Tuesday 29 April 2014

Matsumoto and Snow Monkey's

Leaving behind the historic city of Kyoto, we took a train north into the Japanese Alps. From Kyoto to Nagoya we got to experience our first bullet train, which was not a disappointment. We switched by to a normal train for the longer journey up into the mountains.

Matsumoto Castle

Our arrival into Matsumoto saw a dramatic change in temperature and we were very grateful we had lugged around our winter gear. We stayed at the very recommended Matsumoto Inn, which was right beside the train station. Not wanting to waste our precious time, we dropped our luggage and headed out to the main attraction of the town: Matsumoto Castle. This castle is special in that it is one of only 12 remaining original castles from the feudal age in Japan. It is very reminiscent of Age of Empires. 

Our timing was also perfect, without realising we caught the closing ceremony of the blossom festival. Unlike the lowlands the blossoms were in peak bloom and flowers and petals were everywhere.

Matsumoto castle and blooms
Within the castle grounds there was live museum playing and it seemed like the majority of the town out in order to have lunch have a picnic under the blossoms. Considering the freezing temperatures I thought this was a bit mad, but I am sure the sake bottles helped with this issue. The sun set as we were exploring the grounds and only added to the beauty of the castle. Would definitely recommend coming here. Afterwards we found a lovely local restaurant on a restaurant street (the only one we encountered).

The next day, we headed off earlyish for out day trip to the mountains behind Nagano. Just an hour train from Matsumoto is the city famous for hosting the winter Olympics. We got our timing a little wrong and had to wait a little in town, before hoping on the train up to the Monkey Park. From the train station, you need to take a bus up further into the hills (although only a 15 min ride would be at least 2 hours walk uphill). From the bus stop the park is a further 30 minute walk but completely worth it. As it was spring there was no significant snow around, but it did mean that it was baby season.

Snow monkey's playing in the remaining snow

As we arrived into the park we were greeted by tens of baby monkeys running around playing in the remaining snow. Their parents were more interested in eating and basking in the sun rays. We spent a good deal of time here just watching their interactions and enjoying the cuteness. We even got to see one go for a dip in their famous hot springs (although the one we saw was artistically made – there are others scattered elsewhere in the park that are more natural – but a decent hike away).

Eventually we headed back down and to Matsumoto. The train ride is actually worth the trip in itself. The views from the train are as remote as is really possible in congested Japan. The contrasts between NZ and Japan were at their most here. It was very unnerving to have a complete lack of any animal. There were no farm animals, rabbits, or expected wildlife that you would normally see in the countryside. Agriculture was the biggest presence in between the villages.

Snow monkey's

Back in Matsumoto we explored the downtown area which was mainly focused on satisfying the Japanese materialistic culture. There are stores for absolutely everything and yet we had trouble finding some of the simple things we were looking for amongst the chaos of their stores. 

Friday 25 April 2014


We headed off the next day to Kyoto; the historical centre of Japan. After arriving we dropped off our bags and headed off to explore. The recommended way is either on foot if you have the time and stamina or to buy a day bus pass (the buses go everywhere). Our first stop was the largest freestanding wooden structure in the world Higashi-Honganji Temple. Absolutely massive inside and beautifully decorated. The nature of this temple meant that it was also a very nice relief from the surprisingly warm temperatures. Afterwards we headed off on a long walk to the Imperial Gardens to book our tour at the Emperors Palace. The walk up was nice and in the gardens we found our first serious blooms. As we later learned there are two types of blooms in Japan, single and double petal. In Kyoto, we had missed the single but were lucky enough to catch the double, which were massive pink flowers (peaches apparently).

Temple near Imperial Palace

As Kyoto is very expensive for accommodation, we actually stayed just outside of the city in a small town (although there was no definitive border between the two…everything merges due to the high population) of Otsu on the foreshore of Lake Biwa. We checked in and headed to the lake front and found a pretty disgusting noodle bar. Which was unfortunate, as afterwards on our way back we explored the mostly closed shopping street and wandered down this long passageway to what turned out to be the best food we had in Japan. This restaurant we have no idea of the name or what we ate as the waiter/chef/owner didn’t speak a word of English. It was absolutely fantastic with him just preparing dishes and serving them. We were absolutely bloated upon leaving. Martin also commented that this was where he had the best sake.

Our next day in Kyoto was temple bashing and the palace tour. We started off at the very famous Fushimi Inari Shrine. I had long wanted to go to this shrine, as for me it was one of the first things that came to mind when thinking of Japan. Beautiful vermillion pillars with important words engraved on them to walk through for miles.We headed back to town to explore the main shopping area hoping it would be similar to Osaka in the respect of food, but sadly we were let down with not too much exciting foods catching our attention or tantalising our taste buds.

 Author at Fushimi Inari Shrine

After lunch we headed off for our tour of the Imperial Palace. The complex as it stands today is still massive, and it was hard to believe that the remaining buildings only represented a 1/3 of the original. One fun fact, was that the palace has been rebuilt roughly every 100 years due to the constant threat of fire. This is very important as every building is made from wood, and the roofs are thatched with Japanese cedar. The gardens inside the palace are of the landscape style but were isolated to just a few areas which felt out of place, which I imagine was due to the fact that there would have been many more buildings previously.

Once the tour was over (1.5 hrs long) we bussed and walked up to Kiyomizu Temple. This temple is high up on the hills surrounding Kyoto and provides a good view over the area. The wooden pillars the complex sit on were extremely massive and hard to believe that once upon a time such trees lived in Japan. Didn’t see anything close during the rest of our stay for size. A highlight of this temple is the water blessing. The temple is famous for its pure water which you are supposed to wash your hands in and drink if you wanted. It was icy cold to touch but due to the collection mechanisms being shared (although they did UV for 2 secs in between each person, I decided against the drinking aspect).

Kiyomizu Temple

Beside the temple is the only remaining old town. Japanese are very much into the newer is better concept so old buildings of the traditional styles you see on the movies are very hard to find. The narrow cobbled streets and buildings here were beautiful, and as you exit this are you come across the main area to find some of the remaining 200 Geisha’s in Kyoto. We were very lucky and actually saw a bundle running between stairs at a training house, and saw 5 in total on their way to clients later on.

Old town part of Kyoto

The next day we had another quick wander at the water front of Otsu, which was a bit clearer this time. Smog is everywhere in Asia it seems so its quite sad that you don’t really get to see everything that you should.  Before leaving Kyoto we went to one more temple Toji. It wasn’t like the other temples we had been to in that it was based on Chinese design, and had the largest pagoda in Japan.

Our last stop was the only official Japanese garden we visited during our time; Shosei-en Gardens. This was also the only place that we saw a different kind of bird other than sparrow, crow, or myna throughout Japan. The gardens were very lovely and immaculate. It is such a different mind-set in Japan, as rather than planting the plants and letting them grow, they modify their growth which does make for pleasurable viewing but still felt a bit weird from a Kiwi perspective. 

Wednesday 23 April 2014


We arrived into Japan to the metropolis of Osaka. The train ride in from the airport is a good introduction to the reality of Japan with small agricultural land lots, lots of infrastructure, and houses with well-manicured Japanese gardens, mixed with apartments. Everything is squeezed in together and despite the squashed nature everything is well ordered.

We stayed at a hotel near to the Osaka castle and gardens beside one of the many concreted rivers. Our introduction to Japanese toilets was great fun trying to figure out what the buttons all did without translations. The running water noise to help you pee is most amusing.

We had one full day exploring the city of Osaka in which we managed to cram in quite a bit. We started off early morning with a walk through the castle gardens. We were a bit sad that we had clearly missed the main part of the blossoms but there were remnants around. The gardens are very different to those we have seen elsewhere with every aspect of a plants growth carefully manipulated with designer trees and manicured bushes. The control on nature was evident from the start and only got worse as we explored this country.

Osaka Castle viewed from bridge over the moat

The Osaka castle is very impressive. It has been rebuilt and restored many times, most recently completed again in 1997, it stands proudly on top of a natural hill surrounded by a moat. The key to the museum inside is to take the stairs. Even though we were early the line to get the lift up the 7 stories was massive yet the stairwell was smooth running. Definitely gives you more exercise than you probably need with a day of walking ahead but it does mean you can start your tour of the museum with ease. Each floor had a different aspect to explore focusing on the different parts of the castle and area’s history. Much of it is through written documents which are beautifully displayed and translated. Hours could have been spent here reading everything but we focused mainly on the artwork and miniatures.

From the castle we headed into the downtown area in order explore the largest and longest shopping street in Japan. Not knowing what to expect we were very happy to find long covered shopping area, very busy, with chairs for the pregnant to rest, and tasty treats of unknown origin to taste.
Walking around Osaka is a great way to experience the business nature of the city. We were actually staying right in the business district and it was actually funny in the morning to listen and hear the masses (thousands) of commuters arriving into work, trudging along like an orc army. But the business centre doesn’t contain it all, the whole city is focused on business.

Main shopping street
Another highlight of Osaka is the giant Ferris wheel Hep 5, which sits on the top of a 7 storey mall. The Ferris wheel is empty and not a tourist destination for unknown reasons, and only costs 500 yen, making it a very affordable way to get some of the best photos and view over the city we had seen. It is however, not for the faint of heart as, as it goes over one side there is literally nothing beneath you for at least 12 storeys. 
A must do at sun set.

View from Hep 5 over part of Osaka

We finished off our day back at the shopping street to try more food, and picked a perfect restaurant to taste everything. The local couchsurfer suggestion that this was where to eat, proved invaluable. 

Friday 7 February 2014

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a wonderful city, so densely crowded yet despite this somehow functions smoothly with great public transport and comparable congestion to a typical day in Auckland. The biggest issue with Hong Kong is the significant smog factor, most of it is blown down from China but they do make quite a bit of their own.
Travelling in from the airport the cheapest way into town is to find the appropriate bus (depending where you are heading to). The routes generally all go by one of the cool sites of HK: The port. HK was one of the worlds busiest and largest ports. The constant movement is like a dance of the cranes unloading and reloading massive container ships taking goods around the world. Once downtown, navigating around the city isn’t too difficult. We were lucky enough to stay almost right down town with a local couchsurfer which enabled us to get around easily by walking (near Albert metro station).

Skyscrapers downtown HK
The most obvious thing to do in HK if time is limited is to head to Victoria Peak. From here you can view HK central and all the amazing skyscrapers. To get there it is highly recommended to get a green minibus up and to take the cable car down, thus avoiding significant cues for the cable car up (we had a 2 min wait during peak time for the way down). The mall at the top also has a good selection of food places to enjoy and you can see also see the other islands out the other side of the mall (if the smog isn’t too thick).
We were lucky enough to see the central HK district on a Sunday which provides a unique view of HK (ie all the suits are gone). On Sunday all the local maids/nannies etc… get kicked out of their homes and thousands of them line the covered areas all throughout the town. Its quite fascinating subculture of HK, although sadly they don’t seem interested in talking to the tourists.

Star ferry with central HK in background

The Star Ferry crossing of the harbour is a great way to see both famous sides of the downtown area at once, so great for photo taking. There are numerous awesome food places scattered around the place downtown. Thankfully we had local contacts so knew a few good ones to try out but everything smelt pretty good.

We did a day trip out of the main island to see the Giant Buddha. Fastest and easiest way out there is by metro, followed by buying an island day bus pass. The Giant Buddha is a fantastic site. A lot of people choose to do the gondola way of getting there but the bus provides a more local perspective as you drive through the small towns (and its 10x cheaper). The gondola is quite fun, however, it mainly crosses over 2nd growth forests. The climb up to the Giant Buddha can feel like eternity when you are pregnant but is well worth the walk up there and the views are quite nice. Make sure you walk the whole way around to get blessed! The surrounding temples were under renovation and some were under construction whilst we were there, so we were a little disappointed with the lack of other things to see. This turned out to be a blessing though as we had time to head over to Tai O, another must do day trip.

Giant Buddha

Tai O is a relatively old unchanged fishing village. It is actually very hard in HK to find older buildings as they are all being torn down to make way for new places (even the relatively new places are classed as old!), so the old houses in Tai O were very interesting. We had the worst food here however, as most places were closed so there was extremely limited choice.

Tai O fishing village viewed from the water

The highlight of the village is actually the boat trip. You can get the boats from the main bridge…one side charges 30 HKD the other 25 HKD…for the same thing. You can imagine which one we choose. The short stroll into the fishing village gave quite an interesting view of the area and you got to see a bit more of the traditional fishing lifestyle which is disappearing in the modern HK. Out at sea, we were extremely lucky and got to actually see one of the elusive rare white dolphins. There are less than 75 in the area and they only come out every so often so its quite special to see. The ocean jaunt also provides further perspective on how busy the port is with all the container ships lounging about.

Tuesday 4 February 2014


Tonga, "The Friendly Islands", or officially the Kingdom of Tonga, is a pacific island paradise a four hour flight from New Zealand. We arrived to Fua'amotu International Airport and were instantly greeted with sweltering heat and steamed up glasses. The airport is needing a major overall if it is to handle the intended influx of tourists but it currently does the job. Customs was rather lacking in formality, with the signs indicating lines for foreigners being filled with locals as well, with no one really caring.

Central market Nuka'alofa
We were promptly picked up by the Little Italy shuttle service, who actually run the accommodations we were actually staying at Tropical Villa. Checked in without major issue and were then ferried onto the Villa. The bungalows at the front of the property are very tidy (with the odd gecko visitor at night) and are right next to the road, which didn't really concern us. The main house which has additional rooms (and where Martins parents stayed) were a bit noisier as people actually live upstairs and seem to forget that they make noise during the night. Sadly the pool was under construction when we arrived so cannot comment on this facility. All up it wasn't a terrible place to stay at all, and I particularly enjoyed the air conned reception upon our return in the evenings.

Kings Castle, Nuka' alofa
We started our journey in Tonga by exploring Nuka'alofa, the capital of Tongatapu Island. Tonga actually has many islands but service via ferry is very poor and with a tight time allowance we focused our travels to the mainland. A highlight of the down town area is the local market, which has basically a tourist item side and then a local food market side. As we had a kitchen, we actually tried a lot of local food with our own cooking and in particular ate a fair amount of tuna. Just outside of the central area is the Kings Castle. Its more like a modern day mansion, but access is restricted and we only got to view from the outside.

Ha'amonga Maui Arch
Terraced tomb
After finally sorting out a car hire (its very very tricky to find a place that has low excess or any form of insurance so be careful who you choose) we headed off for a day of exploring focusing on the North Eastern part of the island. One of our first stops were the terraced tombs near Lapaha. There are quite a number of these massive tombs which house the remains of former Tongan Kings. Another ancient monument worth your time is the Ha'amonga Maui arch, which brings memories of stone henge to mind (although its from the 11th century and is singular).

Anahulu Cave
Anahulu Cave offers an unique experience of cave swimming. The cavern that you are lead to is rather large, has bats for added fun and a lot of tites and mites. Additionally if you go during off season and not on a weekend, you'll get the whole place to yourself with no time limit.

Another day, exploring another area this time the far North West. Ha'atafu Beach is highly recommended, with the palm trees, golden sands, its the postcard perfect ideal paradise that people associate with the Pacific Islands.

Ha'atafu Beach
Flying foxes

Spent quite an enjoyable time here and also at the nearby hotel which had great burgers for lunch. Sadly despite this area being a high light it was also a let down. There is no longer any real living coral near the shores (at least that we saw) in Tonga...its a coral graveyard everywhere we went. As a result the water is very mineral rich and leaves you feeling dirty after your dips. You will also get tiny rashes everywhere (minor issue), or at least everyone in our party did. So take some Savlon with you to stop the itchy. There are plenty of tropical fish to enjoy though. Also in this area are the famous flying foxes. Imagine a flying rabbit (but its actually a rat) and you kinda get an idae of how large these fruit eating bats area. Quite an amazing site.


We headed to the Southern coast of the Island to enjoy the blow holes. Total contrast to the northern part of the country with sheer cliffs and obvious ancient lava flows, the blow holes are a must do. We spent quite a bit of time just enjoy the noise and sights of this area and wished that we could have stayed longer really. Quite the spectacle. Just along from the blow holes are rather high cliffs that are best enjoyed by choosing a random road that goes towards the edge of the island.

Final day of exploring with the car we just went to the gaps on the map that we hadn't been to. Found another beach (although the one we wanted was apparently private) and tried our luck again but still found no sightings of live coral and barely any fish around (eastern coast).

Southern Tongatapu Cliffs

An important note, is that not all of the main roads (yellow on maps) in Tonga are actually safe to drive cars on. We actually had to turn back at one point as after investigating, we figured out that we would lose the car if we dare try to cross one of the larger puddles in our way.