Thursday, 17 April 2014

Return to Japan

"So, do you want to catch the bus or rent a scooter?"

This was the question posed to me on my first morning in Hualien, when I said I'd like to make the short trip up the coast to Taroko national park. I was quite excited.

"Well, I've never ridden a scooter before but I'd like to learn. Can you teach me? "

This was not strictly true. A nice man in the North East of Cambodia had tried to teach me how to ride a manual scooter and I ended up with bloody toes and him shaking his head in disbelief at my ineptitude. I saw 10 year olds buzzing by on the things and I wasn't able to change gear without almost stalling the accursed thing.
He looked at me for moment, perhaps seeing I was about to kill myself and it would be on him, then pulled out a map of the city.

"You can catch the bus from here, it's very cheap" he said, circling it in red, before spending 5 minutes helpfully providing directions to good sights, nice food and things he thought would be useful to me.

Taroko, though I mentioned it briefly last time, is breathtaking. Forgive me the moment of poetic detail, but it is deserving of much more than a brief description. Butterflies the size of my hand danced around me as I enjoyed the abandoned trails. The only sounds to be heard were the water splashing away in the gorge below, water that is so clear and pure it staggers the eye. At times, the river was at least 6 feet deep, and yet I could still make out the detail of the rocks on the bottom from my perch 200 feet higher up. At points along the gorge there are man made structures; bridges, pavilions and temples, which add a wonderful contrast to nature. Beautiful in their own way, complimenting the surroundings rather than trying to battle them. In the two days I was there, I walked a total of 56 kilometres. It wasn't enough.

I enjoyed my last evening in the hostel with the other two guests who were staying (it's off season, so there were only three of us in the entire place), and the staff here, who are awesome people and great to chat to. It's called Amigos hostel and I highly recommend it. If you stay, get Coxon to make you some of his coffee, which he imports and roasts himself in his workshop before masterfully brewing to create some of the best coffee I've ever had the pleasure of tasting.

And then I was out of time, Sadly boarding a train back to Taipei for one final, brief night before I headed back to Japan. This time successfully booking a high speed ticket (last time I had been given a slow train), I arrived in Taipei in the evening and was surprised to find how much I missed the city. It's busy, but not too busy. The air is pleasantly warm, not too hot. There are nice smells in the air (usually street food) and the people smile as they walk. I was glad to be back.

Deciding the only way to properly end my time in Taiwan was at a night market, I headed out to Ningxia, and snacked on fried chicken and fresh spring rolls in the night air.

And then, far too early, it was time to go.

Something that I find odd about the Chinese and Taiwanese Airplane companies is their insistence of dedicating a couple of pages of the in flight magazine to modelling female staff members. They usually start off with a snappy paragraph and a picture of some poor air hostess and her dog in a park.

"Julie has been working for Air Weirdo for 18 months now. She is beautiful and everyone loves her. She is so dedicated to customer service that we've awarded her a nice trophy and an end to her personal life as she knows it"

OK, I might be paraphrasing a little, but it's honestly in that sort of vein. I usually can only read the first paragraph as the rest of the article is usually solid Chinese, but I imagine it continues in a similar style. I've seen this on three airlines now, but as it would be unprofessional to name names, I won't say that the creepiest one appeared in the Shanghai Airlines magazine, that included a multitude of pictures and enough personal information to make an identify thief do a dance.

I arrived at Japanese customs a little flustered. I had managed to fill out all of the forms on the plane and then promptly left them in the seat pocket, leaving me to hunt around for both a replacement form and a working pen before I could proceed to the country beyond. The man at customs asked me where my luggage was, and when I pointed at my (frankly perfect sized in my humble opinion) Minaal, he nodded somewhat confused and asked if I was here on business.

"Oh no, holiday." I replied, unaware of where this was going.

"And nothing to declare... " he asked hesitantly.

"Nothing. "

It was true, I don't smoke, wasn't about to carry less than 100 ml of alcohol in my carry on (though a good hit of scotch when reading those magazine articles might have been a welcome distraction) , and didn't have anywhere near a million in cash on me.

Still, after hearing I was only here for four days, it was a polite invitation to the baggage inspection table and a full pat down my him, his supervisor, and his supervisor's supervisor, who all seemed to think I looked very guilty, clearly. Despite this, they were very polite and eventually let me go, wishing me a pleasant time in Japan. I was finally able to eat sushi to my hearts content!

Stop one was tsukiji, where, once I arrived on the pavement, I had a serious flashback moment; I could remember the street. Following it excitedly I came across my old crockery shop, still run by the same old couple, still selling the same bowls and sake cups I had bought two years ago. I even found the same bowls as I bought back then, and for moment was tempted to buy a replacement, but instead opted for two new ones. From here, I returned to the knife guy who had been so kind and helpful way back then, and which I had sadly walked away from as I had no money to spare. I am pleased to report he is still lovely, his knives are still excellent, he provided excellent information on each of them and I happily purchased two. The yen is so weak at the moment that I felt almost guilty walking into the sushi restaurant and ordering the top set meal. Hell, I'm only here once in a blue moon, and I wanted sushi! And yes, it was fantastic.

And now I'm sat here on the bullet train, typing this out. When this thing goes, it really goes. You're pushed gently back into your seat as a quiet reminder that this train is sleeker than a bullet and packs enough power to drag a mountain. The shinkansen to me is a bit of an animal, monstrously fast and powerful, but streamlined and dignified. The seats are comfortable, there's a lovely lady pushing a trolley selling beer and snacks (bowing as she enters the carriage), and the rails have been specially laid so there are almost zero bumps. But when the driver puts his foot down, shit happens. I love it. There's no better way to travel, and if they could add the wonderful view of the world from above the clouds it would be perfect. Something to aspire to maybe.

Oh, and wifi. Why does the Edinburgh airport shuttle have wifi but the Japanese Mizomi super express shinkansen does not?

And now, my dear friends, thank you for reading and sharing in this trip of mine. I'm going to spend a couple of days here, though I'm not certain if I will write about them. For me, this is not an adventure, but a return and a reunion. I'll try and take some pictures at least.

Thank you, truly, for inspiring me to do as much as I have done (doing nothing isn't interesting to write about after all!) and I hope I have in some small way inspired you to come travelling yourselves. It's been an amazing trip, and I'm sad it's almost over.

I'll see you all soon,

Andy

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