Kobe will forever be my 2nd favourite city in Japan and one I can imagine living in. With just over a million people, it's got a navigable size, a great expat scene, a vibrant Chinatown, more green most other Japanese cities and a lovely harbourside. To be honest, there not many tourist attractions apart from that (though there are many around the city), but downtown Kobe makes a great day trip from Kyoto or Osaka.

It's even more amazing if you consider that the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, most of the city was completely ruined. Today, you can't see any traces of this disaster, except for the part in the harbour that was left as it was after the Earthquake, as a surreal monument of what happened.

The Chinatown is supposed to be one of Japan's biggest ( I have no idea how that's measured), and whenever I visited, it seemed much more vibrant than that of offer cities - maybe because it's still very compact and the food is amazing and cheap.

Have you been to Kobe?

Today's post is a short one as I'm back to London this week (wishing I could afford a flight to Japan, but Chile and Argentina have eaten my travel budget).

The one place I miss most in all of Japan is this little ramen stand in the middle of Dotombori, Osaka's most famous main drag filled with lights, takoyaki sellers and buildings with literally hundreds of tiny bars inside.

This is no fancy place - it doesn't even have doors, and it sure isn't Japan's finest dining options (even when it comes to ramen).

But 500 yen, about £4, buys you a giant bowl of ramen, as much additional garlic, spring onions and kimchi as you want to pile on, free water and some of the world's best people watching. I would go here whenever I was a little blue, a little drunk (they're open all night... well at least I've never seen the shop closed), a little anything. This picture is kind of funny because I think it's the only time this street was not full of people - it was a very rainy afternoon.

But even then, there are always the hip kids hanging out a minute up the road at Ebisubashi:

What is your favourite people watching spot in this world?

I visited Bangkok last year, while the city was battling horrific flooding - but hang on, only Bangkok? The parts that weren't shown by the western media were:

a) all of nothern and particularly central Thailand were affected much worse than the capital - areas that have worse roads, few brick houses, less of everything, except ancient ruins. Of course, this didn't make the news, only the floodings in Bangkok did, because European and Japanese companies were fearing for their factories with cheap labour in the outskirts of town (what, do you think they were seriously worried about Thai people?).

b) The flooding didn't affect the city centre. While everybody was a little afraid and shops, hotels and restaurants (the fancy ones) had barricaded themselves behind sand bags (very fun - climbing sandbags to get into the 7-11), I didn't see any water where it didn't belong, except when I took the bus route north and we were already about 8 miles from the centre.

But that's not my point (though it had to be said - international news are crap).

Bangkok is a big metropolis, with everything a big metropolis has to offer, and suprisingly, it has much more in common with Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei or Seoul than with Ho Chi Minh City, Manila, Phnom Penh or other South East Asian  capitals. It has a clean and functional subway system, shopping malls and all that - also, traffic congestion, snooty teens, lots of scams and higher prices than elsewhere in the country.

Is that why people don't like it - they fly into BKK on their way to a supposedly backwards country, to paradise islands, and are hit smack bang by a modern city, much more modern than most Western cities?

Or is it the whole ping pong show sex tourism thing? Because to be honest, Patpong and touristy markets are just a teensy corner of this amazing, colourful, vibrant city. Even in the side streets around the central station, life still seems to have stopped circa 1950. There are thousands of markets, of tiny local shops, of neighbourhood commununities. It's not just another Singapore.

From my month spent in Thailand, I spent almost two weeks in Bangkok, and that was a choice - and there's still so much I haven't seen there!

Have you been to Bangkok, and did you love it or hate it?

I landed in Heathrow at 5.30 pm last Friday, the day I've honestly been looking forward to since my first day in South America. I wouldn't say I regretted the trip or that I had only bad times; in fact I met some amazing people and learned a lot - but except Buenos Aires, I did not LOVE any of the places I visited. Everything was just kind of ok and all the time I felt I would have had a much better time had I decided to go to India instead or just back... home.

Which is, broadly speaking, anywhere in Western Europe. I have two basic ideas in mind what to do with my life the next months (no worries, I'm not getting married and moving into a countryside house), and both of them are equally interesting and relatively easy do to. But since I came back, I don't think I'm experiencing a post-travel depression - no reverse culture shock or feeling of being overwhelmed, and I have a job I spend at least 4 hrs a day on. Yet, I've been feeling a bit weird (having a cold doesn't help much) and I've been kind of hiding in my friend's house, postponing life, trying not to make any kind of decision. What I really feel like doing is sitting in a quiet place, working, writing and cooking. I guess I'll postpone even more by flying to Germany next week and spending some weeks catching up with people there and in the Netherlands. There's an invitation to Stockholm, too (it's good to be back in a part of the world that has cheap flights. Sorry, ecological footprint, but I think after spending about 12,000 miles on buses, I deserve this).

Right now, it seems like everything is possible and everything is easy, and that's why I don't really know which to choose. Because the one thing I've never done before is made my life choices easy. Maybe it's time.

Or maybe I'll book that flight to India.

the right kabuki-za
I am a big fan of live entertainment, particularly theatre - any kind of it. Sadly, Japan is both a great and a bad place for fans of performing arts - there are many unique forms of entertainment, and almost all of them are very expensive. Even going to a cheapo local punk band's gig might cost you up to $30 on the door.

I probably wouldn't have gone to see kabuki on my own, but last July it happened that some people on the Couchsurfing Osaka group were planning to go to Osaka's Kabuki house (the kabuki-za) for the performance of some apparently very famous players.
Anyway, on a hot and humid July day, I got all dolled up for the great matinee. Almost, it didn't happen, because I thought I knew where the Kabuki-za was, and which subway stop (which exit even) I had to get off. It just turned out that the massive building I knew as the Osaka Kabuki-za doesn't actually host plays anymore, but a smaller and newer one a block way. Luckily, Osakans are friendly people and I was directed in the right direction once I swallowed my pride and asked why the big old building didn't seem to have an entrance.

three continents at Dotombori :)
Much later than expected, I managed to find my group because the Sachiko had described the dress she was wearing online (damn you, phones who don't work in Japan), I managed to find my group, which consisted of the wonderful, elegant Sachiko, who spoke excellent English and knew how to explain Japanese culture incredibly well, a Swedish japanophile I got on with very well, and a Peruvian who lived in Australia, but was in Osaka for a few days for a conference, and just seemed to have stumbled into this whole thing by accident but enjoyed every minute of this confusing ride.

Sachiko was brilliant in explaining us all about kabuki, which was especially great because the Kabuki-za in Osaka doesn't offer English subtitles (apparently, in Tokyo, you can even get a little headphone with dubs - but to be honest, I think that would have spoiled the experience). We were just given a little leaflet that had short descriptions of the different scenes, but with Sachiko's help, it was all easy enough to follow.

I was very impressed by the fact that kabuki is a family affair - the men of entire clans are kabuki actors for generations and it's almost impossible to get into this if your father didn't play - and at the other hand a big family disappointment if a son doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps. It's also very popular to buy pictures of the actors, as you're not (officially) allowed to take pictures - there's a massive fandom around the actors, almost more than for Japanese pop idols. Not that we could have taken any pictures from our cheap seats - which still cost about $100 each. I told you, it's not a cheap form to spend your evening (or afternoon), and the frustrating thing is that the good seats get booked far in advance and it's quite impossible to get them if you don't have a Japanese bank account.

I usually try to give tips for travel on a budget, but it just doesn't work when it comes to theatre and Japan. So my advice is: if you are into theatre and have some Japanese or interest in a certain art form, go and see the noh, the kabuki, the bunraku. If not, save yourself the money - my opinion, I wouldn't have enjoyed it without background knowledge of Japanese mythology and language skills.

The intermission was very Japanese, too - beers and bento boxes, and of course a lot of kabuki trinkets and gift boxes could be bought.

The play itself was interesting - I know, that sounds lame, but it was much less bizarre than I expected, I managed to understand a good deal of the Japanese spoken, but I wasn't exactly blown away. Kabuki is all about small, artful elements, but there are no deep, life-altering stories or dramas to be shared.

To give you an impression of what we saw - this lion dance thing is the apparently very popular and was the highlight of the performance. We had a version with two lions, but there also is a one lion and a three lion version, but I couldn't find great videos of these - these here have only one lion but one has English descriptions and the other one is an amazing close-up!

Most parts very much quieter, while others almost reminded me of martial art performances.

 Kabuki is an art form that loves little details, beauty and perfection and is steeped with rituals and mythology, while at the same time, stories and everything around seemed a bit... superficial. This sums it up and also seems to describe many other Japanese things.

If I had to describe it in a one word - kabuki just is very, very Japanese.

Have you seen any foreign theatre variations, and how did you like them?

a sign from heaven in lama hell!
While I believe it's perfectly possible to travel and get to know locals without a lot of words, I think speaking - or at least trying to speak a foreign languages is a big plus for any traveller. I don't think you should try to learn every language of every country you visit, but if a place is close to your heart or you have a special interest in a country, you should make an effort to learn the language, at least a little.

Maybe it's because I'm a languistic nerd, but I know most of my awesome travel experiences can be credited to language skills.

Two weeks ago, I found myself in Cusco, centre of the gringo trail, feeling horribly alone (yes, I'm not suggesting long time travel is all rainbows) among all the 19 year old drunk kids who had come here to wear pyjama pants and pay $800 for a trek to Macchu Picchu. Sitting at the Plaza de Armas, pondering my next move and calculating how many days I'd have left in South America, I overheard two Japanese girls talking about "the amazing restaurant", "real Japanese food" on "Plateros street". I was polite enough not to interrupt their conversation, but later that day I started looking for the place.

I know, when you are somewhere you should try the local food, but the Peruvian food in Cusco is bad and overpriced and I was missing Japanese food (my comfort food), so I started looking around Plateros, a street with many restaurants just off the main Plaza.

In a small alley full of stands with all the usual lama hats and alpaca jumpers, I noticed the sign in hiragana "きんたろう - Japanese Vegetarian Food" - in that moment, it could have had a big halo around it, having found a place that promised more than mediocre sushi after months. I made my way up the stairs and was immediately transported - to Japan. The owners obviously had done everything possible to make this old wooden building feel like you were in Kyoto instead of in the middle of the Andes.

With prompt Japanese service, the waitress came up (well, I was the only guest...) and handed me the menu. 15 soles for the lunch deal - that's $5 for a salad or miso soup, side dish, main and tea. She speaks to me in Spanish, although the menu is in English, and I ask her if I can also get a pineapple juice (not very Japanese, but I love pinapple juice).

She blushes and says "今日は、任意のジュースを持っていません" - "Sorry, we're out of juice today..." - then blushes again, realising she said this to me in Japanese. I make a waving gesture and tell her "いいですよ" - "That's ok..."

A moment of silence passes where we both realise what just happened.

We both burst out in laughter.

She switches back to Spanish, asks me why I speak Japanese. I start explaining and we switch to a mixture of English and Japanese, talk about where we came from, why I am traveling, about Tokyo and how Osaka is more fun, how we both couldn't go back to the safe boredom that both our home countries offer.

Sometimes, I lack words, sometimes she does, but we get the message across. We're alike, very much.

Lunch is delicious, and instead of my juice, she comes out and gives me a beautiful pair of chopsticks which I instinctively refuse with lots of bows and embarrassed laughter (great, I'm that well adapted to Japanese culture), then accept with even more laughter and bowing. I leave, confused if I should leave a tip (custom in Peru, but no-go in Japan), and I do leave one, although I would have liked to leave something else.
wakame udon, homemade udon - good look buying them in Peru! sorry about the half-eaten spinach ;)
In that moment, I made a connection I never had with any of the hundreds of backpackers I met in hostels, and there's no need to "digitalify" this connection on Facebook or anything else, because it was so much more than a "Like" button or even email exchange ever can or will be.

Portugal is one of those neglected European countries when it comes to travel. It doesn't have the food of Italy, or the beaches of Spain (except for resorts on the Algarve) or the ruins and islands of Greece. Yet, it's my favourite Mediterranean country, maybe BECAUSE it is lacking any cheesy, fake touristyness (and if it wanted - it couldn't afford it). People and places are down to earth, it's incredibly cheap and good food and beaches can be found, too - you just need to look a little bit harder.

I always think of my visits to Portugal as "so-so", until I look at the pictures weeks or months later and just keep thinking WOW. My particular favourite was the Pena Palace in Sintra, not far from Lisbon. Growing up in Germany and spending much time in France and the UK, I've seen plenty of castles in my life. Visiting Morocco, I saw lots of Moorish architecture. But no place combined the two, in such a stunning setting. I felt like in Disneyland - a rough, real, "what ever happened AFTER the happily ever after" version of it. Which kind of applies to all of Portugal, when you think of it - from world power of incredible wealth to... well, you're probably following the news more closely than I do. 

P.S.: When looking at pictures online, I found a lot of people had tagged Pena Palace as the "Moorish castle", which is not really right. The Moorish castle of Sintra is not far away, just a bit further down the mountain, and looks like this:

And the view from Pena Palace down to the castle and over the surrounding area looks like this:

I realised it's been a while since I wrote about Japan - and Google Statistics tells me people love it when I write about Japan. I didn't do it because I was pretty home-sick for crazy island nation #2, but I've decided to dedicate each Sunday post to Japan from now on. Let's start with the end!

Well, with my last real day spent travelling in Japan (not eating and drinking and shopping in Osaka) was spent in Kyushuu, where I took a little day trip from Fukuoka to Yoshinogari Historical Park in Saga prefecture.

Now, Japan is a country that likes to hide it's past, especially if it's about people who didn't live in proper houses and had no cell phones, and didn't even have swords or nice kimonos. Not even kanji (oh, I would LOVE a kanji-free Japan).

you're not in Osaka anymore, Dorothy!
Yoshinogari, which is located in the middle of nowhere of rural Saga (which is worth a trip for it's stunning landscape and being so far away from what most people consider Japan to be like), was home to a large settlement of the Yayoi, one of Japan's two main ancestral groups. The park is barely visited by foreigners, but I was surprised that their website, their map and leaflets as well as the signage throughout and to the park (you get off the train in the middle of rice paddies, about a kilometer from the park entrance) were in perfect English - much better than anything I've seen in museums in Tokyo or Osaka, or Kyoto's tourist sites.

The ladies there spoke no English whatsoever, but they still  welcomed this foreign girl in friendly Japanese manner and insisted I wear a silly straw hat (it was early September, the end of summer in Southern Japan).
too much sun or just my "oh no I have to leave tomorrow" face?!
Yayoi people relaxing - not sure who's the man and who's the woman...

Yayoi houses - doors were only 1,30m high. Ouch.
The site is very impressive - they re-built the entire village and you do indeed learn a lot about the Yayoi and their culture, and also about the origins of Shinto. They also have daily courses where they teach you how to make Yayoi-style jewellery, dress like a Yayoi and so on - these seemed to be geared more towards kids, so I just walked around for a while. Even if you have zero interest in culture or history, it's a big, beautiful park to spend the day in!

And if you have an interest in Japanese culture and history, but you think there is no way you'll be in Kyushuu anytime soon, check out their website which has lots of great information about the Yayoi - I suggest you start with the trivia section.

my favourite religious painting ever!
The sequel!

6. Cusqueña/religious art is weird – in an amazing way!

I'm not usually someone who is into religious art, or would visit churches (even less, pay for them). But the way Inka and Andean culture has mixed with Spanish catholicism fascinates me to no end.
Not really all the overly dark pictures of the horribly mutilated Jesus, but the little details. Suns and cats everywhere, and funny details in paintings, as Zapata's famous Last Supper where a guinea pig is eaten and Judas' face is that of the much hated colonialist Francisco Pizarro, or the creation of the earth where god created Llamas and unicorns – these people had a sense humor!

7. Peru has it's own terrorism
That's not a great of funny one, but from the 70s to 90s, many Peruvians died during attacks of Sendero Luminoso (“The shining Path”) and other extremist groups. It left many kids orphaned, especially in already very poor parts of the country. But as Peru doesn't have oil or any of these fancy things all the big rich people want, this never made the news. I felt very ignorant for not knowing about this. Things are better nowadays, but the presence of these groups (and many signs on buildings) can still be felt and seen in lots of places.

8. Peruvian Spanish is super easy

on the 5th day, he created unicorns
Definitely a pro! People here speak clearly, slowly and with barely any slang. I guess Peruvian Spanish, among with Colombian and Bolivian Spanish, is one of the easiest in the world and if I ever decided to deeply study the language (on an advanced level – eek!), I'd do it in Peru, where $100 buys you a 20 hour week of lessons. If I had landed in Buenos Aires or Santiago de Chule instead of Lima, I would have been so confused with my purely theoretical Spanish. Highly recommended!

9. Lima could be in Spain, if Spain had nice cities

Which it hasn't. I had big expectations for Lima (thank you, Rough Guide to Peru), but now I'm trying to minimise my time spent in the city, only getting back there a day before my flight. Sure, it has colonial architecture. So have hundreds of cities around the world. Lima is sterile, expensive and boring – in a Spanish way. The beaches are the most interesting thing about it (and I'm not a beach person at all).

10. The world needs more Peruvians!

meeting the devil in Arequipa
Peruvians are probably the most friendly, open-minded and helpful people in the world. I made friends with people I only talked to for maybe 3 minutes while queuing to buy a bus ticket, and they kissed me goodbye like we've been friends for years, inviting me to their homes. Whenever I walked into a not so nice area of town, people would come to me, warning me that it's probably not a part of town I should wander around. People are funny and direct, but never harsh or arrogant (hi, Chileans...). I had people share their food on buses with me and ask many smart, never annoying questions about my life and home country/ies. Where some hospitality is too much for me or I can't really understand it, Peruvian are never pushy, just genuinely nice. Even if they don't want to sell anything to you.

(The exception: Cusco. Whether people want to sell something to you or not, people there are jaded by tourism and nothing like Peruvians I have met anywhere else. All Peruvians I've told this agreed.) 
why have a complete house when you can have little planes?
I've got five more days in Peru and already, I know I'm going to miss it – and I'll be back, because I've only seen a tiny part of this beautiful, varied, friendly country.

Peru is the South American country I didn't really intend to visit – I just came here because the flight to Lima was the cheapest, and it didn't seem like a bad place. Only when I came here I remembered the two connections I had made with Peru over the years:
  • In high school, I led a 1-week project about the consequences of colonialism in Peru (yeah, I know, history nerd), writing and researching a lot about the Inka social system and the current social classes in Cusco
  • As part of my OU Religion course, I wrote a paper on the enculturalisation of Christianity in Cusqueña art (history geek, 8 years later, and proud of it!)
mysterious Inka... watering thingy.
That sounds like I should know Peru pretty well, but really, this was all I knew. Now it's my 4th week in this country (and last on the continent) and I have found out many other wondrous, amazing, surprising and sad things about Peru, and I'm loving the country more and more each day.

1. In Peru, Indians are not a minority

Landing in Lima, most people look fairly... Spanish. But as soon as you go to smaller towns and especially in the Andes, there's no denying: 50% of Peruvians today are still of pure Indian blood. I love the characteristic faces and the fact that against popular belief, not all people of indigenous blood throughout are either extinct or alcoholics on the verge of society. Some are just... people (although there is racism in Peru and you can also buy the ever-popular “whitening” cosmetics).

2. Peruvian food is amazing

my new favourite dish!

I was prepared to eat boring food and lots of meat during my 10 weeks in South America. I didn't know about Peruvian food, an amazing mixture of fresh local veggies, herbs and lots of lime juice that sometimes seems downright Thai! On top of that, the native vegetables here are more delicious than anywhere else in the world. I'll never look at tomatoes, potatoes, avocados and peppers the same way. Peru is probably also the only country in the world where a builder will have a hearty quinoa soup for lunch – awesome! Oh, and guinea pig is kind of delicious, too (I know you're all waiting for that post... I'm still waiting for the pictures).

3. Peru has a knack for China and Japan

The country has had a president of Japanese ancestry (erm, not that sucessful), and Japan is a major investor in the country. Some parts of Arequipa have been built with the help of Japanese investors and remind me a lot of certain suburbs of Osaka. Then, there are Chifas, Chinese-Peruvian restaurants of different levels of authenticity, everywhere – they're the most affordable and popular ethnic food in the country, even though sometimes, you'll get potatoes instead of tofu. Still, I like to have some familiar Asian stuff here.

4. Many people really still dress like 400 years ago!

I thought it was a tourist thing, but it's not. Not in the big cities, but in the smaller towns and especially in the Andes, mostly women still wear woven cloths, dresses and hairstyles that date back centuries. They use scarves to carry around their babies on their backs, as ponchos, as everything. I greatly approve of the multi-purpose and highly fashionable use of colourful scarves.

5. The Inkas were weird as fuck

I'm not sure if I should like the Inkas or not. I think their success wasn't that unique – it was a little like the Ottoman empire, but involved eating children. I didn't go to Macchu Picchu but visited other Inka sites, and to be honest, they were kind of boring. Sure, it's sturdy architecture, but also very plain. Like a good middle-class German corporation of the early 20th century, but with crazy stories of power lines. And they were quite late building these massive things, too – other cultures did things on a similar scale thousands of years before them, or in more adverse climate conditions (in the jungle or desert, not just in lush meadows in the mountains where you already have all that rock at your hands).

The Inkas were obsessed with the sun (people had that cult more than 4,000 years before the Inkas, in Egypt), with cats (again, Egypt) and making children super drunk, then buried them alive. I can understand liking the sun and wanting to kill children – but cats? And why not drink the alcohol yourself? As I said, not sure about these folks...
like the French - drugged wine makes posh ladies sleep well!

Tomorrow... 5 more things I never knew about Peru...!

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