A Travellerspoint blog

June 2013

Tokyo: Two Needles in a Haystack

After originally planning on spending four days in Tokyo, we somehow found ourselves nine days later only just boarding our bus to Kyoto. On the face of it this may seem excessive, however it soon became clear on our ninety-minute journey to our hostel from the airport that we had underestimated the size of this city. As we whizzed past endless waves of streets, houses and offices, we really did feel like two very tiny needles in a very big haystack.

Our first two days were spent very leisurely after the non-stop journey around New Zealand; we met some lovely people in our hostel, explored the local area and visited a Japanese 'onsen'; a bathhouse where you get naked and chill in a spa for about £7. The hot water soothed our limbs, and just when we thought we were going to doze off we woke ourselves up with a dip in the cold pool. We also took advantage of Japan's low prices and went for a meal, Y100 wine and coffee beer.

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After recharging our batteries for a couple of days, we finally ventured out into the great unknown of Tokyo. We started in Shibuya, site of the famous scramble crossing, where every few minutes every pedestrian light goes green and all hell breaks loose, with everyone crossing in a different direction and fighting to reach the kerb. There's a Starbucks overlooking the crossing that makes the perfect vantage spot to sit and watch this hypnotic proceeding. We explored the gigantic shopping malls that tower over the streets of Shibuya, and had our first ever sushi experience; tempura shrimp are a new personal favourite. It was also a new kind of dining experience; instead of interacting with a waiter, we used a touchscreen to order our food, which then whizzed out of the kitchen on a small conveyor belt. So far, so Japan.

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Apparently the must-do activity on a Sunday in Tokyo is to head to Harajuku, and so we did, unaware of the bedlam awaiting us. Takeshita Dori, the main shopping street, was absolutely rammed with extravagantly-dressed teenagers, each one seemingly eager to make a bigger statement than the last. Walking down the street, we were so rammed in that we felt like we were queuing for something, except we didn't know what. We fought our way to the end and continued our exploration around a few of the less crowded streets, stumbling upon the Oriental Bazaar, before finding some much-needed peace at the Meji Shrine.

The shrine is accessed through a huge Japanese-style wooden torii gate, under which a wide path winds through quiet parkland and overhanging trees. The shrine itself is about a 15-minute walk down this path, thoroughly encased in the park, giving it an air of tranquility even when busy.

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The next day we visited one of Tokyo's oldest and most popular temples, the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. It is fronted by a huge red gate with a lantern hanging in its centre, which leads to a short street packed with quaint little shops. The temple itself is impressive; a bold structure painted red and black, with beautiful lanterns hanging all around it. Not bad for a temple that was originally constructed in the year 645.

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Akihabara is a surreal experience; we spent an afternoon there and it really has to be seen to be believed. The electronics district of Tokyo, as well as selling questionable technological good by the barrel, is home to countless arcades, with games to suit every taste. From dance mats to gun warfare, crane games to zombie annihilation, we saw it all. A personal favourite was Japan's version of air hockey, where the machine spits out twenty or thirty pucks simultaneously and the players are left scrabbling to hit them in any direction possible. I still couldn't say if I scored even a single goal.

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After a day spent sheltering from an incredible ten-hour rain storm, we spent our final day wandering around Ueno Park, a sprawling respite from city life that features a lake, several museums and even a zoo. We discovered several small shrines hidden among the trees, and a group of huge trout in the river.

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That night we boarded an overnight bus to Kyoto, slightly relieved to be escaping the bustle of the city and yet aware that we had still not experienced even half of what this giant city has to offer. Still, we were looking forward to our next destination, and settled into our coach seats with the wise words of a Japanese businessman still ringing in our ears; "I think you will like Japan...but I am very drunk....".

Posted by kate1401 20:47 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo shibuya ueno japan temple akihabara shrine sushi harajuku Comments (0)

Storming the South Island

We kicked off our southern adventure in Nelson, a town in the north east corner of the island that attracted us chiefly because of its proximity to the famed Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand's smallest national park but also among the most beautiful. After making the bus trip into the park, we set off on what was supposed to be a pleasant walk along the Park's coastal track, with stunning views over the ocean. For the first couple of hours all went to plan; it was chilly and overcast but we had come prepared in warm clothes and the scenery was stunning. Unfortunately we were not destined to finish the track. Two hours into the walk the heavens opened and what felt like a whole lake's worth of water poured down on us, soaking us to the bone as we retreated to the shelter of the local village, cursing the cruel timing of New Zealand's fickle winter climate.

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Our next stop was the ridiculously small town of Punakaiki, made up essentially of a couple of streets of hotels and pubs that surround Pancake Rocks, a strange formation of rocks that appear to be stacked on top of each other in thin layers, like pancakes. There are several information boards that attempt to explain how the formations have come about, but the truth seems to be that nobody really knows. The rocks are accompanied by a series of blowholes that appear where the sea has eroded holes in the rock at angles; the sea water is driven into the holes from the bottom and sprays out of the top in spectacular fashion.

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We then moved on to Fox Glacier, one of the highlights of the trip. At 13kms long, Fox is the longest of New Zealand's west coast glaciers, plummeting 2600m from the base of the Southern Alps. We reached the glacier via an easy one-hour walk that culminates in a track through a canyon with steep rock and waterfalls on either side, ending with a tiring climb to the base of the glacier. With Mount Cook towering in the background, this huge sheet of ice makes an impressive sight.

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Queenstown was next, and its cosy, small-town feel endeared it to us immediately. It is the epitome of a winter town; the air is crisp, snow-capped mountains loom in the distance, and every morning you awake to a thick white mist blanketing the town. Although the main winter pastime is skiing, we found plenty to occupy us for a couple of days. Our hostel looked out over a beautiful lake, and on the edge of the town were some lovely gardens where you could entertain yourself with Frisbee Golf.

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We also hit a highpoint food-wise in the shape of the famous fergburger. Fergburger is an immensely popular burger shop that is perpetually full, serving burgers almost the size of your head packed with meat, salad and a perfect aioli sauce. It wouldn't be going too far to say that this was the best burger I have ever had; your life is not complete until you've tried one.

After a quick stop in Oamaru to visit the yellow-eyed penguin colony, we headed to Christchurch with very little idea of what to expect. The city was ravaged by an earthquake in 2011, and on arriving it was clear the city is still recovering. The majority of buildings in the city centre either collapsed in the earthquake or were pulled down later after being declared unstable, and as a result walking through the city feels rather like being in a post-apocalyptic world where the last humans have retreated to strongholds and left the world to crumble. The city is being rebuilt one area at a time, and in the meantime quick-fix projects have been set up to add some cheer to the city. The best of these is the Re:Start Mall, a collection of coffee shops and independent fashion boutiques housed in huge shipping containers.

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An assortment of quirky displays known as 'Transitional City Projects' also litter the city; these include a free Dance Mat near the shopping mall and a 'cardboard cathedral' that appears to have been made out of playing cards. When we arrived it appeared to be being made into a proper church. We came across a cool idea just at the end of our hostel's street; an ice-creamery had fallen down in the earthquake and in its place there now stands one of its freezers, converted into a book exchange. All these projects send out a message from the residents of Christchurch that they may be down, but they are certainly not out.

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Our last stop was Kaikoura, where we shunned the highly-expensive whale watching in favour of a visit to the seal colony that sunbathes on the shores a short distance from town. The day was cloudy and windy, casting a foreboding grey tone over the sea and mountains and making for some great stormy photos. We trekked out to the edge of town, rounded a corner...and almost walked into a pair of seals who had decided to take a nap on the boardwalk. Although signs advised keeping your distance, the seals seemed to have no qualms about sleeping on and around the paths and car park by the sea edge, so we managed to get quite near to them, although their pungent smell ensured we didn't get too close.

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So ended our New Zealand adventure! While we have loved our time here, it was with some relief that we headed to the airport towards Japan and its hot climate. As we flew over the Pacific Ocean, peeling off our winter layers, we waved a fond farewell to New Zealand; not so much 'goodbye' as 'auf wiedersehen'. We will be back.

Posted by kate1401 22:26 Archived in New Zealand Tagged queenstown abel_tasman fox_glacier christchurch punakaiki nelson kaikoura south_island Comments (0)

Nomads in the North Island

After the endless beach that is Australia, we were somewhat relieved to venture on to New Zealand in search of something new. Of course the first 'new' thing we encountered was rain; after 3 months of almost perfect weather it was a shock to the system to arrive in the wet, chilly climate of New Zealand's winter. Undeterred, we dug our hoodies and umbrellas out of the depths of our rucksacks and ventured out, feeling our sun-fed tans almost draining away. Auckland, though a large city, seemed to us fairly unimpressive; it boasts the Sky Tower and an impressive shopping/dining thoroughfare but overall felt crowded and oppressive.

Things looked up as soon as we left the city; after stopping in the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula for a day of walking and soaking up the views, we headed to Matamata to fulfill a longstanding dream; visiting Hobbiton, the filming set used in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. We were shown around the set by an informative guide who gave us lots of amazing facts about the making of the set, visited Bag End, Bilbo's house, and had a drink in the Green Dragon pub. A great nerdy day was had by all!

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Our next stop was Rotorua, famed for its natural hot springs and boiling mud pools, and also for its rotten egg smell caused by the hydrogen sulphide emissions! Our lack of a car prevented us from getting to the town's main geothermal area, Wai-O-Tapu, but instead we enjoyed the free thermal pools on display at Kuirau Park, where the water literally boils in the ground. We also visited the Polynesian Spa, where for a mere 25NZD you can spend as long as you like soaking in the numerous outdoor hot pools, ranging from 33-42 °C, while admiring stunning views of Lake Rotorua. The water, sourced from two natural hot springs, has been used by Maoris for generations as a healer of aches and pains, and I must admit the pools did seem to have a soothing effect.

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With newly-refreshed limbs we moved on to Taupo, by the side of a lake of the same name that is bigger in size than Singapore. So far does it expand you could be forgiven for thinking it was the sea, and the beautiful mountains of Tongariro National Park are just visible in the background.

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We also made the short trek out through beautiful forest to Huka Falls, an impressive waterfall that is occasionally tackled by an ambitious kayaker with a death wish. For such a small waterfall it's quite impressive; any confusion we had about why the falls weren't a rafting destination was dispelled when we saw the volume of water gushing over the falls. We finished our walk with a visit to Craters of the Moon, Taupo's own hot mud pools.

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From Taupo we headed for our final North Island destination-Wellington. Aucklanders seem to think that their city is much more worthy of being New Zealand's capital but I must disagree. Wellington, despite being smaller, seems much more spacious, and has an easygoing atmosphere that Auckland lacks. We made the obligatory visit to the parliament buildings, including the incredibly ugly Beehive, but Wellington's true appeal lies in the bustling streets and tranquil waterfront. A particular high point is the famous Cuba Street, a fabulous mix of cool bars, kooky cafes and secondhand shops selling clothes, music, books and general peculiarities.

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Having heard that the South Island is far superior to the North, it was with high expectations that we boarded the interislander ferry bound for Picton and the South. Yet to come is Abel Tasman National Park, the glaciers, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Kaikoura...and we're already in love.

Posted by kate1401 20:21 Archived in New Zealand Tagged auckland rotorua hot_springs hobbiton matamata taupo wellington Comments (0)

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