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!

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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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.