We split our time in West Belfast in two, spending two afternoons walking along one of each main areas, which are actually very very close together, separated by 'peace walls' of which there are dozens in Belfast, and many of them still get closed down at night to prevent any further trouble between the communities.

Guidebooks told me that I should be surprised by the bad state of things, boarded up houses etc in the catholic area of the Falls, but it was actually much neater than expected. Things changed dramatically as soon as we crossed the peace wall - the only shops open in Shankill are pubs, a few covenience stores and the occasional fish & chip shop. The atmosphere was destinctly different and unlike in the Falls, where nobody really took notice of us, we had people staring at us here, especially at Celine (while I can pass for Irish with dark hair and green eyes, my friend Celine, who is from Hong Kong, cannot ;) ). We definitely did not feel welcome there, and the whole experience made me feel pretty sick.
I was very surprised to see this Martin Luther mural, as the reform of the church in the UK has nothing to do with him, but the crazyness of Henry VIII.

the lion-dog and deer-unicorn of Ulster (they take on different appearances in different images)

I'm sure that's not what Bryan Adams was singing about.

creepyness is a long established tradition in Ulster

Downing Street, a sinking ship?

just your average neighbourhood pub. Yes, it's always decorated like this.
See, I grew up in a protestant family, in an area of Germany that is 90% catholic. I was almost kicked out of primary school because I refused to make the sign of the cross (it was a public, but catholic church with prayers every morning). When I came out as a teenager and my catholic classmates' parents found out, I was no longer welcome in their houses ('It was bad enough that your family is working class, protestant and socialist, but gay?' - is what one mother told me).

In general, I think the UK is pretty rad, otherwise I wouldn't still pay tax there. So I should be able to empathise with the Unionists at least a little, but the extreme display of Union Jacks, the constant marching through the city and all that... fierce British nationalism... sickens me (particularly as a German!) and is one of the top reasons why I'll leave Northern Ireland pretty soon.

We also ended up on Crumlin Road, which is home to a giant old linen mill building, the Crumlin Road Prison, which is still in use, and the burnt-out remains of the Court House. Seeing this building, which must have been one of the most beautiful in Europe at some point in this state really broke my heart. Seriously, the city has the money to build a ten million pound 'Titanic Experience', a gorgeous new art centre and fancy shopping centres, but not to restore this masterpiece of architecture?

breaking the architecture-loving heart
Belfast, you make my very very sad. If you've been, how did Belfast make you feel?

I was born 5 miles away from the Dutch border, and grew up about 10 miles from it. I was severely shocked when I moved to London and started exploring the outsides of the city that there were... mountains... ok, actually, they are tiny hills, but I hadn't lived anywhere that wasn't totally flat before.
So Japan seems to be made of about 80% mountains, real ones, and surprisingly, I enjoy them... passing them on the train, haha! I love walking and in theory would make a great hiker, but anything with more than a 5% elevation freaks me out. So I was delighted to find a trail in Nara prefecture calles Yamanobe no Michi that follows the foot of a mountain, but only really has 2 hills - the rest is countryside: orchards, rice paddies, sweet little Japanese villages and old temples and shrines.Apparently this is one of the oldest roads in Japan. I was a little disappointed by the temples and shrines: they were touted as well-preserved and beautiful, but especially the shrines were in a sad state, which somehow is often the case in Nara Prefecture, maybe because it was supposed to be Buddhist capital?
[Steffi's short history of the Nara period: Japanese emperor discovers this great new thing called Buddhism someone brought over from Korea via China (yeah... and India, I know). Emperor thinks 'Heheee, I shall build my capital as a kind of Buddhism Theme Park and all should admire me. I also fancy the Chinese capital, so I can copy that as well.' He (and his hot empress daughters) went and built lots of temples so convert the local peasants from their folk religion. When the boys took over and moved the capital eventually to Kyoto, Nara was forgotten.

Fast forward 1200 years: Nara prefecture's government thinks 'Damn, no one is visiting our boring little city and we have all these old temples standing around, but everybody is visiting those in Kyoto or eating their body weight in takoyaki in Osaka, only a couple of miles away. I know what! Let's make a Buddhist theme park out of those temples and put lots of crazy deer in there so kids, religious people and American tourists who will eat the deer crackers will visit us!' So in the end, the emperors of the Nara period got their Buddhist Wonderland!]

I went there during O-bon, which can be likened to the Japanese Christmas: it's when everybody goes home to visit their family as the ancestors' spirits are said to return home during those days. It sure made for an eerily quiet Osaka, and also made me one of maybe a handful people who decided to walk the trail that day. There was nothing going on at all - luckily, the signage was quite good (if you read a little Japanese, the English signs can be misleading!), otherwise there might not have been anyone to ask for the way. The few hikers I met were very friendly and I actually ended speaking a lot of Japanese that day ("Where are you from, what are you doing in Japan, why are you standing in the middle of a plum orchard?").
The funniest thing that happened was when at about halfway on the trail, a car pulled over and a middle-aged couple asked me where the baseball stadium was. We were surrounded by rice paddies in a radius of a mile! It sure meant they couldn't find anybody else to ask, as most Japanese are really hesitant speaking to a foreigner. They must have gotten really lost, because I still haven't found a baseball stadium anywhere near there (baseball is really popular in Japan).

I can recommend this path to anyone, even if you are not a walking/hiking person. It's about 1 hr on the train from downtown Osaka to Tenri, from where you can start walking south to Sakurai station. No part of the trail is further than 2 miles from a train station, so even if you don't feel like going the whole 8 miles, it's still worth visiting. It gets my mountain hater stamp of approval!

Village house - yes, there were people living in there. Gives you an idea of what Japan was like before it was rich.

After six weeks in Belfast, my friend Celine, who visited from London, and I finally made to West Belfast to see the murals. Actually, I did see a bunch of murals before, as there some in almost every part of the city - even in the southern part where I live, although it's always be the safest and politically most stable part of town.

So we set out for a walk around Shankill and the Falls - if you visit, don't bother with the Black Cab tours that cost about $50 for maybe an hour or two of falling out of the taxi to take pictures of a few murals. West Belfast might not be the Champs-Elysees, but it's perfectly walkable and safe during the day. Just make sure not to wear your Union Jack t-shirt in the Falls ;)

Just a 15 minute walk from the city centre, at the foot of the Falls Road, I could feel the atmosphere changing. To be honest, until then, I thought there was no Irish at all in Belfast (unlike the Republic of Ireland, where all signs are bilingual) - but then it hit me: suddenly, street names had Irish names. Houses had Irish names. Shops had Irish names. Even conveniences stores, hairdresses and coffee shops had Irish names, and the Irish flag was everywhere. Every second window was decorated with crosses and other cathlic paraphernalia and there were lots of small signs that still said things along the lines of "Out with the British". Just an example of how easily we come to live in a bubble (in my case, the neutral university quarter)!

Now might be the time to come and see the murals - Belfast City is planning to get rid of many of the murals because it thinks they just keep the tensions between the two different groups alive. I don't think that removing the murals will help much with that (not as long as there are still over 50 'peace walls' throughout the city that separate neighbourhoods). Yet, although I was a little sceptical at first, some of the new murals are actually pretty interesting and convey mostly leftist, environmentalist, and anti-capitalist messages.

Have you been to West Belfast?

 To be honest, I'm more of a dog than a cat person. Not because I dislike cats as animals per se, but I think they aren't meant to be pets. Making friends with stray cats, on the other hand, can carry as risk of infection... though when in Japan, probably not. You can see a lot of stray cats all over Japan, even in the cities, that aren't really all that wild - often, the local shrine or temple fees them, gets them neutered and takes care of them in general, but they are free to roam around as they please.

These are some of the cats I we met during our stroll along the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto. They were very friendly, dozing in the shade during a hot and humid Kansai summer day. After seeing so many skinny, injured and mostly tail-less stray cats in South East Asia, these pics give me warm fuzzy feelings!

market in Busan, South Korea... probably the least vegan-friendly country in the world... but if you have access to a kitchen...
Once upon a time, for over 5 years actually, I was a vegan. No, this will not be the petty 'and it was so damn hard so I quit' story. I used to go to animal rights demos and events, I didn't wear leather or any other animal stuff, freaked out when people mentioned zoos and I analysed every food label.

Yet, it was fun and not difficult at all. Not eating animal foods quickly becomes a habit you don't have to think about.

spices in Cusco, Peru... who needs Macchu Picchu?
And this is the problem: when you travel outside your comfort zone, there are no habits to rely on and finding food can be a major challenge.

When I started travelling outside rich, western countries, I quickly realised that I would have very limited food choices. The trouble is, I love trying new food. For me, it's one of the most enjoyable things about travel. So I decided to go back to being an omnivore (I hate when people say they are vegetarian and follow up with 'I only eat meat/fish once a week'). I wrote a long post about it back then.
I still think veganism is awesome and eat purely vegan food 5 days out of seven, and don't eat meat more than maybe once a month now that I'm back to Europe.

I don't want to morally wiggle my way out of this. Eating animals and animal product harms everyone and everything and choosing to eat them is an egoistic decision purely based on pleasure. The pleasure part for me is not to eat a corpse, but to participate and socialise in the culture I'm in. I personally chose that this is more important to me than the life of an animal (and I don't eat enough animal products for it to make an impact to my health or the environment).

I started talking about international travel with Amanda of Hungry Vegan Traveler about this, and this is what I think there are three different varieties of travel when it comes to vegetarian/vegan food:

1) In rich, western countries, it's no problem at all.

People have written books about how easy vegan travel is, but the thing that angers me about it is that they only really see North America, Europe and Australia as places to travel. In the richer countries of western Europe, it's no problem getting a vegan meal. A big part of this is that most people speak decent English and you can make yourself understood in restaurants.

But people tend to exaggerate how easy it is. To be very honest, where I'm from in rural Western Germany, this is a struggle, too, as it is in France, Austria and Switzerland, and I speak fluent German, English and decent French.

But if you go to rural Portugal, Eastern Europe or even rural parts of Ireland, you'll be lucky to find anything that's even vegetarian. Belfast is the second biggest city of Ireland, and there's not even a vegetarian restaurant here. There are vegetarian option in any place, but I've never seen the term 'vegan' - and I've done a lot of dining in Belfast.
Hoi An, Vietnam, in the rain
2) Some countries that are neither rich nor western naturally have a vegan-friendly diet (for the poor, not the tourists)

India is the prime example, but traditional Mexican and a lot of Central American food is high in veg and beans too, which means you can enjoy a balanced, vegan or vegetarian diet for little money (I don't see eggs and cheese as part of 'healthy', anyway). In many poor countries in Africa and Asia especially, animal products are a luxury, and dairy in particular is not traditionally consumed.

However, it's a pretty unlikely that you will eat like a poor inhabitant of that country during your trip - for example, very little animal products are eaten by the population of Morocco, but all the restaurants and market places are for the rich who can afford them and thus serve mostly non-vegetarian food. Also, if you travel in a country that does not have a great infrastructure, you have to count on not everything always being available. This happened to me A LOT in places with a big market culture, like Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Morrocco and Turkey, but even in Argentina and Chile - you order the vegetarian/vegan option and will be informed that it's not available, would you like some chicken instead? How many days can you live off plain rice and fruit?

3) In some countries, turning a blind eye helps...

I know... there was a time when I wanted to kill people who suggested I pick the meat out of a soup, too. Thailand, Vietnam and Japan are my personal prime examples for this one (and there's no way you could see Japan as 'undeveloped'). In many cultures, the traditional flavouring is be meat/fish based. In Japan, very little meat is eaten and vegetable dishes are plentyful and amazing. Yet, almost everything is flavoured with dashi... fish stock. Asking people to cook without it is like asking them not to use any oil/water in the cooking process. Even if there is no language barrier, this is a massive problem akin to asking for gluten-free food in a traditional bakery (hey, I come from a place with a bakery culture). The same goes for fish sauce in much of South East Asia. Turkey has plenty of spectacular vegetarian food, but next to no vegan dishes. If you can live with fish stock/sauce or butter/yoghurt/cheese, it's much easier. The same goes for bread: in East Asia and Latin America, most breads will include either milk or dairy, so really your only 'on the go' option is fruit.

village veg stall in rural Japan - just take what you want and leave the money in the box!
THE JOKER: Of course, if you have access to a kitchen all the time and want to spend some time every day on preparing food for snacks on the go, you can eat vegan anywhere in the world. Sadly, this rules out much spontaneity and makes long-term travel very difficult.

THE FUCK UP: South America. Traditional Andean food is amazing and if you are ok with eating some cheese, there are many vegetarian options that are out of this world (because of the local produce - tomatoes, peppers, avocados and potatoes taste like completely different vegetables there!). But mostly South America can be divided into three parts: the really poor parts where you will get lots of crap meat with everything, Brazil with awesome sea food and BBQ (very little dairy and eggs), and wine & steak land (Chile, Uruguay and Argentina).

My point is not that you CAN'T NOT find SOMETHING that's vegan. That can be ok if you travel 2-3 weeks and are not much into food, but after that, it gets both boring and unhealthy.

Would you be interested in posts of experiences regarding finding vegan food in South America, North Africa and Asia?

@Namba Parks, Osaka where else can you get sexy horsemen in the sale?

The travel misconception that bugs me the most is the fact that people, notably backpackers who focus on the very very cheap countries, think that Japan as a travel destination is absolutely unattainable because it's so crazy expensive.

This is based on three basic misconceptions:
1) Japan's bubble economy

There was a time when Japan was insanely expensive. That was from the early 80s to the early 90s, ergo more than 20 years ago, when the economy there boomed. Since the recession in 1992/93, it hasn't really recovered, which means there has barely been any price inflation since then. Surely, as Asia's most developed country, Japan is more expensive than other places in Asia (except for Singapore and Hong Kong, which are equally developed). It doesn't have Thailand prices, but that's also because there are no beach huts or toilets from 1930 or thousands of street food carts. Even the cheapest of the cheap in Japan will be above the standard you are used to if you're coming from a rich western country.

2) Japan isn't just Tokyo and Kyoto

Tokyo is the capital, and IS crazy expensive. A day ticket for the subway costs $30, and you can't even ride all lines with that! Insane. Kyoto looks cheaper at the first sight, but eating out doesn't come cheap here, and all the 'important' temples charge entry fees of around $15-20 - although there are more than 1,000 temples and shrines in and around Kyoto and a millions all over Japan, and 98% of them are free. Now, most people who go on a trip to Japan fly into Tokyo and take the bullet train to Kyoto and back. Then, they come back and complain how crazy expensive everything is. Price-wise, this is like going on a backpacking trip to Europe and only visiting London and Stockholm, and flying British Airways inbetween the both.

3) Japan Rail Pass & The Shinkansen Bullet Train 

The stupid Shinkansen. Yes, all the travel agencies and everybody and their mum online will tell you that Japan Rail Pass is the way to go. Japan Rail Pass only pays off if you want to see the entire length of Japan in less than 2 weeks, otherwise it's a massive ripoff. Sure, riding the Shinkansen Bullet Train is amazing experience and very fast, but Japan isn't all that big (it's got about the same land mass as Germany) and local trains and other modes of transport will get you anywhere in double the time but for half or even a third of the price. In fact, there are many worthwile places that the Shinkansen doesn't go to yet.

Sure, it always depends what you are into, but as as a solo traveller who loves culture and food above all, Japan has proven to be one of the cheapest destinations anywhere outside Asia. A daily budget of around $40 is perfectly fine, and it's possible do travel much cheaper. Unless elsewhere in Asia, foreigners pay exactly the same prices Japanese people do, and many of the great things - parks, hiking trails, museums, festivals - are free! There's nothing you need to sacrifice for travelling cheaply in Japan.

Overall, travel in Japan can easily be around the same price range as South America or the cheaper countries of Europe - Portugal, Poland, Hungary etc. are about as 'expensive' as Japan. I've found Chile, Argentina, Vietnam, Morocco and many other destinations that might seem 'cheap' to be more expensive than Japan.

Have you been to Japan? Did it eat up your travel budget or did you find ways to make it an affordable trip?

dinner in towntown Tokyo - 'one person' serving that filled up two starving travelers for $8, including free drinks and j-pop!

Probably every gay/bi/queer person who grew up in a small, conservative town knows the feeling of being the odd one out, not being able to trust people and talk about what you really think, feel and what matters to you. You don't have to be sexually different to feel like this, different in any way will do, and it doesn't have to come with the cliché tags of geek, nerd or whatever. Just slightly different is enough, even if it's just in your mind.

When I was 16, a friend of my mother's told me; “Don't worry. The older you get, the more freedom you will have in your life. You decide what you do, where you go, how long you stay and who you let into your life. It gets better.”

That was my personal It gets Better Project in 2003 – back then, I didn't believe her, but of course, she was right. Yet, sometimes the journey of your life brings you back to places like that, although you think you have moved away and beyond that icky feeling that you just don't fit it.

I chose to come to Belfast, knowing it would be the smallest city I've lived in since I left my home town. That people here can be a bit cold and don't open up to outsiders, quite understandably so if you look at the city's history. Little did I know that this is also true for people in my age group, and even less did I know about how narrow-minded the whole place feels. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful city, and I know exactly why I'm here, and why I'll be here for a bit longer. And I don't want to say that 'people' here are doing things wrong – but it's a way of doing things that suffocates everything that I am. And that feeling is more than nasty.

These are my strategies for making things suck a little less when you are somewhere where you just don't belong:

Do what makes your heart sing.

Even if you are going to suck it up, become very quiet and pretend to fit in or not, you still won't fit in, and chances are you will make yourself feel even more miserable. So, whatever it is, embrace your uniqueness and fly your freak flag high. Freak flag has a bit of negative connotation, so maybe this is better: do what you love and be who you are, regardless of what's around you. Be bold. Be ambitious, and be different.

There are situations where this might not seem possible – but really, 'possible' is anything that you dare. Either try to avoid them or hang your head up high and show them made you're made of (I was once invited to a conservative, catholic youth party in a barn… while my obviously not white girlfriend who lived 500 miles away was visiting. Joy). To be honest, doing this is the hardest thing for me right now, because it makes me seem like a hyper-arrogant bitch who has done everything and been everywhere although in 90% of all places, it means I will meet like-minded people and have amazing conversations. Not here... but if I shut up, who's going to benefit from that?


Even the worst situation in life still is an opportunity to learn something new.
If you're stuck somewhere with nothing worthwhile to do, read lots of books, learn a new language, learn to cook awesome Indian food or play an instrument. Teach yourself some programming or other useful skills, or just write, paint and create your heart out. This way, time will go by faste, you won't feel like you've wasted any time and you can grow as a person.

Make great plans.

Bad situations are better if you know they will eventually end. Remember yourself why you are where you are – maybe because there's something to learn or achieve there? If you can't think of a reason why you are there, the answer is simple: make an escape plan. Apply for new jobs, work towards self-employment, plan a trip or just figure out what you're going to do once you have graduaded/learnt to x or saved y amount of money.

Get out.

This has two interpretations: first of all, if your immediate environment is less than thrilling, try to meet new people in the area – you can always find someone who you share some kind of interest with. Or just explore the places around you – countryside, neighbourhoods, towns and villages alike and treat the whole thing as a challenging but exciting experience that you can grow from.

Secondly and again, if you still can't fit in: Get out!

Sometimes, if you try hard enough, you might be able to create a little bubble for yourself, even in a place that doesn't do anything for you.

But if you try hard and you still feel like you don't fit in and never will: Get out, but don't panic. Find some kind of plan first. Don't worry too much about the details; they will fill themselves in once you've decided that you want to go to South Africa or work as a burlesque dancer or be a dentist, or whatever it is that you want to do. Just take that first step that will get you out eventually.

Just a quick note: the giveaway finishes soon, so if you'd like to win a copy of the amazing solo women travel book Wanderlust & Lipstick or some hand-selected Ireland goodies, pop here or subscribe to the newsletter on the right.

It's officially July - the beginning of festival (matsuri) season in Japan. I won't be there this year, but the pictures of last year's Tenjin Matsuri in Osaka make my heart ache.

Tenjin Matsuri is Osaka's biggest festival, and that means something - the biggest event in Japan's biggest party city!

The weekend of the festival (usually the last weekend of July), there are literally hundreds of food stalls in the Tenjin area near the Tenjin Shrine that initiates the festival that is a mixture of foodie and drinks goodness, perfomances at many temples/shrines in the area, a massive firework and festival barges on the river.

Osaka is a harbour city and has always had an intricate canal system (Venice of the east, bla bla...), so the main attraction - apart from shiny fireworks - are the festival floats that float down the river. The difference between these traditional Japanese boats and Osaka's hyper modern cityscape is breathtaking, and pretty hard to capture in pictures.
children fishing for... jelly? and foreigners in yukata ;)
fancy a live eel on the go?

boats full of shouting, drunk Osakans

old barges, modern Japan

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