Le Tour De Taiwan – Day 29

28 days later… and I’m getting close to the end of my bicycle trip around Taiwan. Fortunately I saved the best for last!

View From Hehuan Mountain Main Peak

Sunny View From Hehuanshan Main Peak

Fugang – Hualien

After an overdose of relaxation on Orchid Island, the ferryboat took me back to the picturesque little harbor of Fugang. The time I jumped on my bike, darkness was falling. But I didn’t mind getting a dusky ride. Around 11 PM and 100 km further north I pitched my tent on a campsite with the well–sounding name “Shihtiping” in the small town of Fengbing.

A perfect spot, if it wasn’t for the grumpy man brusquely waking me up the next morning around 6 AM. The angry gentleman turned out to be the owner, requesting me to pay 8ooTWD. An absurd amount for my ridiculously small one-person tent sadly placed in the grass (for comparison: a hostel dorm usually costs around 500 TWD). After a long and difficult negotiation involving my hands, feet and a site named “google translate” I paid 400 TWD and continued my journey. A campsite named “Shihtiping”? I should’ve known…

Fengbin Harbor Early in the Morning

Fengbin Harbor Early in the Morning

The remaining stretch from Fengbin to Hualien city was short. And as the nightly biking the previous day went well, I was all set for an easy day of relaxed cycling. On arrival in Hualien I realized that it was short, but definitely not as effortless as expected. To make my point:

Elevation profile Fengbin - Hualien City

View Along the Coastal Road to Hualien

View Along the Coastal Road to Hualien

Hualien – Taroko – Hehuanshan

Since I left on the bike, I had been thinking about climbing one of the many mountains in Taiwan. And after all, what would “Le Tour De Taiwan” be without a decent “queen stage”? Back in Taipei, Cecilia had shown me footage of her heroic climb of Mt. Hehuan (aka Hehuanshan aka “Joy Mountain”) during wintertime. Great inspiration! The climb is extra interesting because of its accessibility. The main peak can be climbed from Wuling (at 3,275 m the highest  pass in Taiwan). Moreover, the road to the climb from Hualien crosses the magnificent Taroko National Park.

The profile of the climb (more here – Taiwan Kom Challenge):

Elevation Profile Hualien - Hehuan Mountain

Elevation profile Hualien – Hehuanshan Mountain

I decided to pitch up my tent around Heliu in the Taroko gorge (altitude 400 m) Sunday late afternoon. The next morning I woke up at 5AM to tackle around 60 km of climbing towards the town of Guanyuan (altitude 2.374 m).

Taroko Gorge Valley View

Taroko Gorge Valley View

The climb was physically challenging with the MTB and the extra weight wasn’t helping to get up faster either. Luckily more than enough reasons to forget the physical strain: a beautiful sunrise, my very first encounter with (shy) Taiwanese monkeys and the majestic natural surroundings all along the way. Sometimes though, the road got dangerously close. Luckily warning signs were provided 🙂

Road close

Beware: Road Close

After a short night sleep in the Youth hostel in Guanyuan (there’s only one just in case you were wondering) I got started for the most beautiful part: the actual ascent towards Hehuanshan Mountain. Only 17 km between Guanyuan and the final climb but no doubt the hardest bit on the journey so far. Several parts have an elevation percentage above 12%. However, every bit of the journey was worth it. The view at 3.416 m above sea level on the main peak of Hehuanshan is stunning!

Hehuan Mountain Main Peak

Hehuan Mountain – 3.416 m

Le Tour De Taiwan – Day 18

I’m writing from Lanyu (Orchid Island), a small volcanic island off the southeastern coast of Taiwan. The plan was to spend 4 days on this little piece of paradise. However, because of the rough sea, yesterday’s boat was canceled. The perfect moment to write a short report about the last 9 days of cycling and traveling through the “Ilha Formosa”.

Heading From South to East

Heading From South to East

After having spent a day of exploring around Kenting, I got back on the road towards the east coast of Taiwan. Because of the strong wind, I was moving slow. Not that much of a problem considering the breathtaking scenery around me.

Breathtaking View Cycling Towards the East

Breathtaking View Cycling Towards the East

I decided to give my legs some rest and my upper body some work in the relaxed surfer town Jialeshui where I crashed at Winson’s house. Two days later, after a late afternoon surf session I bumped into another (crazy) Belgian! Koen is a fellow Prince Albert Fund alumni that spent one year working in Taipei. As we were moving in the same direction, we decided to bike together the next morning.

Surfing is So Happy

Surfing is So Happy…

Sunset in Jialeshui

Jialeshui Sunset

We took off early for one of the toughest but most beautiful “stages” of Le Tour de Taiwan until now: Jialeshui to Taimali (to see the route click here).  It was great to have a companion during the 115 km long ride in the sweltering heat on a hilly route (1551 m of incline). For those wondering where I get the stats from: Koen is an electrical engineer interested in technology registering our every move with one of his many useful apps.

Jialeshui - Taimali

Jialeshui – Taimali

Quite remarkable are the many “police stations” along the road. The criminality must be close to zero in most of the east as the stations function as “bicycle service areas”, invariably staffed with policemen keen on providing food, water, a place to sleep or information about Taiwan.

Police Station or Service Station for Cyclists?

Police Station or Service Station for Cyclists?

Sleeping Spot in Taimali

Sleeping Spot in Taimali

After a short and rainy night, we got up at 4.30 am and drove 30 km towards the pretty harbor town of Fugang. We arrived around 7 only to find out that the ferry wasn’t leaving until 9.30. Luckily we found shelter in one of the nearly five thousand (!)  7-ELEVEN stores in Taiwan.

Fugang Port

Fugang Port

The last few days on Orchid Island were spent snorkeling, diving and hiking. In short: enjoying life. However, the desire to head towards the mountains is growing. Hopefully the sea will be quiet enough to catch the scheduled ferry on Tuesday so I can continue my journey!

Port of Lanyu

Port of Lanyu

Diving

Two Crazy Belgians and One Crazy Fish

Lanyu View

Lanyu View

Sunset over Lanyu

Lanyu sunset

Le Tour De Taiwan – Day 9

After a good night sleep I got on the road together with Hom Yian, Cecilia’s dad. Hom Yian is (besides friendly and generous) a worried Asian father and wanted to make sure I’d safely make my way out of Taipei. So he decided to join me for the first day.  At times it must have been hilarious to witness us  communicating, in a language we both don’t speak. A remarkable duo to say the least 🙂

Ready to go!

The first three days on the bike were quite challenging. After having spent a wonderful time enjoying city-life in Taipei, it was hard to get adapted to the cycling rhythm. A burning sun with temperatures well above 30 and the realization that I should have packed lighter were not making it any easier. Next to that, along the west coast of the island there’s a lot of heavy industry. Understandably this does not make it the most beautiful area to be cycling through. Finding sleeping space or a spot to pitch my tent was hard as well. So I had to turn to the Almighty Buddha again. The first night I slept in a small Buddhist “chapel”. The second night, the Buddha’s smile turned even brighter and I enjoyed a (free) stay in a full-blown temple (with bedding, hot showers and stunning sunset).

Sleeping Spot First Night

Sleeping Spot Second Night: Fangyuan Temple

Sleeping Spot Second Night: Fangyuan Temple

Sunset Near Fangyuan Temple

Meanwhile, some friends had notified me about typhoon Usagi moving closer to Taiwan slowly but steadily. I decided to bike to Tainan where I met up with the local mermaid-girl Trista (thanks for the referral Joanne!). Once again I found myself amazed by the genuine hospitality of Taiwanese people as I was celebrating the Moon festival together with Trista and her lovely family. Thanks for the wonderful time we spent together and the tasty Taiwanese food you made me try!

With another 5 extra kilos I made my way further south (to the city of Kenting). The scenery has changed and I am now experiencing the true (natural) beauty of Taiwan. Some shots along the way and during a trip I made today:

Entering Pingtung County

Namwan Beach Tractor

Nanwan Beach Tractor

Houbihou Port. No Fishing

Baisha Beach

Baisha Beach

Sunset Near Guanshan

Guanshan Sunset

Tomorrow I’m planning to continue my journey towards the east side of Taiwan. Looking forward after what I’ve seen last few days!

P.s. Sometimes I miss Belgium.

Belgian Beer. Available in Taiwan as Well!

Sometimes I Miss Belgium 🙂

Photographic Impressions Busan (South Korea)

(Tasty?) Street Food (Busan – Taipei) 

Bite my Tongue

A Happy Pig

Street Fooood

Pig's Trotters

Pig’s Trotters

("Pierced") cock in Taipei (Taiwan)

“Pierced” cocks in Taipei

A City With a View

A Room With a View (From Couchsurfing Host Sam’s Flat)

Fishing the East Sea

P1060976

A City With a View I

All roads lead to… Tokyo?

A City With a View II

Haedong Yonggunsa Buddhist Temple (해동 용궁사)

A Temple With a View

Praying for Good Grades

The Baby Buddha Needs a Good Washing

And the Buddha? He just smiled...

And the Buddha? He just smiled…

Day 285: Nepal by foot

A long hike, an irritable period of sickness and a broken keyboard have prevented me from updating this blog for a while. However I felt like I could not leave you without a short Christmas post.

After my rafting adventure I headed to Pokhara, the trekking starting point for whoever wants to hike around, through or over the Annapurnas. After a long doubt about which trek to do – the costly Nar-Phu trek or the Annapurna Circuit for which I came to Nepal – I decided to go for the latter. A short shopping spree later, I collected my gear and was ready to set off.

The circuit


Altitude profile

On the bus to Besishahar I met Travis, this avid outdoors American who worked for a national park before leaving on this trip would be my hiking buddy for the trip. Not only had we planned a similar itinerary, he had just finished the treks to Everest and Annapurna Base Camp and thus had all the experience I might have lacked. You can read how he experienced the trek here.

Travis and Eva

On day two I ran in to Eva. It turned out that she had studied at Olomouc University where I had done my Erasmus studies. Since she was one of the few other people who was trekking without a guide as well, she decided to team up with us as well. This resulted in a great triple who would stick together for the rest of the trek. We were like-minded enough to get along, but our backgrounds were diversified enough to guarantee interesting conversations.

The Annapurna Circuit is the mother of all teahouse trekkings. This makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable compared to the camping trekkings I had done before. During the day we would pass through little villages every two hours or so where we had the possibility to drink some tea or have lunch. At night we would stop at one of the villages and look for accommodation for that night. If lucky we could take a hot shower, before gathering in the dining area where dal bhat would be the best option for calorie per rupee intake. Once we got higher up there would be a stove burning wood or yak dung where everybody would gather around to warm themselves. At night we would ask for an extra blanket to keep us warm while we drifted away for a night of vivid dreaming. This meant that we could do all this walking without need for tent or cooking gear, a welcome saving for our loaded backs.

During the following 14 days of trekking we would settle in a slightly fixed regime. We would meet up early in the morning for breakfast, which mainly consisted out of big pots of tea and steaming hot porridge to get us going. When the first beams of sunlight would be shining on the mountain tops, we would pack our bags, settle our bills and start of in a dispersed order. Everybody would be going at his own pace through the glorious scenery that the Himalayas provided. We might meet up along the way to chat or have lunch together, but most of the time we would spent alone letting our thoughts wander alongside us. At night we would meet up in the little village we had planned for that morning and would spent the evening chatting away or reading a book.

I had picked up ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance‘ in one of the teahouses along the way and spent several nights struggling through this iconic book. The night before tackling the high pass, I read the following passage that I found to be extremely truthful and would’t want to withhold from you:

Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow. –ROBERT PIRSIG, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

I could stop with this remarkable quote but there are some highlights of the trek that I would still like to mention:

The abundance of animals along the trek. From water buffaloes and langur monkeys in the tropical valleys to yaks and blue sheep high in the mountains.


Gliding away on Ice Lake at 4600 metres while some yaks were looking weary at us acting foolishly.


Our superb sidetrip to Tilicho Lake, one of the highest in the world at 4919 metres. It's here that I decided to go for a swim while it was minus 10 degrees outside. My towel froze up the second I was finished using it.


The medieval villages along the way that surprised you every time you stumbled upon one.


The endless rows of prayer walls, prayer rolls and prayer flags along the way. I was humming 'Om mani padme hum' every time I passed one of them.


The satisfaction of making it to and across Thorung La pass, at 5416 metres one of the highest trekking passes in the world.

More pictures you can find here and here.

Wish you all a very merry Christmas and a festive New Year.

It’s at time like these that I miss being home the most, but luckily I’m very much looking forward at traveling with my sister in the coming two weeks.

David

Day 210: A visit to the jungle supermarket

After flying out of Japan I had a short stop-over in Kuala Lumpur, before heading to Borneo. This island – which is partially Malaysian (Sarawak and Sabah), partially Indonesian (Kalimantan) and also contains the small sultanate of Brunei – had been on my mind since talking to the lovely Chris on my Galapagos trip. Based on her descriptions and the information I got out of the guidebooks, Borneo must be one big adventure park filled with jungle, animals and surrounded by marine life. My kind of place. I flew in to Kuching in Sarawak and I am on my way up to Kota Kinabula in Sabah. Before flying back to Singapore from there, I’m planning to do some decent jungle trekking, adventure caving, maybe climb a mountain on the way and dive at one of the world’s best diving spots.

My adventure starts in the Kelabit Highlands, a remote area up in the Sarawak region. From the provincial town of Miri, I took a small aeroplane to reach Bario. There were only three people taking the plane, myself and two people who later would turn out to be my hosts. Although it was pleasant to have the plane almost to myself, the views outside were rather frightening. Soon after taking off from Miri, I could see the endless view of palm oil plantations and the logging roads cutting through whatever forest that was remaining. What once had been a pristine rainforest, now had been cut or burnt down and replaced by endless rows of palm trees. Clearly this is a profitable business for Malaysia and some of its inhabitants, however the environmental damage seems to be high.

Upon arrival in Bario, I had to sign in and found out that only four other people had signed in earlier that month. On the positive side this meant that this place was just as un-touristy as I was hoping for, on the negative side it meant that it would be impossible to find any other tourists to share a guide with for a big trek. Instead of staying in Bario an already remote village of 800 people, I decided to along with Mrs. Supang and Mr. Nabun, my fellow passengers who run the Batu Ritung homestay in Pa-Lungan. This tiny village of 100 people is not yet connected by road, so we set off on a journey by jeep, then by boat and finally a one hour walk to get at their place. It might be quite an effort to get here, but it is surely wearth it. Surrounded by lush green hills, I had found maybe the most peaceful location of my trip up until now. They are planning to build a road connection in a couple of years, cell phone signal only reached this place a couple of months ago and for internet connection you have to walk all the way back to Bario.

 

Pa'Lungan skyline

 

As a consequence these people also do not have a regular supermarket available, instead they go to the ‘jungle supermarket’. Being a foodie myself, I decided to go and figure out what this meant.

The fruits and vegetables department.

When I woke up the following morning Mr. Nabun invited me to go along for a visit to his part of the jungle supermarket. During a three hour walk out of the village we went looking for the ingredients required to prepare dinner. While I was just looking at all the green vegetation and could not distinguish edible from poisonous, the trained eye of Nabun showed me all the richness the jungle has to offer. Along our walk we picked up wild river ferns, wild asparagus, wild ginger roots and flowers, mushrooms, wild spinach, British yem, wild strawberries and sour mangosteen. A short stop in their little garden also got us some beans, peppers and pineapple; all the ingredients that Supang needed to make us a delicious dinner.

 

Clockwise: British yem, mushrooms, spinach, long beans, ginger flower, asparagus, ginger.

 

We also walked along the rice fields for which the area is famous. Claiming to produce the best rice of Asia (and thus the world) every family here owns some patches of paty-fields, where they grow their own rice. After collecting the paty (raw rice product) in January, they send this to the local mill to get the pure white high quality rice. While most of it stays in the village for own usage, some gets flown out to Miri where it is sold for 10 ringit per kilo or Europe where it is sold for 2 euros per 100 grammes.

The meat department

The next day I had planned a trip with two overnight stays in the jungle together with two hunters. Maran and Juan are two locals who would show me how the Kelabit gathered meat from the jungle supermarket. In the jungle they mainly hunt for wild boar, deer and monkeys; especially that last part made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

Ever since meeting up with Guillaume – who’s living on a pure ‘raw fruit and veg’-diet and feeling great – at the beginning of this year, I have been thinking more consciously about the food I eat. Based on mainly health and ecological motives, I’ve tried eating healthier ever since. This means less pre-prepared foods, more fruit and vegetables and finally less meat. During this trip it hasn’t always been easy to maintain such a lifestyle, but I did my best whenever possible. So how does this ruthless killing of animals fit in? It took me a while to figure out, but in the end it seemed logical. These animals live in the jungle where they are not fed highly water- and energy-consuming animal food (ecologically okay), they only eat natural food without any additives (healthy okay) and they live a pretty happy life before getting shot (ethically okay as well). And since locals survive based on these skills, I did not want to be a snubby tourist who’s belittling their way of living. Thus we set off …

 

Three hunters

 

The first day we spend six hours walking through the jungle, stopping at various times to try and lure barking deer. This deer variation is typical for Borneo and hunters try to get them closer by whistling on some leaves. When the wind is coming from the right direction, the deer would not smell us and interpret this as a sign of distress of young deer. When it comes to the rescue, the hunter then can easily shoot it. Although it all seemed pretty simple, we didn’t see any deer before we were setting up camp. This by itself however was a great experience, within 30 minutes these men made a pretty luxurious camp spot with what nature provided them and the two tarps they had brought along.

Our accommodation

While we had not seen any deer yet, there were plenty of leeches to go around. Rainy season for the leeches of the Kelabit is what tourist season is for ladyboys in the dodgier areas of Thai beach towns. There are heaps of them around, they will cling on to you with all their power and are only happy when they have sucked you dry.

 

Leeches

 

Trying to prevent the latter I was picking the leeches from my socks, when we decided to go for a final attempt at hunting before night fall. All of the sudden we were luckier, as a barking deer (or Red Common Muntjac) was answering our call and walked in to the sight of the hunter. As he pulled the trigger the deer got hit by a load of hail in the rear limb. Fazed but not deadly hit yet, the deer came back to its senses and tried to flee away. This was the start of a half an hour pursuit in which the deer kept sprinting away whenever it got in sight. Finally a second bullet got fired and the deer was no more.

 

Barking deer

 

After carrying it back to camp, they removed the intestines of the deer and cut it up in different pieces. The liver and lungs were put in a little stew for that night’s dinner while the rest was being smoked so it could be conserved longer. During dinner the hunters, happy with today’s catch, were hoping to shoot another deer the following day. A short night sleep and a collection of insect bites richer, we set off the following morning for our second day of hunting. We were not very successful, but did run into the Malaysian army who were hunting here as well. They considered it a good practice as well as a welcome addition to the army food. For the second night we set camp up in a deserted Penan (nomadic hunting tribe) village, that now was being used as a hunters’ shelter.

The following day we returned to the peaceful little village of Pa’Lungan. While the remainders of our hunting trip we’re turned into a delicious highland curry, I had some more time to ponder about the food we eat and the ways in which we get it.

Up to a new adventure now, Gunung Mulu national park is awaiting me,

Take care and eat well,

David

PS: For more pictures click here.

PPS: The consultant in me got the better of me, so I delved a bit further in my expenses (as described in the previous post) and came up with the following lovely table:

PPPS: A big advantage of this trip is that I’ve been reading much more than I’d done in the last couple of years. As a backpacker you’re always dependent on what you can find in the book exchange of the hostels you’re passing by. But sometimes you get lucky and stumble on something really interesting. In this specific case I picked up “The world is flat” by Thomas Friedman, one of the world’s better    economical journalists. Although it’s a little bit outdated (it was published in 2005), I was really eager to work my way through this 469 page long masterpiece on globalization in the early twenty-first century. At times it made me anxious about the world we’re evolving in to and the competition we’ll be facing. But it also gave me inspiration to try and be the very best in whatever I’ll be attempting in my career.

At one point it also made me think about the Belgian political situation and how bad this is influencing our country’s position as well as our personal wealth fare. Friedman writes about how countries can adopt to globalization by doing ‘reform retail’:

“It involves looking at four key aspects of your society – infrastructure, regulatory institutions, education, and culture – and upgrading each one to remove as many frictions as possible. The idea of reform retail is to enable  the greatest number of your people to have the best legal and institutional framework  within which to innovate, start companies, and become attractive partners for those who want to collaborate with them from elsewhere in the world.”

Further on he writes about the political leadership needed to establish this:

“I think the real issue is leadership. There are democracies that are blessed with leaders who are able to make the sale and get their people focused on reform retail – Margaret Thatcher in England comes to mind – and there are democracies that drift for a long time without biting the bullet – modern Germany, for example.”

Based on the information I’m getting here about the situation in Belgium, it seems to me that we’re firmly entrenched in the latter group. This is also how a lot of other travellers I ran into perceive Belgium and it doesn’t look like a good position to be into.

Day 190: Konnichiwa

After six months of travelling I landed a new continent. The Americas had been wonderful, especially my time in South America, but I had felt an urge to discover the mysteries of Asia as well. I’m planning to head to South-East Asia for a couple of weeks of sports, relaxation and adventure; before heading to India/Nepal to tackle the Himalayas and the countries’ overwhelming charm and smell (as everybody is warning me). But my first stop on the continent is an island group that since long had fascinated me: Japan.

Flying from Los Angeles airport, still slightly hung-over from a typical college-party I attended the night before (think of kegs of beer, girls grinding up boys on the dance floor, commercial rap blasting through the boxes and a scent of marijuana in the air), I crossed the international date line. This brought up the philosophical question: “So will I be a day older now?”. I soon realised that this wasn’t the fact and dozed back off for a couple of hours of sleep. I landed in Tokyo airport with a huge jet-lag and for the first time in my travels I was confronted with a country where I didn’t understand anything of the language, even their scriptures (all three of them) were completely different; no wonder I felt overwhelmed.

Japan is a country of so many experiences and I had only two weeks to emerge myself in to it. Armed with a seven day rail-pass, I decided to discover as much of the main island Honshu as possible. First couple of days I would spend in Tokyo, getting over the jet-lag and trying to get comfortable in this new environment. My seven day rail-trip would start of in Kyoto, the former capital that’s full of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. After this I would look for some contemplation in the woods of Koya-san where I would be lodged in a Buddhist temple. I would finish my trip in the peace park of Hiroshima and the island of Miyajima, before returning to Tokyo.

Japanese temple

Along the way I had some typical Japanese experiences that I would like to share with you:

Tsukiji Fish Market

This roaring market is the biggest of its kind world-wide, where over the course of a year more than 600,000 ton of fish is sold. Things start to get lively very early in the morning and if you want a shot at attending the tuna auction you’d better be prepared to get up before sunrise. I wanted to be at the market by 5 am to be guaranteed of a spot (limited to 140 visitors a day), so using the subway wasn’t possible. Instead I rented a bicycle at the hostel and set of for a 6 kilometre bike trip along the concrete veins of Tokyo. Luckily enough Tokyo turns out to be a very bike-friendly city with tons of separate roads for cyclists.

Checking the quality of the tuna

After putting on a yellow safety jacket, we were guided to the tuna auction hall in the heart of the market. Considering that the biggest and best tuna gets sold at prices as high a 200,000 euro and the technology addiction of the Japanese, I expected this to be a ultra modern auction hall with lots of blinking lights and prices popping up. It turned out to be quite the opposite. In a grey, neon-lit hall there were heaps of frozen tuna fish lined up on wooden pallets. Their tails were cut off and the interested buyers were slamming little axes in there to test the fattiness of the fish. Once everyone had assessed the quality of the fish, the bidding started. The auctioneer (who without any doubt had a history of ADHD) rang a bell, got up on a wooden box and started screaming out prices (at least that’s what I presume). Bidders, who could be identified by a tag on their cap, made a bid by raising their hand. Just as you were wondering whether the head of the auctioneer, which had gotten just as red as the tuna meat by now, would start to explode in a typical manga-style; the final price would be agreed upon and an old man would come over and paint the initials of the buyer in red paint or blood on the fish. All-in-all a very interesting process and definitely worth getting up early in the morning for.

Tuna that has been sold

After the auction and some further exploration of the market, I headed to one of the famous sushi restaurants which are located on the premises. Sushi can’t get any fresher than this and I was told you could notice this in the quality as well. Upon recommendation of Sabrina and Chris (whom I had met in Bolivia ages ago) I headed for Sushi Bun. This is the oldest sushi institution at the market where the fourth generation is continuing a tradition of over 150 years. I decided to trust the chef and went for the sushi set (omakase). At 3,650 yen (approx 35 euros) it was a bit of a splurge, but boy was it worth it. The fish is so fresh and the chef masters the cutting so perfectly; that once it gets in your mouth, it just melts away. I had never been a big fan of sweet breakfasts, but before this morning having sushi for breakfast still seemed to be a bit of an oddity. After sampling this delicious sushi set however, I’m definitely convinced. Sushi for breakfast, you can offer it to me any day.

Sushi Bun restaurant - The place for delicious morning sushi!

Climbing Mount Fuji

Fuji-san is the highest and holiest mountain of Japan. Each year about 200,000 Japanese people make the three hour trip out of Tokyo to one of the four stations around the mountain and climb up to the summit. On a good day when there is no fog nor clouds, you should be able to see Tokyo from the top. The objective is to get to the summit by sunrise, when the view is the best.To do so, there are two possible options. The first is to head to the mountain in the afternoon, get about halfway to one of the higher stations and rest here for a couple of hours. Around 2am in the morning they wake up and tackle the last bit of the climb. This option however is pretty expensive (6,000 yen for a sleeping spot in a cramped sleeping hall), so I opted for the second option. This is to arrive at the bottom station early in the evening and head directly for the top. This saves on a night of accommodation, however it also takes away a night of decent sleep.

After reading up on the internet, I found out that the official climbing season was in July and August. At this time you have the best weather conditions to get to the summit, however you have to share the mountain with thousands of other climbers. Climbing out of season is officially not recommended, so I looked to team up with some other people to feel more comfortable about it. After a lively mail conversation, I met up with Gabriel from Canada, Ayyad from Palestine and Ammar from Pakistan at the Tokyo station. From there a bus and taxi ride brought us to the start point of our hike. Weather conditions weren’t optimal for the hike, as it was a bit cold and rain was drizzling over us. Nevertheless this couldn’t bring our spirits down, especially after we saw a team of Japanese cheerleaders starting the trek ahead of us. We set off for a seven hour hike to reach the summit.

Near summit of Mount Fuji: 4 degrees Celsius

All things considered this wasn’t the best hike I’ve ever done. Since you’re climbing at night most of the time, you don’t see a thing aside from what appears in the beam of your headlight. The path is pretty monotonous and fills up with slowly advancing school-kids and older Japanese people (who had been sleeping in one of the huts) once you get near to the top. The seven hour estimation was definitely aimed at the latter group, so we spent a lot of time waiting or napping in the outside of one of the lower stations to avoid summiting to early. Once I got to the top, I was just in time to see the sunrise. This lasted however only 2 minutes before everything completely fogged up and was in no aspect comparable to the sunrise I had experienced on Huayna Potosi months earlier. After this we still had to overcome the long path down, where we had to take our tired body and aching muscles along a steep path of scree. It definitely was good to be out of the concrete jungle of Tokyo, however this wasn’t the ultimate outdoors experience I had been hoping for. As an old Japanese saying goes ‘a wise man climbs Mount Fuji once in his life; only a fool climbs it twice

Onsen

Japanese people have an almost religious approach to their bathing culture. Every tiny village has it’s own onsen (hot spring) or public bath (sento). The origin of this tradition lays in the fact that lots of geo-thermical activity goes on below the surface, which results in tons of hot water sources (offer) and the fact that because of high prices until recent times most houses did not have a bathroom (demand).

These venues, which may be sex-segregated or not, all have a very strict policy. The most important rules are that everybody should be completely washed before entering the baths, all happens in a completely nude fashion and tattoos are forbidden (because of the yakuza connection). After paying an entrance fee (about 400 yen), you go to a changing room, where you leave all your valuables and clothes behind in a locker and take a tiny little towel with you. Next you go to one of the washing areas, where you’ll have a little seat, bucket, shower and soap to your disposition. Here you’re required to cover yourself totally in soap and rinse yourself off. This is without any doubt the most important rule. After your completely clean your allowed to enter the different baths and saunas. In small bath-houses you will only have one warm water bath available, in the bigger ones you can choose between different types of saunas as well as warm, cold and electrical (!) baths.

The weird thing for us westerners is that most Japanese people go to a bath house in the evening to relax after a day of work, while we’re more focused on a hasty daily shower in the morning the morning. However after a day of cruising through a city, I very soon learned to appreciate the wealth of a relaxing bath in the evening.

Temple stay

Because I’m always on the move and rarely have time to plan out my itinerary in detail, I frequently get confronted by impromptu decisions. My visit to Koya-san turned out to be one of these. After arriving in Kyoto, I found out that all hostels in Hiroshima (the next location I was going to) were fully booked for the coming days so I had to look for an alternative. I dug in to a tourist guide and started reading up on Koya-San which was in the neighborhood. This small town located up on a plateau in the Wakayam prefecture, is the birthplace of one of the two main Buddhist religions in Japan: Shingon Buddhism. After Kobo Daishi founded the first temple here in 816, over a hundred more temples have built here since. On top of this there is a sacred forest next to the town where all the important Buddhist persons get buried in an extremely peaceful setting.

Shojoshin-in Temple

Lots of Japanese people go over here for a day-trip, however the best way to appreciate this place is through an overnight stay in a Buddhist temple. During such a Shukubo experience, you are offered a private room (with those typical lovely sliding paper doors), an opportunity to join the monks in their morning rituals and the possibility to savour the delicious vegan meals (shojin-ryori) that are typical. After the overwhelming rush of Tokyo, this sounded very appealing to me and although the stay was pretty costly (9,600 yen per night) I ended up staying two nights at the Shojoshin-in temple before continuing to Hiroshima.

Rock garden in Shojoshin-in temple

As you may know me, I’m not the most religious or spiritual person (I personally think every person should work his way through “The god dillusion“). However I found this a very enriching experience, which I might repeat once I get in to Thailand, Nepal or India. Being away for every day distractions lets you open your mind for some contemplation about your actions, ideas and ambitions.

Shojoshin-in Temple: ready for Buddhist ceremony

Sumo wrestle match

After coming back from the fish market during my first visit in Tokyo, I passed by the sumo hall where I saw some bulky people in colorful kimono walking around. I recognized them as sumo wrestlers and soon found out that one of the big sumo tournaments was held during my stay. The final weekend was planned just before I left, so I decided to add this to my agenda (impromptu planning once more). On Friday I headed to the arena to buy one of the last spare tickets for the day. A typical day in the tournament starts early in the morning with the amateur wrestler games, then has the second tier wrestlers or juryo squaring off in the early afternoon and by the end of the afternoon the top tier wrestlers or makuuchi have their bouts. There are tons of rules, names and rituals related to a sumo tournament and it took me the whole day, a decent instruction guide and the explanations of some sumo groupies to understand all of them. If you’d be interested, I kindly refer you to the wikipedia page.

Introductory ceremony of the sumo wrestlers

I got there early in the morning to see some of the amateur bouts and then headed out to pick up my camera lens which had been repaired as well as some unagi at the fish market. I got back just in time to see the ??? make their entry in the hall and was ready for an afternoon of battles. Much of the time is dedicated at the ceremonies before and after the bouts (greeting, throwing salt, lifting legs, grunting and staring). The actual fights are pretty short, mostly less than a minute, sometimes only three seconds. Nevertheless I had an amazing day, it was pretty impressive to see these mastodonts perform a brutal form of ballet dancing and see how fiercely the Japanese audience got involved. The last battle of the day involves the yokozuna, this is a title that is only attributed to the very best sumo wrestlers. In more then 250 years of history, only 69 wrestlers have received this title. The current yokozuna, Hakuho Sho, is having a pretty impressive season. The fight I saw him win was his 60th consecutive win, which brought him a step closer to the all-time record of 69.

Sumo's squaring off

Capsule hotel

Capsule hotels are things you see in futuristic movies or Japanese documentaries, which makes you wonder if they really exist. During my last days in Tokyo, I decided I shouldn’t skip on the possibility of sleeping in one. Green Plaza Shinjuku is the biggest capsule hotel in Tokyo, where each night 630 business men put themselves to sleep in something that mostly resembles a tiny futuristic tomb. Upon arrival I put my shoes into a locker and checked-in. You get assigned a locker key, a sleeping outfit and a capsule number. You have to stuff all your gear into the locker, since the capsules are pretty tight and not lockable. Here you also switch into the sleeping outfit before going up to the top floor where you have the common bathing area. After a fresh wash, groom and tooth brush, you’re ready to go out on town. So you switch back in to your normal clothes and go out in to the busy Kabukicho area. This is the vibrantly neon-lit red-light district of Tokyo, where drunk Japanese business men mingle with African proppers who try to convince them into entering their expensive massage parlours or strip booths. Not really my cup of tea and instead I settled for a cup of noodles. Well fed I returned to the hotel, where I once more changed into my sleeping outfit before retreating to my capsule. Sleeping in here might not be optimal for claustrophobic people; but since Japanese people in general are a bit more vertically challenged then I am, I also had quite some issues getting a comfortable sleeping position for my tall body.

Some other Japanese specificities I loved along the way:

– During my rail trip through Japan I got to take quite some trains. These trains are mostly point-to-point connections and Japanese people apparently all prefer to face the direction their riding in. Japan Rail has found an easy solution for this: once the train gets to its final destination, the clean-up crew gets in there and in an almost ritual manner switch the directions of all the chairs. Might not sound so exciting, but very amusing to see while you’re waiting for your connection.

– As in most countries, Japan use road markings to indicate where the road as. As in most countries, these markings will make a sound when you’re crossing them. But in most countries this noise will be pretty annoying. In Japan however, they have developed this marking specifically so that once you cross them they will actually sound like a basic song. Ingenuity sometimes is found in little things.

– Japan is quite big on its vending machines, estimates say there are some 20 million vending machines spread over the country. A major difference with other vending machines is however that they do not only offer cold drinks. They also make warm drinks available (out of the same machine), so you can get a warm can of tea as well.

Vending machines

– I you’re here, you have to experience the crazy madness in the pachinko halls. These are a collection of gambling devices where you slide down metal balls or coins in a machine and random luck determines whether you get some back or not (that’s what I understood of it). They originated in the aftermath of WW II, when the steel industry who up until then had been producing for the war industry, all of the sudden was confronted with an abundance of steel supply. They have been a popular success ever since.

Lost in Translation. If you thought the movie was any good before, imagine watching it for the first time on a rainy day in Tokyo. It will blow your mind away.

– Japanese toilets, at first I was a little bit afraid to use the futuristic console on the right. Once I found an English translation of what the different buttons meant (temperature of the seat, direction, force and temperature of the water beam), I fully started to enjoy them.

Looking back at my Japanese adventure, I’m very happy I stopped here during this trip. It lives up to it’s reputation: the cities are hectic, the temples are enchanting and the food is magnificent. People may think it’s overly expensive, but I tend to disagree (see PS at the end). I would recommend anyone to come over here and enjoy this place with all its wonders. Just make sure you have at least 15 days (the more, the merrier) and buy a Japan Rail pass in advance to take you across the country.

You can find some more pictures of my experiences here.

Right now I’ve just landed in Kuala Lumpur and ready for the start of the South-East Asian part of my trip. This should involve lots of sports, adventure, trekking, diving and hopefully some Orangutan spotting. On Tuesday I’m flying to Kuching on the Malaysian side of Borneo, from where I will make my way up the coast to Kota Kinabula, the highest mountain of SEA.

Sayonara!

David

PS: A couple of people have been asking me how expensive this trip has been. I browsed through my bank account on a rainy night and these are the estimations I can make for the different locations (without flights):

Japan (15 days): 1300 euros or 85 euros per day. I splurged quite a couple of times on food (fresh sushi, kobe beef, tempura, …) and accommodation (temple stay), so could have done this a bit cheaper if I’d wanted to.

In comparison:

USA (22 days): 1600 euros or 75 euros per day. Burning Man made this a bit more expensive, on the other hand I did not rent a car so saved some money there.