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Sunday, 31 July 2016

Travelling to Japan

Where to go, what to see.

Recently I was asked by a friend to give some recommendations for a trip to Japan to be done independently, as in, not with a tour group. I'll expand on the information I offered, and give some general recommendations on planning a trip to Japan.


The two main entry points to Japan are Tokyo and Osaka (the 2 largest cities), Narita, Tokyo's main international airport is an hour away in the countryside, Kansai, Osaka's international airport is an artificial island off the coast and is much closer to the city. Unless you really want to see Tokyo, it's possible to base yourself in Osaka or one of the cities nearby such as Kyoto or Kobe and just travel in that particular part of Japan without going up to Tokyo. (I lived in Japan for a year before I even went to Tokyo!)

Buy the JR Railpass!!! This is the best advice I can give, well worth the money, it can be used for JR local trains as well the Shinkansen (the bullet train) Validate it at the airport when you arrive and you can use it on the trains into the city.

Suburban train station in Tokyo on the Yamanote line, the circular line that goes around central Tokyo. Also the busiest line, part of an authentic Japanese experience is to catch these trains during rush hour!! You will never think public transport is crowded in your hometown after being crammed like sardines in one of these trains!

If you base yourself in Tokyo, besides the Tokyo attractions, it's also possible to do day trips to Hakone, to see Mt Fuji in the distance. Kawagoe, just north of Tokyo is called 'Little Edo' as it has an historic part that survived World War II. Kamakura, with the large Buddha and it has a beach so popular with day-trippers from Tokyo as well.

Tokyo itself, I suggest staying in the Shinjuku area, huge transport hub, close to the Harajuku area which is popular, Shibuya with its 5way crossing which I love to watch! Go up to the Starbucks across the road and it has large windows that face onto the crossing, great people watching, best though on a weekend when it's crowded!
 Asakusa, has the large lantern Kaminarimon over the gate to the temple, walk down past various stalls, great for buying your Japanese souvenirs.

There's a great park Shinjuku gyoen with the most fabulous displays of cherry blossoms if you're there during cherry blossom season. (early to mid April depending on the weather)

Taking the train south, sit on the righthandside, as on a clear day you get a really good view of Mt Fuji.

This is one of my pictures from last year.

Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe are all very close to one another, most people choose to stay in Kyoto due to its historic past. But modern Kyoto is very spread out, (Osaka even more so) so I suggest Kobe, much cheaper, smaller city, easy to walk around, only 20 minutes by local fast train to Osaka, 40 minutes to Kyoto. (Shinkansen speeds are faster but the stations aren't as convenient)

Kyoto suggestions:

Niji Castle complex with the Ninomaru Palace, it has the 'nightingale floors' the carpenters who constructed the floors made the so that they would squeak (nightingale noise) when stepped on. A protection against ninja attacks!

The Golden Pavilion, it's a bus ride from Kyoto station, but worth seeing, very popular with local tourists be prepared for crowds!

I took some friends to Japan and they wanted to be dressed as Geisha so I found a photographic studio not far from Kyoto station, where they had the makeup applied, dressed and posed in various traditional poses. It was great fun so can recommend it.

The Gion district is the Geisha area, if you are there in the afternoon it's possible to see Geisha and the young trainees the Maiko walking around.

Hiroshima (about an hour from Kobe)

Peace Park is a must.

Hiroshima can be done as a day trip from the Kansai area (Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto). Morning at Peace Park, then afternoon at Miyajima island, with the large tori (temple gates) that look as though they are floating in the water during high tide. Deer wander freely around the island, so there are no rubbish bins! Carry your rubbish away with you.

Other day trips if based in Kansai are to Himeji to see the castle, I tell people not to bother with Osaka castle or Hiroshima castle as they are concrete reproductions produced in the 1960s, the originals were destroyed in World War II. But the Himeji one is original from the 13th century and well worth seeing.

Okayama has the second best garden in Japan, the first best, Kenrokuen, is on the Japan Sea side of Japan. Korakuen in Okayama is well worth seeing for garden lovers, especially to appreciate a beautiful Japanese garden.

Kurashiki, beautiful small canal town, with a lovely historic centre.

Nara is the ancient capital, before Kyoto, it's a short train trip from Osaka. I prefer Nara to Kyoto as it's much smaller, easier to walk around, it has the Todaiji Temple with the largest bronze statue of Buddha, the park around the temple has tame deer that you can feed with special deer crackers you buy. 

For a seven day trip to Japan, this itinerary will get you around to all the main sights and you'll only have to plan accomodation in 2 cities.

If you want to spend longer, a trip to Takayama is worthwhile, the train trip through the Japan alps, while slow (it's not the Shinkansen, but a local train from Nagoya) it is scenic.

Nagasaki is also a nice city to visit, again the Shinkansen doesn't go all the way there so need to change trains.

The northern island of Hokkaido has great skiing and Okinawa is interesting, it's subtropical and Japan's version of Hawaii or the Gold Coast or Costa Brava (depending where you're from!) Palm trees and resorts for summer holiday makers.

Japan isn't that difficult for independent travellers, while some English is spoken in the larger cities, all the signs that are written in the Roman alphabet are in English. You can ask for an English menu or look for a restaurant or cafe with plastic food in the window and point to what you want!

The towns and cities are clean and safe to explore, even to wander around late at night. 

Accomodation wise, there are the standard western big hotel chains, the smaller and cheaper business hotels, the traditional Ryokan. Many visitors to Japan try and spend a night or 2 in a Ryokan and they're lovely but also somewhat pricey, having Japanese friends meant that I did the cheaper version the Minshuku (Japanese B&B) There are also hostels, and capsule hotels for very cheap stays!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Ayers House, Adelaide

A National Trust property in the centre of Adelaide.

Ayers House is a stately home, now owned by the National Trust, in the city centre of Adelaide. It was built at the time when its location on North Terrace was the most prestigious part of the city to live. It now boasts that it's the last of the North Terrace mansions, sadly the others have all been demolished for office buildings and carparks.

The house was originally owned by Sir Henry Ayers, a former premier of South Australia. And the man after whom Ayers Rock was named. (The Indigenous name of Uluru is now more commonly used) Henry Ayers was wealthy enough to expand what had been a small cottage into a grander home in the mid to late 1800s. After he died the property was sold and up until the 1960s it was used as a nurses' home, accomodating the nurses who worked in the hospital across the road. The house was then acquired by the National Trust who set about restoring it in the style of a Victorian mansion in colonial Adelaide. 

The National Trust now run the museum part of the house, other parts are used to host various functions, weddings, conferences etc so not all the house is open to wander around. The first bay window houses the large formal dining room, which on this visit had 2 heritage dresses on display. I have in the past visited when there's been a major display of the clothing collection of Ayers House. The room to the left is the servery where food was placed prior to being served after being brought up from the kitchens below.

The hallway going across from the large dinning room to the ballroom which was in the other bay window and is now part of the functions centre so not part of the museum. The chandelier in the distance is a restored original piece. After Henry Ayers the house was sold and over the years items from the house have been found, restored and placed back into the house.

The smaller dining room which looks out onto the front verandah.

This picture is on the wall in the small dinning room, it's of the young Queen Victoria, I liked the attention to detail in the furnishing of the house in the era it was built. It's also a nice image of Queen Victoria as she's generally pictured as an old woman not the young queen she was.

The dining room adjoins the sitting room with the ballroom through those double doors.

The upstairs rooms are laid out as bedrooms, this is the lady's bedroom.

The gentlemen's bedroom. Nice touch with the hat and cane!

The nursery with a collection of antique dolls.

Downstairs, the kitchen area.

Also downstairs is the summer sitting room, this was restored a few years back with its original artwork on the walls and ceiling. In the days before air-conditioning people had to be more creative in trying to escape from the heat. Thick stone walls helped, the Ayers family retired downstairs where it was cooler due to it being underground. They passed their hot summer days entertaining each other in this sitting room.

As the room was closed off, there was an open area called the smoking room.

There's no ceiling to the smoking room, it's in a light well between the underground rooms. So at least the smoke could disperse!

Ayers House is in a convenient location in the city and it's a pleasant way to spend a bit of time if you're a tourist with an interest in the past. It's also free to visit if you're a member of the National Trust. 

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Goodwood Park Hotel, Singapore

A heritage hotel, with a modern wing.

I have stayed in this hotel before so this was a return visit, and as it falls into the 'heritage' label, it's naturally one I gravitate to when looking at the list of Singapore hotels. The original parts of the hotel were built in 1900 as the Teutonia Club, a club for expat Germans. In 1918, it was sold to Manasseh brothers who renamed it and converted it into a hotel. One of the guests who stayed there in the 1920s was the ballerina Anna Pavlova (the one after whom the dessert was named!) By the 1930s it was one of the best known hotels and another famous guest was the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII and later still, Duke of Windsor. So bundles of history for me to read up on!

The entrance from the heritage wing, under the tower (which, more research! Is designated a national monument in Singapore) There is a new entrance with the hotel reception in the newer wing.

Walkway through the heritage wing, with the restaurant on the left, the end of the walkway leads to the modern extension of the hotel. What's nice about this hotel is that the modern section has all been kept low-rise, so no tower block behind the heritage building (as with the Raffles hotel.)

This hotel lists itself as a five star hotel so the price reflects that rating. However there are different levels of accomodation, I booked into the cheaper level and then was given a free upgraded to a nicer room. (Much appreciated!)

A very convenient location on Scotts Road, just off Orchard Road, a 5 minute walk from the Orchard MRT station. Being so close to a MRT station made getting around very simple.


A spacious room, the bench top on the right rolled across to display a work area underneath for those business people who need to work as they travel.

The bathroom still had a bathtub, which many hotels now just remove when they upgrade their rooms.

Optional extras

The hotel had 2 pools, as the rooms are arranged in different wings.

The smaller of the two pools in a tropical setting.

The larger pool, which also has an outdoor functions centre on the right.

The hotel offers High Tea during the afternoons and it's enormously popular, particularly on the weekends and the pastries and cakes all looked delicious! I didn't partake as it was booked out on the occasions I've stayed there!

Another great hotel to stay in for those travellers who enjoy a little heritage in their accomodation.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Ansley's Hill Recreation Park, South Australia

One of Adelaide's newer bushwalking parks

When researching this park, I was surprised to find out that it was only designated as a recreational park in 1989 and a new parcel of land was added in 2002. Other walking and hiking trail parks are much older and more established, this one is still popular with the local people judging by the amount of people using it on the days I was there.

The city centre of Adelaide as seen from the higher trails, a good view of the Adelaide plain with the sea beyond.

The easiest path and well used, along the valley leading to the ruins of the Newman's Nursery.

The park contains the ruins of the old Newman's Nursery which in the late 1800s was the largest plant nursery in the Southern Hemisphere (quite a feat when you consider the South Australian colony was really small even compared to the other Australian colonies, and South Africa had a large population of colonists and it was closer to Great Britain for export purposes)

The old nursery was badly affected by a storm in 1913 which destroyed most of its greenhouses and then destroyed by floods in the early 1920s. A descendent of the early Newmans later opened a nursery about 2km from this site and that still operates today.

Ruins of the houses I'm assuming from the fireplace. A sign nearby tells the tragic story of the original Newman's youngest daughter dying from a terrible accident when she ran to greet her father and slipped into a large vat of boiling water in the fireplace. The burnt stone is from much later as the ruins were further damaged by the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983.

The stables, the nursery complex was a small village supporting the Newman family, the founder had 17 children!

A horse trough next to the path to the old nursery, which makes me think that perhaps the path is the old road to the nursery.

 Even with being in quite low in a valley there is a distant view of the Adelaide plain and the sea, the reason for the nursery being built where is was is close proximity to water. There's an underground spring which then feeds a creek, on the left of the picture with the dried reeds.

The path through the valley.

A small creek with calla lilies growing alongside it, not yet flowering. With the nursery there are still remnants of introduced planting in the park, I even saw some snowdrops, definitely not indigenous Australian plants!

In contrast to all the nature and history, something more industrial, the Mannum-Adelaide pipeline. Built in the 1960s in an effort to drought proof Adelaide, water can be pumped from the Murray River into the local Adelaide water catchments.

The 'new' Newman's Nursery established in the 1940s is lovely to visit as have a lovely cafe, here's my post on a visit there last year.

Topiary Cafe at Newman's Nursery

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Chinatown, Singapore

A popular place for tourists

Singapore has a large Chinatown which is well patronised by its tourists. It's popular for souvenir shopping, restaurants and food markets. The largest ethnic group in Singapore are the Chinese and whilst now they are dispersed and live in all areas of Singapore, Chinatown was the area marked out for them in the plan by Stamford Raffles.

This old architecture shows the Chinatown style of building with the covered walkways that were mandated by Stamford Raffles (for practical reasons? Shade from the sun and protection from the torrential rain.) and the pastel colour of the buildings with their narrow shuttered windows.

With the development of Singapore, beginning after independence in 1965, old traditional buildings were demolished to make way for new and modern. It was only much later, that it was realised that in destroying the old buildings you also destroyed history and tradition and so an effort was made to preserve traditional buildings. Chinatown in particular the streetscape has been kept to the original style.

There are shops that sell traditional food items and 'health products', it seems you can't call the items 'traditional medicine'.

Even with the enclaves that Stamford Raffles set up, there was a mixing of ethnic groups. Chinatown has a mosque, a Chinese Tao temple and a Hindu temple.The Hindu Temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, it's at the south end of Pagoda Street (the souvenir market street). The original temple was built in 1827 and later modernised.

Sri Mariamman Temple as you walk in, having removed your shoes first.

The temple is the reason for the market street that runs along its side. Historically traders set up stalls outside the temple to take advantage of the amount of people (potential customers!) who prayed at the temple. The souvenir market street, Pagoda Street begins at the temple and runs through to the MRT Chinatown station.

Pagoda Street with the markets, the ornate building on the left is the community hall belonging to the Hindu temple.

As well as shopping there are also a collection of restaurants which are quite popular with tourists wanting to try out Chinese food.

A well known and interesting part of Singapore to visit.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

My 10 favourite cities

and four not so favourite!

St Petersburg, Russia

I've only been to St. Petersburg once and barely scratched the surface of getting to see the city. It's just such a beautiful city, on the water with the canals, and as it was a planned city with a lot of money poured into it, the historic buildings are stunning. And the majority have been restored, I visited in summer so an added bonus was to experience the "white nights" the sun sets at about 3am so it's bright daylight at midnight! 

London, U.K.

London is such a favourite, and I visit so frequently I now have a favourite bookshop, pub, shops, area to stay in central London. It is expensive but I love the atmosphere of the city, how diverse it is, and how there's always something happening. I still manage to discover new places each time I visit, last time it was the Camden Lock markets, not new to many people but I'd never been before!

Berlin, Germany

I made my first trip to Berlin last year (or as I refer to them, my reconnaissance trip!) Get a quick taste of the location and then decide whether to return to further explore the place at a later date. Berlin is one place I that I really need to go back to (it's a long list!) there's so much more for me to see and experience. Another truly beautiful city, and even experiencing it in the rain, couldn't take away from how attractive the city was.

Singapore, Singapore

This city (and country) has been on my favourites list since I first visited as a 12 year old. I never fell out of love with Singapore, there's always something new to see each time I visit.

A brilliant thing to see, the nightly lightshow at Gardens by the Bay.

Washington D.C., U.S.A

Being someone who is a history geek, this is the perfect city for me. Loved the museums of the Smithsonian, like most people I think the Air and Space museum and the museum of American history were my favourites. The other historic sites (even for someone who isn't American) were interesting the Lincoln memorial, and I really like the Vietnam War Memorial, really poignant, a gash of black granite with the names of those who died in the war.

Kurashiki, Japan

This is my all time favourite city in Japan, the old merchant quarter is just beautiful. It's preserved to look like it did in the Edo period, complete with all the electrical wiring placed underground. I originally went to Kurashiki as it was the location of the Ohara Art Museum, which houses some of Monet's paintings. The museum was established in 1930 as a museum of impressionist art, Japanese artists travelled to Europe to study impressionism and there are some interesting examples in the museum of Japanese artists using the technique of impressionism, painting Japanese scenes. (A girl wearing a kimono comes to mind) The merchant quarter called the Bikan historical area is about a 10 minute walk from the station, you walk through what is a standard Japanese town with convenience stores, etc to the historic area with a canal, willow trees bordering the canal, restored storehouses as this was a commercial area. There are historic homes, cafes, restaurants as well as the art museum. It's just a really lovely area, highly, highly recommend it for anyone travelling independently in Japan. Few tour groups (apart from the Japanese day trippers) include Kurashiki and that's another major selling point to going there, it's not that crowded with tourists!

Sydney, Australia

It has the most beautiful location of any Australian city, it's worth visiting for the harbour alone. 

The Manly ferry coming into Circular Quay, a great way to cross Sydney Harbour.

Quebec City, Canada

Just loved Quebec City when I visited Canada years ago. Old Quebec is just like wandering around an European city and yet you're in North America. Quebec City is smaller than Montreal so it's easy to walk around and enjoy it and how 'French' it feels compared to the anglophone parts of Canada. A must visit place on any trip to Canada in my opinion.

Stockholm, Sweden

Another city I visited in summer and it really displayed the city in the best light. Stockholm is surrounded by water, and that alone makes for an attractive setting. Looking at my list of favourite cities, just about all are either on the sea or have water feature prominently in their location.

Shanghai, China

This is a new entry on my list of favourite cities as I just visited Shanghai in April. I loved the 'international' feel of the city, mainly through its architecture, it was in China but had past that wasn't just Chinese. Would love to go back and explore the newer parts of Shanghai, the China of the 21st century.

These are the cities I really love, I got the idea for this post by reading some other travel blogs and the cities that seem to feature prominently, I have a more 'meh don't like it that much' attitude to. So controversially here are my 'don't- like-that-much,-but-are-popular-with-others' list.

Prague- beautiful city but now ruined by squadrons of tour groups all following their leader. Just too crowded and touristy to really enjoy, and I hate the segways that wiz around the old town!

Venice- same reason as Prague, ruined by too many tourists, the local population has diminished and that's what made the city more like a city rather than a theme park. Still worth visiting to form your own opinion, as it is unique.

Rome- disliked Rome from my first visit as a child, and again it was the crowds of tourist that spoiled it for me. It didn't feel like Italy to me as people around me spoke English, real Italy to me was where only Italian was spoken! I'm all for the authentic as possible experience, I may be a tourist but I don't like to be surrounded by them!

Paris- pretty enough city but I never fell in love with it. No particular reason, the tourists are more spread out so it didn't feel quite so theme parky but it's not a city that captured my interest.