I know that 2016 hasn’t been kind to many, but for me, it was an awesome year, if not the best year of my life so far! We were on the road full time without a base for the entire year and managed to visit a mind-boggling 19 countries! We dabbled with housesitting, Celine started teaching English. I finished my degree, amped up my language learning and managed to stick to an exercise routine with regular running and yoga, and it was the best year of my freelance business so far, too!

We managed to visit some places I had longed to go for a long time, while also spending a lot of time exploring countries we know very well, especially the UK, Ireland, Japan and Germany. It sounds busy, but I don’t feel exhausted in the slightest!

As a recap, here are some of my favourite new places of 2016!

Favourite new country: Ukraine

I had been meaning to visit for a long time, but really, had not expected such a colourful, varied country, with amazing people, food, history and art. Ukraine should really be on the must-visit list for anybody who loves culture and has enjoyed other places in Eastern Europe – but if you haven’t been to Eastern Europe at all, Ukraine is a good place to start, too!
I definitely want to return and see more of what is technically Europe’s biggest country (not counting Russia)!





Favourite new city: Tbilisi, Georgia



Anybody who’s been to Georgia loves it, full stop, and Tbilisi is just one reason for that. Located on the very eastern fringes of Europe, this city has wide boulevards reminiscent of Paris (scrap that, nicer, cleaner and more vibrant than those in Paris!), a multicultural and turbulent history that will send your head spinning. A magical botanical garden that seems a world apart – and literally is, as it’s in a gorge right next to the centre, a crumbling old town and all the modern, hipstery things you could want. Plus, ancient baths which have served as anything from meeting point to brothel over the years, and which can be yours to soak in with a private room for $20. And I haven’t even mentioned the food! Tbilisi would be the clear winner of all the places I have visited this year, if there wasn’t…

Georgian food - so simple, so good, so salty!

Biggest, most mind-blowing surprise: Armenia




We hadn’t even meant to go to Armenia, but it turned out that is was much cheaper to fly back to western Europe from Yerevan than from Tbilisi. So, we set out on a crazy Cross-Caucasus ride from Georgia to Yerevan, a modern and easy city that also is full of fantastic food
But really, it was the Armenian landscape and mountains that captivated me the most. This little country can easily rival the US or Latin America in terms of natural sights, and throws is a lot of history alongside. And the Middle East is not far at all. Armenia is a little bit like Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the European Mediterranean and the Middle East, all in one, yet it’s very own thing. People have been incredibly nice, too. There is not a single bad thing I can say about our time there, which means something, coming from a critical bitch like me!
 

In 2017, we are planning to be a bit more settled, although we have some exciting plans for February and March, and are hoping to make it to the Middle East and/or Africa at some point in the year!




People often wonder what our everyday life looks like. A few months ago, my girlfriend joined the ranks of the freelancers, so I feel like we can provide a more balanced overview of what our work-life-travel balance is like.

Of course, not all weeks are created the same. Sometimes we travel very fast and hardly get any work done. Sometimes, especially when we spend more than 10 days in one place, we live like locals, working a 40-hr week or probably more, to catch up with the times we work less, and barely do anything touristy at all.

This first example week is more middle of the road, and describes the week we spent in Seoul in November. We have both been to the city before, so there wasn't a lot of sightseeing. We mostly decided to go to Seoul this time because it was on our way from HK to Japan and we can't say no to Korean food :)

Sunday

After a slightly crazy flight from Hong Kong, we arrive at our Airbnb in southern Seoul in the late afternoon. As the last few days had been very busy, we quickly nip into the supermarket on the corner to get some basics for preparing an easy dinner. After dinner, we catch up on email and might have watched too many YouTube videos, because the Internet in Korea is so fast! 

Monday

We get up around 8.30 and have a breakfast of canned Korean coffee and sugary biscuits, which our Airbnb host left at the apartment in plentiful amounts. We kick ourselves for not getting decent breakfast items the day before. After breakfast, we both work a few hours until it's time to cook a quick pasta... I get very grumpy when hungry, and am picky about where to eat, so we aren't taking any chances. After 2 pm, we head out to explore our neighbourhood at last, and end up spending what feels like 3 hrs in Artbox, a Korean homeware / stationery shop that sells all the things you never knew you needed. I am looking for a new wallet, and manage to find one at a not so crazy price (it broke when we were in Japan, where wallets as seen something auspicious and even the cheapest cost $80, because that will be bad luck. If you want a lot of money in your wallet, spend on the wallet first!)

On our way back, we stop by the supermarket for some more reasonable breakfast options... which don't really exist there, it's all white bread and jam. We pick up some pastries at the bakery instead. The rest of the day is more work, dinner and random internetting.

Tuesday

As on Monday, we get up around 8.30 am, have breakfast and get back to work. Around 1.30, we head off to a restaurant we found the day before for an incredible steal of a set lunch. After that, we jump into the subway Seoul Station to purchase our onward train tickets. Then we have the genius idea to check out the adjoining supermarket, which is crammed to the gills with Chinese tourists buying Koreans sweets and cosmetics. But they do have muesli and organic food! Finally, breakfast sorted.

Wednesday

We get up, work for 3-4 hrs, cook lunch, then head out to visit the Korean War Museum, which I highly recommend. It's free, massive and gives a great overview of the country's history. Some kind of military parade is going on outside, which helps after the more depressing (most) parts of the exhibition. On our way back, we try to find a cafe, but ironically (usually every second shop in Seoul is a cafe), we find nothing within half a mile's walk and head back home instead.

We cook dinner and I do some more work from around 7 to 10 pm, then it's time for some yoga and sleeping.

Thursday

Thursday is a blur of work for me, with really nothing exciting to report from my side. After lunch, Celine heads out to Hongdae for a hipster haircut at a place she discovered last year. This year, they don't do as well a job...

Friday

This time in Seoul, my mission is to visit some of the museums I haven't been to. Again, we follow the morning routine of a few hours of work, and decide to grab lunch at the cafe around the corner.

Then we jump into the subway and towards the Seoul Museum of History, although we first nip into nearby Gyeonghuigung Palace (the last palace out of five in Seoul I have been too, not very impressive, but free).

The museum does a great job of telling the city's success story, but it's the special exhibition with photography from the 60s and 70s that captivates us most. I can hardly believe that such a modern city counted among the world's least developed just 30 years ago!

After we get back, I catch up with some work before and after dinner.


Saturday

You know the routine... get up, breakfast, work. At 1.30 pm, we start walking southwards to Gangnam station, where we meet my Korean friend Yeseul, who takes us to a rad noodle & bulgogi restaurant. We met in a hostel in Korea a few years back and as we are both avid travellers, we see each other at least once or twice a year when we randomly end up in the same place. After lunch, we head to a cafe nearby to continue catching up.

As Yeseul is heading to a demonstration later in the afternoon (against the Korean president, if you have been following the news), we say goodbye. And as it's a Saturday afternoon in Gangnam, we become part of the consumerist stampede and end up buying all the Korean cosmetics... (well, some! Sheet masks are great to moisturise your skin after flights)

Sunday

It's our last day in Seoul already! Sunday is spent working and packing, as we jump on a train to Busan the next morning.

So, that's it! This was a pretty well balanced week for us, with equal parts of work and play, I would say! Would you have expected more work or less? More partying and eating out? More socialising? I definitely regretted not making time for Korean street food in Seoul - but we caught up with that in Busan ;) Seoul is one of my favourite cities and I can imagine spending a couple of months there sometime in the future.




 

Yakushima is an UNESCO Nature World Heritage protected island, about 60 km off the coast of Kyushu. It’s said to have been the inspiration for Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, but most importantly, it is home to some of the oldest cedar trees in Japan and a variety of endemic species. The trees are even more valuable since many in the other area of Japan that has comparable trees were destroyed during the 2011 tsunami/earthquake.



How to get there:

You can fly directly from Tokyo, Osaka or Kagoshima. The most common way to get to the island, however, is by boat. You can choose between a ferry that takes 4 hours, the very speedy (under 2 hrs) jetfoil or a slow overnight ferry. The jetfoil (“Toppy”) is the most expensive option at around 15,000 yen return, but also your most flexible. The day we returned, it was quite stormy and all boats except the jetfoil were cancelled (and the ride back was VERY bumpy).

It’s recommended to buy your tickets for the jetfoil in advance for weekends and holidays. We visited mid-week and bought our tickets two days in advance when we got to Kagoshima. Both times we took the boat, many people seemed to buy their ticket on the spot just before departure, too.

Where to stay

There are some seriously expensive 5 star onsen hotel resorts on the island, if you are looking to really blow some money. There is also a youth hostel close to the port at Miyanoura. For everybody who falls in between those two ends, staying at Yakushima means staying at a minshuku, or old fashioned Japanese guest house. You can imagine them like a B&B in Europe, although some will also offer other meals or have an integrated café. The best thing about them is that you can usually look forward to a home cooked Japanese breakfast!


I love to stay in minshuku because it really forces you out of your foreigner bubble, yet you have more privacy than at a homestay. We stayed at Minshuku Kaisei I in Miyanoura, a 10-minute walk from the ferry terminal. The place was sparkling clean and our tatami room even had its own small bathroom (many minshuku have shared facilities only). The owner speaks minimal English but they had lots of information about where to go and how to get there. She also offered to order bento boxes for anybody going on a longer hike.

What to do and see
 
On our first day, we arrived mid-afternoon and paid a visit to the tourist centre/Ecological information centre by the port in Miyanoura, which features a great introduction to the island as well as a very poetic short movie showcasing the stunning scenery of the island.

Now, if you are a serious hiker – and I mean, you have brought all that technical gear and hiking equipment – Yakushima is a dream. There are hikes from 6 hrs up to three entire days, where you can sleep in a mountain hut.

We aren’t quite that outdoorsy, and were content with one of the longer routes (1-3 hrs) in the unfortunately named Yakusugi Land. It conjures images of Disneyland, but don’t worry – it was not crowded at all and is simply an area within the nature reserve that has very well maintained trails, the easier ones also accessible for the less able and elderly.

After our hike, we paid a visit to the nearby Yakusugi Museum, where you can learn all about the trees and the island’s history. The museum floor is made of lots of wooden “tiles” which move a little while you walk with them, adding an interesting haptic dimension to the experience. Their English audio guide was very good, too. What we ended up liking the best, however, was the photography exhibition and exhibition about local communities (Japanese only) at museum’s lower floor.
 

After lunch (see below), we decided to complete the day by attempting a round drive of the island, stopping over at the Ohki no Take waterfalls (well, literally, the big waterfall). The most amazing part of the drive was the dark and narrow forest path, where countless Yaku deer and monkey crossed our road. They seemed very confident that this is THEIR forest and took their sweet time letting us pass. Now that drive was really like something out of a fantasy movie (if people rode cars through remote Japanese islands in Disney movies)!
We used the websites Yes! Yakushima and Yakumonkey to research information about the island. These websites will show you hundred more things to do an see in Yakushima, especially if you enjoy long hikes, surfing and cycling.


What & where to eat

For lunch, we popped into a small restaurant in the second biggest town on the island, Anbo. There isn’t an awful lot of choice to eat outside Miyanoura, and places are only open for lunch from 11.30 to 2 pm, which last orders taken at 1.30 anywhere we looked. So rather than looking for a specific place, go with anywhere Food-wise, Yakushima is famous for flying fish and black pork. Celine had the pork, which like other “black pork” we had in Kagoshima and Jeju island in Korea, didn’t taste special. Flying fish was finished already when we arrive for lunch, so I made do with chicken. Portions were giant and the ladies were really surprised to see foreign visitors!

Miyanoura town itself has two supermarkets that also sell ready-made foods (there are no convenience stores on the island), and some traditional as well as “western style” places for lunch and dinner.

For dinner, we stumbled across a bar/restaurant called Panorama, hidden away in a back alley of Miyanoura. Stepping into there was like being transported from the remote island to a hipster area of Tokyo, minus the crowds. The modern, open space is clearly inspired by the island’s natural terrain, as is the menu. However, the place is run by a young couple who even went through the pain to hand-draw an all English version of their extensive selection of western and Japanese booze (beer, wine, sake, shochu and umeshu of all flavours, whiskey and cocktails). I loved it because similar places in Japanese cities can be very noisy and smokey affairs, while Panorama felt so easy going and homey.

How to get around

Now this is where it gets tricky. It takes only 3-4 hours to drive the loop around the island, but if you are relying on public transport, your options are severely limited as there are not many buses. If you want to do one of the longer hikes, it pays to get a guide who will also organise your transport.
We decided to stay only two nights and rent a car for the main day. All guest houses as well as the tourist info office will help you organise a car –  we paid under 6,000 yen including insurance for a day. That’s a great deal, especially considering a bus pass is 2,000 per person and does not get you very far.

Apart from some roads leading up to hiking trails, there is only one road in Yakushima, which loops around the island. If you were to drive it straight through, it would probably take you 3,5 hours, but what’s the fun in that? We managed to do a 9-5 trip, visiting all the places I mentioned above, including a 1,5-hr hike (the forest path is closed after 5 pm, rightfully so!). If you have only limited time and/or are not an avid hiker/tree hugger/beach bum, this is probably the best way to see the island.

We had been warned about how the road condition really deteriorates in the south and west of the island, but found a very smooth road in very good condition. Yes, it’s narrow and single profile in some areas, but I’ve seen far worse roads in Ireland, Italy, England and even Germany! The driving was smooth apart from the 26 km stretch of the Seibu Rindoh forest path, where there were lots of deer and monkeys just hanging out by the road. We drove VERY slowly and were a bit freaked out we would hit a dear, but it was quite a magical ride!


Yakushima reminded me of why I love travel in Japan so much, probably more than I can every enjoy living here. The one thing you can always count on, no matter where you go in Japan, are the kind and high-spirited people. You might think it’s all concrete and city lights, but this small island nation offers a lot of variety, especially once you leave the beaten path.


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