After 24 hours of trains, taxis, planes, buses, layovers, delays and ferries we managed to make it from Tokyo to a tiny island called Malapascua, on the northern tip of Cebu in the Philippines. On the way we'd flown through a progressively worrying lightning storm, and once we landed it hadn't taken long to realise that it wasn't appropriate weather for snow boots.
The contrast with Japan was immediately noticeable, electronic toilets had been replaced by bowls where you had to use a jug to flush away any contents left by yourself or previous users.
Our first real glimpses of the country came from our taxi ride to the bus station, weaving between ridiculous traffic and hoards of people. The radio was blasting out an interview of a government official screaming about the country's war on drugs, before the news reporter told of extrajudicial killings by the police. We decided at that point to stay clear of narcotics.
Once in Malapascua we settled into a routine which even the most talented writer would struggle to make interesting for a blog. Early nights, early mornings, eating, drinking and laying in the sun. I settled into a week long gym routine which lasted 13 minutes of the first day, with my only other exercise consisting of poking Sammie with a stick every 30 minutes to make sure she was still breathing.
The island was beautfiul, we were staying in a basic little wooden shack on the beach only a few yards from the water, with the sound of breaking waves sending us to sleep every night. This was all very soothing until a storm hit one night with the water nearly up to our door and the flimsy wooden walls threatening to fly off into the night.
We managed to escape our daily routine only once, going on a boat trip around the island to some snorkeling sights. We hadn't managed to make it onto our boat before Sammie once again impressed with her ability to locate and stand on sea urchins, this time managing to fall into a hole in ankle deep, clear water. After a good day swimming around some coral reef and through a shipwreck just off the island, we were rushing back for happy hour and our £1.15 cocktails.
Another day of travel started as we left Malapascua to head back to mainland Cebu. Our 30 minute boat ride took well over 2 hours, with half the passengers having to unload onto dinghies before we left because we were stuck on a sandbank, followed by a long wait at the other end as we couldn't make it to the pier in the low tide. Once across we took a couple of buses to Moalboal at the opposite end of Cebu.
Our time here promised to be a bit more energetic, with plenty of activities to try and lure Sammie away from her sunbed. The first of these was Kawasan falls, a series of waterfalls and turquoise lagoons which looked like something out of a Peter Andre music video. We spent the day here swimming, playing on rope swings and arguing when Sammie forgot to press the button to record me jumping off a waterfall.
The next morning we were up at 5 to head across the island to Oslob, where whale sharks had been lured towards the coast for tourists to queue up and swim with. It was an amazing experience, swimming a couple of meters away from fish which looked like they could swallow you whole. The staff were pretty strict, making sure that you kept your distance and didn't touch the sharks. Riding one was out of the question.
Back at the hostel we rented a couple of snorkels, the decision to save a tiny amount of money by renting from a local woman backfired, when what she gave us were basically oversized straws. We were staying on panagsama beach, where virtually as soon as you step into the water you can see coral reef and colourful fish. About 20 meters from the beach there's a steep drop, where millions of sardines swim together, making huge black clouds in the water. After spending some time swimming with the sardines we spotted a huge green sea turtle slowly gliding along below us. In my excitement to get near him I sliced my foot on some coral, cancelling any plans for our last day in Moalboal.
That was about it for the Philippines, we took a taxi back to Cebu City to get some sleep before an early flight. The country exceeded our expectations, it was completely laid back which was a refreshing change after Korea and Japan. I'd recommend for everyone to visit, particularly if you're old, fat, white and male as they seemed to have a real knack at finding young, slim, attractive Filipino women. Dirty old bastards.
In our taxi to the airport the driver created a festive atmosphere, singing along to 'Santa Claus is coming to town' before nodding off at the wheel. Merry Christmas.
Friday, 16 December 2016
After a year in Korea we were back on the road again. We left our apartment in Hwamyeong and caught the metro to Busan’s airport, after a short flight we were boarding another train into the heart of Osaka.
An old city port, Osaka is a city thriving with a blend of traditional Japanese culture fused with culture brought in from the port. We thought we’d take advantage of this mix by heading to the one of the city’s hidden gems, Universal Studios Japan. Here we managed a pretty good ratio of five hours of queuing for every four minutes of rides, with Sammie walking around Harry Potter World looking ten times happier than when I proposed to her.
That night we headed into the downtown area of the city, Dotonbori, where the streets were lit up with multistory neon lights and ridiculously crowded with people. We made our way round the alleys to find some street food, before spending a good amount of time trying to find the area’s famous ‘running man’ sign, which it turned out that we were stood directly under.
After Osaka we headed on a surprisingly cheap train to Kyoto, a nearby city famous for its 400+ shrines. We had a picnic lunch on the riverbank listening to an elderly Japanese man playing some oriental sounding music on his flute. After that we spent our time in the area visiting several shrines that seemed to be dotted along every street, climbing a couple of mountains and endlessly searching for cheap food and beer.
A popular theme in Kyoto, and the rest of Japan, was trying to get a decent picture of the landmarks whilst surrounded by hundreds of tourists trying to do the same thing. This was particularly true in the bamboo forest, where the natural beauty of the area was ruined by the line of people who looked like they were queuing to get out of there.
However next to the forest was a national park, where the peak of a mountain was home to hundreds of monkeys. They had a good system in place where people where kept inside a cage and the monkeys roamed free outside, sticking their hands through the wire to grab some peanuts or banana from you. The whole area was made even more beautiful because of the autumnal leaves which turned the hillsides different shades of red and orange.
After a good few days in Kyoto we were gently broken back into travelling life, with a 5am rise for a 7 hour bus to Hiroshima. This wasn’t too much of an issue due to the absolute luxury of Japanese buses and because we’d been going to bed around 8pm every night to watch Making a Murderer. I think our partying days are a distant memory.
Despite going to Hiroshima almost solely to see the city’s history, it turned out to be our favourite place in Japan, alongside Kyoto. The city had a really laid back atmosphere, everything was easy and everyone was friendly. The city was great to walk around, with rivers, castles and a good mix of traditional Japanese areas alongside a modern centre. The Christmas songs and twinkling lights were enough to keep Sammie smiling and it was only infrequently that she told me she hated me for keeping her away from home for Christmas.
Miyajima island is a major tourist hub and just a short tram ride and ferry from the centre of Hiroshima. We got their expecting a floating shrine and similar architecture as we’d seen throughout the shrines in Kyoto, but we were amazed to find the island swarming with deer. They were everywhere, stealing people’s maps, nicking people’s food and making kids cry. You can’t have a bad day when there’s deers about.
After filling an SD card with deer pictures, we headed on a walk over a mountain to the far side of the island. Here we saw some pretty waterfalls and learnt that even strong looking tree branches can’t hold the weight of an 80kg adult male.
On the final day in Hiroshima we visited the area directly below where the atomic bomb exploded, which had been turned into a peace park to commemorate those lost and educate people about the dangers of these bombs. In the centre of the park is a museum, which gave us eyewitness accounts of what happened on the day, alongside mangled steel, burnt roof tiles and bloodied school uniforms. It was all pretty graphic and disturbing, but something we’re glad we saw.
On the banks of the river in the peace park is the Hiroshima A-Dome, a building which miraculously was left standing despite being 160m below the point of detonation and surrounded by rubble. This was a great example of Japan’s history and present, where a strangely beautiful building with such a grave history could still be a wifi hotspot and surrounded by fairy lights and a Christmas tree.
After a serious day we were soon back to reality, heading to the bus station on a tram which had us both crying with laughter because the sound it made when it stopped sounded like a fart. Once we were at the station we composed ourselves and caught a 13 hour night bus to Tokyo. The next morning friendly people from the country’s capital were trying to greet us and have a chat, after a night and morning without brushing our teeth and shrimp crisps for breakfast, we decided it would be less offensive to ignore them, rather than talk to them.
On arrival we caught a train from what we’ve been told if the world’s busiest train station to our hostel in a slightly more chilled area just outside the centre. Tokyo was another place where the best thing to do seemed to be just walk around and gawp at the tall buildings and neon lights. This took us to a street which was filled with multistory buildings selling games, magazines and posters of fairly provocative looking female animation characters. We slipped away from the hoards of creepy looking old men to grab a beer, where our Japanese translation let us down and we ended paying an extortionate amount for a glass of mainly froth.
A day of high action was kicked off with a trip round a lake on a peddle swan boat which Sammie insisted would be worth the money. After this we headed to Maricar, where you get to race through the centre of Tokyo in go-karts whilst dressed as characters from Mario. Unfortunately you needed an international driving permit to drive the karts, Sammie didn’t have one so I was forced to to decide whether I’d enjoy the experience enough for both of us.
The go-karts were amazing. I drove with a bunch of Korean guys through the busiest areas of Tokyo, with people waving and stopping to take pictures of us. I can see how fame goes to people’s heads, as after a few minutes I was beeping my horn at everyone and slowing down to high-five strangers.
The morning before leaving Japan we decided to take one more trip out, to a scenic spot where Mount Fuji could be seen towering in the distance over the skyscrapers of Tokyo. The viewing point was down a little alley in an old part of the city, so you had the old area, modern centre and Mount Fuji all in one beautiful shot. Unfortunately recently a huge apartment block has been built at the bottom of the alley, limiting your view to about 10 meters.
That was about it for our time in Japan. We managed to eat most of the local dishes including some delicious ramen and sushi, and our obsession with counting steps (and my unwillingness to pay for transport) meant that we walked 110 miles there. If there’s one thing we’ll remember from our time here its the toilets. Japan is so futuristic that the toilets lids and seats go up and down at the touch of a button, the seat is always heated, there’s a suction button to consume any unpleasant smells and a loud music button to maintain your dignity when nature calls. And back in England we’re still sitting on cold plastic like cavemen.