Yesterday, I was moaning about how I hated all the tourists in Cusco (including myself, for being this grumpy). Then, I realised two weeks from now I'll be sleeping on someone's floor in London and decided to enjoy myself for the last two weeks of this (probably too) long trip.

This morning, I got up early and set to explore the city from 7 am, long before most kids even thought of getting up. I went to the small corner shop (laundry for 3 per kilo, as opposed to the 5 soles my hostel takes – for a longer turnaround time), had a coffee at a grubby little worker's café and then set off to have a look at the churches – specifically the cathedral, which houses Zapata's famous painting of the Last Supper (a shameless Da Vinci copy!), where the main dish is a guinea pig, chicha is drunk and Judas has the face of Francisco Pizzarro, much hated by the Andean people  Usually, I don't go inside churches, especially not if they come with such a price tag (£5 for the cathedral, and you can't even take pictures!). But I wrote a paper about Enculturalisation of Christian art recently, so that one was a must for me.

Then I realised - everything in this city is steeped so deeply in history and art, I don't understand how a bunch of plain old stones in the valley can be the main attraction. There's modern art, Colonial, Mestizo and Cusqueña art, Inka art, little creative art galleries in the San Blas quarter that could well be located in London's East End of Le Marais in Paris. I even found a bookshop that has a giant section of books by women travellers from the 17 and 18 century!

Although there are many Inka ruins scattered around the city, the city itself still has Inca foundations (the Spanish figured these are sturdy and put their own buildings on top... in many cases, at some point, the Spanish walls collapsed, but the Inca architecture stayed put). It reminds me a lot of how there are some buildings of London that still have fundaments that go back to the Romans. I'm so in love with this city (putting on Shonen Knife loudly on my MP3 player so I can't here the touts helps a lot)!

Cusco is stressful, I kind of imagine it how Prague must be like. It's a fairly big city, but not a massive one, and the city centre is overwhelmed by all the tourists that come here. It's the second city in the world that overwhelms me - I can't stop to see what time it is without someone shoving a pan pipe in my face. Even going to Starbucks is a stressful experience here.
sunburnt, grumpy alpaca beatnik

Why load up on those ugly lama hats and jumpers if you can buy beautiful art prints? Why eat the tourist pizza if there are stellar Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurants (I could write a book about this, wasabi ginger ceviche anyone)? Buy the crappy mass-made clunky earrings from the old lady if a sexy young artist will make a beautiful necklace to order for a little bit more?

I sound like a snobby flashpacker now, and I guess here, in the centre of the gringo trail, I am, and I'm not ashamed about it. I even bought a black alpaca beret and put on my existentialist black turtleneck jumper to go with the snobbyness – don't tell me I take myself too seriously ;)

meeting evil in Peru
My personal mission for this Latin America trip was to try to judge people less harshly and be more accepting. This is especially true for people around my age or younger who are into all the tourist bullcrap, have parents who pay for their trips or have not yet worked a day in their life although they are 24.

Because of my personal circumstances, I have been feeling a mixture of superiority and jealousy towards them - I was never this free, and will never be. I'm not sad about it, but it makes for awkward conversations ("So, are you a student, too?"-"No, I'm self-employed."-"Um... aha, so your parents must be really rich."-"Naw, quite the opposite."-"But why are you not a student?" is a classic example, one of the nicer ones). Especially as I can't sum up my life in the neat way people expect you in hostels. I've been thinking I should invent an easy version (we did this when travelling in Cambodia and Vietnam, but I'm not sure I can pull this off alone) - "Yeah I finished school when I was 20, and now live in a medium-sized German town with my equally average flatmates and study business management." - convinced?
Anyhow, I've been doing quite well on accepting instead of challenging people on this trip, as a recent encounter with a 20 year old Canadian student backpacker showed. Our life circumstances couldn't have been more different, but he was open to anything and had learned some amazing Spanish.

My bus trip to Cusco, tourism capital of Peru, showed my what really is the issue. Even before getting on the bus, a group of Germans, around my age, made a massive fuss about where to put there backpacks. Then, although the bus company lady kept telling them "Abajo!", they insisted on sitting upstairs. I was already on the bus and realised they didn't have a single word of Spanish. This was a first for me on this trip - if people travel to South America without Spanish, they usually bother to learn at least a few basic phrases, and are experienced and culturally sensitive enough to deal with locals smoothly. So, I was nice and told them in German that their seats are downstairs, as all the luxury-class seats always are, in every bus of this kind in the world. The alpha male of the group looked at me in a mixture of awe and disgust for discrediting him (he was 100% sure they had to sit upstairs) said "Oh, you must have been on the road for a long time". I shrugged it off and pretended to sleep -  a wise decision.

In the next seven hours, they mainly kept talking about how crap Peru is. How the hot water runs out after only 10 minutes of a shower, how yesterday, there was a power-cut for 5 minutes, how they cannot get a decent German beer here. Then they started calling the bus attendant, who went out of her way and even had a little English (a first for a bus company in Latin America) a "pre-Inca" and "primitive woman" in German. This seemed to be their general opinion of Peruvians.

This is where I exploded. Let's not get into details of what I said, but it wasn't pretty. It shut them up for the remainder of the trip.

I have found Peruvians to be one of the friendliest, most genuine and helpful people in the world. And even if they were the French of Latin America, they still wouldn't deserve this racist treatment.

This is where I realised my problem is not with people who have a different lifestyle, or are inexperienced, or love to take guided tours and buy a lot of shit on them.

The problem are people who use their home country as the status quo which is above everything else, and talk down other cultures although they have very little knowledge of life outside their hometown bubble. My issue is racism, ignorance and arrogance - and I won't try to accept or overlook any of this anytime soon.

When the bus pulled into Puno, I found myself thinking "Please, don't tell me this is Puno.". But the jumble of desolate, half-finished buildings turned out to really be the main city on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. The location should mean it's a stunning place, but it is the least remarkable place I have seen in all of South America.

Before this, I had consulted my guidebook, which had surprisingly good information about independent trips to indigenous people's islands on the world's highest navigable lake, and was intent to spend some days here doing that.

But really, as soon as I got off the bus, I wanted to leave, and so I wandered into the first travel agent in town (there is only one street of interest in Puno that has all the shops, restaurants and agencies) and bought myself a ticket to Cusco as well as a trip to the Uros Floating Islands for the next day. I had read that it was a big tourist trap and that the native Uros actually live in the city now and put on a show, but it was the easiest and cheapest (£5 for half a day) way to have little trip on the lake.

When I met my tour group, I was pleasantly surprised as the group was pretty small and consisted only of a Japanese couple, a Danish couple, a young Canadian backpacker and me, and all of us were equally skeptic and only did the trip as we really just wanted a little boat trip. Our guide was surprisingly knowledgable and explained how the Uros first started building floating islands made of reed to escape the Incas, who considered the tribe as sub-human and wanted to put them in their quinoa and guinea pig stew.

But as soon as we neared the islands, I realised just how fake this was. I was not a big fan of the hard sell on the Mekong Delta trip, but this here was a whole different thing. People at the Mekong were actually living there, doing their work. Here, the ladies greeted us in bright skirts and stood at the edge of the island, smiling painfully. After the guide had told us how the islands are built, the women got out their trinkets - all the usual Peruvian handycraft, pillow covers with Inca patterns, miniature reed ships and all that. Of course, they didn't have change for anything so you were forced to buy more than you actually wanted. I didn't buy anything for that reason (I wanted to, but didn't want to buy random shit on top), but we decided to take a trip in one of their "traditional" boats (a lie, too - we saw people speeding by in small motorised boats), where a girl sang songs in what she thought were foreign languages, and of course, asked for a tip for this. The women waved goodbye to us with a "Hasta la vista, baby!" (no kidding) and we set off to get back to Puno.

The most entertaining part of the trip were the few kids who just seemed to do whatever they wanted - one guy was constantly jumping onto his little brother, trying to kill him (I had the same sentiments regarding my brother when I was 5, so I felt sympathetic), while the little brother himself was the Peruvian version of Shin-chan, who constantly pulled his pants down or threw stuff - preferably hard potatoes - at tourists.

Overall, this was probably the most fake, touristy experience I ever had, but as it only lasted 2 hours, it was bearable - and the views of the lake were truly superb.
Hasta la vista, baby!

posher than today's actual Chifa
In front of every second door on the buildings scattered around the Plaza de Armas, the main square of Arequipa, someone calls out to me and tries to show me their menu – they are full of the local traditional foods – stuffed peppers, avocado salads, potato and vegetable dishes with fresh cheese, roasted guinea pig – and more fancy „nuevo andino“ dishes. A decent meal at these medium-range restaurants will cost around £5, and they are all pretty good.

But today, I'm looking for something else. Ever since I've set foot in Peru seven weeks ago, I have been mystified by the Chifas, or Peruvian-Chinese eateries that are always swarming with locals, advertising „cocina cantonesa“. They look a bit grubby, like really bad Indian places in the UK or kebab places in Germany, and I've never seen travellers in there. Incentive enough to give it a go.

I have tried sushi in Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires, and while it had fresh fish, it wasn't really sushi. Today, my craving for Asian food brings me here. Just off the Plaza, I go into the first Chifa I come across – they all seem to offer very similar food, anyway. I'm given a menu that consists of wonton soup, fried noodles with beef stir fry, rice with beef stir fry, rice with chicken, and fried noodles with chicken. I go with the „traditional“ mixed fried rice with stir fried beef, and ask for water. Sorry, only Inka Cola and Coca Cola, the waiter, who looks 100% Peruvian, not Chinese, tells me. Coke is the lesser of two evils. Obviously this is not the place to ask for a nice Taiwanese green tea blend.

The walls of the place have seen better times, there is no door, but the basic tables and chairs, as well as the floor, are impeccably clean. Most other guests here look like manual laborers on their lunch break, there are also some teenagers (chavy emo kids – a uniquely Peruvian subculture), and a young couple with a baby that won't stop staring at me, the mother smiling at me apologetically.
not my food either, but very similar

There isn't a kitchen, either, just a small gas stove where I can see how the food is cooked – not too bad so far, doesn't look like food poisoning. Then I get my food – and it's truly Chinese-Peruvian. Fair enough, it's fried rice and stir-fried beef, but the sauce is Peruvian aji, a yellow chili sauce, and instead of tofu, bean sprouts or greens, the stir-fry has potatoes, bell peppers and avocado. Fruit of the Andes.

This is not haute cuisine by any means, but it's a massive amount of pretty delicious, well-cooked, un-greasy food for about 70p. Even more than the food, I enjoy the curious looks the locals shoot me, wondering why I chose to eat here out of all places.

But nobody says anything, until an elderly gentlemen walks in – yes, he is one, by Peruvian terms. He's in his early 60s, whiter skin than most here, halfway up the Andes where 50% of the population still carries pure Inca blood. He's wearing a clean, decently tailored suit and sits down on the table next to me, staring up and down my legs. Today, because all my other stuff is in the laundry, I have to wear red and black striped tights, jeans shorts and a skimpy top that seemed like a  good idea for the lesbian underground nightlife of Buenos Aires. Here, not such a great idea, but what can I do?

Then he speaks to me in wonderful clear, Peruvian Spanish:
„Where are you from?“
„Oh, and you are alone?“
„Yes, why not.“
„Why not indeed, a lot of girls do it. Peru is not dangerous, like Colombia. Although Colombia is beautiful. Do you live with your parents in Germany?“ (the most frequently asked question in South America)
„Um, no, I live on my own, in England, kind of.“
„Well, I guess it's a different kind of life for you. Here, when we don't get married, we keep living with our parents.“

He shows me his hands to make a point he is not wearing a ring. I smile and try to go back to eating my rice.

„I never got married, so today, I still live with my mother. Very old. My brother and sister moved away, to Lima. Now I'm alone with my mother, in a very big house.“
„Um... well, I guess it's a different life.“
„Where are you going next in Peru?“
„Tomorrow I'm going to Puno, and then on to Cusco, but I really like Arequipa so I think I will come back here.“
„Oh, on which day? You can come to my house and meet my mother. She smokes a lot, so she will die soon.“
„Oh, I'm sorry.“
„Don't worry, you can get married to me when she dies. Very soon.“

I halfway frown, halfway smile and try to concentrate on my rice again. I am too amused by this suggestion to feel weirded out or offended. A minute of silence passes, he speaks to me again.

„Do you like reading?“
„Yes, why?“ (there was no book anywhere in the Chifa)
„I love reading. Which authors do you like?“

I end up listing a few names, hoping he will not know any of them. Surprisingly, he does, and we end up having a fifteen minute conversation about Murakami. By then, I have long finished my meal and it looks like it's going to rain soon, so I ask for the bill. He starts again.

„You know, Germany is so rich, it truly is the country of poets and philosophers. Kant, Nietzsche, all of them, geniuses. All German. Also, Goethe, you know him, Faust? Wonderful.“
„Well yes, but that was a long time ago. Kids today barely know these people.“

We could go on like this for hours, and already have for almost an hours, but I need to get going and book my room for tomorrow, do some work, get out of the Chifa.

„I'm sorry, I really have to go now. Long day tomorrow.“
„Oh I see. Can you give me your e-mail address?“

I smile and shake my head, no thank you.
„But why not? We can talk about Kant! My mother likes him, too.“
„No, sorry, I can't give my e-mail to everyone I meet.“
„But I just want to talk about Kant, no worries.“

I get up to pay, wishing him “Suerte”, the Peruvian “Insha'Allah“, and leave.

because people are more fun than sand!
I'm sorry for the lack of posts, I'm trying to make my way from Argentina to Peru, via Chile at the moment, and internet - along with access to hot water and ATMs and other basic necessities are patchy in this place that looks more like Cambodia than Chile. San Pedro itself is a horrible tourist trap, with about 300 inhabitants, 500 tourists per day and about 1000 dogs (they also call it San Perro de Atacama). Plus, something about this place has been eating my usual energy and creativity.

There's something I learned over the past weeks, and I'm not ashamed to say it. I grew up in the countryside, but I always was a city girl inside. For the past half year, I tried to push myself and forced myself to get comfortable with a lot of stuff I don't like - hostel dorms, overnight buses, meat, not judging strangers so harshly and being a bit less antisocial. While I couldn't say I'm enjoying any of this, I made it work.

yeah, mountains, rocks, more mountains, sand. seen plenty of it. also, the Andes in the background. seeing them every other day. not too thrilled.
There's one thing I still don't get along with: natural sights. This is a sad one, because I really would like to be able to appreciate the landscapes of Patagonia, or the Iguazu Falls, and whatever else there is. Try as I might, I can't. After five minutes, I get bored, and if I have to spend more than a night in the middle of nowhere, I get suicidal (maybe it's a serious trauma as it reminds me too much of being a teenager being stuck in a place with absolutely nothing to do?).

If it's a small village and it has people, like many of my trips in rural Vietnam, Korea or Japan, I can enjoy it. But vast landscapes inhabitated by no one (or only tourists)? Boring - I mean, what can you see that you can't see on a postcard, anyway?

there. went. smiled. can we go now?
I'm a city girl, a museum girl, an architecture girl, an organic farm girl, sometimes even a eating basic food in a hut  in the middle of the jungle girl, or cruising along the river watching people at the banks going about their daily lives girl. If something's man-made, I can find joy in it, and I can appreciate the nature around it. I don't mind getting dirty, or having cold bucket showers, or not wearing make up - just saying, because it sounds like I'm a sissy. I can rough it and will not complain (well, as long as there is internet).

But staring into the desert/down from a mountain/onto a lake? Not for me, and I'm not wasting any more time and money on trying to convince myself that I might, maybe, like it.

We're standing at a traffic light in Mendoza. Untypically for South America (or let's be honest, anywhere outside German-speaking countries), Argentinians wait for it to turn green before crossing the street. My travel companion says in a light-hearted but contemplative way that only English women can do: "Love, so many guys are checking you out here."

I shake my head in disbelief. Guys don't check me out. Or at least, that's the way I see it. The weeks before, I had been proudly proclaiming that I never get any catcalls when travelling in my own in those supposedly "macho" countries of South America, Southern Europe or North Africa. Going out onto the streets of Valparaiso with two blonde, European ladies opened my eyes to how much of this other women go through.

I try to tell myself I don't get any attention because I'm outside those countries' beauty ideal - too tall, not curvy enough, hair too short and dark. Not exotic enough or too exotic for them to be interesting. And when I'm out on my own, I usually have a look on my face that says "approach me and I'll skin you alive". I'm very happy this way.

But then I thought again, especially considering Unbrave Girl's post about how half the time, she doesn't notice guys flirting with her, or at least tries to tell herself it's not happening to her - and this lady is straight.

Truth be told, I never see men as sexual beings, and never have. The fact that a guy could be attracted to me seems just as absurd to me as that I would be interested in them. 

Little boy in Lisbon, SO checking out the hot statue.
This has brought me into many awkward situation, especially with male friends during my teens and earlier 20s (I didn't think anything of getting changed - including getting undressed - in front of guy friends. Or tell them about my sex life. You know, I'm just another dude, man. Unsurprisingly, a lot of them got this wrong). But men - of course they assume I'm straight. People see what they expect to see, even if you decorate yourself in rainbow patterned stuff like a Christmas tree. I guess it's logically that they do look at me, even if only for the fact that I'm a foreigner, and even though I don't notice it. Still, if they do, I don't realise it. When I subconsciously hear a "Hola mi amor", something in the back of my mind says "Hey, there must be a really hot girl around here he's checking out, where is she?" - and the moment is gone.

I've tried very hard in those last two weeks since Deborah told me in Mendoza to notice this kind of thing when it's happening, and I can't tell, even if I try. Maybe if you're straight, it's an ability you have instead of having a gaydar. I'd rather not lose my gaydar. It's a more essential skill for my daily life.

So when I say you can travel on your own as a women and never attract a guys' attention, you probably shouldn't believe me.

I haven't had the chance to talk about this with other lesbian travellers (we tend to keep a low profile while travelling, for various reasons. And to be honest, if I DO meet a girl and my gaydar sends me signals, I'm too busy checking HER out too ask those kind of questions) - I'd love to hear other girls take on this.

Sukhothai, the Kyoto of Thailand (I'm lacking an Ayutthaya pic) ?
On the road, have you ever found yourself comparing people and places you have seen and been to before?

I guess it's a very natural thing for humans to look for familiar things when in unfamiliar surroundings.

Hoi An, Kyoto of Vietnam?

Buenos Aires, Paris of the South?
Melaka, Venice of the East? (actually, that's pretty close, historically)
Especially when I'm on my own, I keep noticing that this and that person I see on the street looks so much like someone I know - and equally, we all have heard expressions like the "Paris of the South" and "The Venice of the East". I do it all the time, saying that Valparaiso is much like a "mixture of Lisbon and Marseilles", and I definitely feel that Cordoba is the "Duisburg of Argentina". I don't mind making this comparisons, although for professional travel writing, they can get very annoying - just about any Asian city that has a river gets labeled "Venice of the East".  Anything Asian with old buildings can be "The Kyoto of". Any shabby industrial town can be "the Manchester of".
Tainan - Kyoto of Taiwan?

As commentors on the same topic for this article have noted, there is just one place that bears any comparison - I haven't yet found a place that I would call "the London of anywhere" - London is pretty unique.

Although I do think Buenos Aires is a bit like a Latin version of a mixture of Paris and London ;) And undoubtedly, Singapore is like the utopian/dystopian version of London. But just the London of X? Nah.

Busan, eeerm... Manchester of South Korea?

These comparisons are used in writing to give people an idea of the vibe or historical and/or economical role of a place, but shouldn't be taken too seriously. I just randomly selected some pictures to draw comparisons, but could easily do it for a hundred more. The truth is, no two places are the same, but for someone who has never been, such a comparison can be quite helpful.

What are your favourite comparisons, or the silliest you have come across? 
Manila - Bangkok's Evil sister?

ye olde English mansions of Singapore

only Osaka manages to be both the Manchester and Venice of Japan!

I've been feeling blue the last two days. Not in a I-want-to-kill-myself way, but in a "Shit I have 5 weeks to go until I really need to figure out what I'm doing next with my life".

Is it the quarter-life crisis, the fact that I am looking for a new home but not sure if I want to or just the crappy hostels of Argentina? We'll see.

Chinese New Year crowds at Won Tai Sin temple
I had been pondering for a long time where I should spend Chinese New Year - after all, it was to be my last week of my adventures in Asia. In the end, I figured I had already been to Taiwan, China is too big to just visit for a few days (and the visa fee is too hefty), and I couldn't really spend any more time in Singapore. So Hong Kong it was.

I instantly fell in love with the city and would have loved to stay longer and see more. But once I got there, the cold I had been dragging along with me for 3 weeks turned into a really nasty flu and I spent my days mostly in my tiny room, coughing my heart out and drinking weird herbal teas the elderly lady at the hostel kept giving me.

In the four days I spent there, I didn't really have the energy to go out more than 3-4 hours each day, yet I enjoyed it a lot - even though I managed to be late for both the New Year's Parade and the fireworks, so it was too crowded to take any decent pictures of those. I can assure you they were fun ;)

Though it was a short visit (it was so crowded, you couldn't linger), the visit to Wong Tai Sin temple was impressive. Thousands of people went to pray and welcome the New Year. There were announcements that you should only carry a few sticks of incense because of the smoke and fire hazard, but most people carried fat bunches of the stuff, anyway.

Announcements were in English and Cantonese, and they explicitly encouraged "foreign contributions".
I didn't grab any incense, as I've done this thing before and I was already half-choking and gasping for air anyway.

 Most of the shops were closed for the first two days of the New Year, but not the infamous goldfish market - because you never know when you might need a goldfish to welcome the year of the dragon!

Hong Kong is famous for it's many advertising billboards literally everywhere, but postcards capture those much better than my crappy little camera. I was surprised to see this ad on the back of a bus stop - Asia is not really a vegetarian's paradise, though I guess a bit more than all other continents.

it even had a screen that played an animal rights video every now and then
I also had many dumplings, most of which were ordered off menus with hilarious English. Service was so swift I didn't have time to take any pictures of the menus, but look at this juice shop offering delicious "tleasule juice" - fresh off Tleasule Ireland :)

this means 'moustache' in German - the smartest incorporation of the word 'bar' in a bar name ever!
In spite of running a fever and using all the 7/11 tissues I could lay my hands on, it was a special time!

I took a bus from Buenos Aires to Cordoba yesterday, and because the movie that was on was horrible (although in English with Spanish subs for a change), I switched to watching lost in translation on my netbook at some point. I think I've seen half the movie years ago, but didn't really pay attention. It's worth watching and re-watching if you already have, although it's mostly about life in Tokyo (no sorry, Kyoto is not all like in the Kyoto scene in the movie). Which I will pick up in Nr. 10 ;)

But talking about “lost in translation”:

6. The language is not impossible to learn
In fact, Japanese is a much easier language than most European languages. While there are many forms of politeness that take years to master, it's surprisingly easy to get to a point where you can get by and have a simple conversation in Japanese. It uses very few, all simple sounds (which is why it's so hard for Japanese people to pronounce other languages with more sounds) and the grammar is very simple and flexible, too – for example, as long as the verb is at the end, your word order is fine. The two syllable alphabets, hiragana and katakana, can be learnt in a week or two. The hard part are the Chinese characters, the kanji, but this is more a matter of regular study and constant exposure than real difficulty (says the woman who is know to ignore this part of Japanese study – yet I have managed to pick up a few hundred I can read). Learning French, or Italian, or Spanish is much much harder than Japanese.

  1. It's not a sexually liberal country (also, there are no panty vending machines)
    the erotic contemporary Japanese man
    If you DO see a panty vending machine, please send me a picture – a current one. The story behind this is that some sex shop once put one up decades ago, and somehow this made it to the western media. Since then, it's been removed and the machines are a myth. Sure, there are kinky clubs and “special interest” places in Japan, but these also exist in pretty much any other country in the world. This is a country where many 18 year olds do not know how sex works, because there is no practical education and it's no topic in magazines, either. It's a country where even holding hands in public is seen as scandalous by everybody over 25 (and even by younger kids outside the big city), so it's not done. A Japanese version of Sex and the city would be unthinkable - even adult women get excited about tv dramas where the highlight is that the main characters kiss each other on the mouth. After about 290 episodes. Even in porn, the genitalia are pixeled out. It's the developed country where people have the least sex on average. It's a place where the contraceptive pill was only legalised in 1996. Japan is anything BUT a sexually open country. It just knows very well that sex sells - abroad. They've got few other resources, what should they do?
    8. Karaoke is not everybody's top hobby
    As with manga/anime, cosplay and sushi eating – karaoke is something people older than college age barely ever do, and if, it's usually do kill time in between when they have fallen out of a bar and the train only starts running again at 6 am. Not everyone is a crazy J-pop singing fun monster (though I admit, that would be kind of funny!)
    9. Not everybody was involved personally in 11/03
I'm not trying to play down this tragedy, but Japan is a big country and is about 3,000 miles long. Shops were not sold out all over the country, not everybody knows someone who lost their home (or even lives in the area, as it's one of the least densely populated areas of Japan – luckily, I guess, or there would have been many more victims). West Japan runs on a totally different power grid and was not affected by any of the power saving measures taken last year, and was at no point at risk. Not everybody talks about it, all the time, not even a year ago. The Japanese are used to catastrophes, and freaking out at every occasion is not something they are known for – rightfully. Sure, people outside the area felt sad for their country and the victims, but not more than in other countries. There are 120 Million Japanese people and only a fraction of people's lives have changed through this event.
    10. Japan is NOT Tokyo
not Tokyo

This might sum up all of the above. Just as the US in not New York, London is not England and Berlin is not Germany, life in Tokyo is very different from anywhere else. Not everybody leads a crazy hectic lives and gets squeezed into the subway every day. Outside Tokyo, Japanese subways are surprisingly uncrowded and a very pleasant experience (even in Tokyo, I've never seen the famous subway-people-squeezers). 
not Tokyo
Tokyo indeed!
Not everybody lives in a tiny apartment with hilarious rent prices or works 18 hours a day. Not everywhere in Japan is franctic and loud and full of neon lights, there are peaceful areas where all that crazy “modern” Japanese has not really changed anything but improved people's quality of housing, if at all. I went to Tokyo first after I saw many other places in the country – and even to me, it seemed like a very odd place and a world away from the rest of Japan and even other major Asian cities.

So, I think that should cover most prejudices/notions people have. I'm happy to hear any other ideas you have – or might have had – about Japan!

Harajuku - the birthplace of all lies about Japan

The devastating tsunami and earthquake happened exactly a year ago today, so I do expect a lot of Japan-talk everywhere within the next week or so.

When I meet and do the usual traveller talk with younger travellers (read: people under 25), and Japanophiles of any age who have never set foot in the country, the most interesting thing about me seems to be the fact that I've spent time in Japan. The media is doing very well in painting a picture of a fabulous Japan that is full of anime, cosplay, naughty girls and sushi.

While all of this exists in Japan, and while I love the country and its culture, food, language and people dearly, I keep getting tired of telling people the same thing over and over.

Here are the top ten myths – busted. 

1. It's not the paradise of anime/manga  

Sorry to let you down, Mr Anime Otaku. While anime and manga are more visible in Japan on TV and cinemas, in bookshops and at newsagents, the stories you read of how everybody reads manga in the subway on their way to work are lies. In a crowded subway, maybe two people will read one, and chances are, both of them are kids. They are just the cartoons of Japan and have a similar role in society. The fact that manga-characters are often used on signs and such has a whole different, more sociologically complex background. Adults (read: anybody who has finished high school) who are into anime/manga are awkward geeks here, too.
2. It's not a wonderland for unique fashion
  1. big hair, big shoes opposite H&M - the most alternative kids of Osaka
    Au contraire, Ms Gothic Lolita, Japan is the country of peer pressure. On the streets and trains, you will notice most people wearing neutral colours – white, cream colours, grey and black. The first thing I noticed when I fell out of Heathrow into the London tube after my first Japan stint was how colourful the people were dressed. Now, London is particularly colourful, but even my tiny hometown in Germany is more adventurous than people in Japan – and that's the cities. Wear a red jumper in the countryside and people will talk about you for years.

    Visual Kei happened almost 30 years ago, the same applies for most fashion styles that Japanophiles love to copy these days (this post has nice descriptions), and even then, only high school kids hang out like this, in one or two meeting points in Tokyo, on the weekend, and change their clothes in the subway toilet on their way home, because their parents would be terrified. Also: don't show any hint of boob in Japan. Ever.

    3. Not all Japanese food is healthy.
good old Japanese kebab
And it's not all sushi, either. Mr Donut is more popular in Japan than in the US, and most “modern” Japanese food – while Japanese – is either deep fried or full of sodium and/or sugar. There are dozens of fast food chains that are unique to Japan (or Asia, as they've expanded). Traditional Japanese food is very healthy and delicious, but it's the kind of food only grandmothers or over archieving stay-at-home mums cook. Most people eat things like burgers with demi glace sauce, fatty fried noodles, spaghetti aglio olio and deep fried prawns and pork cutlets on a daily base. With an egg on top and nutrition-free white rice. Starbucks and the likes are very popular, too – and with vending machines every 2 metres, even I, a fierce hater of pop, couldn't resist drinking way too many of my calories.
fried tofu, salty broth, luminous drink

4. Japanese people are all kind and friendly.

Well, in general, they are, as most Asians. It's called saving face, and Japanese people will do anything to help you. Or pretend to help you when they don't know how (as in, telling you any directions even though they have no clue where you are going, instead of having to admit they don't know). On top of that, it's a country where empty flattery is considered polite. Don't dream that they really think that you look like a film star, or that your Japanese is great.

Read up a bit on Japan's history of the first half of the twentieth century to find out how Japanese people can be un-nice, or just talk to any Korean.

5. It's not expensive.

Let's finish on a positive note! Well, Japan is the most expensive country in Asia (though China seems to be catching up rapidly), but prices seem to be at about the same level as countries in Eastern Europe – which is lots cheaper than anywhere in Western Europe, the US or Australia. This doesn't apply to Tokyo and Kyoto, which are insanely expensive, and the two places that most tourists limit themselves to – obviously that would give you the impression that it's an expensive country.

To be continued... myths number 6 – 10 are following tomorrow!

Buddha left, forgetting to put his face on!
Hoi An probably is the most touristy place in Vietnam, and in advance, I expected it to be one of those famous "historical" cities where tourism has managed to kill all the charm and character a place once had.

Surprisingly, I loved every minute of every day of my stay in Hoi An, didn't want to leave, and definitely will go back there.

Hoi An has had a lot of Chinese and Japanese influence and the Chinese shop houses that the city centre is full of today are one of the reasons why the city has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's a unique place that combines several east Asian cultures, yet it has this wonderful South-East Asia feel to it (which is different to that of Hanoi, and even Saigon). It's also famous for its silk and tailor made clothes, but what really stood out for me were all the cultural attractions: temples, restored old houses, craft shops as well as theater, art and music performances. After all, while the Vietnamese government is not restricting or banning the country's ancient culture and traditions, it's not exactly a fan of them, especially Buddhism.

Hoi An is a little bit like a Disneyland version of Asia, but it does not drown in tourists and has a relaxed, charming feel to it.

Another pro is that the city is only about 3 miles away from the beach and it's absolutely worth walking or cycling there (you can always take a moto back). Hoi An's beach is where the Essex boy and I welcomed the year 2012 (that's sounds dreadfully romantic...), as nobody in Vietnam really celebrates on 31st December, not even in this touristy place.

baby clams with spices at the market

Talking about cycling, we went on a market tour/bike trip/organic/farm trip/cooking class in the outskirts of Hoi An, which was, in spite of the rain, one of the best things I did in Vietnam - after Hoi An itself. We booked it a day before with The Sinh Tourist for about $18.

We also visited a traditional dance show and while I cannot judge how traditional or "real" it was, the costumes and dance were beautiful and the musicians really stood out.

Another great place is Lifestart Foundation's headquarters, an organisation that trains and provides work for disabled people in the area. We were too late to get a place in their lantern making workshop, but I bought some handmade body care products that Lush would envy. Oh, and there was that spa.. but that is another story.

For the "regular" attractions (temples, old houses, museums) of Hoi An, you can get a ticket to visit 5 of them from the tourist offices, and I was seriously considering to buy another one (there are over 20 sites to visit) - but then, I figured out I will be back to Hoi An and will see those places next time.

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