not readily making eye contact. Across numerous districts and micro-cities, searching for the unusual, the historic and the quirky, we used our three words of faltering Japanese (konnichiwa, dōmo arigatō, sayōnara) to engage with as many people as we could. Fortunately, as ever, English is the universal second language.

Train conductors, retailers and hostel staff were so kind; and not in a sycophantic way. It’s simply genuine, taking responsibility for helping out, taking a pride in their country. This is a land of smiles and bows. No-one is expecting a tip.

Cities are perhaps the most supreme human social achievement. Millions of people just getting along. And here in the world’s biggest city, men can walk down the street with wallets hanging out of back trouser pockets, commuters obediently put tickets through machines which they don’t have to, and one young man told another to step back from Hilary’s view.

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A block of ice provides some respite from the heat in Yanaka Ginza shopping area
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We bought some sembei (rice crackers) from this historic wooden shop in the Yanaka neighbourhood
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In Hamachō district, tourists line up to watch the sumo training at the Arashio Stable
Summing up Australia

Summing up Australia

Sitting in our hotel room in Canberra, planning our time in Australia, seems a long time ago. Since then we’ve enjoyed ourselves so much and lived a perfect lifestyle. And on balance we were right to limit our travels to five main locations (Sydney, Canberra, Cairns, Darwin and the Red Centre).

We’ve stayed in campervans, a friend’s place, Airbnb’s, and backpackers hostels. Swam amongst coral, explored gorges and watched open air cinema. It’s been easy travelling, with everyone speaking English, plenty of rests and many staggering sights.

But you come away, appreciating you have only scratched the surface of this massive, wild and sparsely populated country. Flying back to Sydney, we travelled over nothing, and we mean nothing, for at least one hour.

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Reading papers, watching the equivalent of question time on tv, talking to people, we got a sense of the wide diversity across this great country. The liberal cities compared with the agricultural stations, renewable energy verses a return to coal, a welcoming hug to the world verses a nostalgia for the 5Os.

Bill Bryson has described Australians as a cross between the British and Americans. Despite living in a harsh environment, they have the positivity and entrepreneurship of Americans, rewarding hard work without any hint of class divide. But they also have customs carried over from Britain, such as a speaker in their Parliament, and a peculiar affection for the Queen, beer and cricket.

To us, based on numerous short interactions, Aussies are direct and straightforward in their conversation, with a dry sense of humour which can be very disparaging about themselves. We imagined they could become great mates, but maybe it would be harder to make deep friends here.

To sum up, Australia is a nation on the up, still young and aware that they are building one of the safest and attractive societies. We are so pleased we had the opportunity to visit a bit of it and to spend time with so many welcoming “mates”.

But it’s time to move on, especially as Australia is so far the most expensive country we have been to on this gap year.

Aboriginals today

Aboriginals today

Australia has shocked us for being the most segregated society we have come across. We saw scenes here that could have been 1960’s Mississippi.

Whilst the current generations and descendants of the white Europeans, Chinese and Japanese migrants enjoy a first world lifestyle, health and longevity expectations, the Aboriginals (3% of the population) lead a third world existence, together with the associated bad health, domestic violence, lack of education and opportunity. And to make things even worst, they are not resilient to alcohol, and diabetes is rife in their communities because they converted too quickly from a sparse nomadic diet to “white man’s sugared diet”.

We sat at a bus stop in Darwin, whilst the Aboriginals left us to sit on the pavement. We drank alcohol in bars that the Aboriginals can’t drink in. We saw in the Northern Territory towns dozens of Aboriginals standing around in groups, shabby, smelly, wearing no shoes, with nothing to do. Nowhere have we seen interaction between Aboriginals and the descendants of the First Fleet, except for aggressive policing.

The great shame is we never got to speak to any Aboriginals except those that were hassling us for change in Darwin and Katherine. Smile at them and there is a blank stare. And ironically, as we travelled into the Outback, we actually saw less Aboriginals, as their communities are off the main highways, down unsealed tracks that you need permits to enter.

It’s an incredibly complex issue, that we clearly only have superficial knowledge of.

Successive Australian Governments have spent a lot of money on Aboriginals, trying to assuage the guilt of taking their land, righting the wrongs of “the stolen generation”, and the harming of their original way of life, with alcohol and a new diet. There was a full apology by the Prime Minister in 2006, but the problems carry on and many tell us that progress has stalled.

When we ask many white Australians about the issue, every sentence starts with: “I don’t want to sound like a bigot but….”. They simply feel the Aboriginals are culturally not capable or willing to integrate. One Aussie in Katherine said “The Government pays them lots of sit-down money and the kids only go to school on hot days for the air conditioning”. Our Airbnb host in Darwin, said there were a number of hard-working Aboriginals in his company, but they were unreliable because “They just go walk about”.

So despite being given their citizenship fifty years ago, most arboriginals it seems still live in a segregated world; and if we step into their shoes we can maybe understand and appreciate why.

Saying sorry, the constant expressions of guilt, and the building of “aboriginal cultural experiences” don’t seem to have helped much. We can only hope this is still early days and things will improve, but it needs commitment on both sides.

Tourist experiences v travelling

Tourist experiences v travelling

For us, the Uluru bubble – with its helicopter rides, a British designer’s “field of lights”, camel trekking, Segway riding, quad biking, and under the stars dining experiences – demonstrated clearly the evolving nature of tourism.

Today, even the world’s great monuments and landscapes are not enough for the tourist. They need to have enhanced personal experiences; jungles need zip wiring, deserts need a 4WD experience whilst Uluru needs skydiving. Of course, for the tourism industry it’s all about increasing the dwell time and spending at each location.

But does it also say something about the changing nature of travel and tourism? Increasingly it’s “selfie tourism” we see, or more simply “I did this” tourism, especially for the young.

Perhaps, because the actual act of travel is so easy, not taking up all our time and energy, tourists now need to self-induce adrenaline into their holiday. But in the process, aren’t we in danger of losing connection with what we are there to see and learn from?

Roger’s worst moments

Roger’s worst moments

Following Hilary’s list of worst moments, there’s been requests for Roger to publish his. Not as dramatic, but hopefully they reveal our travels haven’t been pure sailing.

Arriving in Calgary

IMG_5811It just seemed a mistake. Texas had been warm and sunny, then suddenly we landed in a freezing, snowing, concrete city seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It hadn’t been planned like this. I expected a Canadian spring and the escape of camping up near Banff and Jasper.

Anyway, to get warm, we checked into a boutique hotel, and in the end loved the “winter wonderland ” of the Canadian Rockies.

“Incident” in Banos

We were coming down the steep path from the statue of the Virgin Mary in Banos, Ecuador, when I saw the young lad coming towards us. His eyes were staring, and as he passed me he lunged towards Hilary. Luckily I was able to swing round and get my body between him and Hilary and any significant incident was averted.

“Heart attack” on the bus

With my low salt diet I often get cramp, especially in hot climates. This happened on the long-distance bus in Northern Chile, and I stood up suddenly grimacing. All the young local women around us, who saw me as a white-haired old man, and who didn’t understand Hilary’s reassurances, thought I was having a heart attack and got very concerned.

Sleeping on the edge

IMG_0817Way back in Italy, we stayed the night in a cheap hotel in Matera. It was an old structure, literally built-out over the side of a massive gorge.

Once I realised that, all I could think of, as I lay in bed during the night, was an earthquake sending the hotel – and us – down into obliteration. I was very pleased to leave early in the morning.

The road heading into Argentina

And here’s more evidence I have a fear of being by vertical edges. After we left the Atacama Desert, the high road over the Andes into Argentina dropped down into a dramatic valley, through a series of breathtaking hairpin bends.

Trouble was, I was totally convinced the bus driver would, in a moment of distraction, lose control, and we would all disappear over the edge. I simply had to close my eyes, and breathe deeply.

Losing each other in Joshua Tree

IMG_5087It got dark deceptively quickly after sunset in the National Park. So it wasn’t a smart idea to wander off to photograph silhouetted images of the trees against the sunset sky and get separated from Hilary.

Returning to the car, it was pretty dark, and I was worried when Hilary wasn’t there. My calls went unanswered; she was nowhere close. In fact, she was out searching for me.

Of course we eventually both met up again at the car, and strong language was used. This warned us to be more careful; it would have been so easy to get disorientated and stranded in the dark.

On the bridge

Finally, the distressing moment on the Golden Gate Bridge when I watched a young girl float away. Elsewhere on this blog there’s a post on this.

Hilary’s worst moments

Hilary’s worst moments

We thought you might like to read about some of our less glamorous moments. Here are Hilary’s six worst so far:

Meltdown in Puerto Iguacu, Argentina

As it was a Saturday night we had booked a hostel in advance, but booking.com let us down; when we turned up, our room was taken. It was the end of the day, very hot, I was tired, my backpack was heavy, I hadn’t eaten and meltdown happened… Roger became the hero of the hour and carried both backpacks as we tramped around trying to find somewhere else!

Shitting in my pants in the street in San Pedro de Atacama

After a long journey, we were starving and tucked into a hearty pizza for lunch at what seemed to be a nice restaurant. But within hours my stomach was feeling dodgy. Later, whilst out for an early evening walk, the worst happened! There was no controlling it, just a quick dash back to our hostel…

A massive argument with Roger in Quito about our return date

Roger wanted to extend our year of travelling because he loves it so much, and we can’t get back into our house until mid-December. I enjoy the travelling but I am missing my children and friends and I’m also totally exhausted and know I cannot last beyond 12 months. After an hour Roger agreed.

Night in a cheap hotel in San Rivas Gerardo, Costa Rica

Being built into the rock face, it had seemed quite a wacky place when we checked in… but when we switched the lights off in our bedroom at night, a whole swarm of noisy insects came out of the corners of the room and attached me! A massive moth got caught in my hair, another large buzzing  insect hit my face and everywhere there was a loud drone of others. I freaked!

Bus ride to Iquique in Chile

It was always going to be a long 28 hour bus trip, but then it got even longer. The bus broke down at midnight on a two-way highway sided by cliffs. To save the battery, the driver then IMG_3096switched off all the lights whilst we had lorries hurtling by in the outside lane. Roger and I got off the bus and stood in the freezing cold for two hours, lest it got run into. The other passengers thought we were mad! Suffice to say, a replacement bus turned up two hours later and we all got to Iquique safely by 11pm the next night.

Losing my favourite scarf on the bus to Paraguay

How I loved that blue and black scarf; I wore it everywhere for five years because it was so practical (see photo taken in Chile). It didn’t show the dirt, kept me warm as a scarf and cool as a headscarf and went with virtually every top in my wardrobe. But alas. On a long overnight bus journey from Formosa my scarf must have fallen onto the floor, so I didn’t see it when we left. I realised about an hour later and tramped back to the bus station in fierce heat, but it was too late, the bus had already departed.

Guest blog from Stephanie

Guest blog from Stephanie

We were delighted to be joined for ten days by Stephanie, Hilary’s sister. Here she writes about “the truth behind the blog”.

I was happy to join Hil and Roger in one of the gentler stages of their round-the-world tour. Not just for a nice holiday in California and an opportunity to see my dear sister and brother-in-law again – but also for a chance to study the day-to-day mechanics of their trip. Because let’s face it there’s not IMG_6561much personal info coming across in this blog is there folks? The decision has been taken at some stage to target it at that elusive creature the interested stranger. Well sorry, but my post is not for her fickle glance (yes, Hil, I am trying to stick to your feminist preachings) but rather for those who know and love Hil and Roger.

They did one personal post last month about how they were still friends – and some practical tips on how they stayed that way. What struck me anew is their basic compatibility. They are both morning/daytime people. They like hiking, they’re prepared to rough it and are quite happy living spartan lives. They are both positive, energetic people who like to plan ahead and organise. They search out above all the grand wonders of nature. Of course they are interested also in man-made landscapes plus all the human elements, but I think it’s fair to say that above all they like the great outdoors. That’s true especially for Hil.

IMG_4766When I first suggested joining them in California I had planned a couple of days in San Francisco and then chilling out by the beach the rest of the time. But Hil and Roger are really not chilling-out types of guys! I quote Hil’s email: “We loved the look of the Airbnb in Monterey, but just wondering if you want this for so many nights? We could do 4 nights there and perhaps 4 nights somewhere else. Do you want to spend all your time on the beach, once we leave San Francisco?”. Obviously “yes” was not an option here! And in fact I’m glad we went inland and saw the wild interior of California as well as the civilised coast. As well as the wonders of Yosemite.

So a typical day with them is as follows:

1. Rise EARLY – 6.15 am was the earliest – shower and dress
2. Porridge and fruit for breakfast then prepare packed lunch (sandwiches containing avocado and peppers, peanut butter and bananas – plus fruit)
3. Then set off for the destination planned the previous night, taking in all the sights en route. Mode of transport: car if necessary, but preferably foot and/or bike.
4. Frequent stops for photo-shoots. Roger doesn’t hesitate to rope in passers-by to do group photos – normally they seem happy to oblige.
5. Lunch doesn’t usually last long before we’re off again
6. Journeys home are always interrupted by more photo-shoots plus detours
7. Arrive home as late as 19.30 having been on the go all day
8. Supper is quickly prepared. Typical meals are rice or pasta with beans and veg. (though I pride myself on introducing couscous into their diet: even faster to prepare), then fruit. Roger will drink a beer but Hil mainly eschews alcohol now.
9. Not surprisingly after such a long day they rarely go out in the evening as well but Roger settles down to editing his photos. He is a passionate photographer despite being limited now to iphone and ipad, and does wonders with the inbuilt editing tools – though Hil also has taken some great shots under his tutelage. Fascinating to be with someone who obviously looks at the world from the view of potential photographs.
10. Other evening activities: catching up with news and emails, reading, skyping children, updating blog, planning the day ahead
11. Then it’s bedtime around 10.30 – 11pm. I would be impressed if they also fitted sex into their schedule. Roger claims they do, but he would, wouldn’t he?

IMG_4872And this is only a typical day for the easy stages of their trip where they hire a car. Hil pointed out how this changes the whole dynamics. Without a car they are limited to their back-packs and cannot carry food around, so are forced to eat out and live quite differently – and less easily.

“We wanted to push ourselves outside our comfort-zone” is a remark of theirs which remains with me.

Dear Hil and Roger, thanks so much each of you for acting variously as companion, sherpa, planner, driver, navigator and cook: you helped me have a great and memorable holiday.

Bonne continuation to you both.

Stephanie

Into California

Into California

Our twelfth State. Crossing the State Line we were asked “Do you have any produce?”. Roger answered “What do you mean by produce?” and we were charmingly waved through.

The more you get to know America, the more you appreciate the edgy differences between the States. It’s more than slogans proudly displayed on number plates. Different laws, different cultures, different accents and very different political views.

Ask an American travelling abroad where they come from, and they’ll always reply with the State first. They’ll get emotional standing for the Stars and Stripes but are very proud to be an Iowan, an Oregonian or a Texan. Looking into America from the outside, we can often forget that.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and a world of faith

Jehovah’s Witnesses and a world of faith

Throughout our travels, we have seen Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on street corners. They are everywhere in North and South America; a colossal effort to spread word of their faith.

But surely Donna, Terra and Tom have the prettiest place – sitting in the riverside park at Bend.

It was interesting to talk to these lovely people about their belief and how it acts as a pathway in their lives. We also realised if we took up their faith we could get free accommodation all over the world!

And Roger later read the book What does the Bible really teach? Understanding others people’s world views is surely part of the travelling experience. And even secularists need to appreciate that faith is a key driver in the world today.

Over the past six months we have seen many extraordinary buildings celebrating religious faith. But it is always the people worshipping, or praying, or crying inside – that makes us reflect most.