Where The River Goes

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Exploring one of the three Ksamil Islands

I’m afraid the internet has been pretty horrendous along the Albanian coast so I’m only getting a moment to update now. We managed to drive 40 minutes from our place in Dhermi to find a working ATM. The next issue was then finding a place that served food! Most were only selling drinks as it seems eating out isn’t popular with the locals and there aren’t any tourists around! Being the only tourists around definitely did have its perks, though.

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It’s been quite surreal at times, partly because half the buildings appear to have been abandonned mid construction and are now ‘shitet’ (a sign which kept popping up repeatedly all over the place and we now think means ‘for sale’). Another surreal feature of the landscape is the bunkers scattered about in the most bizarre places, ranging from the middle of town to cliffs on the coast and fields in the countryside. Apparently they’re remnants from a ‘bunkerisation’ initiative led by Enver Hoxha’s communist government in the latter half of the 20th century. He wanted the entire country prepped and ready for attack from all sides and a wide range of potential enemies, installing around 750,000  of the things all over the country!  No wonder we saw so many. Kids were trained from the age of 12, apparently, to man the bunkers in an attempt to militarize civilians and be constantly vigilant against intruders. Talk about paranoia! All, of course, abandonned with the fall of communism in the 90s. If you’re interested, check out some of David Galjaard’s bunker photography collection: http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2014/01/24/david_galjaard_photographs_albanian_bunkers_in_his_photo_book_concresco.html

I think the best way to summarise our exploring will be through providing some highlights, in case anyone’s looking for any tips or recommendations for Albania trips.

1. Ksamil – just south of Sarandë. This little village has some incredibly beautiful little beaches facing out to three little islands (within swimming distance!) Corfu gets very close at this point of the coast so it looks like mountains in the sea.

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2. Blue Eye – East of Sarandë. This was a rather unexpected gem. You pay (equivalent of around £1) to enter the area and follow a river to it’s magical source: a deep and incredibly clear spring aptly named the ‘Blue eye’ of the river. The surrounding hiking trails are beautiful this time of year. Well worth heading out to if you’re anywhere near Sarandë.

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3. Gjupi beach and Livadhi beach. A couple of examples of the options available along the lengthy coast! The colour of the clear water is just jaw dropping. Bear in mind that these photos are straight from my phone therefore not edited, believe it or not!

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Gjupe

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4. Butrint – another hidden treasure, the ruins if the ancient city of Butrint span across an incredible time period, dating back to the Hellenstic era (Greek influence). Legends say that the city was founded by Helenus and Andromache fleeing the destruction of Troy, but it appears it was inhabited long before -right back to prehistoric times. It was later taken over by the Romans in 228 BC before being swept up in the Byzantine Empire. The Venetians put their stamp on it when they purchased the land in 1386 before it was taken over by the Ottoman Empire in 1799! It’s been through a lot! Relics and remnants from all these eras remain at the site. Really interesting – and we were the only people there bar one or two fellow tourists.

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5. The coastal drive between Vlores and Sarandë. The roads themselves were stunning, carving through the mountains which drop down to the sea. There were so many great little spots to stop at along the way.

Dhermi beach

Dhermi beach

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Fun little restaurant built over a waterfall – Ujivara

Porto Palermo castle

Porto Palermo Castle 

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And finally, here’s a delicious trileche pud in Sarandë that I must try to make once we’re back!

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Convenient Parking

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Ok so there’s a lot of catching up to do (roughly two years) but Dad’s requested an update on current travel situation. This will be my first ever post entirely by phone and in the sad absence of a proper camera.  Expect typos, poor grammar etc, the usual. All photos will be straight from my Samsung phone without any editing so you’ll get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the poor saturation. In fact the internet’s the worst it’s been since PNG so I’ll be delighted if they load at all.
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We arrived into Ohrid, Macedonia, the night before last and headed out to a local restaurant for food. My large pizza cost less than two pounds :s Everything costs around half the price of what you’d expect elsewhere in Europe – judge for yourself from the photos but I definitely think this city is an untapped resource: Stunning scenery, lovely weather, incredibly friendly people and rock bottom prices.
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IMG_8477The one slightly odd thing is the bizarre way in which the term ‘road’ is used. We were directed down roads in our little hire car where there was less than an inch gap between the side of the car and the houses either side of the crumbly cobbled streets, made worse by the fact that locals had parked willy-nilly along the precipices and stray dogs, poles and rocks popped up in unexpected places. We eventually had to reverse out of the town at 4mph and walk back with our suitcases. No wonder the man at the hire car stall had gone over the car with a magnifying glass to note down every minor scratch.
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Although it’s always fun to complain, that’s about as far as it goes with Ohrid. Just beautiful.
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And the flag’s fun too!

This Easter morning we had the rather more challenging feat of driving across the border to the coast of Albania.
We stopped off en route at St. Naum monastery, another idyllic spot. What made St. Naum particularly special were the fresh water springs surrounding it which feed into the lake.
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IMG_8480IMG_8478Across the border you noticed an immediate difference in terms of road quality and the quantity of half built, abandonned constructions. My favourite new addition to the landscape was the frequent appearance of a man on the roadside, poised as if he’s trying to hitch-hike, but on closer inspection he’s brandishing a large trout. They’d effectively just plucked fish from the water and were wiggling them about in front of drivers in an attempt to scrape a living. Very entertaining, if nothing else. We must have passed about 20 of them.
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Although Google maps is the best improvement to life since air con, it really has absolutely no idea what the hell’s  going on with the roads in Albania. Like a slavic bermuda triangle. We ended up on some ridiculous ‘scenic’ routes with potholes formed in the wake of some sort of nuclear apocalypse. We eventually decided to ignore it and emerged onto the Albanian ‘Riviera’.
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Pretty, but so far it appears that ‘off season’ roughly translates as ‘everything within a 40 mile radius is shut until June’. I’ve given up trying to upload photos now as it’s just too slow. Update on our cashless, foodless situation tomorrow.

Have You Fed The Fish?

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“Flowers… are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last day in Tokyo 😦 I headed out in the early morning to the Tsukiji fish market, following a recommendation from my lonely planet guide book. It was incredibly easy to find, all I needed to do was follow the locals with their large empty baskets, bikes and lorries! It is absolutely gargantuan, undoubtedly the largest fish market I’ve ever seen (and by quite a considerable amount). There were the most bizarre sea creatures for sale in the dingy light including sea cucumbers, urchins and many things that I couldn’t recognise. Men were carving up enormous tuna steaks with what looked like swords and live fish and shell fish scuttled about in every direction. Many stalls had sashimi for sale at quite a price: could only be fresher if the fish was actually eaten whilst alive. Not really my cup of tea!

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Striking buckets full of huge tuna heads, can’t quite get the full scale here.

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After stopping at a bakery, to munch on a rather more appealing steamed chocolate bun made into a bear face, we headed out to Shinjuku in an attempt to find a novelty goods store (mainly thinking of Karl Pilkington’s ‘crisp picker’). We tried out ‘Tokyu Hands’ which, similar to ‘the Loft’ which I tried out in Shibuya, is like a department store which starts to hint at the crazy novelties that we were after. Llama mascara, anyone?

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Looking for bedside table decorations? Jellyfish in a jar should hit the spot. This one's upside down and looking incredibly sorry for itself.

Looking for bedside table decorations? Jellyfish in a jar should hit the spot. This one’s upside down and looking incredibly sorry for itself.

Mount Fuji fancy dress...

Mount Fuji fancy dress…

Final stop of the trip was the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. It didn’t disappoint. Stacked full of the later blooming kind of blossom, it was simply breathtaking. The highlight has to be the traditional Japanese style part of the garden, with a couple of tea houses:

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Trimming the shaped trees

Trimming the shaped trees

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Man staring in disbelief at a cat...quite amusing.

Man staring in disbelief at a cat…quite amusing.

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After a fantastic last day I’m now sat wasting time in Beijing airport…home soon!

 

Last supper (actually breakfast) in Tokyo Haneda airport - finally found some edamame beans.

Last supper (actually breakfast) in Tokyo Haneda airport – finally found some edamame beans.

Bring it on Down

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“I’m on a diet, so I had only five extra helpings.”

– Gagamaru, Sumo Champion 2010.

It seems bizarre to invent a sport that requires its competitors to become clinically obese to stand a chance against their opponents. One of the professionals in this stable was a whopping 192kg.  It was, however, fascinating to watch. Our guide was a lady called Noriko, who takes tourists to watch Sumos in their early morning practices in Ryogoku. There are fairly strict rules that you have to follow in order to watch the practice including complete silence and not moving off the cushion on the floor for the full three hours: Fair bit of pins and needles engendered, as you can imagine. It was incredible how elaborate and ritualistic the practices are, starting with training of the lowest ranking members of the ‘stable’ then working up to the professionals, in white Mawashi (pants).

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Cleaning up the sand ring in between sessions

Cleaning up the sand ring in between sessions

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Surprisingly flexible!

Surprisingly flexible!

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Being back in the Ryogoku area, where we stayed the first time we were in Tokyo, we couldn’t resist visiting our favourite bakery down the road. Was just as fresh and delicious as I remembered. Here’s a bean cake and raisin bun.IMG_7128

With only a couple of days left we then decided to whiz off to Asakusa, one of the top tourist areas of the city with the ‘sky tree’ tower attraction and Sensoki temple. It was however absolutely rammed full of people and not nearly as spectacular as the Kyoto temples, in my opinion.

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Here you can see the sky tower and some bizarre piece of architecture which sort of resembles a gold-plated dog turd...

Here you can see the sky tower and some bizarre piece of architecture which sort of resembles a gold-plated dog turd…

 To cap off our busy day we headed to the Roppongi district of the city, where we had a long awaited reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro. If you haven’t heard of Jiro before, he is an 88 year old sushi master, who’s spent his life perfecting the art of sushi, now running a three Michelin star restaurant underground in Ginza. Unfortunately, after many failed attempts, it became apparent that booking reservations for Jiro Ono’s own restaurant is next to impossible unless you’re local. (Much Thanks to Sheena for all her help with the attempted booking!). We instead made a reservation for his son, Takashi’s two Michelin star branch of the restaurant in Roppongi. Here’s a link to an advert for the film made about Jiro’s life’s work: ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi‘.

We arrived a little early for our reservation time and were the only people in the restaurant. Takashi then proceeded to cut, shape, paint with soy sauce and present to us 19 courses of individual pieces of sushi. These ranged from ‘needle fish’ to sea urchin. My favourites were the medium fatty tuna and, much to my surprise, the giant clam which I was fully expecting to hate. It was bizarre how things which I would normally not even dream about eating were made perfectly palatable, such as roe and sea eel. With only two (and eventually another two) people joining us in the restaurant it felt like a private interview with Takashi who prepared the course, watched us eat it then prepared the next pieces. The sushi is served at the perfect temperature for each individual fish and you’re not supposed to add any soy or ginger. I made the heinous mistake of trying to add a little ginger to the octopus, being pretty squeamish about eating it, and Takashi actually said no and picked off the ginger himself. Overall, yes, It was incredibly good, and it did make me try things that I would otherwise never have tasted but in all honesty I really don’t think it’s worth the absolutely ridiculous price tag. On this occasion I was extraordinarily lucky enough to be treated to the meal, though, so obviously can’t complain! Would definitely NOT recommend this for a budget trip I’m afraid. Certainly a fascinating experience though. Only at the very end did Takashi break his rather stony, serious exterior and come out for a photo with us and to shake our hands.

A rather inconspicuous exterior in the middle of the otherwise highly ostentatious Roppongi hills shopping mall.

A rather inconspicuous exterior in the middle of the otherwise highly ostentatious Roppongi hills shopping mall.

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Sea Urchin

Sea Urchin

Whole shrimp

Whole shrimp

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Salmon Roe

Salmon Roe

Medium fatty tuna

Medium fatty tuna

Man in Black

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We’ve finally arrived back in Tokyo where the fleeting peak of the blossom season has past. Huge flurries of snow-like petals sweep through the parks and streets. It’s transience merely heightens the appeal of the beautiful phenomenon; we were fortunate to hit it head-on on our arrival. There are, however, a few varieties of the sakura which are still resiliently holding onto their adornment which I came across whilst walking through the gardens above the imperial palace, exploring the area vaguely surrounding were we’re staying. (Much to my frustration I only had the poor quality camera with me out on this walk; it was simply stunning.)

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I walked for around three hours, enjoying en route some of the fantastic strawberries they sell in the grocery shops here. I don’t know where they get them from or what they grow them in but they’re some of the best strawberries I’ve ever had: really sweet and delicious.

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With only a very poor quality map in my pocket guide book, after three hours of exploration I tried to get back and eventually ended up very lost, particularly as none of the locals seemed to know what street they were on either (streets are very poorly labelled here, if at all). I asked a young lady for directions (when the street I was convinced was the one to the hotel turned out to be somewhere completely different) and she was, yet again, another example of the outstanding Japanese hospitality. She didn’t speak a word of english but through the little japanese I’ve managed to get to grips with she understood and helped me to find a police station to work out where we were. She then jumped in a taxi which she told me to get in to and took me to the hotel, paying herself despite my objection, and chatting en route about her friend in England. Amazing! If only people were that friendly in the rest of the world!

This morning we headed to meet a lady called Vanessa to do a few hours of ninja martial arts training. It just so happened that the well known Japanese ‘Fuji TV’ television channel wanted to do a report on this dojo (training house) so asked if they could document our private lesson. It was incredible, right from the moment when we walked through the door to a meditation session in the dojo. It was just the two of us with Vanessa, the translator, the master ninja, a trainee and the two members of the TV crew. Firstly we joined in with a meditation session and ‘cutting the air nine times’ ceremony before getting into the clan’s traditional outfits and being taught how to correctly use a wide variety of elaborate weapons. Firstly we threw stars and these sharp sticks (much like chop sticks but ever so slightly more dangerous being spiked and made of metal). Then we had a go with the blow darts, aiming to swing through a revolving door, pop a balloon at the other side of the room then retreat through the door before being hit by the plastic ninja stars the others would fling at us. Luckily I managed to have a bit of a knack for the dart gun and got it first time, saving myself the embarrassment caused by my inferior muscle power in later ‘earth’ tiger claw trials.

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Here we were learning about ‘instinct’. We had to kneel facing away from the enemy and guess when they were swinging the weapon down to our heads, and raise up a guard. To be honest, I was going more by the swishing noise of the sword substitute. Wouldn’t have had that advantage with a samuri sword!

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Song To A Seagull

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“The human tongue is like wasabi: it’s very powerful, and should be used sparingly.”

― John Green, Paper Towns

It is absolutely freezing here in Matsushima: Really arctic winds making you constantly wish that someone would invent some sort of nose warmer. We headed out to wander about the area, noticing the complete lack of tourists and, therefore, English. Menus yet again became some sort of guessing game. Last night I had the weirdest array of different types of seafood including some sort of fringed grey thing and a yellow mollusc, I presume, which looked (and tasted) disturbingly like an ear.

We took a trip around the bay in a boat, the highlight of which was the hilarious translation on the hand out we were given:

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It says “It becomes troubled of other customers, and never never put out the customer of a pet taking from the cage, please while embarking.” … Right. That’s clear then. No taking the pet from the cage.

Another amusing moment was over lunch where we eventually managed to order some tuna rolls (following much pointing and miming) then literally were brought to tears by the amount of wasabi jammed into the little pieces. Hot doesn’t seem quite the right word. It feels more like some sort of acid explosion right the way up through your head to your nose and eyes. I have actually acclimatised a little to the Japanese way of sushi: I couldn’t stand wasabi or ginger before, now I’m partial to a little wasabi and there’s never enough ginger. This was far too much however. I left feeling as if my sinuses had just had some sort of toxic probing.

Here's the inconspicuous culprit. Little did we know that little atomic bombs were hidden in each little gem.

Here’s the inconspicuous culprit. Little did we know that atomic bombs were hidden in each little gem.

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We later took the bright red bridges out onto a couple of the islands were elaborate caves and Buddhist shrines have been carved into the sandstone. We also popped into the Masamune museum, Masamune is widely recognised as Japan’s greatest swordsmith, reaching legendary status. I’d never actually heard of him before.

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Finally, the seagulls are worth a mention. There are the most ridiculously large number of them packed into such a small area. And they’re all incredibly vocal.

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Ocean Breathes Salty

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This morning we embarked on yet another extensive train journey in the fantastic, clear weather, giving great final views of Fuji-San. The train network here, in combination with the absolutely incredible tool that is Google maps, is fairly easy to understand so the journey was faultless, again. Such a clear and organised country!

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Six hours later we arrived in Matsushima, 2 hours north of Tokyo on the Shikansen bullet train. It’s famous for being one of the ‘Three Views’ of Japan, and it’s clear why. To me, it’s like a Japanese version of Halong Bay. The area is scattered with 260 tiny islands (shima, in Japanese) covered in pine trees (matsu). It’s incredibly beautiful, particularly in the cool, crisp sunset. I may have to get up for the sunrise though as that would be over the ocean rather than the set which was behind the hills.

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Long Way Down

Lake Kawaguchi Mount Fuji
“Aspire to be like Mt. Fuji, with such a broad and solid foundation that the strongest earthquake cannot move you, and so tall that the greatest enterprises of common men seem insignificant from your lofty perspective. With your mind as high as Mt Fuji you can see all things clearly. And you can see all the forces that shape events; not just the things happening near to you.”
– Miyamoto Musashi (Japanese Martial Arts master, one of the world’s greatest swordsmen, 1584-1645)

I had my last dip in the Osaka Onsen yesterday morning before we headed out on a long and complicated train journey, with 6 stages, to Lake Kawaguchi in the shadow of the majestic, snow-capped Mount-fuji.

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Tried my second bento box en route – a bit of a mixed bucket as some compartments have delicious little rice dishes or Japanese sweets or omlette. Others had some less appealing surprises, for example a whole tiny little octopus…

Fuji-san, Japan’s national emblem, suddenly appeared as if out of nowhere out of the train windows, much larger than I’d anticipated. We’re staying in a traditional inn or ‘Ryokan’ next to Lake Kawaguchi. It is a fairly rural tourist-based town which, to my frustration, hasn’t been hit by the wave of blossom yet.

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Onsenji Ryokan

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Breakfast was served in our room by a lovely traditionally dressed Japanese woman. It was a spread of various, fish, rice miso soup, lots of bizarre things that I just couldn't place, these 'fish cake' omlette things and of course copious amounts of green tea.

Breakfast was served in our room by a lovely traditionally dressed Japanese woman. It was a spread of various fish, rice, miso soup, lots of bizarre things that I just couldn’t place, these ‘fish cake’ omlette things and of course copious amounts of green tea.

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We were very fortunate to arrive to a fantastically clear sky for the sunset. Today we haven’t had such luck. We decided to head out to Fuji-Q Highland, famous for it’s spectacular views of the mountain. Fuji-Q is home to some fairly jaw-dropping roller coasters: Fujiyama, once the tallest in the world – still in the top 10 tallest and longest roller coasters; Dodonpa – once the world’s fastest, now the 4th fastest but still will the highest acceleration at launch time – from 0-172Km/h in 1.8 seconds after starting (just incredible!); Eejanaika 4D with 14 inversions; and Takabisha, officially the steepest roller coaster in the world with a 121 degrees vertical freefall. I fairly fairly dizzy after all that, to say the least, but it was just mind-blowing!

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White Walls

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“I’d rather live in a cave with a view of a palace than live in a palace with a view of a cave.”
 – Karl Pilkington

Osaka castle was the first stop this morning after revisiting a favourite Japanese bakery. It’s incredible just how many people have come over to see the country in this season, and you can see why – it’s extraordinary. Around the castle there where huge groups of tours from various Asian countries, including a football team from Myanmar who I spoke to about Yangon for a while. Wedding’s are going on everywhere and all the women are getting our their best clothes for the season.

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After yet another tube/JR train journey we arrived back in Kyoto and headed to the North West to explore the temples in the hillside forest side of the city before heading back across to Nijo castle in the west. We must have walked miles today my feet are absolutely killing me! Definitely worth it though. Apologies for being lazy but I’m going to let the pictures speak for themselves again.

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N.B. – Very exciting spotting the Geisha’s wandering around the Gion district of the city. Didn’t manage to get a shot though as wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate. Also enjoying the avian spotting opportunities – saw a peregrine falcon (Hayabusa, as they’re known in Japan) today!

 

Knives Out

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Now settled into Osaka, we took a 30 minutes train journey into Kyoto for a four hour class on samurai sword practice with SEIGA, Samurai Kembu. They take it incredibly seriously as it’s a highly regarded part of their tradition, now only used as a performance art rather than the ancient warriors using the practice in battle. It was impossible not to be constantly thinking of Uma Thurman in her yellow tracksuit throughout the entire process.

There were just three of us in the class with one ‘Samurai Grand Master’: Auga Ryu. We were taught various routines about how to correctly draw, wield and formally present the spectacular weapon. We were even elaborately dressed in tradition Samurai attire to fully experience the restrictions which the clothing brings into the action. For example for me it made it much easier to understand why the women traditionally would take such tiny little steps as the very wide obi belt is wrapped restrictively tight like a corset around your waist and hips.

Kyoto itself is a beautifully traditional city with plenty of old Japanese architecture and copious temples and shrines. Black kites seems to be pretty common here, soaring around above the rivers. As it’s cherry blossom season there are also numerous festivals going on throughout the city with processions, parades and dance competitions around every corner.

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Traditional tea preparation

Traditional tea preparation

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Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

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Above you can see one of the hilarious ‘pet hire’ opportunities. You can pay for half an hour to use the cafe where you can stay to stroke the cats. You can also hire dogs for walks or, if you’re on a budget, even a beetle. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7818140.stm

Japanese sweet

Japanese sweet

Lunch in Kyoto. Miso soup, tofu rice dish and japanese pickle.

Lunch in Kyoto. Miso soup, tofu rice dish and japanese pickle.

I’m now about to head off to the ‘Onsen’ or traditional Japanese spa/hot spring again. Hilariously, it’s split genders and absolutely no clothes are allowed, which they’re very strict about. Very bizarre experience but the spa itself is fantastic after the cold of the crisp spring weather.