Category Archives: Asia

Travelogue RWC 2019: Fuji

FUJIYOSHIDA
01-04 October 2019

We flew in from Jeju Island in South Korea to meet up with our friends from home, Michele and Ian, with whom we’d be spending our last few days in Japan.

Having not visited Fuji on our previous trip to Japan in 2015, it was an easy choice to get out of the rush of the big cities for a breather for our friends after a week in Tokyo and for some slower movements for us after a whirlwind trip.

By the time our plane landed, our friends had already done the admin for our rental car, so we jumped on the rental company’s shuttle to go and collect our vehicle.

We had been quite considerably upgraded from a Mazda 5 to a Toyota, which was a very luxurious people carrier with all sorts of bells and whistles, like a neon interior light that ran around the edge of the roof and the colour of which could be changed using the panel on the roof. Who know what else that panel controlled – all the instructions were in Japanese – and we were too cautious to press and prod randomly quite yet.

It took about 2 and a half hours to get to our Airbnb rental (motorway all the way it was an easy drive but with a speed limit of 100kph it was slower going than we’re used to).

Our host, Tom, was there to meet us and delivered a painstaking hour-long tour that explained every knob and button in the house… And there were hundreds of them since the house had every possible modcon and accessory, including electric windows, jet bath, an automated toilet and a sound system that could permanently damage your ears if you cranked it to full potential!

With lots of nodding and subtle hunting, we managed to marginally expedite the tour, which concluded with a Google Earth virtual tour of the neighbourhood since we’d asked where we could get fed and watered.

Our house, although not situated in the country as we’d imagined it would be, was in a very convenient location, walking distance from a few blocks of wall-to-wall entertainment.

We headed out on foot, crossed the tracks and scanned a few of the narrow streets looking for something of interest.

We found a tiny little bar, attracted by the signage outside that broadcast its English menu and English staff acting as voluntary tour guides that were enthusiastic to share info about the area, Japanese culture etc.

We entered to find 8 stools facing the barman, who had an assortment of liquors displayed on the shelf behind him. There was a Western couple on the two far right seats and two Japanese gents on the two far left ones, leaving four in the middle for us. Perfect.

We settled in, ordered Japanese beers and sake, and tuned into the conversation the barman was having with the couple on the right (from Manchester), giving them the lowdown on what there was to do and see in the area.

Our barman, Don, was from California and had been called to Japan on short notice 3 years earlier with the opportunity to be an emergency substitute English teacher; loved the experience and wanted to stay on so partnered with a local to open this bar. He had great advice on what we could do to keep ourselves entertained.

Don ordered us pizzas from the place across the road and, with Christian playing DJ, we spent several hours in our lovely cosy pub, bonding with the stream of Japanese people that floated in and out for a stop on their pub crawl.

When it was time to close, Don walked us down to an all-night Karaoke bar where we had a nightcap and broke the wailing Japanese ballad medley with a catterwauling group rendition of Yellowcard’s song “Ocean Avenue”.

Needless to say, Wednesday started late. Fortunately there had been a midnight mission to 7 Eleven so we had supplies to make lifesaving toasted sarmies for breakfast.

It also took quite a long time for us to get ready and moving, largely fuelled by the fact that our house was so conducive to lounging about and Michele had a load of washing to do, which was an excellent reason to stay put.

Mid-afternoon we were ready to face the world.

Although the famous Chureito Pagoda was walking distance from home, we took the car as we wanted to go and see the lake from there and that was just far enough to nix any ideas of an ambitious walk. Good thing too because there are 398 steps up to the pagoda so we needed to be fresh!

The Pagoda was built in 1958 at a cost of cost 10 million Yen (mostly funded by the citizens) by the mayor of Fujiyoshida to enshrine the citizens who died in the wars since 1868 (Sino-Japanese War, Russo-Japanese War, WW1 and WW2).

It’s a 5 storey traditional pagoda that looks familiar, so must be quite iconic and used quite broadly as a Japanese symbol.

Having been pre-prepped by Don, we didn’t hesitate to climb the stairs behind the pagoda to get the archetypical photo with the pagoda on the one side and Mount Fuji on the other.

Then it was on to Lake Kawaguchi, the second biggest of the Fuji Five Lakes, but the most popular and set up for tourists, with hotels and shops around the shoreline and lots of boating, sailing and other watersport activities available for hire.

We sat quietly and admired the water over and ice cold Coke, jokingly trying to convince Ian to hire a panda pedalo.

He was more interested in getting a steak. Having been very sporting about eating the local foods during our trip, which is lots of noodles, rice, soups, veg and quite low meat, we were keen to support that idea.

One of the friends we’d made at Don’s bar the night before was a butcher and had told us the name of his shop, so we hatched a plot to go an surprise him with a visit.

Onishi Butchery was just around the corner from the Lake and within a few minutes we were at the counter ordering Wagyu steaks, bacon and pork skewers. Our friend was delighted to see us and since we had no shared language between us, there was lots of smiling, giggling and photo-taking to fill the gap.

The steaks were delicious! Christian pan-fried them at high heat to sear them and then cut them into strips so we could savour the juicy flavour in small bites.

Don had warned us that everything opens quite late in our town, to tie in with people coming back from work, so he only opens his bar at around 18h30 and, for example, the ramen place opposite him only opens at 20h00, so we knew not to head out too early.

It was easy to keep ourselves entertained at our house, with our big screen online TV and each other for company. Had we not committed to returning to Don for a Japanese beer tasting, we could happily have stayed home.

But we went. And good thing too because not only had Don gotten in beer stocks especially for us, but he had also lined up a special guest star – a South African friend of his, all the way from Klerksdorp! Ian’s home town!

It was very interesting to hear his experiences, his take on Japanese life and his opinions on what’s happening back home based on the news and updates he gets.

We stayed probably longer than we should have, sampling 5 different Japanese beers and washing them down with regular tots of sake. Don had specially gotten a bottle of gold tequila to celebrate Ian’s birthday and was intent on making a dent on the bottle, pouring massive quadruple tots at a time for Ian.

It’s wonderfully liberating to have a night like the one we had and be able to walk home afterwards. And the fresh air breathed new life into us and we cranked up the house for a bit of afterparty.

Needless to say, Thursday started late – and with a fry up of the magnificent bacon we’d bought at the butchery.

Using the opportunity for a down day, we enjoyed our house, watching music videos, chatting, taking an afternoon walk around the neighbourhood and buying a vast selection of local meals from the 7Eleven so we could fill in the gaps of what we’d not yet tried in restaurants along the way on our trip.

In the evening we logged into Netflix and watched both seasons of Derry Girls in one big binge watch!

With square eyes we saw in midnight to wish Ian a happy birthday before all toddling off to bed.

We had quite an early start on Friday with our hosts needing us out by 10 so that they could prepare the house for the next residents who were to be arriving that afternoon.

It was good discipline for us given that that job for the day was to roadtrip down the coast through Shizuoka to Hamamatsu, which would serve as our homebase for the night while the boys went to rugby and Mich and I entertained ourselves.

By getting out earlier, we were afforded time to make a few stops on the way.

The first was the Aokigahara Forest which is dubbed ‘Suicide Forest’ because of the astounding number of people that have chosen it as the location to meet their maker.

With the forest bedded on lava from a Mount Fuji eruption, the mineral content has impacted that ecosystem such that there are only select plants, insects and animals that thrive there, making the forest quieter, eerier and even more isolated than a normal humanless forest. I imagine that sort of solitude can’t be good for someone who is already teetering on the brink.

More trees, but less sinister, at Miho Pine Grove where legend has it that a fisherman called Hakuryo happened upon a beautiful robe called “Hagoromo”. He was going to take the robe for himself when a maiden appeared and said it was her robe and she needed it to get back home. Begrudgingly the fisherman complied on condition that she show him her celestial Dance, which she did and off she went.

Emerging on the other side of the pine grove, we accessed the beach; black sand and interesting waters that graded from clear to azure to deep blue on the horizon. A picture perfect spot with sea, sand, forest and Mount Fuji (in the distance in the background) all in one shot.

The thinking had been to have a lovely lunch on the beach to drink in the scenery… But there were no restaurants along the beach so we had to make so with a little place one road in from the beach, that had a stellar online rating. The fact that it was an Italian restaurant didn’t deter us at all since a) South Africa was due to play Italy in a World Cup match that evening, b) we could have seafood pasta in keeping with the beach theme and c) it still looked, felt and sounded like a Japanese restaurant.

We were spoilt for service with 3 Japanese ladies clucking over us, desperate for us to have a good time and enjoy their food. They gave us complimentary soup starters and iced coffee for afters and the one older lady got quite enthusiastic about South Africa when she realised – from a lengthy exchange of charades – that we were there for the game. Her warcries and vigorously air-punching had the Frenchies at the table next to us in stitches.

From there it was just over and hour into Hamamatsu.

We had tactically booked a hotel directly across from the station so it would be easy for the boys to jump on a train to and from their rugby match at Ecopa Stadium, half an hour away.

Mich and I waved them off and did a reccie of the neighbourhood and then returned to our hotel for our complimentary welcome drink while game planning our own evening.

A quick Google revealed that we were in the thick of the action and the Rugby World Cup Fanpark seemed a logical place to start.

From there we needed to tick the Irish Bar box, so found ourselves at the Lord Nelson, where we were fortunate to be seated next to an American Brit who had been raised in Yokohama and spent a year in, of all places, Polokwane! He had a whole new perspective to add and, having lived in Hamamatsu for a few months, was very helpful in directing the rest of our evening.

We took his advice based on the food recommendation, knowing that the boys would be starving after the match and having not eaten since lunch. They were. And were very grateful that we’d already ordered an assortment of things – depe fried camembert, kettle fried potato crisps and a roast beef bowl – so the food came very quickly.

Our pub crawl took a turn for the worst after that though when we got stuck in our second pub, where we integrated with a very cosmopolitan cornerful of people and things went south very quickly, including Christian swapping shirts with a very chatty Japanese chap!

Travelogue RWC 2019: Jeju

JEJU
29 September – 01 October 2019

After having very nearly almost missed our flight from Busan, we were relieved to touch down on the runway in Jeju for the next leg of our trip.

Our hotel was in the town centre of Jeju City, so it was an easy bus ride to get there. We only had large-note paper money so feared being turned away but the bus driver, taking pity on our bedraggled selves and big cases, waved us onto the bus for free instead. The wheel turned though when we got off a stop too early and had to haul ass uphill -and in the drizzling rain that had just started – to get to the Ramada sign that we could see in the distance but that seemed to not get any closer.

Having had quite a heavy weekend and with our East Coast tour starting early the next morning, we decided to play it safe with a tame dinner in our neck of the woods.

It was still lightly drizzling, which we hoped would lift for the next day, but which we knew better than to rely on the weather report for a forecast after the completely random predictions from the weekend in Busan that had seen 99% chance of rain be dry as a bone and 44% be the downpour that had come out of nowhere and drenched us.

Good fortune was on our side though and we awoke to blue skies. Well, patchy blue skies, but that would do.

We met our tour guide, Jin, who ran us through the order of events for the day, predicting rain for 3pm and reassuring us that we’d be done with the outdoorsy stuff by then so it wouldn’t interrupt play for us.

Jin gave us a rundown on Jeju while we drove out of the city.

Geologically, Jeju Island is a shield volcano, first erupting 1.8 million years ago and continuing on and off until recent times. It is bigger than most think before they visit; 3 times the size of Seoul and almost 3 times the size of Singapore, so ideally tourists need 3 or 4 days to see the whole island.

There are 700,000 people living on Jeju and this number is growing with people coming to find a more balanced life than in the cities, like Jin himself who had moved down from Seoul. He spoke fondly of the life and culture on the island, proud that it has no beggars, no thieves and no gates. Jin called it a “cousin’s culture”, where everyone is proud of their heritage, works to preserve it and looks out for their people – and he said it can be tough for outsiders such as himself to break into such a tight circle.

Jeju is also a self-governing province so visa-free for over 180 countries, saving the red tape for countries they term as dangerous, like Afghanistan. Otherwise they welcome foreigners and if those foreigners purchase property for $500k or more they will get a permanent resident visa. The clearly progressive goverment is also pushing electric cars to try reduce pollution, so they subsidise up to 50% of the car’s purchase price to encourage more environmentally friendly road usage.

By this point in the story we had arrived at Manjanggul Cave, a volcanic lava tube that is 7km long, although the accessible bit is only a kilometre. Expecting it to be a narrow tunnel, it was a surprise when we took the steps underground to discover a massive cave.

The walkway had subtle lighting guiding the way, but it was still very dark because if they light it too much then the moss will grow and ruin the cave, and the small lights could only brighten so much of the caves that were easily 3 or 4 metres wide and 5 or 6 metres high in mostly places, but also ballooned into much bigger caves periodically.

The info boards explained in layman’s terms why and how the caves and passages were formed so it was very interesting, even with no geological knowledge at all – and we could know what we were looking at with the likes of the 7.6m high lava column (formed when lava pours down from the ceiling and congeals; Jeju’s is the highest in the world) and Turtle Rock (a dried lava shelf that happens to be exactly the same shape as Jeju Island).

The caves are very cold (between 10 and 15 degrees) and dank, with water dropping from the ceiling so as much as it was a great experience, it was an equally great experience to resurface.

Jin told us that there had been citizens that had hidden in the caves during the genocide of the Jeju Uprising directly preceding the Korean War in 1948, where 10% of the population was killed in the process of trying the quash the rebels. I can’t imagine how awful that must have been!

The next excursion was a visit to the Jeju Gimnyeong Maze Park. We were provided a map and challenged to get to the bell in the centre. Constructed with over 2200 aromatic, green and very samey-samey Leyland Cypress trees, it was a fun challenge to twist and turn through the narrow leafy passages to complete the task.

Jin then took us to Woljeongri beach for a coffee stop to relax and admire the azure ocean and strip of golden sand beach. Fortunately, the weather had held so we were able to walk up and down the beach. With its fringe of shops and restaurants and idyllic waters, it was easy to see how this was described as a perfect holiday resort town.

Lunch was the next exercise and we were signed up to try the pork for which Jeju is famous; tender rashers marinated and served in a spicy basting. Jeju, however, is also infamous for pork of another kind, where old traditional houses used to use pigs as their sanitation systems. Outdoor toilets channelled the waste to adjacent pig pens, where the pigs would eat the matter and then of course later be eaten themselves. Quite efficient. But also very gross.

Rested and refuelled, we headed to Seongsan Ilchulbong for our hike up the crater. As a Tuff Cone Hydro volcano formed by the ocean about 5-7 thousand years ago and detached from the mainland, what has evolved and remains today is a perfect dormant crater easily accessible from the island which, after climbing the 553 stone steps to get to the top, allows spectacular panoramic views of the island, neighbouring Udo island and the ocean. Completely worth the effort.

At the bottom of the crater is a cove where the Haenyeo lady divers can be seen. These (mostly old) ladies are known for diving for conches and abalones without any equipment. They sell their hauls and supply the restaurant in the cove, which I suspect must be some of the freshest seafood you’ll ever have the pleasure of eating.

Hot and sticky from our walk, we were surprised with a bonus stop that hadn’t been described on the itinerary; a lesson in aromatherapy massage.

We were led through very pretty and perfectly manicured gardens to a very Zen looking and sounding room which had rows and rows of golden basins sunk into the floor. Jin sat us down in an area facing a wall of glass window overlooking the gardens.

We were told to put our feet into the basins which were half-filled with scorching hot water. We could add a little cold, but were told to try and tolerate as hot as possible.

The water already had rosemary drops in it (so it smelt delicious since I only associate rosemary with roast chicken) and Jin squeezed in some rose and peppermint oils. The aroma off the hot water was heavenly!

Jin guided us through a series of breathing exercises, through nose-only first then deep breaths through mouth only, to use the scents to open up sinuses and chest. Then we were given salts to use to scrub feet, lower legs and then hands, ending off with a pat dry and rubbing rosemary moisturising oils into the bits we’d just exfoliated, while Jin drizzled a few drops of peppermint and rosemary oil on the top of our shoulders and back of the neck.

With feet glowing and shoulders buzzing, it seemed a shame to have to put socks and shoes back on to return to the bus pausing for commemorative photos in the pretty gardens en route.

Our last stop for the afternoon was the small village of traditional Jeju style houses. In an effort to preserve the heritage, the goverment pays for the repair of the houses so there are still people living in them to provide a living museum of sorts.

We saw the infamous pig-cleaning toilet setup (!!) and Jin showed us other adaptions that the Jeju people have had to make to adapt to their environment, eg with the island being very windy, they have to tie the thatched roof down with rope. Bearing in mind Jeju was expecting its 6th typhoon for the year on Wednesday (no doubt “44% chance of…”), the government must be shelling out pretty consistently to keep repairing these relatively fragile constructions, so good on them for their continued commitment.

With the tour done and so much seen, we were herded to the bus to try and get ahead of the dreaded rush hour traffic on our return to town. The driver put foot to get us there, as the rain started. Jin’s prediction had been off by a couple of hours, lucky for us.

It was tough choice to decide what to have for our last supper in South Korea, but we settled on Chicken & Beer as a sure winner. We consulted Google Maps and got to a very traditional (and by traditional I mean ‘no English menu’) restaurant. It took some charades and a translator app for us to muddle and order through, but we got the Soju and Cass right away so there was some wriggle room with the rest.

We needn’t have feared; we were served a massive platter of chicken – some crumbed and deep fried and some in a sticky sweet chilli sauce – with all sorts of side dishes. The kind of feast you need to just dive into sans reservations and then wet-wipe yourself back to presentable afterwards. Which we did.

Since the rain had started coming down harder while we were eating, we were compelled to get another bottle of Soju to wait out the storm and soak in our last night.

Travelogue RWC 2019: Busan

BUSAN
27-29 September 2019

We very nearly really didn’t get to Busan. First we got to the subway station, where we knew that tickets are a cash-only sale and we knew we didn’t have enough cash, but we assumed there would be a cash machine there.

There was not.

No mind, we took the escalators back up to ground level and went into our trusty 7-11, but the ATM didn’t accept VISA cards (?!) so we went into the shopping mall that occupied the first few floors below the hotel we’d been staying in. No ATM machine.

So we split up, me with the suitcases at the top of the subway station escalators so that Christian could move quickly to find the nearest cash machine.

Well, I still don’t really know where it was because on his return Christian was beyond reasonable conversation, having had a frustrating experience finding an English- and Visa-friendly ATM.

But he had. And we were on our way again.

Confidently we punched in Incheon International Airport Terminal 2 – reasoning that we’d landed at Terminal 1 on our flight in from Japan, so 2 was likely to be Domestic – and again we were on our merry way.

It was only when the train pulled up at Gimpo Airport (another airport entirely, that hadn’t occurred to us at all) a few stops later that we even questioned if we were going to the right airport.

With the train doors opening at Gimpo we scrambled to find the plastic sleeve with all our booking info and there it was “Departure: Seoul (Gimpo)”. We’d spotted it in the nick of time so we hurtled toward the train door to get out at this correct station.

Thank heavens both airports are on the same subway line or we’d have found out too late and missed our flight!

Our hosts in Busan, Ji and Neo, had at least had the foresight to prepare us for what to expect and how to get to them, so it was simple to exit the Arrivals Hall and find the Limousine Bus office to get our tickets to the Bexco stop, where we’d arranged to meet them.

With 10 minutes in hand, there was just enough time to grab a quick sarmie from the 7-11 for padkos on the bus.

Pulling into Busan, we were met with terrible traffic. But it was just after 5pm on a Friday evening so it’s probably to be expected wherever you are in the world.

We had no sooner got all our selves and our bags off the bus than we heard a hooter and presto! There were our friends come to meet us!

Ji was driving but Neo jumped out and loaded our things and us into their people carrier. There were 3 juniors in the back, 2 of whom we’d only met when they were babies (and were now tweens) and a new baby (already 8 years old) that we’d never met.

There was much excitement as we shared stories of where we’d been and what we’d been doing for the almost 10 years since we’d last seen each other – but besides the physical human evidence that time had passed, it felt like no time had passed between us at all. Good friends just pick up where they’ve left off.

We were staying at a B&B around the corner from the Binedell clan, so as not to get underfoot with the existing schedules that were already being relaxed and stretched for our benefit. First stop was thus logically to drop off our bags so that the admin was done and we could relax and go with the flow for the rest of the evening.

When it had come time to book, the B&B had already been quite full with a group of athletes having block booked all the suites with Western beds so we were allocated a Korean bed room.

On check in we discovered that this meant a laminate square room with stack of thin mattresses and pillows in the corner, a washing machine fitted onto the wall of the room (genius) and leaving shoes at the door so as to only be barefoot in the living / sleeping space. We’re always all for trying the local things, so were delighted with our digs for the weekend.

Back in the car we climbed the hill with its twists and turns to get to the Binedell’s apartment block. Completely converse to our suburban living at home, their suburb is a collection of high rise blocks with spacious family living apartments. Being on the bottom floor, they have the best of the garden view and none of the admin of maintaining it.

We settled around the dining room table – having barely taken a breath between stories since the meeting at the bus stop – and enjoyed a welcome drink, Neo’s favourite Somaek which is a mix of Soju (South Korea’s speciality, a clear, colourless distilled liquor) and beer. Soju is a bit sweet so gives the beer a good edge.

We had a few of those, while Ji made some dumplings for nibbles and we chatted about anything and everything. We caught up on shared friends – now spread all over the planet – reminisced about old times, reviewed the present and guessed at the future, and learnt a lot about Korean culture and food.

For dinner we took a walk down to a local restaurant where we feasted Korean barbecue style. Platters of thinly sliced and rolled raw meat (we had beef and pork) were delivered to the table to be self-cooked on the gas skillet bedded in the middle of the table, and there was a buffet of sides to either also cook on the grill or add to the juicy meaty bits raw for crunch. And of course rice.

It’s a wonderfully social way to eat with the best of both in that the first bites are ready in minutes and the rest of the eating process can be drawn out over a couple of hours, to allow lots of conversation and laughs and more drinks and more laughs.

We’d been seated at a long table at the end of the restaurant and collapsible doors had been drawn to give us a private dining room, but there kids were out of sight as soon as they’d eaten, preferring to entertain themselves in the lounge rather than have their style cramped by us old people.

The walk home to the Binedell’s apartment was welcome, as it is always great to get some fresh air and the blood flowing to move dinner and clear the head.

And a very good tactical move too, to have a pause before we got home for nightcaps and then headed out again for Round 2.

As Neo had told us, the South Korean night out generally has a few stops, eating and drinking along the way. We had technically had 2 stops already with the welcome drinks and dinner, so were compelled by custom to have a nightcap (or 2). Ji had volunteered to be on kid-watch duty so Neo was tasked with accompanying us to our neck of the woods, where there were several night spots – mostly 24 hours – right behind our B&B.

We got ourselves a booth in a cosy little restaurant/bar where most tables were still eating even though it was well past midnight, and ordered a jug of beer.

Fortunately Neo let us off the Soju on this last episode but nonetheless, the beer was enough to end play for the day.

We walked back to our B&B and giggled as we figured out our room and made up our beds. When I initially lay down I thought the mattress was bloody uncomfortable… Until I discovered that Christian had laid them upside down so the discomfort was from the sticky little bubbles that are supposed to grip the floor and were now gripping my sweaty flesh.

More giggles and a remake later, we were asleep immediately.

Neo had said that Soju is a kind drink on the next morning and I hadn’t believed him… Until I woke up nine hours later, fresh as a daisy. Not sure if it’s the Korean bed or the Soju that should get the credit, but I was super grateful.

Christian was a bit more the worse for wear, but it didn’t last for long, thanks to a great shower, doorstop of toast and glass of Coke in the B&B’s kitchen… And Neo (with Xuri, the littlest, in tow) arriving with ‘regmaker’ beers!

We’d made the arrangements the previous night, than since Ji had to fetch and carry kids to Saturday morning school commitments, Neo was going to make his way to us and we would then head towards the beach and meet Ji and the kids somewhere there.

It took us so long to get ourselves together though, that we ended up just sitting on the deck outside the CU convenience store downstairs and waiting for Ji to pick us up.

The whole party reunited, we drove to Haeundae Beach. The traffic was again something terrible and by the time we arrived, the clouds had rolled in and it was raining. Not ideal beach weather at all.

We diverted to the food stalls market and started nibbling inside a seafood stall where I finally got to try the snack we’d seen everywhere but didn’t know what it was. It looked like a skewered wavy length of stiff dough and seemed to be served in a cup of something we’d assumed to be dipping sauce. Turned out that it’s called Eomukgok and it’s actually ground and compacted fish and the stuff in the cup is a hearty fishy broth. Really delicious. And a great accompaniment to the selection of tempura that complemented the spongy fish with battered crunchiness.

We’d hoped our snacking would see us through the rain but, alas, as we made our way down the food stall alley the rain got worse not better and by the time we circled back to the beach itself for our pictures, it was bucketing down and we got soaked!

Rationalising that we were actually more interested in each other’s company than braving the elements for the view, we retreated back to the Binedell’s apartment, stopping for a few supplies en route.

It was a great decision. The kids could get on with what they wanted to do, we could yack and yack, Neo could pour a steady stream of drinks, Ji sorted an endless flow of nibbles and by the time it came to nachos (middle child Xander’s request), I was even grabbing a session in Ji’s full body massage chair! We had had a brilliant evening, totally chilled and doing what we do best; making memories with good mates.

With intentions of an earlier start to make the most of what we hoped to be a sunny Sunday, we maintained better decorum and decided to forego the Last Rounds pub crawl of the previous night and grabbed a taxi back to the B&B at around midnight.

We awoke on Sunday morning to a patchy sky that was encouragingly blue in places and decided to back optimism, wear shorts and embark on the tourist trail we’d originally intended for the weekend.

Ji, Neo and Xuri fetched us and we started with a visit to Yonggungsa Temple.

The rain from the previous day could still be felt in the air and it was hot and humid. But it wasn’t raining, so we counted our blessings (in an appropriate location to be doing so).

The walk to the temple runs through a food market and we recognised some of the things from the day before, but discovered some all-new marvels that took some explaining too.

The temple itself is old and beautiful, set right on shoreline but on the rock cliffs so with magnificent views of the ocean below. Signage said that this was the most beautiful temple in South Korea and with limited comparisons and the spectacular setting, it was hard to argue with that.

On the way out I stopped in the food market to get a snack for us. I choose a flat octopus which the lady quickly heated up on a flat grill, like a toasted sandwich press and chopped into slices. It was delicious!

Continuing the eating tour, we drove to Songjeong Beach where Neo ordered Korokke while we admired the beach and then we had our senses delighted with deep fried crab croquettes.

We drove down the coast past Haeundae Beach that we’d visited the day before and on to Gwangalli Beach, where we parked the car and went for actual lunch.

We ticked off another new meal box with Korean Fried Chicken (KFC); mountains of crunchy chicken wings, sticky chicken pieces and tender juicy breaded chicken pieces that looked like they came from a monster bird!

We left lunch a little later than we should have and instead of being able to enjoy our drive across the Gwangan Bridge, we had already started to worry a bit about missing our bus to the airport. Our fate was sealed when we ran into more traffic and we resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d missed the 3.17 bus, and that we would catch the next one at 3.47, which would be very very tight for our 5.05 flight, especially bearing in mind the bus would have to beat the same traffic to get there.

Then the bus was late.

Arriving close to 4pm, it was a nailbiter all the way to the airport, with Ji madly researching on her phone and calling the airline to say the bus had been late, and sending us maps of the terminal so that we knew what to expect when we got there.

Our hearts sank as we watched the big red digital clock numbers at the front of the bus tick over. 4.20… 4.30… 4.40… The airline website had said gates close 20 minutes before the flight so when 4.45 ticked past, we’d all but lost hope.

But in a last little burst for freedom, the bus seemed to pop out of the confines of the city and made up incredible distance in the last few minutes.

At 4.49 the bus pulled up in front of the terminal. By the time it came to a complete stop, I was pressing against the doors, passports in hand.

I sprinted across the airport and up to the check in desk, thrusting our passports at the lady, wordlessly panting. She reviewed the passports, typed something into her terminal and asked me where my other passenger and bags were.

Miraculously, Christian caught up with me just then, with our suitcases. The lady checked us in and told us it was too late to check the baggage so we’d have to take it with us.

She escorted us as we three dashed at madman’s pace across the terminal and all the way to the boarding gate to ensure we got on the plane.

All was indeed well that ended well and we were off to Jeju.

What an excellent weekend it had been and thanks to the rainy weather on Saturday, we still had a full day’s unused itinerary to use as an excuse to come back and visit our lovely hosts again!

Travelogue RWC 2019: Seoul

SEOUL
24-27 September 2019

While we were in the neighbourhood (relatively speaking, having been in Japan), we thought we’d take the opportunity to hop over to visit South Korea.

We had booked the flight from Sapporo to Seoul several months before so were dismayed when we got an email notification a couple of weeks before travel that the flight was cancelled. It worked out for the best though because we found another flight on another airline at around the same sort of timing – and for half the price!

Once on the plane we surmised the cancellation was owing to not meeting minimum numbers because our new flight was not even half full. Their loss; we had a very comfortable 3 hour flight with our new hosts on Jin Airlines.

It was very exciting approaching Seoul with an aerial view. It’s awesome for most cities to come to life after the amount of 2 dimensional planning we put into our trips, but Seoul looked especially surreal from the air with its massive bodies of water and long snaking causeways carrying the tiny little cars inching across them. Or maybe that was just the airport; it remained to be seen.

From our pre-trip research, we knew that public transport would easily get us to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Hongdae, which we’d booked expressly for its location directly above the train station on the line that ran straight from the airport without requiring any connections.

Although the Info desk did a hard sell on the M-Pass, an all-inclusive travel card exclusively for tourists, some quick mental maths decided for us that doing single tickets as we went would be a more economical option.

With no such thing as to let offices, we were on our own with the self-help ticket machines. Fortunately, there was instruction in English and our destination was easy to spot so we were soon on our way into Seoul.

The hotel was as easy to find as it had promised online, but the ‘no view’ description of the standard room we’d booked wasn’t quite as accurate. Turned out that we did have a view… Of the elevator lobby on our floor! We had an interior room with a window facing across the atrium and onto the lifts and passage so not only did we have a view, but so did the other people of the 16th floor! Or they would have had, had we chosen to keep the blinds and curtains open.

We had pre-booked a 2 day tour, not wanting to risk missing anything on our short hop through such a massive city. The first day was to be a city our and the second a trip to the Demilitarised Zone separating North and South Korea. With our tour guide doing the heavy lifting, there was no pressure on us to do anything of consequence on our first night so we decided to explore home base.

Since we were in the heart of the Hongdik University area, there was lots to do and lots of students already out and about doing it.

Across from our hotel was a pedestrian street lined with bars and restaurants shouting out who knows what from busy lightboxes covered in Korean hieroglyphs. Through the middle ran a long strip of park, where countless young people were gathered in little groups sharing a pizza, a picnic or a laugh. A very relaxed atmosphere; chilling and enjoying the evening.

We were hungry and ready for dinner, but deciding between all the options was quite overwhelming. On the one hand we’d intended not to fall back on western / chain food. On the other, having no idea what the Korean writing meant, it was near impossible to figure out what the traditional stuff was that was on offer or how much anything costed.

We ended up doing a full circuit to the end of the pedestrian area and back before settling on a place almost across the road from our hotel, with our choice based purely on what we (thought we) could decide from the bright pictures on the lightbox outside.

We had dakgalbi; a spicy chicken stir fry mixed with cabbage, carrots and thick fingers of udon noodles and served at the table in a skillet which is placed on the element fixed on the table top. A thick vein of grated cheese runs through the middle of the stir fry and you stir in the cheese as it melts in order to blend as you eat. Stringy mozzarella is no mean feat with chopsticks, I can tell you! We ordered Level 2 of 4 on the spicy scale and it was HOT. Definitely not for sissies!

Very pleased with ourselves for sticking to our traditional guns, we did an after dinner walk around the other side of our hood, which looked a lot sleazier, with more neon and what looked suspiciously like strip clubs. It wasn’t entirely a surprise since this neighbourhood had a reputation for clubbing and, clearly, other nocturnal activities.

We weren’t getting sucked in though since we had an early start, with our guide picking us up from our hotel at 8.15 the following morning.

Early start or no early start, we were determined to make time for a hearty breakfast at the hotel. We were expecting a continental and local combination but were surprised and delighted to find bacon, eggs and sausages, over and above the predictable local fare.

With full bellies, we met with our tour guide, Stella, who took us to our bus. We were the second of five stops to gather our group for the tour; the usual motley collection of Brits, Aussies, an American and us.

Our induction to the tour was Jogyesa Temple built during the Joseon dynasty in 1395 and refurbished in 1910. Stella told us a bit about it, most of which we missed acclimating to her accent but the gist seemed to be about praying to a specific one of the three massive golden Buddha’s depending on what you were asking for. She also told us that with big movement to Christianity and bigger movement to atheism, Buddhism in general is shrinking in South Korea.

From there we needed to zoot over to the Gyeongbokgung Palace (“the palace greatly blessed by heaven”), which was completed in 1395, but deconstructed and rebuilt several times after Japanese invasions. Being the first royal palace built in the Joseon Dynasty, it’s where their 500 year history began and is the grandest of the 5 remaining palaces in Seoul.

The rush for us to get there was to view the changing of the guards, which is a spirited affair with a large band procession leading and timing a procession of guards wielding flags and weapons. All dressed in brightly coloured tunics, they certainly present a very different representation of authority than their camo-clad modern counterparts.

Following the formal proceedings, Stella lead us through the palace gates towards the Royal residence and only when she started her narration did she realise we were short a group member. We’d lost Sanjeev. Among hordes of people. After being told that we had to stick together because it was so easy to get separated.

Stella flapped around panicking and rattling rapidfire Korean into her phone to who knows whom while the rest of us swapped stories, took photos and DID NOT MOVE, as we’d been emphatically instructed by Stella several times.

Sanjeev found us again quite by chance, was quite sheepish at having caused the fuss and we were without a further word about it and living the Dynasty life of concubines and heirs and quirks that come along with the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

The next excursion caught us quite by surprise since it wasn’t listed on the tour we’d booked. We were taken to a Hanbok store and dressed up in traditional outfits. I got a rather fetching poofy white satin number with big bright purple flowers and Christian chose for himself, quite by accident, a King’s outfit with regal blue jacket with silver embroidery.

Once dressed, we were turned past hair and accessories for clips and costume shoes before being presented to the photographer for couples and groups shots. Not something we would have opted to do, but made for some fun memorable pics and we had a laugh with our tour mates.

… which made for better company and more conversation at the group lunch where we enjoyed traditional Korean Barbecue, beers and Soju.

Back in civvies, we were taken to Bukchon Hanok Village; one of the last bastions of traditional Hanok houses from the Joseon period. Retaining the old city appearance and being in such short supply, the houses sell for millions of Dollars, even though the residents are not allowed to alter the appearance of their houses and often have to park their fancy cars outside the suburb and walk to their house.

The tour ended off a climb (in the bus) up the hill so we could get a spectacular panoramic view of Seoul. It’s indescribably massive. On the one side was sprawling suburban living creeping up the side of a mountain; on the other was a sea of skyscrapers as far as the eye could see.

While city blocks seem to be step-repeated, as if a big 3D Lego stamp had made its way across the horizon. We had noticed on the ground that the skyscraper buildings were clustered, to the point that a collection of identical buildings would have massive numbers painted on the side so you could tell them apart. Presumably this is what happens when a country (re)builds itself with the astonishing efficiency that South Korea has.

The bus had to drop some of our our mates in Myeong Dong, which is a famous shopping and street food area, so Stella gave us a half hour to explore before resuming the drop-off circuit. So so so many stores selling make up and cosmetics; quite overwhelming with all the special offers and sampling… But a Mecca if that’s what you’re after!

We were exhausted when we got back to hotel; so much so that I dropped off into a little nap before heading out again.

Our intended mission for the evening had been to find us an Irish pub to log on the Index, but Google Maps was playing up and not showing walking routes, wanting us to catch a complicated combination of trains to get just down the road (!), so we were unable to find the first one we pegged and gave up on the plan in favour of a dinner on the main drag in Hongdae instead.

On Thursday morning, Miss June, as she introduced herself, met us at our hotel promptly at 10am, as planned. We joined the bus with its existing 8 other passengers and Christian was immediately barnacled by a surveyor from London who – as Christian expressed to me in Afrikaans – he was afraid would never stop talking or asking arbitrary questions.

Fortunately Miss June (eventually) clamped on her headset and started the narration for the tour, much to Surveyor’s disappointment.

Miss June told us that Korea was liberated from 35 years of Japanese occupation in 1945 at the end of the Second World War when the Russians came down from the North and the Americans came up from the South, slicing the country in half at the 38th parallel.

Before WWII Korea was a unified country and all the factories and plants were in the North, so when the country split all the infrastructure was in the North and they had a better economy than the South, which had been rural and farming land.

The Korean War then broke out in 1950 with the North invading the South; with Western support the war was brought to a close in 3 years, but at a massive price. From the Korean war 70% of the South’s capital, Seoul, was destroyed as was so much of Pyeoungyang that the Americans said there was nothing left to bomb.

Miss June told us that there is no physical border between North and South, but a 2 km limit line is observed on either side of imaginary line and NOBODY moves in that No Man’s Land.

We also learned that all the water we could see from the air was the Han River, which is visible from more or less anywhere in Seoul – and is protected by barbed, electric fences and armed guard towers because it flows down from North Korea so needs to be defended against any spies coming from the neighbour. Defection is less of a concern with only 30 thousand people having successfully defected, mostly to the China side because the South Korean border is so heavily armed.

In places you can see North Korea from the bus, beyond the defences and across the river. The other side is noticeably browner and less vegetated which our guide told us was because only 15% of North Koreans have electricity and cut down trees for warmth and cooking.

There are ghost town villages on the other bank, where the Northern authorities won’t let people live because it’s too easy to escape when the river is so shallow in low tide. Understandable especially now that the tables have turned and the North Koreans are starving and malnourished. Or so the South Koreans are told.

Conversely, our guide shared a heartwarming story about how her parents’ generation sacrificed so her generation could be educated and rebuild their country. Her mom even wore the same single pair of shoes for over ten years to save to pay for their schooling. Now her generation is spending considerable energy instilling in the younger generation why unifying Korea would be a great thing since the younger people don’t feel the loss of relatives and friends trapped across the border and have all the creature comforts that their successful society provides.

By now we’d reached our first stop where we alighted to view the Unification Bridge, built over the Imjin River which runs into the Han. Although in perfect working order, the bridge stands unused since nobody is allowed to cross the border. The bullet-ridden train exhibit on our side of the bank bears not-so-subtle inference as to the consequences.

There is a community of around 200 people that live within the Imjin line on the Southern side, which is technically under the United Nations Command and those people don’t do conscription (21 months) or pay tax.

The bus took us to Dorsan Station; a fully decked out train station, all ready to go for a train service that would connect South Korea all the way through to the UK… When and if unification would allow for it. Miss June speaks so optimistically about the possibilities that it’s hard to tell if it’s wishful thinking or if it’s something these people believe that they can will to happen.

In the foyer of the station there is a collection of several framed photos of the North and South Korean Presidents meeting, smiling and shaking hands – wives in tow, like it’s a social – as if there might be possibility of such connection. But the display seems so contrived that again it’s hard to decide if I’m viewing with Western cynicism or if this is a show being put on to string the hopefuls along.

From the station we entered the Demilitarised Zone, our bus climbing slowly up the hill to get us to the Dora observation point.

Using the fixed binoculars, we could see across the border to the abandoned factory complexes and surrounding residential towns, and beyond to the third largest city in North Korea.

The factories had until 2016 been a collaborative project where 700 South Koreans would commute in and out to the factory to work alongside their Northern colleagues, producing all sorts of things. The Northerns workers welcomed the income and the Southern manufacturers provided the materials and utilities and gained from the cheap labour. Finished goods were taken back across the border and dispatched from a control centre that now too lies dark and lifeless.

Now that the collaboration has been stopped, the factory complex lies dormant, the feeders villages have been abandoned and the horizon is dark after dusk since the Southerners are no longer providing electricity to the area.

Miss June said that sometimes you can see soldiers moving around, but we saw nothing.

The bus then took us to the 3rd Tunnel, so named since it was one of the 4 tunnels that the South Koreans discovered that the North Koreans had been digging, ostensibly looking for coal (they had even painted the inside of the tunnels black as ruse clues of coal) but practically preparing for an invasion. With all 4 tunnels pointed toward Seoul and each enabling 30,000 armed soldiers to pass through within an hour, it would irrefutably have been a devastating surprise attack.

We caught a little trolley down into the tunnel and were able to walk all the way to the barricade that is established at the limit line.

In times gone by, these barricades had 24 hour armed guards stationed to detect any signs of North Koreans crashing through but fortunately for those poor sods, technology enabled camera surveillance to save the soldiers the immense discomfort of long and boring shifts in the dark and dank dead-end passage.

We ended the tour with a quick stop at the Unification Village, to see how normally the local people go on with their lives, within the limits of the DMZ. Conveniently, their tax free status allows for slightly relaxed rates on supplies, snacks and souvenirs.

On the return journey, Miss June helped us to map out the rest of our evening. First priority was a visit to the old town wall at Dongdaemun and then down to Gangnam which was bloody miles from anything but just had to be done.

The bus dropped us off with some of the other passengers near the palace so we could jump on the subway to get to the city wall.

Now wise to the ways of the subway, it was more a case of finding exact change than navigating the route and we were soon off in the direction of the Dongdaemun Cultural Centre.

At the tourist desk they armed us with a map of the area and a wall passport in case we were ambitious enough to want to walk the whole city wall (a fortress maybe 19km long, built around Seoul at the very beginning of the Joseon Dynasty), gathering collectors stamps at the ancient gates we would pass through.

We did not, and so we made our way to the nearest gate, got our snaps, walked a section of wall up the hill to admire the view… And then retraced our footsteps, ticking the To Do List and moving on to Gangnam.

A collection of connections later we emerged in Gangnam at sunset. And clearly the end of the workday. The station was heaving, the pavements full of dressed to impress people and the road full – of more than its fair share of fancy luxury vehicles.

The neon was soon to own the night and so we threaded our way through the pedestrians to seek sanctum in a traditional Irish pub to wait out the chaos… And earn an eye-watering #2 on our Guinness Index!!

During our sundowner, we researched what traditional meal we were yet to try and ended up making our way back to the main drag for dinner, to have boiled beef bowls of broth at Bonga that were served steaming to us at the table. So hot that they had to be delivered on a trolley. Very dramatic indeed. And delicious.

The streets were still full of life, with most shops still open until 10, but we were a good hour away from our lovely Hongdae homebase so worth catching our ride back sooner rather than later.

The subway was still heaving and showing no signs of letting up. Amazing nightlife for an arbitrary Thursday night in September!

Travelogue RWC 2019: Sapporo

SAPPORO
22-24 September 2019

We had quite an early start (for a holiday) so had packed and laid our clothes out the night before to save us time in the morning.

But, having slept with the blinds open, we were awake earlier than we needed to be so were up and out well ahead of schedule.

We were delighted to find our Uber app worked in Japan so we hailed a car to take us to the airport and were soon in a lovely Toyota people-carrier (with a driver in a suit and tie nogal!) headed for Yokohama station.

The ticket buying process can be quite traumatic, with the foreignness of the rail system compounded by scant instruction in English but once we knew what train to catch, it was pretty simple. And the Japanese are very civilised, lining up in neat rows as marked on the platform and waiting for passengers to disembark before approaching the train, unlike most countries where boarding passengers act like they’re storming the Bastille.

Once at the airport it was quite easy to find our way as it was (unintentional) good fortune that we’d chosen to fly with the most popular carrier so their signage was *everywhere*.

The queue took forever – not what we’d have expected from our experience with Japanese efficiency – but of course the queue waited quietly and shuffled forward a little as each check in was completed, and the lady at the check in desk was super polite with lots of smiling and head-bowing. It really feeds your Zen when everyone around you is being so nice and understanding.

We whipped through security and grabbed a sarmie from Starbucks before jumping on our flight, lucky to get a spare seat next to me so I could stretch out for a nap.

Even though we’d left 10 minutes behind schedule, we landed on time and had the good sense to not even attempt the self-help train ticket machine, so were on the platform mere minutes later as the train pulled in to take us to Sapporo. Where, again, we’d had the good sense to choose our hotel exclusively based on its proximity to the main station.

It was a wise call and despite a short awkward minute where a Japanese policemen – who didn’t speak a word of English – did his very best to give us – who didn’t speak a word of Japanese – directions. Fortunately “out of East gate, turn right and go straight until you see it” is manageable under those circumstances and we were soon on our way into the direction the man had pointed us. It was the right direction, which was a bonus.

Another lovely hotel, with a snug but ample room and more complentary toiletries than most people have in the average bathroom cupboard, including a gift bag with treatment face mask and toner sachets.

That would be for later though, because Sapporo beckoned. And the hotel provided as standard a complimentary smart phone that was docked in the room and preloaded with all sorts of local content and had a free internet-connected SIM.

A quick search revealed that, coincidentally, the Rugby World Cup had overlapped with the Sapporo Autumn Fest so we were in for a treat. And we wouldn’t be doing the same magnitude of mileage on foot that we had the previous day because all the action was literally in our road.

We finally had use for our jumpers because it was noticeably nippier in the North Island than it had been on the Tokyo coast, so we suited up and headed out.

We wandered down a few blocks not really knowing what we were looking for … and couldn’t miss it.

One of the city’s major landmarks is the TV tower which, as you can imagine, stands tall and has flashing lights and whatnot making it a pretty perfect landmark! And a couple of blocks from home, so even more useful!

Besides being useful and big and tall, it was also hosting a German Beer Fest as part of the Food Fair and based on the aromas, it was doing quite a convincing job of all the sausages that were being served.

We weren’t to be deterred though – it seemed very wrong for our first experience of the Sapporo Food Festival to be German sausages and beer, when this was the home of the classic Sapporo beer and ramen noodles! – and resumed our walk to Odori Park.

At the start of the long central park strip was the World Cup Fan Park. The Namibia vs Italy game was on so there was already cheer and merriment and had we known this was the landmark for the quite unrelated Autumn Fest, we’d have had a much more confident start.

Beyond the Fan Park were blocks and blocks of festival, with food and drink stalls set around each side of each block of the park, making for a train of food festival magic, with all sorts of traditional fare, local delicacies and (apparently) a selection of the best of Japanese fare. All in one place.

You can imagine how busy it was.

But still, “busy” is a relative term in Japan. There were orderly queues in front of each stand, people splayed (neatly) on the lawns and not a piece of litter anywhere. Despite the fact that, confoundingly, there are no bins to be seen anywhere. I’m assuming that being the disciplined society that they are, they hold onto their garbage until they spot the blue-moon set of 4 recycling bins and then sort and deposit.

We grabbed a Wagyu beef and potato croquette at a sideline stall that miraculously had no queue and savoured the deliciousness while surveying the other stalls in the area. Reckoning that it was peak time, being Sunday, we adjusted our plans to skip the sampling at the festival in favour of moving the next night’s dinner plans up one.

Being in the hub of the city, it was an easy walk to Ramen Alley which, as the name suggests, is a narrow and dark walkway with nothing but ramen restaurants on either side. Maybe 30 or so of them.

We looked at the pictorial menus at the doors and peered in to see our options. All the restaurants are tiny, maybe 9 square metres and seating no more than a dozen people. The majority of the restaurant is the kitchen, where the chef has a raised section with his frying station and boiling pots facing the customers and his sink behind him. We sat at the corner of the stooled L-shape counter and he leaned over to pass the food down to us.

We shared prawn dumplings to start and then Christian had a spicy miso ramen with pork and I had soy sauce ramen with beef. Both were really tasty – and took forever to eat with chopsticks!

In keeping with traditional things, we used the Ireland vs Scotland game as an opportunity to visit an Irish pub and lucked upon the oldest Irish pub in Hokkaido, called Brian’s Brew, and forked out a princely sum for an on-tap Guinness that scored a #4 on our Guinness Index!

Fortunately the local Sapporo Classic was decent – and way more economical – as we ended up staying for the England vs Tonga game as well. The locals were passionately supporting Tonga and many, for who knows what reason, even had supporters shirts and accessories so it seemed as though it might be a regular thing.

We woke up to a cold and rainy Monday… So we rolled over and went back to sleep, welcoming the excuse to rest.

Surfacing later, we easily navigated the streets back to the (one of many) McDonald’s we’d earmarked for breakfast (which was now probably best classified as lunch) the share the Tsukimi beef burger combo (bacon, egg and melted cheese) and the teriyaki chicken combo. Even the McD’s was neat and orderly and everyone throws away their rubbish and leaves the tables clean. Amazing.

Disappointed to find that the Asahi and Sapporo breweries were both closed on Mondays and not prepared to do the food festival in Odori Park in the rain, we wandered along the blocks-long covered pedestrian shopping avenue, popping into shops of interest, poring over peculiar things of interest.

When we thought we’d run out of mall, we followed a sign that said “underground walkway”, thinking it was an alternate pedestrian crossing at the busy intersection. It was not. It was the gateway into an entire underground city!

We spent another couple of hours browsing and tasting samples and trying things on and – miraculously, after spending the most part of the day shopping – only walked away with an anorak for me.

It was still pouring with rain so we returned to the hotel to get off our feet for an hour’s downtime before dinner, which we’d already decided (after the kind of lengthy discussion you only have on a rainy day shopping excursion) was to be tonkatsu (crumbed and deep fried meat).

There were several tonkatsu restaurants in easy reach from the hotel so we relied on online resources to guide our choice and were very happy with our deep fried feast, served as a set meal with a soup and bowl of rice.

Tuesday morning greeted us with bright sunshine and blue skies which is bloody typical when there was no time to enjoy it, with our flight to Seoul requiring us to be at the airport by 9am!

Still, it was a blessing to be able to shimmy to the station at ground level which was much quicker than the alternate underground route we’d mapped the day before in case we had to avoid making the haul with baggage to the station in the rain.

We’d also had the good sense to buy return tickets to the airport when we arrived in Sapporo so we could dash straight to the platform and ended up catching one train earlier than the one we’d planned.

Of course this meant we got to the airport too early to check in… But that’s never a problem when there’s a food court!

We stuffed ourselves with udon noodles and potato croquettes and then ambled back towards the check in gate.

New Chitose is pretty entertaining for an Airport. There’s a working chocolate factory where you can watch through the window as the chocolate is mixed and swirled and paletted into moulds and then turned out, packaged and sold in the adjacent shop.

There’s a massive kids passage full of play areas and games and a fun restaurant – and lots and lots of Hello Kitty!

And there’s lots of sampling of delicious Hokkaido specialities, so we bounced from store to store, tasting different flavours of cheesecake, layered biscuits, custard tarts… And… And…

… And it was almost a relief when we had to get to our boarding gate for the flight to Seoul.

Travelogue RWC 2019: Yokohama

YOKOHAMA
20-22 September 2019

Always up for a travel adventure, I heartily agreed with Christian’s suggestion of attending the Rugby World Cup 2019 since it was to be held in Japan.

Having been to Japan 4 years earlier, we decided to split the trip into the key bits we hadn’t seen on the previous trip, with an add-on hop to South Korea, to which neither of us had been before.

With the rugby ticket lottery so far in advance, our travel arrangements being made months before and a lot (more than usual) going on on the home front, the trip kind of snuck up and it was quite surreal arriving at the airport for our departure.

We had been squirreling Skywards Miles hoping to upgrade our flights for the long haul to Japan, but there was no chance; the flights were full to bursting. The first leg (Joburg to Dubai) was not so bad in a big new airbus, but it was a bit of a squeeze in the 777 on the second leg (Dubai to Tokyo).

On the brightside though, the menu reflected that our holiday had truly begun, with a salmon teriyaki for breakfast and sweet and sour perch with fragrant Japanese rice for lunch. Even the drinks trolley had switched tea for green tea.

The plane was packed with rugby fans – lots of Saffas and a collection from all over the UK – so the fact that Emirates (excuse the term) flights matches live was a massive hit. And the plane very soon ran dry of its beer stocks and a great deal of its single-serving bottles of hard tack, mixed with a splash of cola in very impractical little plastic cups. I wish I’d taken a photo from the back because I’d imagine that it’s pretty rare that almost an entire planeful of people watch the same thing when there are over 2500 content options to choose from!

We cleared customs just before midnight and were glad we’d booked a driver to take us to our hotel. He was ready and waiting for us and obliged our request to wait while we got a SIM card with a smile and a head bow.

Our hotel was a little tricky to find, but after circling the block we were deposited at the front doorstep. Reception was on the 20th floor and we were soon checked in to our 15th floor room… And out the door to get ourselves welcome drinks from the 7-11 on the ground floor, which we enjoyed while surveying the harbour across the road.

After our very late night, we had a bit of a lie-in on Saturday morning. Our pre-scoping of Yokohama had revealed very little tourist value so the rationale was to renew energy levels at the expense of sightseeing time.

A peep out the window revealed a grey and overcast day. It was little surprise as the weather forecast – which I’d consulted for packing planning purposes – had been “20 degrees and raining” for the day.

Decked in jeans with hoodies and rain ponchos in our backpack, we hit the streets.

And didn’t even get to our trusty 7-11 downstairs before Christian turned backs and traded jeans for shorts. Their 20 and our 20 are clearly very different. The coastal mugginess added a blanket of warmth – and if the rain stayed away, it would be perfect!

Our first impression of Yokohama by day was how clean it was. Every road was spotless, without as much as a cigarette butt or a stray plastic wrapper flapping in a gutter. Even with all these filthy foreigners in their town, Yokohama had sustained its pristine Japanese orderliness. They’ve got it so right.

Moving down the street revealed the magnitude of this skyrise city. Our hotel, at 20 floors, was dwarfed by our neighbours! And the vast number of massive blocks and shops along the street front alluded to a live-work-play apartment lifestyle.

We took a turn past the Rugby World Cup Fan Park, which was already buzzing with activity. We passed several people also in Springbok jerseys and did the obligatory head nod and ‘howzit’, expressing kinship like we all knew each other.

First stop was Chinatown for lunch. It might sound off for our first excursion in Japan to not be a local venture, but this Chinatown is credited as being one of the best in the world. Plus, it was the farthest point from the stadium relative to our hotel, so made practical sense too.

We wandered up and down the narrow streets, adorned with patterned buildings, decorated with gold trim and bright red lanterns, and completed with street-level food stalls, boiling, steaming and frying all sorts of deliciousness.

Our first course choice was an easy one. A delicate Peking duck parcel, like a tiny schwarma. It oozed flavour and the duck was tender and juicy with a crisp crisp skin. For main course we chose to sit in a restaurant because the streets were so full – and they had an English menu. We had pork mince noodles (essentially a salty sticky spag Bol) and a chicken stir fry.

By contrast, our walking tour took us to Motomachi with its structured streets and elegant grey buildings, skirted with the world’s top label brand stores.

There happened to be a ‘Charming Sale’ on for the weekend so the pedestrian walk was heaving with people amped to get their bargains. And the many restaurant snack hatches had queues of people waiting patiently for their turn to be served.

With severe baggage restrictions on our internal flights, we resisted the urge to investigate any of the stores or their sales and moved along swiftly to the Landmark Tower, from where there are supposed to be magnificent views of the city and beyond.

Being a grey day though, there was small promise of being able to see anything, so we just went to the mezzanine viewing level which had pretty good near-sight views of the harbour.

We were now perfectly positioned to jump on the metro at Queen’s Square to head through to the stadium, giving ourselves lots of time to get there based on the warnings that the trains get crammed and the security process into the stadium was bound to be beyond thorough.

With precious little English instruction to guide us, we managed the 2 train combination to get to the stadium and were in our seats (nosebleeds, riiiight at the back) with an hour to spare before start of play.

Christian enjoyed watching the players warm up, while I used the opportunity to write this travelogue.

The game was sold out so the stands were packed with spirited rivals, making for lots of pre-game chanting and warcries. Even for the uncommitted rugby fan (nudge nudge, wink wink), there was going to be plenty of energy and entertainment value both on and off the field to make for a memorable event.

We managed to work out way down to much better seats early in the first half so had a brilliant view of the field, along with 63647 other people. Our team, nothing if not consistent, started strong but then made some rookie mistakes, conceding 2 tries and losing the game.

After the game we made our way back towards home and stopped in at a metal bar called Thrashzone that served a wide selection of craft beers.

As the only Westerners in the tiny bar (with a capacity of maybe 40 or 50 people), we were fortunate to seat ourselves next to an English-speaker who had been a pro snowboarder in Canada for 10 years before returning home to Japan. He told us a bit about Japan and asked lots of questions about South Africa. We were the perfect ambassadors on the wonders of our country (consistency of rugby play aside).

It had been a long time since lunch and we had an early start in the morning so we made our way back to the hotel and grabbed a heat-and-eat meal from our trusty 7-11.

It was clearly quite late for dinner so we were limited in what was left and each chose a spaghetti meal; Christian’s with chicken and mine with shrimp.

Our pasta meals were heated in a minute and a half and, admirably, were still steaming when we got up to our room – and were surprisingly delicious. Easily on par with some of the Italian restaurant chains at home.

We wolfed them down while watching a completely unfathomable Japanese game show and then called it a night, leaving the blinds open to wake us for our next day’s adventure, taking us to Sapporo.

Travelogue Indonesia 4: Sanur and Ubud

SANUR AND UBUD
12-13 June 2015

The fast boat from Lembongan back to the mainland was much smaller than the ones we’d been on previously, taking no more than about 20 people. Presumably this was because of our convenient departure directly from Mushroom Bay and the boats from the main points further up the island would command more traffic. They must have a great understanding of supply and demand as the little boat arrived full and left full, we had no trouble getting a ticket and nobody seemed to have been turned away.

There are 3 boats a day and we’d opted for the 11am to give the best balance of a lie in on the departure side but still a full day to explore on the arrival side. The  concierge (in the loosest use of the word) at our hotel had commended our choice when we’d bought the tickets from him, saying that was low tide. And thank heavens for that; can’t imagine the (unwanted) ab workout my poor unsuspecting relaxed holiday body would’ve had to endure if the tide had been in and our Wave Warrior skipper was crashing through bigger ebs!

On the upside, the journey was barely half an hour.

Arriving in the port, with no sense of direction and no clues on which way to get to our hotel, we dealt with our vulnerability by hailing a taxi. This would have been easier had it not been for the hundreds of scooters parked around the ‘No Parking’ signs, requiring the taxis to do some tricky negotiating to get to the pick-up point.

Our hotel is very swish and right on the beachfront; a real gem of a find, discounted to nothing on Agoda.

Our room wasn’t yet ready (it was barely midday and check-in was at 2) so we left the bags with the porter and took a stroll along the beachfront.

The paved pathway and the endless visual stimulus of activity both in the sea and on the beach kept us entertained, while the feet moved themselves one in front of the other. The stroll that turned into a 10km (according to the pedometer on my phone) walk to the very end of the beach and back!

We did stop for refreshment at Le Pirate, one of the many beachfront cafés. We were lured in by their comfy daybeds, the promise of the icy-cold San Miguels and real authentic Balinese pizza. All of which delivered way beyond expectation and took a huge amount of willpower to break away from.

On return to the hotel, we were surprised to find we’d been upgraded. Instead of the original room we’d been allocated in the back corner, we’d been moved to a stunning garden unit near the pool! Asking no questions, lest a mistake be corrected, we scuttled off to our flash new digs and settled into our new station with no effort at all.

We had searched all along the beachfront for an ATM, without success. In need of cash (we’d spent MILLIONS on the islands… which, at 1000:1 didn’t translate into a fortune in Rands), we caught the hotel’s free shuttle into Sanur town where we were told we would find one.

One? There was a literal bank of them!

Much like the shops that cluster according to what they sell, it seems that all the ATMs are positioned together as well. This is a really silly system – the shops must surely struggle when surrounded by direct competition and the banks would definitely service more people if they expanded their footprint.

And you can’t go without cash like you can at home; while more places accept credit card here than in most of the farflung places we’ve been to, there are still lots of places that don’t. Small traders don’t, taxi drivers don’t and while most hotels and restaurants do, some don’t, so you have to carry cash just in case. Credit card usage also comes at an added 3-5% merchant fee, which stings on top of the 15-21% tax and service fees levied on most bills. By the time you’re done, unless you’re Rain Man, the prices on the bill are only a vague guideline of what you can sort of expect to pay.

Good thing we got cash though as this opened up our dinner options. After a swift sundowner at the hotel pool bar, we headed along the trusty beachpath to find ourselves some dinner.

We found a homely lively real mom ‘n pops seafood shack where we had delicious fresh prawns, deep-fried calamari rings and a brilliant snapper fillet, grilled to perfection in a garlic butter so that the outside had a crisp to it. The food was served with traditional Balinese condiments – a red, slightly grainy hot saucy and an oil-based onion relish.

Thank heavens for the walk back to the hotel after all of that food or we’d never have been able to fulfil our planned early night (in anticipation of our early morning day tour to Ubud).

We did manage to get up at the princely hour of 8.15 (very early by our Bali standards) and took a trot down the now-very-familiar beachfront walkway to look for a tour operator to make our Ubud dreams come true.

Obviously, nobody was open yet.

We found a cleaner who was nice enough to guide us through a windy-windy route of back streets to “where da taxis are”.

Paydirt.

A taxi.

And by that I mean A Single Solitary Taxi.

But we only needed one. And he quoted us 450,000 Rupiah for a half day tour, so we hopped in and headed to Ubud.

The driver introduced himself as Wayan. This seemed quite coincidental as the business card we’d gotten from another tour desk the day before was also someone called Wayan. I asked if this was a common name. The driver explained the firstborn son is always named “Wayan” (meaning oldest), the second is “Made” (middle), the third is “Nyoman” (usually Man for short), and fourth is “Ketut” (often elided to Tut). If you have a fourth son, he’s “Wayan Balik” (Wayan again). So yes, Wayan is a very common name!

Our driver had asked us what we wanted to see on our daytrip and we’d listed the usual suspects: monkeys, temple, market etc… He suggested a detour to the Budsari coffee plantation. Seemed as good an excursion as any, so we approved the suggestion.

We were greeted at the door by a charming young hostess who guided us around a short looping pathway with live exhibits in the gardens on either side. She picked berries and leaves here and there as we went, skinning and splitting so that we could smell and guess. Coffee cherries, vanilla, lemongrass, ginseng, cinnamon… it’s quite hard to pin down the smells without the familiar visuals cues.

The path included a Luwak cage. Luwak coffee is famed to be “the most exotic, rich, smooth and excellent coffee from Bali”. It’s little wonder too, since the bean has such an unconventional journey from tree to cup! They pass through the Paradoxurus (that’s the scientific name, the locals call them Luwak). These little (furry and cute but apparently aggressive) creatures live in the trees and one of their food sources is the red coffee cherry. While the bean is in the chap’s belly it ferments, then exits the animal still intact through the digestive system. The beans are collected from the forest floor, dried, roasted and then ground and sifted by hand until it’s a fine powder. We checked and were assured that the beans are washed twice before being processed.

The tour included a sampling of all of the teas and coffees produced from the spoils of the vegetation we’d seen. Highlights were the mangosteen peel and lemongrass teas for me, Bali and Ginseng coffees for Christian… and finally finding a coffee I like: coconut coffee, which tastes like neither. It tastes like caramel!

He’d also asked what we wanted to buy at the market and when jewellery was on the list, he suggested a stop at Celuk, which is famous for its silversmiths.

He took us to a big company that included a tour on how jewellery to prime you for their ridiculously large, canteen-bright showroom with umpteen display cases glinting with pieces from the completely unimaginative to garish globs of misguided creativity. It was not what we were looking for – I wanted somewhere quaint and charming with original pieces – so we were in and out like a turnstile.

We then took a turn past the Temple. We were given sarongs to tie around our waists before being allowed to enter the sacred grounds. The funny thing is that most of the statues flanking entrances also have sarongs (always a black and white check fabric) placed around their waists, presumably also to preserve their modesty.

The temple complex was nice enough, but we’re still a bit temple fatigued from our past few holidays, so it was a quick 10 minute looksee, contrasting the other tourists who were poring over the exhibits and enjoying lengthy lectures from their guides.

Next stop was one we’d been really looking forward to: the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary.

It’s really awesome. A self-guided walk along smoothly paved pathways (you have no idea how welcome that is after losing a layer of skin on the barefoot beach path walk yesterday) that wind through and past the highlights: main temple, dragon stairs, holy pool, holy spring temple, open stage, deer stable.

The thing we appreciated was that we expected monkey *exhibits*. It’s not. The monkeys live there, wild and free, and you wander through their home; ancient trees with Tarzan hanging vines arching the passageways that only slightly interrupt their habitat. The monkeys are quite used to people and wander among them, occasionally using a person as a post or plucking at an item of interest (which is why you are warned to remove glasses and anything not securely attached to your person).

There are stalls selling bananas – with the proceeds going to the maintenance of the sanctuary – which the monkeys will take right from your hand. There were loads of delighted tourists dangling peels or propping a banana strategically on a shoulder or lap to lure a monkey in for a photo.

For R30 entrance fee it’s well worth doing, and travellers with more sightseeing time (or appetite for temples) could easily entertain themselves there for double or triple the time that we did.

Wayan then took us to the village of Ubud. It had been a consideration for us to split our week between the beach at Sanur and then have a couple of nights inland as a breakaway in Ubud instead of going to the islands as we had done. Thank goodness we did as we did – Ubud is a very busy “sleepy little village”.

It has the expected single lane road, with lovely shops lining it and a really good market… but none of them are pedestrian streets and there is the added complication of cars alongside the squadrons of scooters. It’s mayhem.

We paid a quick visit to the obligatory temple and then focused our energy on jewellery shopping, eventually doing a fantastic job at a shiny little outlet called Kapal Laut (only to find that they have 3 branches in Sanur, so we could just as easily have shopped close to home. Doh!).

Wayan then suggested that we lunch at the rice paddy, which was a fabulous idea (especially since we hadn’t had a formal breakfast, opting to snack in the car to save time).

He took us to a big and bustling restaurant, where we got a front and centre table overlooking the tranquil rice paddy terraces so, with our back to everyone, it was quite peaceful.

We savaged a crispy duck – delicious! – and paired it with a juicy chicken curry. We certainly have eaten well this holiday!

The drive home was delayed somewhat by a traffic jam coming out of Ubud where a cremation ceremony was blocking the road. Apparently this is quite commonplace and, being the spiritual people they are, the drivers just grin and bear it. It seems hard work being a Hindu: all the shrines, offerings, obligatory decor and regalia, ceremonies and lots and lots of patience.

Every hotel we’d been at dotted banana leaves with petals and incense sticks about the place several times a day. The houses we drove past, no matter how humble, had murals moulded into their walls and sculpted into their cornices, statues in their entrances and shrines taking up most of their gardens. Traffic circles were stages for resplendent displays of mammoth stone statues illustrating religious tableau. It’s fascinating. Especially for the uninitiated.

We’d managed to tick off everything we wanted to see – and more! – on our short tour, so the plan was to spend the afternoon relaxing at the pool. Having had such luck with the hidden pool on Gili T, we decided to follow the signs to the smaller pool in our hotel complex. Hardly small by any means, it was a series of 3 pools, the largest being very deep at around 7ft, separated from the smaller, shallower two by a little waterfall tunnel.

Perfect to wile away a couple of hours.

Our original plan was to have a farewell seafood dinner in Jimbaran, the fisherman beach on the far side of the peninsula. The restaurants provide free transfers and the hotel had already recommended the one they considered best… but it seemed like a mission, so we walked down our road to the Cat & Fiddle Irish Pub instead.

It was a good decision and we enjoyed a relaxed evening, singing along to the cover band. And, for an Irish pub, they served a legit rendang (for Christian) and fisherman’s pie (like a cottage pie but creamed white fish instead of mince, for me).

A great last hoorah for an excellent stay in Bali!

Travelogue Indonesia 3: Lembongan

LEMBONGAN
10-12 June 2015

Christian’s commitment to punctuality combined with Bali’s promise of delivering the predictably unpredictable made for quite a lengthy wait for the boat. Really not so bad though; we passed the half hour viewing the bright sunny midday from the comfort of the shade under the giant TRAWANGAN sign, with soft sand under our bare feet.

The cause of the delay became apparent as our boat docked. A rowdy group of American “Uncle Ed’s 50th Bday Tour” partygoers spilled out onto the beach. One quite literally, dropping her backpack into the sea while attempting an epically clumsy disembark. There was a tour leader with a flag on a stick (that gave away the theme of the group trip) running here and there, barking orders to the rebellious, issuing encouragement to the hapless and sweating up a storm while trying to herd her proverbial cats. 

We headed right into the airconditioned cabin, still freshly reminded by the learning-the-hard-way sunburn that the open-air deck choice had taught our virgin skin en route from Padangbai. Christian’s shoulders were still angry red (leaving a very white skin chest vest) and my thighs and feet were still the shade of bright pink normally reserved for nail polish (and toenail polish at that!) so, factor 50 or no factor 50, we were avoiding continued exposure at all costs.

The boatride proved to be longer than we’d hoped, stopping twice on the journey to Padangbai, then requiring a change to a smaller boat as we arrived into a channel on Lembongan that must’ve been too shallow for our bigger fast boat.

All in all, it took 3 hours on the boat to get from Gili T to Lembongan, but 4 hours door-to-door as the harbour, of course, was on the exact opposite side of the island to where we needed to be. The boat tickets all include transfer service and this one was an bakkie convert with shadecloth roof and cushioned benches along the sides.

We were the last passengers to be dropped off so the journey fortuitously doubled as an island tour, which presented inland to be little more than a network of single lane once-tarred roads that spidervein from the apex down to beach access around the coastline. The roads were riddled with tourists on scooters, jiggling their merry way from one point to another, which wordlessly determined our mutual decision to not become part of this most misguided biker gang.

Having dropped our co-passengers at various fancy resorts, we were preparing for the disappointment of being, like them, placed clifftop with lovely views of the sea but no direct access to it. Fortunately, our fears were unfounded and we were deposited on the edge of the beach, where a porter from our hotel was waiting to escort us to our lodgings two doors down.

Lembongan Island while by no means big is much bigger than the Gili Islands we’d come from, so I’d agonised a bit on where we should position ourselves. The shortlist became the main length of beach that stretches from the left tip to more or less the centre of the island (as viewed from Bali mainland) versis a quiet cove adjacent to it, called Mushroom Bay. The name won me over and that’s how we found ourselves staying at Lambung Beach Huts right on the waters of Mushroom Beach.

The accommodation was superb. We had a beach hut wooden bungalow, two storeys with a (completely outdoor) bathroom and (partly outdoor) daybed patio beneath the upstairs loft bedroom with balcony overlooking the sea, through the frangipani and palms. Again with a 4-poster bed and fresh white linens. Idyllic!

With sunset rapidly approaching, we headed straight out to grab a sundowner. We walked the full stretch of our beach (200m or so) to assess our options and end up at the farthest hotel, the Mushroom Beach Bungalows, which won thanks to it’s sea-facing deck, infinity pool and pretty glowing lanterns easing in the nighttime.

We had a few Bintangs while soaking up the tranquility of the evening at the cove from our prime vantage point, and ended up staying for dinner.

Unable to decide between the dishes on our shortlist we ordered all 3 – which isn’t as gluttonous as it sounds as Indonesian portions are considerably smaller than ours – and were soon (very soon; nothing takes more than 10 minutes) languishing a snapper with salsa topping, red prawn curry and a seafood platter with calamari, tuna fillet and prawns. All beautifully fresh, no doubt from the day’s catch on the island.

Our hosts at the hotel had done a hard sell on their dinner offering when we checked in; their dinner kitchen presumably a big part of their trade since there was no pool to attract other guests during the day. We felt a bit bad as we return triumphant from a first evening and great dinner and proactively quelled any guilt we might’ve felt (or questions they might’ve posed) by ordering a couple of Bintangs to take back to our balcony as nightcaps.

Breakfast at the hotel was a casual affair, under the shaded thatch with beachsand floor. The food was excellent though, with freshly squeezed orange juice, toast with eggs of any preference… and bacon! Really good bacon too, sort of streaky rashers with a lovely generous length of fat like back bacon – truly best of both!

We’d already decided the day would be a relaxed beachy one, but figured we’d best sate the curiosity on what comprised our little neck of the woods. We took a walk up the road – or maybe that should read “The Road” since there was only one – and saw that there was not much to see.

Lots of construction going on; presumably new villas and lodges based on signage and foundations. Building is a very manual process and largely undisciplined from what we could see. Can’t blame them really, being 11am and hot as Hades! (And this is technically winter, Bali being 8 degrees south of the Equator).

Confident that we’d “supervised” enough, we assessed the beachfront options and chose to fritter away the day at the Sedag Resort, mostly because of the novelty of finding our own private infinity pool. Terraced just below the main pool, our little slice of paradise had a ledge just big enough for our 2 loungers and an umbrella, and a pool about twice the size of our own at home but only a metre deep… and spilling over into the bay below. Perfect view of everything; perfect getaway from everyone.

The afternoon drew to a close with us returning to our bungalow at sunset for sundowners on our balcony. All very relaxing.

Having enjoyed our 3-between-2 ordering the night before, we again exercised the right not to have to choose and split a beef rendang stew, chicken curry and a seafood platter that included calamari stuffed with tuna – the best thing I have tasted in as long as I can remember! Mental note to self to try and make tuna meatballs on returning home!

…which was approaching all too soon.

We had already arranged (with our front desk) our boat tickets for the following morning to fetch us directly from Mushroom Beach to return us to the mainland for the last leg of the Bali itinerary, in Sanur. Slow island life sure goes by faster than you want it to!

Travelogue Indonesia 2: Gili Trawangan

GILI TRAWANGAN
8-10 June 2015

After a decadently long and delicious slumber, we finally arose with half an hour to pick-up time (the transfer to the port for the fast boat to Gili T). Fortunately, both dressing and packing were lighting-quick jobs, so we were out the door minutes later.

It had literally just started to rain as we were locking up our suite so, grateful for our ultralight beach holiday packing, we grabbed our suitcases and made a mad dash across the pool terrace. Sopping from the sprint in the tropical squall, we sat down to peruse the breakfast menu… as the rain stopped. We’d managed to get caught end-to-end in the only-a-minute-long downpour. That has to be lucky, like rain on your wedding day!

Breakfast was a simple offering of melons (that I didn’t eat, thanks Nordic Ice), egg toastie (very welcome) and black tea for me (will try and get used to that) and coffee for Christian  (the type that leaves a black slick down the cup and a silt layer on the bottom, but he seemed to like it).

We were ready and waiting in the reception at 10, as instructed, and when the transfer driver hadn’t arrived by 10.15 we asked the reception to call them. The receptionist seemed puzzled by our request and kept pointing at the wall clock… which had stopped… and showed 9.45. It took some convincing to get them to call, and the verdict was “on their way”. Obviously Bali Time works the same as ours back home.

Minutes later our transfer arrived.

An ancient wrinkly man on a Vespa.

For the 2 of us and our suitcases.

He tried to gesture that he’d take us one at a time (with a suitcase)… but we showed him the Yellow Pages, communicating that we would rather walk. The compromise was that we would hoof it and he would take the bags.

So, with that, we walked from our hotel at the end of the beach, along the harbour, all the way to the other far end of town: 300 metres and 5 minutes later, were at the Ticket Office collecting our boarding passes, still well in time for our 10.30 boarding (for the fast boat that ended up being 20 minutes late. Bali Time strikes again!)

We had bought the full Padangbai – Gili T – Lembongan – Sanur ticket all in one go, so were relieved when the boat ride was comfortable (and quick) enough. We sat on the flat rooftop to enjoy the view in the pleasant cool of the overcast morning, eavesdropping on the coversations around us for entertainment.

On arrival in Trawangan, we were surprised to see a porter awaiting our arrival, welcome sign ‘n all. Who knows how long he’d been waiting there seeing as I’d not told the hotel where we’d be coming from for them even to hedge their bets on multiple boat arrival times per origin.

He led us across (what we were to discover is) the main road (that runs along the beachfront all the way around the island) and down a side street. A short 45 metres (according to the signage) later, we arrived at Secret Garden 2. Our accommodation was quite true to the pictures online – roomy wooden A-frame bungalow, decorated to within an inch of its life with mammoth four-poster bed with draped mosquito netting taking up most of it, and elaborate framed painting of Buddha on the black and white speckled feature wall and enormous mural of the caricature-ish Indian dancers with gold spot-colour accents and a heavy wooden frame above the full length of the head of the bed, that would surely kill – or at least maim – us in our sleep should it choose to fall.

Our bathroom was interesting, accessed from the main room through a clear glass sliding door, exposing it to have a shoulder height wall and open air in the triangle of the A-frame. I’d booked us upstairs hoping that we’d be able to see the sea from our entrance balcony… but that was a fail since we’re facing away from the sea, ao have a lovely view of the homestays below and behind, and a construction site for another building of condos directly opposite. The flatscreen TV bragged about in the ad must’ve been taken really close up as it’s the tiniest cutest TV you ever have seen! The screen is only just bigger than Christian’s tablet (but with it all the way across the room, it’s a challenge for even the eagle-eyed!) A nice touch to include not only a DVD player but a sleeve of DVDs (movies and series) as well.

We didn’t come to Gili T to watch TV though, so we set about our adventuring post haste. My One Thing I wanted for our stay here was to circumnavigate the island (estimated at 8km from what we’d read), so we started with that. Back to the main road and taking a left. The main town section had almost a double lane (unmarked, with no clear indication from travellers as to whether there was a right or wrong side in either direction); the rest was all a single lane shared, at times quite noisily, by its users.

There are no cars or motorbikes (thankfully, because Padangbai was quite “busy” with its 2-wheel mavericks), just lots of horse-drawn carriages (all with jingling bells; the reason why the holiday song snippet stuck in my head was “… lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you!”) and tourists on bicycles (who clearly don’t ride at home, so wobble and panic about the place), sharing the path with lots of barefooted, barechested and often barely aware pedestrians, so it’s chaos.

We managed the full island lap in what would have been just under 2 hours if we hadn’t stopped at The Exile: a most excellent beachfront pub and restaurant, where we sampled bone-chillingly cold Bintangs (served in an enormous bottle somewhere between a quart and a litre, but unmarked so it’s a mystery) and marvelled at the beautiful water that graded from turquoise at the shoreline to deep navy blue on the horizon, broken only by the tourists lounging on the hammocks and sitting on the swings installed in the shallower waters for their amusement.

On our way back into town we spotted a sign for a “hidden pool bar” which was an irresistible allure (completely overshadowing the same-size “residents only” sign beneath it). The pool was gorgeous: crystal clear, warm as a bath with a swim-up sunken bar with submerged cocktail seats… and half-price cocktails to boot! With that we frittered away the sunset hours in complete bliss. Longest I’ve swum in can’t remember how long!

Celebrating our little find, we vowed to return in the morning for the aqua-biking (underwater exercise bikes) workout session, thinking that exercise in this environment could only be a pleasure and, at 9am, surely easily possible.

We celebrated our great decision-making with a post-sundowner at Tir Na Nog, “the biggest Irish bar on the smallest island in the world”, where we had a Guinness (in a bottle, unusual for us) and an invite to quiz night (1 million Rupiah bar tab up for grabs!) the following evening. Game on!

Delighted at how the day had turned out, we were blind-sided by an Indian restaurant that cast aside all good intentions to eat only local food. It was a good call with a very satisfying lamb vindaloo and butter chicken to share, served with 2 types of rice and peculiar round crispy naan bread. Very nice.

Last mission was to source a snorkelling trip for the following day, which we did with ease since everything was still open and the tour guides still pedalling a fine trade well into the night from the tourists spilling out from all the restaurants and bars. R100 each for a 10-3, 3 island snorkelling excursion? Bargain!

I woke up (with holiday hair so exhuberant that it may preclude me from further holiday pics) at 9.15, so we’d completely missed our Hidden Pool workout (phew!)

… and we set off for breakfast.

The hotel gave us vouchers for a beachside restaurant called Egoiste. A lot more lush than we were expecting from a free breakfast, thrown in with such economy accommodation, we were treated to 2 eggs on 2 toasts with a delicious pineapple smoothie, served in a large parfait glass with a bendy straw. Delicious – and a good refuel for the day’s adventure.

It’s great that town is one main road, as we simply walked back in the direction we’d come  from the previous night until things started looking familiar and then hunted the tour office from the name on the booking stub. Easy peasy and we were soon equipped with fins, masks and snorkels and off to the boat, the Coral Voice.

The boat trip was a great decision! The Gili collection of islands consists of ours – the biggest, Gili Trawangan, the farthest from Lombok (the “mainland” island; we’re not in Bali anymore) – then Gili Meno in the middle and Gili Air closest to Lombok. The islands get more chilled as you get closer to Lombok. You can see Gili Meno from Gili T, but it obscures Gili Air, that in turn obscures Lombok, with its lovely hilly coastal facade. It is cool that each island has a horizon view of its neighbours.

Our boat trip took us first down the coastline of our own Gili T, where we were deposited in a serene azure patch of ocean with visibility easily 30-40 metres. I don’t know anything about fish, but the schools were plentiful, colourful and energetically weaving in and around the coral bed so there was plenty to watch!

After half an hour we were called back to the boat to transfer to Gili Meno where the skipper jumped into the water and took us on a guided snorkel, pointing out things of interest and guiding us to where turtles swam beneath and jellyfish-looking things swam between us.

We were then off to Gili Air, where we were again given a half hour to paddle about and admire the under- and above-water sights. The boat moored on the shore so we could grab some lunch at one of the beachside eateries. We delved into local cuisine with a capcay (sweet and sour veg with seafood) and ayam pelecing (spicy chicken), both served with rice and both very tasty.

The food was served very quickly, so we still had some time to spare on our lunch break to have a wander down the main road on Gili Air. Much quieter and more laid back; far less people, narrower road, no horsecarts… but still loads of restaurants and bars, so hardly remote in the strict sense of the word.

By the time we got home to our own Gili it was after 3pm. That was an incredible excursion for 100 SA Ronds each!

Having been told there is only one boat a day from Gili T to Lembongan  (our next stop), we did the wise thing and took our tickets to the boat company office to do pre- check-in and secure our places for the next day. Reassuringly, they already had our names on the list so it was a 2 minute process.

Sight-seeing and admin done for the day, we retired to our Hidden Pool at Villa Ombak for sundowners.

As nice as all our wallowing in the sea and pool had been, a shower was very welcome after the long day. As the central part of our open plan, open air bathroom, the outsized showerhead could sadly only be described as a “rain shower” if it were actually raining! Really dismal water pressure! Fortunately, we were in no hurry, so showering became as laidback and leisurely as an excursion all in itself.

The plan for the evening was the quiz night at Tir Na Nog, leaving an hour and a half for dinner. We’d become quite accustomed to the layout of town by now… and done considerable deliberation on our back and forths as to where to sample an authentic Indonesian meal. It had taken quite a bit of willpower not to participate in the Irish Pub’s Mexican Fiesta buffet (R90, including a Bintang).

We ended up back at Egoiste, where we’d had breakfast, at a stunning table on the beachfront. We had a Mie Goreng (like Nasi Goreng, but noodles instead of rice) and Rendang (lightly spiced beef stew). Both devine – worth another order for sure!

The quiz night was well-supported, held across the road from the beach front bar in a big open-air hall structure extension to the restaurant. We did very well initially, being in tie for 1st place at halftime. Sadly though, Round 4 was all about Indonesia… a subject which we (very apparently) know nothing about. With a 0/8 for that section, we slid to 4th place. We managed to gain some ground back on the last round and ended in a very respectable tie for 2nd place. So, we didn’t walk away with the 1 million Rupiah bar tab first place prize – thankfully!!

We’d have had no trouble finding a welcoming recipient for our spoils had we won the tab and wanted to cede it to someone. The pub, like the whole street, was buzzing. Lots of pubs had live music and there were more than enough party-people to ensure that no band went lonely. It’s a great hair-down, shoes-off town – and we were definitely among the oldest people!

It’s been equally weird not seeing a single Saffa here and seeing so many young (twenty-something, mostly Australian, but healthy portions of American and Brit) tourists staying in the flash resorts, normally full to bursting with aged Germans. Illustrates the combination of rustic, party appeal with cheap island lifestyle for the world’s stronger currencies. Drinking here is more expensive than at home, but with eating considerably cheaper and transport and excursions dirt cheap, what is a reasonably priced holiday for us must be a steal for them! Especially thr Australians since Indonesia is on their doorstep so am sure they benefit from Asian budget airline prices too.

We had good intentions for our last morning – circumnavigating the island  (*again*) on bicycle.

I must admit that we may very well have overslept and missed it, had it not been for the Muslims. Mosques are the Dachshund puppies of places of worship. While a church might rouse you momentarily with clangs or chimes, mosques are relentless with all that wailing! Our luck, our bungalow was spitting distance from a very punctual, very enthusiastic mosque.

We were told that the cycle would take an hour and a half, we budgeted an hour and only took 45 minutes… even with Christian’s wobbly seat and puncture 10 minutes in. It was a far less white-knuckle ride than the one in Amsterdam last year but, then again, it was emptier (9am is very early for the late night culture) and flatter (literally at sea level, obviously)… and not to say that it wasn’t hair-raising for every one of the oncoming pedestrians caught deer in my headlights and for me with every oncoming horsecart (with their cheerful jingling sounding quite macabre).

Worked up quite a hunger for brekkie, which made the Egoiste’s already-excellent eggs on toast most appreciated. I have also discovered that I might be a fruit-drinker, after being a vocally averse fruit-eater my whole life. The fresh blended banana juice was every bit as yummy – and every bit as “nothing but fruit” – as the pineapple one had been the previous day, neither of which I would ever have ordered under normal circumstances.

Motivated by the restart of the James Blunt CD on repeat, we took a last walk along the beach, back to Secret Garden 2 for a last jump in the shower(room) and off to the jetty for the next installment of Bali Adventure 2015.

Travelogue Indonesia 1: Bali – Padang Bai

BALI – Padang Bai
07 June 2015

We could not have picked a better time to take our winter break. En route to work, in the dark, on the morning of our travel, the pretty little blue snowflake icon on the car digital dashboard did nothing to warm my heart, let alone thaw my numb toes. It was, not to be dramatic, the coldest day in the world.

A day that flew though in the usual mad dash to the finish line. It was a relief to sink into the outsized wingback chair at the Shongolo lounge – with an enormous glass of pinotage and a plateful of stroganoff – knowing that Out Of Offices were activated, dogs were all safely at their respective Holiday Camps, car was valet parked and baggage was checked. Our biggest challenges for the next 24 hours were to choose channels, decide between chicken and beef (with the odd fish curveball, no doubt) and to try and get some – but not too much – rest on the flights to optimise our acclimation on The Other Side.

It’s a real “planes, trains and automobiles” to get to Bali (doing it our way, that is). The usual Joburg to Dubai hop was a well-practiced cinch, the transit skip a great opportunity to catch up on some steps (almost 6000 end-to-end in our Terminal, celebrated with extortionate R151 pints at the Heineken Bar) and the 7,5 hour jump to Jakarta quite painless, thanks to Big Bang Theory Season 8 and Brooklyn Nine Nine Season 2 boxsets on Emirates’s unbeatable entertainment system.

Arriving in Jakarta, we were greeted by a slightly shabby but spotless Terminal. It was the understated utilitarian set-up we’d expected… but what we didn’t expect was the magnitude of the airport complex. Landing at 11pm and flying out again the next morning at 10am, I’d booked us into the Airport Hotel, conveniently situated (as all the online literature said) right in Terminal 1. Typically though, we’d flown into Terminal 2 and were to fly out of Terminal 3 the next day. And the terminals are spread generously over the airport complex, requiring a (fantasy) shuttle bus (which we gave 20 minutes of doubt’s benefit) or a taxi (a bargain at R40 for the convenience, especially since I was still in my thermal vest and approaching expiration at a rate far quicker than the fantasy shuttle’s alleged arrival).

Our hotel, the d’Prima, was pleasant and our room small but perfect for what we needed: barely enough width for suitcases (big but empty, at an unprecedented 10kg Travel Light Record each) on either side of the big, white, poofy-pillowed, silky-cotton-sheeted, perfectly-horizontal, no-belt-buckled bed; airconditioned heaven, it was. And Christian, a bath of perspiration from the stifling humidity, was thrilled to have a long, cool shower.

The hotel stay included breakfast. We weren’t expecting much since our induction included a vague wave toward a coffee bar counter and the instruction that breakfast is “only” served between 4 and 10am.

We were pleasantly surprised the next morning when we were told the breakfast du jour (and probably every jour actually) was a roti, expecting the cheese-filled pancake sort of thing we’d had in Sri Lanka. It was nothing of the sort – and nothing like we’d have called a roti. A warm bun with a cover layer that looked and tasted like a soft fortune cookie, with something sweet melted in the centre that must’ve been syrup-inspired because the overall flavour was like a waffle or one of those steam puddings you have to make in a double-boiler so the syrupy sauce runs down the outside when you turn them out of the pot. It looked plain and I was expecting it to need condiments to jazz it up… but it was so soft, warm and moist that the whole thing was gone before I could really bed down the flavour and its genius contributors. Mental note to try those again to get a handle on them properly.

Breakfast came with tea and coffee, both served black as standard and requiring me to ask for milk for my tea. The breakfast bar attendant seemed surprised by my request, but complied. Mental note also to try tea black and see if the local brew somehow justifies the absence of dairy.

Catching a taxi to the (correct) Terminal was easy. All we had to do was step out of the hotel and we had drivers flock to us.

The flight check-in was equally simple with a very uncluttered Terminal thanks to the banks of machines outside where passengers could check themselves in, print their own boarding passes and even print their own luggage tags. And everybody actually does it. At home we seems to have a very laggard attitude to new technologies, queuing for habit’s sake and wordlessly committing to progress “next time”.

By stark contrast to the already-29-degrees morning weather, the plane was bloody freezing! Christian loved it, of course, (already glistening from the short trot across the runway to alight the plane) and I fear that hour and a half onboard Air Asia Refrigeration might rank as one of the highlights of his holiday for him.

I appeased his reintroduction to Outside with a “Welcome to Bali” Burger King lunch (still at the airport) and joked that I’m going to submit the tillslip with my tax return since it said R149,000 at the bottom. We’re going to spend like millionaires this holiday!!

It was easy to get a taxi; again, stand and let the drivers come to you. R400 for a 2 hour transfer down the coast to Padang Bai? Bargain!

The drive itself was interesting too. The airport isn’t actually in Denpasar, but in Kuta. We’d been advised not to stay in Kuta (on our return to the mainland at the end of our itinerary) because it’s too hectic and touristy… and this advice rang true in just the small bit of it we saw on our evac route. We did drive past Sanur Beach, where we will be staying, and saw Lambongan Island distant on the horizon, which made me a bit giddy from excitement, seeing all the topography from my flat online planning take shape before my very eyes! And the aircon in the car was blasting so Christian was happy too.

The transfer was slow going, mostly because of single carriageway and the type of traffic rather than the amount. It gave time to take in the sights – very tropical with lots and lots of frangipani and palm trees, and small square pagoda-style buildings close to the road. Bali is *very* Hindu so the houses and gardens all have adornments and intricate statues that keep the eye busier than this flash tour does justice.  Although maybe “flash” is an overstatement as at one point a hotel salesman pulled up on his Vespa alongside our driver, knocked on the window and a proceeded to hard sell… all at 40km per hour!

First stop in “town” was to get our boat tickets sorted for our island-hopping, more by our driver’s insistence than our request, so he presumably gets a kickback. Happily so, since it was quick and easy to sort the lot and that concluded the admin for this holiday, especially since the boat ticket includes door-to-door transfers to the port.

The driver then dropped us at our hotel, a charming place at the end of the waterfront called Beji Bay. It exceeded expectations from the sweet open-air reception, through the gardens and pool area to our roomy suite!

Eager to explore, we headed straight out and hit a right to “town”. We traversed the harbour and concentric inland areas of activity to get a lay of the land (and do some market shopping, for a Bintang vest for Christian and some swim shorts for me), and then passed our resort to go up the hill to explore the resort and temple.

Confident we’d done the small town justice, we resigned to our pool. Well, pools, considering it was an infinity jacuzzi into a big pool into a paddle pool. We had the place to ourselves, which was great for a splash around and relax.

Next activity had been pre-decided early on. We’d spotted a cocktail bar with an appealing happy hour from 5-7 that reminded us of the place in Mauritius that had served us so well. So that’s what we did!

The whole waterfront strip was quite quiet, but at least Padangbai Bay Resort had some lads at the bar, some ladies on the terrace and some divers preparing for their night dive. Weirdly, the Bintang only comes in 300ml or 700ml… so we worked our way through the large ones as the waiters refreshed our complimentary popcorn. It was only when the bill came and there was a 21% mandatory service charge that we realised why the staff was so attentive!

From there we surveyed the eating options in an effort to find somewhere both atmospheric and appealing. Instead, we found Molly’s… and had to stop in for the sake of homage to Christian’s local at home, Molly Malone’s.

By then, the dinner crowd had started moving in and we found ourselves at the upstairs front-and-centre harbour front restaurant (Kerti’s) that Christian had liked from the start. Unable to decide, we ended up ordering the marlin, tuna and prawns to share… a bargain at R45 per main course dish, so why choose?! All delicious, and quite different to the way they’d have been prepared and presented at home, with a tasty spicy brothy gravy.

We’d obviously made the right choice in eatery as most of the people we’d noticed passing had ended up moving through while we were there. Winning!