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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Slow Poison

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Kava is an unavoidable part of Fijian life. It is used to welcome visitors, on special occasions, and just generally for social drinking – so potentially every night! For the traditional ceremony, you sit cross-legged on the mat floor in a sort of semi-circle. The chief sits at the head and next to him someone mixes the kava and a sever waits to hand it out to people. After the initial spiel, when it is your turn to drink the kava, you clap once and have the bowl handed to you. You say ‘Bula’ to everybody, meaning hello, or good health, or pretty much anything you want it to, then drink. It’s important that you drink the entire bowl of kava in one go. This is difficult for a number of reasons: partly because you’re drinking out of half a coconut shell with uneven edges, leading to embarrassing spillage onto your lap, but mostly because it is one of the most foul tasting drinks I’ve ever encountered.

Kava is a root of a particular plant that is grown here. It’s pounded into a powder and mixed with water. It then acts as a sedative. It tastes like very dirty water with a large amount of grit in.

After you’ve downed this flavour sensation, you clap three times to say thank-you. Once everybody has drunk you have a round of ‘story-telling’ or general chatter. This goes on until somebody calls ‘taka’ (or something along those lines – no idea about Fijian spelling). This always sends waves of dread through me as signals a call for another round of drinking. Just two coconut shells were enough to make me headachey and drowsy.

'Grog' is the local nickname for kava - quite apt, I think.

‘Grog’ is the local nickname for kava – quite apt, I think.

Fruit and Veg market in town. Grog's upstairs!

Fruit and Veg market in town. Grog’s upstairs!

First day at work today – no idea what I’m supposed to be doing – just been sat at a desk and not given anything to do…hopefully things will improve as not a happy bunny at the moment.

P.B. The internet is pretty much a no-goer. Have snuck into a hotel in town to post quickly in my lunch break….I’m afraid spectacular scenic photographs etc are going to be scarce until i find a way to get out of the city for a bit!

A Kind Of Magic

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My last full day here on Efate, Vanuatu, was packed full of surprises. It started off, as expected, with me heading back to Mele and the ‘Secret Garden’. They had to wait for enough people to arrive before they could put on a show, so I whiled away the time reading about various stories from the different Islands. They had an information section about cannibalism, where they’d stuck various news stories onto boards inside a cave. This was pretty horrific but also fascinating, as many gruesome parts of history are! What were, perhaps, most disturbing, were the photos taken by visitors to the ‘New Hebrides’, as they were called then, who happen to stumble across cannibalism in practice. It was largely done as a form of sacrifice, but also to conquered warriors in order to ‘take on their vitality’, during times of great starvation and very, very occasionally to the missionaries! By the time I’d finished picking through the cave, the show was ready.

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A man from Ambrym, the island where ‘black magic’ is said to originate from, prepared himself to display some magic tricks. Below you can see him kitted out in the traditional sheath from the area he comes from. A couple of men from other islands assisted. Here you can see him breaking open a coconut with his hand. I’m not sure if this is a magic trick, really, more just a demonstration of brute strength!

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This man cut off the leaves of one side of a palm branch, waved it around on the floor for a bit, then lifted it to show how the cut off leaves had been restored!

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The most impressive trick was when the man from Ambrym took a palm leaf, made a pit in the floor and planted the leaf in. It was then completely impossible to pull out! So much so, that one kiwi – who couldn’t handle the affront to his strength – ripped the branch entirely from its stalk in his attempt to pull it from the ground! Very impressive!

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After the show had finished, I headed off, on foot, back in the direction of Port Vila, hoping to flag down a bus on the way as I’d done the day before. Instead, I bumped into some girls wearing grass skirts, asking me to come and watch their show for a ‘donation’. With a ‘why not’ attitude, I followed them into their village where they showed me their bow and arrow, a couple of hilariously uncoordinated dances, and sang to me to thank me for my visit. One of the smallest girls, 10 years old, then took me by the hand and walked me through the village, pointing out her pigs and each member of her, typically enormous, extended family. After I complimented her face paint, she sat me down and got out the powders to draw on my face too!

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Whilst she was in the process of drawing these coloured lines on my face, a man with a sack strolled past and asked me to come and watch his coconut demonstration. Thanking the girls, I followed him to the beach where he promptly shot up a coconut tree! He gave me a coconut to drink, for which I gave him an appropriate ‘donation’, then I carried on my way down the beach.

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I eventually managed to clamber onto a crammed bus, hoping it was heading in the right direction! They tend to only run between Mele and Port Vila really. We ended up winding through all the back lanes of Vila for half an hour before getting to the town!

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It’s now Sunday morning. With a flight in a few hours, I’ve hurriedly put together this recollection of yesterday! Hopefully I’ll have a little more time (and better internet!) in Fiji, in which I can reflect properly on Port Vila itself, and my time here as a whole. If there’s no internet at all then I guess this is it for now!

Old Habits Die Hard

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This morning I headed out, with an Australian couple, to another little village where they do cultural demonstrations, around 20 minutes from Port Vila. The lady was terrified of spiders which became pretty problematic once they started playing about with their ‘toys’, as they like to call them. A man from the village, kitted out in traditional attire, talked us through a number of different aspects of their culture.

Firstly he explained to us about their methods of food preservation. In earlier times when banana and breadfruit were the staple parts of their diets, they had to work out methods of preserving them in case the crops were destroyed by cyclones. They’d grate bananas using a piece of coral then place in all in a large sack to let the water drip out over a period of time. They’d then place the dried mush in a hole in the ground lined with coconut leaves – larger waterproof leaves would be wrapped around the banana which they would replace everytime they went brown. To secure the ‘fridge’ they’d cover it in heavy rocks. Apparently this could then last over 5 years! This seems hard to believe! To make the dried brown mush palatable after such a long time in the ground they’d add coconut milk – covers a number of sins.

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He demonstrated the various traps they use to this day to catch chickens and pigs in the bush. Then similar contraptions for marine life.

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He showed us a weird looking staff with vine tied onto the end which apparently sucks the oxygen out of the water as it expands. In large quantities (50 men or so each with a staff) they can kill all of the fish in a rock pool through sucking out the oxygen.

The most fascinating was the spider web net – they spin the wooden structure around in spider webs like it’s candy floss until the web gets thick enough to act as a form of net for smaller fish!

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The various herbal remedies he was talking about, again, seem a little hard to believe. It seems such a strange concept that you’d go out into the jungle – pick a plant – then squeeze its juice into some water to get rid of a headache… He then told us a story about how he broke his leg a few years ago from falling out of a coconut tree. Instead of taking him to the modernised hospital on a different island his father had carted him, a similar distance, over to a traditional hospital where they ‘operated ‘ with their bare hands and, crucially, without anaesthetic. He says he cried for a week then was furious with his dad for a month. Thankfully, he recovered fully!

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The most fascinating area that he talked us through was the history of the spirituality of the country. In the past, ‘black magic’ was widespread, and still believed in to this day. The man explained to us, completely in earnest, how somebody practiced in black magic could strike down someone’s house with lightening or remove their intestines. He says some people do it now today but it’s difficult to tell who because ‘we’re all Christians – they pretend to be Christians too so we cannot tell’. He went on to describe ways in which the missionaries made ‘good changes’ to their culture. For example, until a hundred years ago or so women were made to mourn for 100 days after the death of a husband in which time they could not leave their house – which would be kept in complete darkness with no daylight. They were also not allowed to wash at all within this time!

Chiefs could have as many wives as they had tusks. By tusk, I mean a special kind of pigs tusk which curls right the way round to form a circular shape. The importance of this circular tusk is such that it is on the country’s flag! If a man had kept a pig long enough for it to grow a tusk like this, and then killed it – he would earn himself the right to one wife. One notable chief around 200 years ago had fifty circular tusks on each arm! All of those women were then buried alive with him, as was also tradition, when he passed. All of the people who have brought up the subject of marriage have stressed that they are thankful to the missionaries for changing this as ‘one wife is much better’ they keep saying, through giggles.

Another previous tradition which the missionaries fizzled out was the tactical manipulation of the blood line: a first born to a family HAD to be a son. Any unwanted daughter would have to be disposed of. He proudly explained that over the years their culture has changed for the better: any good suggestions, they take on board and any bad ones – they ignore. This is the main reason why they maintain this primitive way of life in this particular village – they want to show to tourists and their own youngsters how life used to be in the country in order to maintain a sense of their own culture.

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Their village's banyan tree, or 'cyclone shelter' as he called it!

Their village’s banyan tree, or ‘cyclone shelter’ as he called it!

After fish and chips in town and a stroll around the market to pick up a couple more lavalavas (sarongs) I went off to ‘survivor’s beach’, which apparently has something to do with the TV program ‘survivor’. Will let the photos speak for themselves, again! Armed with the underwater camera, I found a pretty massive giant clam – a very weird looking creature!

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P.B. a few fairly major spelling mistakes have been pointed out to me over the last few days (draw-dropping seemed right at the time, haha) so apologies for my lack of proof reading – am so relieved once everything finally uploads on this horrendous internet that I then promptly retire.

Warrior’s Dance

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Crack out a cold drink and some malaria tablets – I’ve arrived in Vanuatu. At first I was shocked by how primitive the capital, Port Vila, seemed to be: more so, even, than the capital of Papua New Guinea. The rest of the landscape and the people there do strongly remind me of PNG though. They seem to have recovered remarkably well from Cyclone Pam which hit with devastating consequences earlier this year. My taxi driver from the airport described how the whole community worked together to get it back up and running as soon as possible. With tourism being the country’s main economy – it was important that they got back onto their feet quickly. More on Port Vila later…

I was a little taken aback by how difficult it appears to be for an independent (female) traveller to get around the place. Everyone else here seems to be in groups or couples. No backpackers in sight. Trips around the island arranged by any of the ‘tour’ groups seem to require a minimum of around 4 people. The other options are taxi (which would be extortionate), hitchhiking with a local (and paying them appropriately) or hiring a car. I don’t want to take the risk of hitchhiking, however friendly the people are, and unfortunately I left my driving license in the UK so I was despairing that I was out of options. Luckily I found a nice elderly ‘vanuatian’ lady in town who advertised trips to take people around the island and a couple of people had already signed up to one so I jumped on the bandwagon.

There’s a palpable barrier between the locals and the tourists here. Interaction seems geared towards the fact that we are their main source of income. Nevertheless, the trip was jaw-dropping in terms of the natural beauty and cultural displays. I feel the best way to describe the day will be through a series of photos:

The driver pulled over to show us these large and apparently harmless spiders on the side of the road. He gave it for me to hold but then put it on my neck where it started to crawl into my hair. Was not best pleased.

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Blue Lagoon near Eton beach proved to be just what it said on the tin and more. The water was so clear in parts. I left the others sticking by the large rope which swings into the water and snorkelled out down the lagoon/river towards the sea. To be honest I was amazed that out of the collection of tourists gathered at the pool, nobody else felt the urge to explore the incredible place. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever swam in.

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The driver then took us to a little village, which we had to walk to for a while off the side of the road. They’d prepared a special show for us (for ‘donations’, of course): they dressed up in traditional tribal gear and, after jumping out of the bushes and scaring the life out of us when we first arrived, performed a series of dances. I then spent a while taking in the sight of that incredible banyan tree! Inside, the tree has died leaving just the parasite weaving out a hollow shape mapping where the trunk once was.

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A little further along the ring road around the island we stopped off at a local primary school where the children sing a couple of songs to tourists in the hope they’ll, again, donate. Singing had nothing to do with it – they pelted out lyrics at such an incredibly high volume that I could even see a vein bulging in one of the little boy’s heads.

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This boy clearly had had enough of the din as well. Very amusing though.

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Loved seeing the pidgin again! (even though this, apparently, is different)

Loved seeing the pidgin again! (even though this, apparently, is different)

Two burst eardrums later we carried on down the road. Chatting to the driver was fascinating. He was one of 9 children – his father had had 4 wives – back before the missionaries came. The number of wives was determined by the number of pigs a man owned, he told me.  10 pigs constituted one wife, and so on. Like many ‘tour guides’ in this sort of scenario, he felt the need to point out many things which we tourists were not particularly interested in, but which he announced with such gusto that we had to mimic great surprise and excitement. Such things include each village’s particular denomination and church, the progress in the state of electricity and the newly repaired state of the roads, fixed by the kiwis. This last one was referred to frequently throughout the trip – he said ‘it’s like being on aeroplane’ to describe the smoothness. As a tourist visiting this kind of developing country, of course it’s not the similarities we’re looking for but the unique cultural differences! This is an entirely selfish standpoint, however, and it is great, of course, to see how enthusiastic they are about the country’s progression.

Another little beach on the way home. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Off again to visit another village tomorrow morning so will keep you posted. Have just waited up for two hours outside to get signal in order to upload this and am now rather grumpy, haha.

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Ink

samoa umu

Today was significantly more relaxing. After the usual breakfast spread of papaya and coconut I headed back down into Apia town to the ‘Samoa cultural village’. This is an area in which locals can gather to display their traditional skills and talents to interested visitors. Each fale (thatched roof on wooden posts) houses a different skill. I was the only visitor there for a time so got to know some of the cooks preparing a traditional ‘umu’: they light a fire, cover it with rocks then use the heat of the rocks to cook the food once the fire has died. First though, they prepped the various components – the taro, breadfruit, plantain and coconut milk parcels. I’d never seen someone making coconut milk before so found this particularly fascinating. Vito spent around an hour de-husking then scraping out the coconuts, then he used a fibrous mess, which is apparently produced by the bark of a special tree, to vigorously squeeze large handfuls of coconut chippings to force out the liquid.

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This precious coconut milk was then ladled into a pouch of young taro leaves, sealed with a tougher leaf then eventually put on top of the rocks with the rest. Thankfully a few other people began to arrive at this point as they were persistently trying to make me pick my favourite chef to be my ‘Samoan boyfriend’, dismissing my pleas that I am perfectly happy with my boyfriend back in England!

Check out the tattoos on this guys leg as they layer up the 'umu'

Check out the tattoos on this guys leg as they layer up the ‘umu’

Covering the umu in leaves from the bread fruit tree to keep the heat in

Covering the umu in leaves from the bread fruit tree to keep the heat in

A rather unattractive looking meal of breadfruit, taro, cocunut mild with young taro leaves. plantain and fresh tuna

A rather unattractive looking meal of breadfruit, taro, cocunut mild with young taro leaves. plantain and fresh tuna

One of my favourite fales was the ‘tatau’ area where the local tattoo artist was working his magic. Apparently tattoos originated from Samoa and the word ‘tattoo’ itself is a derivative of their ‘tatau’. Not anybody can become a tattoo artist in Samoa – only by birth. It’s a highly respected and sacred job so reserved, ironically, only for those who have it in their blood. They were in the process of performing the 11th of 12 four hour sessions necessary to complete a man’s set of traditional tattoos. These tattoos, covering the body in ink from the waist to the knees, can only be granted after the man has proven that he can protect and provide for his family. The decision is made by the entire extended family when a man is ready, but he then can choose whether or not he wants to go through this prolonged period of pain. Once he starts – he cannot stop. This would bring irrevocable shame, not just on him, but on his entire family. He might as well leave Samoa. He needs to carefully prepare himself, therefore, before he can begin the process.

Unfortunately it would have been disrespectful for me to sneak a photo of the scene so I will have to attempt to describe it. A typically ‘sturdy’ Samoan man of around 30 was lying on his front with his head turned towards me. He was trying to hide the expression of pain from his face, but let the odd wince through every now and then. His wife was sat above his head fanning his face. Two of his brothers were sat either side of him stretching the skin tight over the back of his thighs and in the middle tapped away the artist. In one hand he held a long wooden implement with a large number of miniscule needles in a cluster on the end, and in the other hand, he held a stick which he tapped firmly and rhythmically onto the other to pierce the needles into the skin. A few onlookers fanned and wiped the leg periodically as the ink spread slowly across the inner thigh. It’s entirely the artist’s prerogative what tattoo the man should get. I could see that going drastically wrong were it to be the practice in western society!

A few other demonstrations included wood-work and creation of the lavalavas (sarongs). Another highlight was watching an elderly lady using her teeth to rip off the bark of a special branch, scrape it for ages with varying shells, pound it with a bludgeon then eventually churn out a ‘tapa’ – a special kind of paper upon which they print traditional designs for decoration or clothing.

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They performed a couple of different dances. This is the ‘Siva’ where the woman is said to tell a story with her hands. They men also did the ‘fa-ataupatu’ where they created a fantastic rhythm out of slapping noises using their hands/feet/thighs etc.

They performed a couple of different dances. This is the ‘Siva’ where the woman is said to tell a story with her hands. They men also did the ‘fa-ataupatu’ where they created a fantastic rhythm out of slapping noises using their hands/feet/thighs etc.

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We were also shown how to weave using the palm fronds. Here you can see a headband I made and a plate upon which to eat the food once it came out from the umu.

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Still relatively early in the day, I wandered back via a little waterfall to relax back at the hostel…I’m not going to attempt to post tonight again as the beyond useless internet will stress me out so this can wait until the morning. I’ve been having to wake up with the sun before 6 anyway so that works quite well J. (P.B. 5:30am and still no internet – will have to wait a while longer) (P.P.B. 8:00am – still nothing. Will have to be postponed until this evening) – Gave up on this. Had to wait to leave Samoa so am now back-posting from the airport.

Waterfalls on the walk back home

Waterfalls on the walk back home

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Surreal modern church in the middle of Apia

Surreal modern church in the middle of Apia

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

5 (6)

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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