Japan in a nutshell

As I said previously, Japan was a real marathon, what the French would call an "avant gout" before the real thing later on. In my opinion, Japan is to Asia what a car is to a motorbike. Some prefer the motorbike because it's cheap, loud, and easily accessible. I personally prefer the car... and Japan. Of course South East Asia was great, but really, Japan, it's just a dream on Earth.

Sorry for the diary-type for this post, but I will go on day by day because I want to add useful information along the way.

Day 0.5
I can't say I saw anything that Tokyo has to offer, as I arrived at the hostel around 4 pm and all the temples I wanted to see were almost closed by then. But Tokyo by night is also worth seeing, so I didn't completely lost my day.

Day 1 - Fuji-san
There are several possibilities to go to Fuji-san. You can either go to the JR station Shin-Fuji and take a bus to the southern foot of the mountain, or take a bus from Tokyo station to the Five-lake region up north, which is the option I took, because I wanted to see the famous view from Motosu-ko.
The first JR bus is at 6:30 am to Kawaguchi-ko and depending on the traffic it takes from 2h30 to 3h. On the way, I was afraid of the bad weather, because the mountains around were surrounded with grey rainy clouds, but after we passed the tunnel, we saw we were blessed with a nice day, and Fuji-san was beautifully visible in the blue sky.
FYI: The first stop of the bus is for the Highland complex, where you can enjoy a roller coaster practically at the foot of the sacred mountain!
At around 9 am, the bus reached its final destination: Kawaguchi-ko.
Fuji-san @ Kawaguchi-ko
I immediately went to the information center to know when the bus for Motosu-ko will arrive, because there are so few of them. Actually, if you're in Japan before April, not all the buses run from Kawaguchi-ko to Motosu-ko, but the Information Center is very helpful to know what is available.

Arriving at Motosu-ko, you can walk around the lake, 13 km in perimeter, but be careful, it is a road, not a walkpath, so you have to share the same space as cars and bicycles (i.e., there is no sidewalk).
Interestingly, the road was closed for one part of the lake because of scree that were not being taken care of, so I was alone for the first half of the walk. After 2h (2/3 of the 13 km perimeter), I arrived at the sightseeing point shown on the 1000 yen bill, and was disappointed to see that while I was walking, Fuji-san completely disappeared behind rainy clouds.
Nevermind, I finished the walk, bought an "Omiyage" ("Houtou" which is the dish of the region), and went back to Kawaguchi-ko with the same bus, as I still had 4 hours before my bus back to Tokyo. I then took the sightseeing bus around the lake, but as there are very few of those in the afternoon, and Fuji-san was completely gone under the clouds, I only went for the first half before returning to the station, enjoying a "Udon" while the rain fell, and then it was time to go back.
Nothing more to see here...

Day 2 - Nikko
To go to Nikko with a Japan Rail Pass, you first need to take the Shinkansen to Utsunomiya, and then there is a special "local" Nikko-line to reach the World Heritage site.
the silhouette of the Shinkansen

and there were still tourists to ask if this was the train to Nikko...

timetable for the Nikko line to Nikko
Once again, it was a beautiful day, but compared to Tokyo, Nikko is a bit higher in the mountains, so the air can be rather chilly... And as I came from the Australian summer and the South East Asia dry season, I was quite sensitive to the cold...
The walk from the JR station to the Shinjo bridge is only 2 km, and every temple in the World Heritage site is in the same area.
the welcoming stone
Don't bother to pay 300 Y to actually walk on the Shin-kyo bridge, because the only interest is to have a picture of it.

Once inside the World Heritage site, you pay 1000 Y for 5 temples, and while Rinno-ji was a disappointment, as it was under scaffoldings and you cannot take any picture while inside, there is still plenty to see.
All five temples can be done in half a day, if you arrive early enough, but if you want to take your time and enjoy the serenity of the park, counting the transportation, you should allow one full day to the visit. As I had to move from Tokyo to Kyoto, I didn't linger.
Back at Tokyo station, I took my luggage from the coin locker (coin lockers are everywhere in Japan, which is very convenient if you want to travel light), and took a Shinkansen ticket to Kyoto.
The Tokyo to Shin-Osaka shinkansen
If you want to see Fuji-san while on the train, ask for a window on the right side (place E).
It was twilight when I arrived at Kyoto, which is a bit overwhelming when you're tired, as there are not maps every 50 m like in the Tokyo station. After finding the right bus (#26 on platform D), I finally arrived at the Utano Youth Hostel, which is by far the most amazing hostel I have been so far.

Day 3 - Kyoto
Obviously you cannot do Kyoto in only 2 days, so my selection of temples was rather strict. For instance, I didn't do the Palace, nor the Higashi-Honganji temple, as it was under scaffoldings. I really advice you to look at the temples websites (each one has its own) to see what is under repair at the moment.
The Utano Youth Hostel is situated near Road 29, which is in my opinion the road that shows exactly the kind of Kyoto you would expect. Traditional houses, little streets leading to temples, and just on this road you can go from the Kinkaku-ji to the Daikaku-ji. And if you're tired, you can jump on one of the buses that ride along this road, for 220 yen the trip. Just this would be enough to fill one day, and you can even finish it in the famous Bamboo Path which is not far south from the Daikaku-ji. So that was basically the program for that day. I started at the Kinkaku-ji, around 30 min walk from the YH, and then followed the road 29 and the indications for all the temples in the area. Here is a very short selection of my pictures - from Kyoto onwards, I shot around 200+ photos per day, thank you, numeric age...
The temple of Gold...
The Bamboo path
FYI, the entrance of the Bamboo path is free of charge, as it is not (contrary to what I have read in some travel guides), in the Tenno-ji park.
My advice to you is to wake up early, because even though the entrance to the temples is usually around 8 AM, before that you can find locals doing their jogging in the park. That's in fact how I had the most exquisite experience with a local: as I was waiting for the cashier to open for the Ryonan-ji, I met a lady, still healthy despite her age, who thought I was lost. When she saw that I could understand her, even if my speaking was still a bit rough, she actually took me on a tour of the park, explaining to me different things about the birds, the blooming trees, and the mountain in the park. A really unique and genuine experience, I loved it.

Day 4 - Ginkaku-ji and Gion
It was already time to go... From the Utano YH, there is the 26 line direct to Kyoto Station, so I left my luggage in a locker there, and then walk from the station to the shichijo subway station. As I was in a rush, I took the Keihan railway to Demachi-yanagi station, but if I had more time, I would walk along the canal, as the cherry trees were blooming above the water.
From the Demachi-yanagi station, you walk straight to the Ginkaku-ji, which is much less silver than the Kinkaku-ji was gold.

FYI, there is a lot of options available to sightsee in Kyoto. Some buses are specially for tourists, going to all touristic spots, and all the buses that go near one of them have its name written in english. So if you're in a hurry, take one, knowing it's 220 Y whatever the length of the ride, but I would really suggest to just walk in Kyoto, because that's the only way to have a real feeling of Japan.
After Ginkaku-ji, go south to Gion, where you can enjoy Kyoto "the old way", with girls in yukatas, and small traditional shops, especially between Kodai-ji and Kiyomizu-dera.

After Gion, I once again took the Keihan line to Fushimi-inari.
You'd think you'd get tired of all these red tori, but you're not...
As the afternoon was not waiting for me to pass, I took the JR line from Inari to the Kyoto station, took back my stuff and took the first JR line to Osaka, which didn't take long. The ride from Osaka to Nagai on the Midosuji subway was almost as long. When I arrived, I was surprised to see that the Nagai Youth Hostel was actually inside the Nagai Stadium, and that Sumo fighters were living there. It was really impressive, as was not the rest of the hostel. Let's just say that after the Utano YH dream, the Nagai YH was a nightmare.

Day 5 - Nara
As I couldn't stay 3 nights in a row in the Nagai Youth Hostel, I decided to take extra money from the already tight budget to book a room in a guesthouse in Nara. So I left my stuff in Osaka, kept only a small backpack, and from Nagai, took the Midosuji line to Tennoji, and from here the JR line to Nara. It took almost an hour to get there, and the first thing on my list was the Daibutsu-den, where everyone goes, and as it was still early, I could enjoy it all to myself.
There is much to see in Nara, and there are a lot of visitors, so as most travel guides suggest, you should book a night there to have pictures with only you on it.
all within walking distance
The Nara City Information Center suggests 7 hours in total, including walking time and visiting time, but if you want to go even further with less people, there are some interesting sites on the west side of the JR station to do on the second day. And you'll see, after a while, you won't even take pictures of the 1500 deers...!
Edit: on the main road in the city centre, there is a lot of shops preparing and selling green tea paste. Here is how they do it:

Day 6 - Kurama-dera
From Nara, the same train that got me there goes on to Kyoto, and very regularly. You then arrive at Kyoto station, and from here, you take a bus (4 or 17 on platform 2) to Demachiyanagi station, where the JR Eizan line leads you to Kibune then Kurama.
What I didn't do but suggest you to do, is stop at Kibune, walk all the way into the mountain from Kibune to Kurama, and then relax at the exterior Kurama Onsen. The walk can be steep, but it's not as long as I first imagined, and the brochure explains all there is to see along the way.

A day should be enough to do everything, and then take your time at the Onsen. Be careful, taking pictures is not allowed in the Onsen, and so are tattooed people...

Day 6.5 - Himeji
A gentle local I met when I came back at the Nagai Youth Hostel after Kurama warned me that Himeji was also under scaffoldings, but as I had nothing else to do and my plane was in the afternoon, I decided to go anyway. You can either take a regular JR line to Himeji, which take less than an hour, or take the Shinkansen which takes less than thirty minutes. And even with the scaffolding, it was still pretty to look at.

And that was it... It was of course way too short, but I saw everything I wanted to and still had time to seat in a park, take in the japanese atmosphere and have 8h sleep (which was not so much needed by my brains but by my legs). If, no, when I will go back, I will do the North, the Aoyama region, around 3 days in Tokyo and at least 5 days in Kyoto, and maybe a bit of the South. But even though it was nowhere as cheap as South East Asia, it was still worth it, and I do not regret any minute of it.


Asia in a nutshell - Cambodia & Vietnam

And after that I headed to Cambodia...

The train to go there went smoothly, with a lot of locals, and I even ate the local food sold on board, which was delicious. But arriving at Poi Pet, I was shocked to see that every price was in USD. I was really looking forward to Cambodia, mostly for Angkor Wat, which didn't disappoint at all, but I also wanted to discover a new country, and I'm not really sure of the authenticity of a people that doesn't use the national currency. So I was pretty disappointed by my first impression of Cambodia itself. But Angkor... wow! (and this is totally not a bad pun on the name Angkor Wat).
Sunrise @ Angkor Wat
Even though the entrance is $20 (yes, as I told you, every thing is priced in USD...), it's totally worth it, even Arthur C. Clarke declared in 3001, the last Odissey that it was the most beautiful and grand construction made by man ever.
apparently Lara Croft did a hell of a job, with that much restauration needed...

Apart from the well known trick of "I can make a good price for you, but don't tell, ok?", or the tuk-tuk driver switching to English with his friend as I was approaching to talk about tips, I had a moment that could have been really intense but instead became intensely disappointing. As I was overwhelmingly shooting at a small temple, a Cambodian woman silently approached me with incense, bowed and gave me 3 sticks of incense before making a sign asking to follow her, still in silence, which made her appearance even more solemn than her shaven head. So I followed her to a small altar, put the incense where it was meant to be, and she attached a red bracelet to my wrist. Then she showed me the one dollar near the altar and uttered her first words "one dollar, one dollar". I didn't have much money - and even less dollar bills, so I gave her all the Riels I had, because I wanted to keep the bracelet. And she was so disappointed to receive her own currency that she hid it behind the altar... And I was even more disappointed to have once again been seen as a mere tourist and not as someone that could really show their respects...

The next day, it was time to leave Siem Reap. The hostel had choices between a 8$, a 10$ or a 15$ bus, and I chose the 8$ one for a more authentic experience, I figured. Well for 8$, the pick up driver is 45 minutes late (and at 5h30, it hurts), and no smile reaches his face. During the first break, the Cambodians totally ignored us, the "tourists", and I had to reach out for my food and stop a waitress to get a reaction. When I wanted to buy a drink, the waitress kept saying "one dollar", completely ignoring my "in Riels?" question, even though we both knew she understood. I don't know if the 15$ bus would have been that much better. Probably more tourists means more places used to tourists, but still, we're not a disease, don't despise us that much!

But still, the road was pleasant. At first, I couldn't really figure out the Cambodian characteristic, it was either similar to Thailand or to Vietnam. Yes, Cambodia is midway between Thailand and Vietnam, and not only geographically. But then, when in the countryside, I could finally see the authenticity of the country, where kids are kids, and tourists are too rare to spoil anything. I even saw 7 weddings! I don't know if it was Friday, or March 15th, but it was rejoicing to see the pink ribbons. And then I wondered: would there be smiles on their faces if they saw me? I really don't know, but I hope tourists trying the adventure there will be luckier than me.

When I finally arrived in Phnom Penh, fatigue had taken the best of me, and I let myself driven by the first smiling tuk tuk driver to my hostel, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I was seeing. It didn't feel as crowded as I expected, and when I wandered around looking to take my picture taken for the Vietnamese visa, I could discover a very nice town, populated with tourists that never came home, and authentic Cambodians who are not completely spoiled by tourists, so that was refreshing. And there are also some nice sightseeing to do, so that added to the whole experience, even though I didn't stay too long. Of course, I was surprised to see that the hostel suggested day-trip tours to the Killing Fields and S21, and even a day with the military to shoot at coconuts with any weapon of your choice. But the more "regular" things, such as Wat Phnom or the silver Pagoda, were beautiful, even if less material for the thoughts.

I guess, Phnom Penh reconciled me with Cambodia, because it really left me with the impression of a nice town to live in, all the more with a developping buzzing nightlife.

I can't really do justice to Vietnam this time, because I really stayed too little. But I listened to some girls in Siem Reap who said Hoi An was the place to stay at a nice beach, and didn't regret it.
My first step was Ho Chi Minh, and that city, on the other hand... From the plane just before landing, the city looked dazzling. Neons everywhere, a very busy town. And by day, "busy" translates to "crowded". So crowded. Just on the way to the airport, my taxi driver almost killed two pedestrians and 3 motorcycles, while he almost made me throw up, and believe me, I'm not usually sick in cars.
In comparison, Da Nang and Hoi An were way more wide-opened, Da Nang in the way of a resort city, Hoi An in the way of a cute little village between river and sea.
You can rent a bike to the old city where there are several old Chinese temples, you can just lay at the beach, and you can make some smart tailor-made clothes, as Hoi An is very famous for its tailors.

And that was basically it for me, but it was really nice to lay back and relax before what I already call the Japan Marathon (if Vietnam Airlines don't have a 4h delay as they did on departure... Otherwise I'm screwed).

Last piece of advice: if you can, avoid the Vietnamese Visa on arrival. It's not less expensive than the regular visa, as you have to pay 45 USD at the airport to get it, in addition to what you already paid on a web agency (I personally chose cheap vietnam visa which is way cheaper than the others and very efficient - I received the letter the same day I asked) , and you have to wait - in my case - 1 to 2 hours to get it. Seriously, if I had more time in Phnom Penh and not on a week end, I would have done it in Cambodia, because it's cheaper and you actually have nothing to do other than hand your passport to your hostel who then takes care of everything.


Asia in a nutshell - Thailand

This month was very intense in terms of visits and events. I went on the touristic road from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, plus a week in Japan (I know, shame on me, right?)

Upon arriving in Bangkok, my plan was to get to Hua Lamphong Station and take the first train to Surat Thani and the ferry to Koh Samui, but as it was fully booked, I braced myself to a day of visit in Bangkok and a night in a bunk bed on the night train to Surat Thani. The night train was how I remembered, it didn't change one bit in 3 years.
FYI about the combo ticket Train+Bus+Ferry (compared to what's in seat61): the train departs a little after 5 PM, and the ticket says you arrive at Surat Thani at 4h24, while you actually arrive at 5 o'clock. No need to use an alarm to wake up, as the guy on the train will wake you up 40 min before arrival. At Surat Thani, all companies are in the same spot (Raja or Lomprayah), and the first bus is at 6 AM, for the Raja Ferry. The first Lomprayah bus is at 8 AM, with a speed boat departing from Don Sak around 9:30 arriving in Samui at 10h15. I took the 6 AM bus, we arrived at Don Sak around 8 (as the bus is also used as a king of public transportation by the locals), and at Samui at around 10.
On the bus, I had a very new feeling. Last time I was there, it was on holidays. Now, it seemed weird to go from somewhere which didn't look like my former every day life to somewhere which looked even less like it. It was like a holiday within holidays, except that it didn't really feel like how a holiday used to feel. I cannot describe it very well, but I felt closer to an explorer than to a tourist. Like I said, very new, I liked it. Arriving in Chaweng, I met with the group of friends I was to spend the next 3 days with. The first day, we walked in Chaweng, but the market wasn't really interesting, so after booking a private van for the next day and a tour around Angthong the day after that, we just relaxed on the beach, which was kind of disappointing. Rocks hidden in the sand, algae and garbage on the beach, really not my idea of a paradise (all the more after the beautiful beaches of Australia). Also disappointing: the service. While on my first trip in 2010, Thailand was truly up to its name "the Country of smiles", here, the service was abysmal. But when the night came, the city awoke and reanimated, and we spent some time at the Green Mango, a very interesting night club.
The next day, we went on a tour with a private van (we negotiated 1800 bahts for 11 people and 6 hours). We visited temples, waterfalls, it was nice but not really extraordinary. But I knew the main event was yet to come: Angthong. That was just amazing. Of course, there are a lot of tourist boats, but the Natural Park is simply beautiful. Reminded me of Ha Long more colorful.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and this group trip among friends was no exception. And while they went on to Chiang Mai, my sister and I headed to Bangkok.
The only thing new I wanted to do there was Ayutthaya, and I wasn't disappointed. Apparently Sukhothai is more impressive, but I could totally be satisfied with the first.
And after that, I headed to Cambodia...


Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road

I was about to write an article that would probably have banned me from travel blogs forever, or maybe there would have been the first comments of this blog, but hate comments. I was about to write an article saying that *gasp* I don't like Melbourne.

Yes, it's true, I don't see what the fuss is all about in Melbourne. And what's with the "The place to be" on car plates? Seriously, it's way too hipster for me, and in my humble opinion, street art should be spontaneous, not commissioned.
My image of Melbourne: a city burning with hipsters and street art...

I mean, while Sydney seduced me right away, with Melbourne, I really had to try to see the best of it, and even then, I feel like I missed a clue or something. But it's true that the architecture is audacious, and, as I was in town during the food and wine festival, Melbourne got my attention through my two weaknesses: food and music. Whether it's Chinatown or the wharves, or the World Food Market on Sunday at the Queen Victoria Market, whether it's russian tastings or italian mozzarella, the streets were immersed in amazing food scents and music, and that in itself allowed me to enjoyed myself. Complete it with a stroll in Batman park or ACDC Lane, and it had me. And it's funny to see how beyond Queen Victoria Market, away from the CBD, the city transforms into an entirely different - and way calmer - environment. Fitzroy and Carlton, for instance, just vibrate on a completely different note.

Now, about the Great Ocean Road... Well, one thing is for sure: it's not great. It's grand, it's spectacular, and it's quite long. At first, from Memorial Arch to Apollo's Bay, it's beautiful, but not uncommon: secluded beaches surrounded by rocks and cliffs, it's breathtaking wherever you are. But then you arrive at the Port Campbell National Park, and then it becomes epic. I mean, the Twelve Apostles (even though there's only 8 of them standing), despite seeing the pictures of them with every possible angle, seeing it for real is purely magnificent, all the more if you take a helicopter flight.
the most expensive seven minutes of my life, but totally worth it
The tour to the Great Ocean Road was with Wildlife Adventures, but it was reassuring to see that apart from the lunch at Apollo's Bay, all the other tours were doing the exact same things. I'm pretty sure the other buses didn't have a driver like Barry, though, the proud author of the following joke (and so much more of the same kind): "We don't shoo the flies here, we let them walk barefoot"
Anyway, even though there were some grey clouds in the morning, they were pushed away by the strong wind and the weather was splendid. We even managed to go back to Melbourne right when the Raptors were doing their show in the Avalon Airport Airshow, which was a great bonus to end this beautiful day.

And then there was Phillip Island. The main event there is the penguin parade, which was great but a bit disappointing in that we couldn't even film, even without flash. But the rest of the island is nice as well, Woolamai beach is gorgeous, and the coastline being volcanic, that make for great pictures. And during the day, you can still spot some little penguins sheltering themselves from the sun. As for the parade itself, it was really cute. It was weird to see the seagulls that an hour before would beg you for a piece of bread, behaving like the predators they are, waiting for their preys, the penguins, to come out. Fortunately, we didn't see any seagull gulping those cute ferry penguins, and even though it is the scariest moment of their day, you can't help laughing as they run as one on the beach to join their burrows.

Well, now, I'm heading for Asia for 3 intense weeks before coming back to Australia, but I don't think I will come back to Victoria, I saw what I really wanted to see, and I'm plainly satisfied.

What did YOU think of Victoria? Did I miss anything worth seeing?