We tend to focus on the 'must sees', the 'unmissable', the big palaces and sparkling city lights - or maybe the peaceful quiet, the roar of the ocean and bird song of the countryside when we take photos, write or report about our travels.

Yet,  it's often the in between, the fleeting moments that are hard to catch that are the most beautiful. Especially in Japan, which is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet, glimpses of the countryside on the train are one of my favourite views - I'll take these over a picture at the Golden Pavillion at Kyoto anytime.

These are some snapshots I took in my recent travels in Kagawa Prefecture, by train and ferry. With these kind of views, I don't mind taking the slowest form of transport available.








Even after 10 years of spending most of my time in London, there's still so much that I haven't explored or seen! It makes me cringe a little when I receive couchsurfing requests from people who want to 'do' London in two or three days.

Last weekend, we spontaneously set off to Highgate Cemetery - although I lived a few minutes walk away, I never visited it when I lived in the area!

Highgate Cemetery in North London, a short walk from Archway station on the Northern Line, 10 mins north of Camden Town, is one of London's 'Glorious 7' cemeteries that were built in Victorian times to make space to bury all the people that moved to London looking for work.

Highgate's most famous resident
However, now and then, Highgate has been home of the rich and prestigious and so it was never a place for the 'masses' to be buried. Today, it's mostly famous for Karl Marx' grave, but there are many other famous names you can seek out. However, I enjoyed the stunning architecture and the wildness (the cemetery with its overgrowth it home to many animals, including a rare species of spider that seems to love the egyptian style tombs!).

The cemetery is divided in two parts - the Eastern Part, where you can find Karl Marx, is open to the public to wander around (well, almost - there's a £4 entry charge, as the cemetery is kept up by a non-profit organisation and not the council or government), and the West Cemetery, which is mostly closed to the public. However, it's worth showing up on the weekend for a guided tour of the West cemetery, which holds some of the most impressive architecture! This part of the cemetery was also used to film a number of films. If you love photography, both parts of the cemetery are amazing (although officially, they don't allow 'professional' photographers)!

We spent about 3 hrs there, including our tour, but could easily have spent more time. I was quite surprised that the cemetery is not as 'touristy' as expected - if you're looking for a relaxing experience after a few days of running around London like crazy, this might be the place to go!

(Oh and if you're already sleepless, by the way, google 'Highgate vampire' and see how many spooky stories come up!)

Do you like visiting cemeteries or do you think it's creepy? Do you have a favourite one?













no matter how well dressed, do not trust the ajummas (old ladies)!
The first time I went to Korea, I was expecting it to be like Japan, just a little poorer, and really hated my trip when it turned out to be radically different (I did write about this here and here).


2 years later, the Japanese economy has been steadily declining and the Korean economy booming, which now means that Korea, or at least Seoul (where 50% of the Korean population live) is actually richer in general and more expensive than Japan when it comes to many things.

but ah, it's all so pretty!
Anyway, I meant to give the country another go, although this time, I stuck to Seoul (where I couldn't do or see much last time due to an allergic reaction to what I now think was a mutated, Korean bed bug species). Within 15 minutes of arrival, I was being pushed around, stepped on and stared at by Korean grannies again. Old men made vulgar gestures toward me on the subway more than once. I was kicked out of restaurants again (traditional Korean restaurants don't serve single diners). I walked into a make up/beauty store and was told “Only for girls!” while trying some samples (while wearing a skirt and ballet flats... short hair in Korea = man ? Or do I look that old to Koreans?). Oh, and let's not forget the accommodation, where something is always wrong (this time, I was briefed within 5 seconds and then completely ignored by my hosts at both the hostel and apartment I stayed at – an improvement to last time where people told me when I could stay in my room and when I had to go to the toilet). Again, I witnessed how elderly people act completely ruthless, how people puked all over the streets and how young women kept checking themselves out in the glass doors of the subway stations continuously.
perfection and beauty - too much of it?
 
The more I learn about Korean culture, the more it fascinates me, but the more it alienates me, too. Japan, which is as similar and different to Korea as France is to the UK, has a culture that intrigues me, but with very few examples, it's one that I enjoy and can easily adapt to. The same goes for many other countries. Korea has the technology of 2050 and the attitudes of 1950, with a lot of vanity thrown in, and I don't fit anywhere in between.

aaah, food... I forgive you, Korea!
On the other hand, I had a great time with friends who live there. Attended a temple festival that would even put the New Year's festivities' at Chinese and Japanese temples to shame. Had delicious and cheap food and drinks. Did manage to shop for some Korean clothes and make up in the end.

It's not a word I use habitually, but Seoul is a really cool city. It's got all the things big cities have, with great nightlife (I don't even do “nightlife”), art, culture and museums and nature is always nearby.

I love Korea. I hate Korea. And most likely, I will return. It's like an abusive relationship... 

I hear many people say that they have similar feelings for India, but India, for me was 'just ok'.
 
Is there any place you equally love and hate?


Shikoku is famous for it's "88 Temples" pilgrimage route that leads over 1,000 kilometres around around the southern Japanese island. Even today and for non-religious Japanese, it's often a rite of passage - something like the Japanese Camino de Santiago, even though few can really take the 1-2 months off to complete the entire curcuit. 

Instead, many Japanese visit some of the most famous temples and shrines (the lines between buddhist temple and shinto shrine are often blurred), and the one that commands the most breathtaking views is Kotohira-san, a trip of a little over an hours by train from Takamatsu. This makes it a doable day trip if you are just visiting the northern part of Shikoku for a short time, like I did.

mountain view from half way up
Every website and guide booked warned of the many steps that lead up to the shrine.  The first few hundred steps of the 1,368 steps to the main shrine seemed the hardest for me - mainly because the steps were lined with souvenir and udon shops and the whole thing felt more like a cheese tourist attraction. After about step 500, though, this gave way to amazing Japanese countryside. There are many smaller shrines and places where you can step on your way up, and before I knew it, I had reached the main shrine. Ironically, it's decicated to the god of travellers and the sea - don't ask me why they built it up on a mountain then!

To be honest, even though it was a fairly hot day, the cooler climate in the mountains meant I still had lots of energy to go another 500 steps up to the highest shrine in the mountain, where I was rewarded with a view of Kagawa prefeture and the ocean. After the entire climb, it was also the first place where I was completely alone - a rare occasion in Japan.

If you don't feel like climbing up all the way, you can also hire some strong Japanese guys to carry you up in your own palaquin - although I've only seen them carry frail grandmothers uphill when I visited.

well-deserved bowl of noodles
The way back was very enjoyable, and to my surprise, the restaurants and cafes at the foot of the mountain were very good and reasonably priced. I stopped for a plain bowl of kake udon (udon noodles in a clear stock with ginger and spring onion) at a small cafe that had benches built into shallow fountains to rest your tired feet. 

During the entire day, I was probably the only non-Japanese I saw, but don't let that scare you off - it's very easy to find the path to the shrine from the train station and you can't get lost. Kompira-san was definitely my highlight of this year's Japan trip!


the main shrine

seafarer paraphernalia

view down onto the touristy lane

anchors in the mountain? Of course!

hidden away shrine at the very peak

view from the peak


 



Which ho would you like today, sir?
Let me be honest: I hadn't been to Hongdae when I went to Seoul before. It's the trendy shopping and clubbing district for Seoul's student and hipster population, and I fit in none of these target groups.

For some reason, I ended up there almost every night during my last trip in Seoul. And I have to stay honest: neither the party scene nor the shopping is for me. I assume there is great alternative and artsy stuff hidden there, but without Korean, and without knowing the 'insiders', there's probably a small chance to get into.

I wonder what makes it western...
However, what Hongdae had to offer was lots of funny English on shop fronts - and I've seen plenty of those in others parts of the world! Nowhere does slightly inappropriate or just severely confusing this well.

P.S: So what is it that you can order in a Ho Bar? I have to disappoint you, it's something not all that saucy... 'Ho' is an abbreviation for 'Hof', which Koreans thing is German for 'pub' (I guess they took it from 'Hofbräuhaus')  - it's just a regular bar, and a popular chain, too. But still...

'Please, take care of my obesity!'

who needs a Biergarten when you can get a Garten Bier?


Takarazuka is mostly known for the all-female, super cheesy musical group 'Takarazuka Revue'. Apart from that, the suburb of Osaka (located pretty much in between Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto) is maybe visited by some because of the Osamu Tezuka manga museum. 

But the town and surrounding area have a lot more to offer - there are various easy countryside walks, and also some magnificient temples, which are, unlike the big ones in Kyoto, free to visit.

Nakayama Dera is decicated to pregnancy, birth and children. When we visited on a Saturday, there were many pregnant women praying for a safe pregnancy, birth and healty baby, and many couples taking their babies on their first temple visit. Surprisingly (or maybe not, the Japanese aren't exactly orthodox), there were also some smaller shrines for school kids and university students to pray for their exams (not the most fool-proof method if you ask me), and some shrines for children lost to miscarriages. Parents place a jizo, a small humanoid sculpture with a bib around the shrine for each lost child. It took me a while to figure this out after seeing many of these in other temples and cemeteries. I always thought it's a little Buddha statue!

I'm not a religious person, and I think, neither are most Japanese. Yet I cannot get enough of visiting Japan's temples and shrines - each of them has its own history and purpose and searching out shrines off the beaten track (to this date, I haven't paid the entry fee to any of the famous temples in Kyoto - why pay for 3 of them, when you have a country with thousand free ones?) makes you learn and discover much more about Japan.

The temple is located a lovely walk uphill through a very traditional, yet absolutely un-touristy Japanese town (don't miss the ice cream stands!). 





"I don't do drugs. I am drugs."
(Salvador Dali)


I love art, but usually am bored by most - performing arts and the art and beauty that lies in everyday objects is much more interesting to me.

However, there's one giant exception, and that is pretty much everything by Salvador Dali. You don't need a degree in art history to understand Dali's works - in fact, it's most fun it you haven't got a clue and go about  interpreting what you see. And even if that still isn't helpful, it's always tremendous fun.

So my main interest for visiting Spain was his 'Theatre-Museum' in Figueres, located about 2 hrs by train from Barcelona (or half an hour from Girona). Buying the ticket online in advance proved to be almost impossible, as did our attempts to buy train tickets - only 2 out of 10 or so vending machines in Barcelona wanted to sell us the right tickets, and then the board didn't even list our train or platform. I've got nerves of steel when it comes to travel usually, but Spain totally messed with my patience.


Still, somehow we managed to make it there. After a stroll through the city market, we found the museum - by the kilometre-long queue in front of it. We used the queuing time for some ice cream (conveniently, shops were located right along the
looking up pays off here!
square). Surprisingly, it wasn't as crowded inside as you would expect from the giant queue (overall, it took us close to 40 minutes until we got in). The museum is a mixture of large art installations, painting and drawings, with a smattering of Dali's sculptures. A lot of the larger installations are actually gadgets - throw in 20 cents to 1 Euro and they will do something!

I was surprised to not see any British or American tourists in the museum - most visitors were French or Spanish, with a few Dutch or Germans thrown in. Figueres is not the tourist trap you would expect, and I regret not spending more time there.


The return train ticket from Barcelona and museum ticket,
cost us about €40 each - a little expensive for a day trip, but definitely worth it if you like Dali. If you're not too much into him, it's still worth if you take in the other sights in Figueres and visit Girona, too.

There's more to see in Figueres - the old citadel, a toy museum and more, but thanks to the whole ticket issue, we didn't have the time as our return flight was at the same night.

Do you have a favourite museum that breaks the norms of what a museum 'should be like'?


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