As happy as I am to return to my two favourite cities in the world this year, going back to both London and Osaka has confronted me with a completely new experience. I was only gone from both for about a year and a half, and yet, in that time, both of these cities have changed so much.

In Osaka, where there was once a large restaurant complex with many tiny old-fashioned bars and stand up noodle stalls, there's no a giant branch of Forever 21. There's now homeless people sleeping in the streets downtown at night. The business hotel I used to stay at, where nobody used to speak English, is now a backpacker haven, complete with outdoor smoker lounge. Speaking of smoking, some places in Japan now actually have a smoking ban!

London? I keep getting lost just a stone's throw from Picadilly Circus as they finally finished that road building project that went on for what felt like a decade. Old friends are gone, and one of the cities' oldest GLBT cafes has closed down. Oh yeah, and here, too, the economic downturn has finally arrived: homeless people almost lining the shop fronts of central London at night. Walking down my local high street, I don't hear a mix of soft Arabic and not so soft Irish accents any more, but Portuguese and Spanish instead.

Is this bad? I am told that it's perfectly normal that places change, people go away, new people arrive... but this is still an unusual concept to me. The place that I grew up in has barely changed since the day I was born, except the old duck pond has been replaced by a new, more futuristic looking “natural design feature” that makes the old pond extend into the nearby river. The local bakery still has the same head baker as when I was 2 years old. I still see the same people I went to school – same fashion as in 2001, hanging out with the same people from school, just three stone heavier (what the hell is going on there?).

I left there when I was 18, and since then, never stayed long enough in one place to actively witness a place changing. Usually, when I change, I move and don't come back. But now I've decided to come back and stay in London. For now, I'm not very happy with the changes I've been seeing, but I hope to see some more positive changes when I manage to settle properly  (i.e. not in short-term accommodation rented by the Colombian mafia). 

Is this what this whole “growing up” thing really means, to watch things change while you stay the same (or at least, not change so much)?

crashing Buddha's birthday party!

Everybody seems to have a region that they love to travel in the most. When asked which region has my heart, my simplified answer is Asia, which often leads to this reaction:

„Oh yeah, I loved my travels in Asia, Full Moon parties, cheap beer and street food!“
This is what 90% of backpackers all over the world seem to rave about. South East Asia. I can see those countries' appeal, but when I specify and say “East Asia”, many faces go blank.

Geographically and culturally, East Asia is China, the upper half of Vietnam, the Korean peninsula, Taiwan and Japan, and each of those countries has about as much in common with Thailand as Germany has in common with Greece.

So, what makes me go back there?

Busi-ness and Urban-ness
Dotombori, Osaka - probably my favourite skyline in the world!
It's fast, it's competitive and there's always something new to see and do. All of these countries are heavily urbanized, and this is how I like it. I can appreciate countryside – and all of these countries have amazing countryside! - as long as it's easily reachable within a day trip. I love to just walk around disappear in the crowd. Most of it all, I love the fast-paced rhythm and energy of East Asian cities, whether it's Seoul, Hanoi, Osaka or Hong Kong – try as they may, other cities of a similar size, be it London, New York, Buenos Aires or Paris can't pull off this feeling.

The food

I always knew food is important to me, but I didn't know just how much until I went to South America (no more sad bus station empanadas, please!).
$8 sushi dinner. Got your attention?

I am actually writing this on a ferry, travelling from Kobe to Takamatsu. Even in “expensive” Japan, $5 buys you a delicious noodle lunch plus green tea ice green and a good coffee. And this is probably the “worst” food I've experienced in Japan! In Asia, food is everywhere, at any time of night or day. And you know what? I've never had bad food before in all of East Asia. Even airport food is affordable and delicious (why can't European airports do this?). Experience-wise, you can choose between eating in a glamorous restaurants, with snacks bought from a convenience store, in a little corner bar that fits only 5 customers or in a plastic tent by the road side. In most places, you get to choose between local and international foods, too. Cafes, little bakeries and coffee shops are everywhere. Hygiene and freshness are a priority (Vietnam's touristy boat trips are the notable exception) and you're unlikely to get sick from any food you'll eat. 

$6 airport meal!

Friendliness & safety
Ask someone for the way in Japan: there's a high chance (unless you are in Tokyo or in a crowded train station) that they will either walk you all the way or offer to drive you in their car. I've accidentally poured a bottle of chili oil over a poor guy's shirt on the train in Taiwan, and he kept apologizing to ME (he had knocked my backpack down which broke the bottle, so it was kind of his own fault, but still). I've forgotten my backpack by the roadside in Korea while going into a shop, and an hour later, it was still there. If people miss the last train home, it's not unknown to see them sleep in the park, and survive the night unscathed and with all their belongings. There are many other stories like this, but the main point is, people are honest, friendly and polite (except maybe in mainland China, as I am told – this is one reason why I hesitate visiting a little).

Looking to get off the beaten track? Welcome, anywhere in Japan outside Tokyo and Kyoto, Korea outside Seoul, or Vietnam outside Ho Chin Minh City and Hanoi's Old Quarter. Taiwan or China don't even have a beaten track! Tourists pay the same prices as locals and you don't get ripped off (again, Vietnam is an exception to this, but nowhere near as much as Thailand, in my experience). Actually, in Japan and Korea, I've found that many museums, sights and events are actually free for foreigners, and that “cultural” experiences are often subsidized by the government!
just one of the half a dozen free cultural performances I stumbled across during a weekend in Seoul

So, what are the cons that keep people from travel in East Asia?

The prices (not really)
Many people say they can't afford to travel in East Asia. Considering the tourist rip off you are suspect to in many other countries, availability of good public transport, cheap and healthy food options and high quality accommodation, travel in East Asia doesn't have to cost more than even South East Asia or India. My budget for my current 1 month trip to Japan and Korea is $1500 (not including flights), and that is while staying in my own room all the time, travelling a fairly standard mid-range travel style with some expensive meals, shopping and sightseeing thrown in. The famous “pricy” Japan especially doesn't exist – there's been no inflation here since the bubble economy crashed in the 90's. Outside the two big tourist draws (Tokyo and Kyoto), travel in Japan is cheaper than in Europe (and that's the most expensive country!). An important tip to notice is that hostels in East Asia seem to cost the same as hotels and guesthouses – mid-range pretty much costs the same as bare bones. So yes, a $20 a day shoestring budget won't get you anywhere, but double that and you get a very good standard in Vietnam (where a three star hotels are more like 4 star hotels in Europe, and cost an average of $25 a night, including generous breakfast) and even a fun time in Japan without having to share a room!

Am I being too euphemistic? - Society and conformity -
I've given serious thought to living in East Asia long term, and while I can imagine going back for longer stretches of time, I wouldn't want to make any of these countries my permanent home unless things change a lot. The main reason for this is the competitiveness that leads to a society that has ridiculous expectations of people. It's all about getting in the right school, the right uni, the right company, wearing the right clothes and having the right, conformist lifestile. Another factor is the gender-discrimination women face even today, and the almost total ignorance all of East Asia shows towards GLBT people or basically, anyone who somehow sticks out. You can never be skinny, rich, smart and same-y enough. Even today, the old Japanese proverb “The nail who sticks out must be hammered down” holds truth...

But will this affect you as a traveller? Not at all!

Which is your favourite region to travel in, and why? Are there any you are not interested in at all?

While most of Okinawa seems like a giant tourist trap, there are several sights in Naha that are entirely free. (Also, Naha has neither a noteworthy beach nor snorkeling opportunities, making it much cheaper than everywhere else in the archipelago).

Harro! Can I interest you in some pineapple chocolate? diving? no?
Yesterday I went out to explore Naminoue Shrine, the most important Shinto shrine in Okinawa. Shintoism is an export from the Japanese mainland, and it seems, not a very popular one. The shrine was much smaller than I expected and I was the only visitor, apart from school class from Tokyo that kept shouting „Harro!“ at me incessantly. 

A short minute away though, I found Fukushu-en (福州園), an impressive Chinese style garden that was built in 1992 to commemorate the ties Okinawa has had with China (before the Japanese annexed the islands, the Ryukyu had strong trade ties to the Ming dynasty). 

 What's special about this garden is that Japan and Chinese don't exactly have the best relationship (well, let's be honest... who except maybe North Korea has a good relationship with China?) - yes, there are Chinatowns in several Japanese cities, but the general image Chinese people have here is not good. The Japanese are very open to just about any other culture, but Chinese are at the most seen as people who run mediocre restaurants. Let's not even examine the historical and military relationship between the two countries.

Maybe that explains why there weren't any Japanese visitors, I'm not sure...
Even though it wasn't raining for a change, I was one of the only visitors (apart from an American couple and, ironically, a tourist group from mainland China that trampled through the entire place within 3 minutes) and spent a relaxed afternoon... getting stung by mosquitoes. You can't have it all, I guess.

the promise of Okinawa
I'm back in Japan! More specifically, in Naha, the capital of Okinawa. I've dreamt of Okinawa since I first visited Japan, but until quite recently it was unfordable to travel there, with return flights costing at least $500 – from Tokyo, that is.
Luckily, in the last year or so, budget airlines have discovered the Japanese market (so much for the super fast and modern adaptability of the Japanese again...), so I booked a flight with Jetstar Japan, which we shall not speak of here. But I arrived after a 2 hr flight from Osaka, in one piece.

Was is the beaches that held my interest?
The diving?
The surfing?
The fact this archipelago between „mainland“ Japan, China and Taiwan has more centenarians than anywhere else?

Nope, because let's be honest, if you want beaches, you can go to Spain, and for diving, SE Asia's diving schools take a fraction of what they charge in Okinawa, which is like the Japanese version of Hawaii in many aspects.

It's the indeginous culture that interests me, even though there seems to be little of it left. Until the 17th century, Okinawa was known as the Ryukyu kingdom, which for centuries traded peacefully with Japan, Korea and China. Then, the Japanese decided to annex the kingdom, forced the locals to adapt their language, religion (Shintoism) and traditions. Whatever was left of the culture was destroyed by American forces towards the end of WWII. Little remains except the fact that Okinawans who still speak the local language are far and few and count as one of Japan's bewilderingly tiny minorities.

To be honest, I thought the Ryukyu kingdom consisted of nothing but a bunch of small tribes and fishermen, like Taiwan did before the Chinese tried to annex it, or HK or Singapore before the British. So, I didn't expect much when visiting the rebuilt castle complex, where since the late 80s, the Ryukyu palace and palace grounds are being rebuilt.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Reminding more of Chinese than Japanese architecture, the three main buildings that were reconstructed alone are bigger than any of the palace grounds elsewhere in Japan – and to this day, only a fraction of the buildings and the area within the castle walls has been rebuilt. Unlike other Japanese castle, whose main feature always seems to be their complete emptyness, the buildings include a lot of information as well as original and rebuilt artifacts from the Ryukyu kingdom (taking pictures was not allowed in most sections, though).
A previous' royal mausoleum, Tamaudun, is located a short walk from the castle. Here too, conservation work is underway, but what you can see is already impressive. There's also a small museum (interesting, in spite of very little English information).

You can reach Shuri castle via a 15 min walk from Shuri monorail station (the final stop), and you'll come across many other interesting sights along the way (plus a few places that sell yakitori and pineapple ice cream – a match made in heaven).

Despite the terrible rain (it seems that with my flight, the rainy season arrived in Okinawa), I enjoyed the visit and definitely want to return one day when the whole complex has been rebuilt!

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