Local food is a big deal in Japan. "Local", however, doesn't really mean local in the western sense, that you try to eat food that is grown in a certain radius around your home town, as Japan doesn't have that much agricultural land that it could be self-sufficient with regards to food.

But wherever you go in Japan, even the smallest town seems to have a local specialty: Tokyo, for example, is famous for its sushi, Kyoto for pickles and sweets. Osaka is a foodie mecca, but most people will associate it with okonomiyaki (a kind of pancake meets omlet meets pizza) and takoyaki (fried octopus balls - not what you think). Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, has more space for cattle and is thus famous for its cream and butter. 

But not only that locals are proud of their specialties, they are also a big part of tourism and travel in Japan. Shops at train stations sell lunch boxes that include the local specialties, so you can travel in style and enjoy them on the train. Souvenir shops don't only sell chocolates and toys, but local specialty food and you can imagine in that specific shape. This is also because part of Japanese culture is that if you travel, your family, friends, and particularly, boss and coworkers, expect you to bring a gift from your destination. Without the local food, you trip is practically invalid.

all onboard the noodle train!
Southern Japan is noodle country. So much that when I was travelling in Kyushu (the southernmost island), each train station platform had its own noodle stand instead of a kiosk or coffee place, where travellers could have a snack in between trains. Yes, not every station, every platform!
Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku, however, takes the cake, um noodle. In an attemot to boost the area's tourism, it informally renamed itself "Udon Prefecture". Udon are fat wheat noodles that are most commonly eaten in a soup, but can be stir fried as well.

Even on my trip from Honshu, Japan's main island, to Kagawa, the fact that it is, in fact, Udon Kingdom, became apparent. The only non vending machine food sold on the 3 hr ferry ride was... udon. In stock, in curry sauce, with meat, with vegetables. Even the seats of the ferry had an udon pattern to them! Oh and of course, there was also a little souvenir shop that sold udon, towels with udon print and more.

This is not where it stopped, though – the local convenience stores offered all kinds of udon dishes, and even the mascot of the local train company was... a dolphin eating udon!

Not to forget the udon restaurants themselves. When I was hiking up Konpira-san, one of the most scared mountains and temples in southern Japan, the streets leading uphill where crammed with restaurants, offering udon. I enjoyed a bowl of kake udon, udon in plain stock with some ginger and spring onion, in a small local place for just 200 Yen – around $2! In true Japanese style, I also left with a small dishcloth of rabbits eating udon and some udon themed souvenirs for friends.

Have you ever travelled anywhere with the main objective to taste the local food?

so simple, so good!







Many people who visit Morocco
(at least from Europe) only spend a few days in Marrakesh, which has been known as "Morocco City" since the 70s.

Now, there's nothing wrong with that, but it's always good to see more than one place of a country!
The countryside, and especially the mountains of Morocco, not only offer a different landscape, but also a different culture. Here, you won't find any of the prosperous restaurants, cafes and shops, but Berber people living very similar to the way they have lived for hundreds of yours, without much French or, for a fact, Arabic influence. Not to forget the breathtaking landscape!

If you have only one day to spare, you can still get a taste of it with a day trip to the Ourika Valley.
rocking the kasbah!
You can organize your tour in a variety of ways. The easiest is to walk into the tourist offices in the Medina and negotiate for your trip (a day trip should cost no more than $20), as we did. Our trip was beautiful, and even though it was to a certain extend predictable, there was no hard sell. You can also rent a taxi for the day, if you want to avoid getting „ferried off“ to the tourist traps. Plenty of people do a mixture, and some even hike or cycle.

the all natural farm
Our first destination was a supposedly „classic“ Berber house which was obviously the stop-off point for every tourist group in the area, but still worth seeing. We got free tea and some samples of local honey, although nobody pushed us to buy anything. The second stop was a „herb and argan oil“ farm that explained natural remedies, why argan oil is so precious and of course, offered overpriced handmade cosmetics and teas.
After that, however, the trip dramatically improved. We had lunch at a wonderful, cheap little restaurant by a river, where a lot of local families dined, too, and then hiked up to a waterfall. The hike wasn't too strenuous. Even though there were a lot of craftsmen lining the path up, their items showed real skill and was a world away from the stuff you can buy in the city souks. The best part of it, however, was the bright blue sky and views while climbing up!


 Which do you tend to prefer when travelling, cities or countryside?

real artwork - you could watch him create more of it



In my mission to replace my 90s news memories (i.e. war) of the Balkans with vibrant, positive memories, we visited Skopje for 3 days at the beginning of November. Even though it was November, the Balkans were still balmy at around 20 degrees and sunshine. We couldn't really get used to Sofia, which felt old, stuffy and unfriendly, but a 3 hr ride through the mountains landed us in Skopje, where it seems a major building boom has gripped the city.

The bus station felt more like India or Africa, with guys at every corner asking us if we wanted a ride in their taxi (aka private car). But as soon as we stepped outside the bus terminal, everywhere was a building site. It wasn't only modern apartment, office and leisure buildings that were being built, though. Macedonia Square, the main city square, is full of statues in the Greek and Roman style. The surrounding area boasts more hotels and museums that might make you believe that you are in Florence or Westminster. Yet, as soon as you are more than a few hundred metres away from the square, the cityscape turns into one Soviet high-rise after another. Scattered in between are sleek modern buildings that wouldn't be out of place in London's Canary Wharf of Düsseldorf Medienhafen.

The population of Skopje is similarly varied... men and women in their 20s and 30s look like in any other cosmopolitan European city, if not sharper. Everyone we spoke to had both impeccable English and fashion sense. Yet, there were older guys, hanging out in cafes, smoking and drinking their coffees like it's Morocco or Turkey.
just go in if there if it's open!
The Kale Fortress is where the Ottoman of Skopje rulers used to reside – if you look it up online, you will find contradicting information on whether its open or not. When we climbed up, the sign saying the fortress is closed had been vandalised, and even though there were restoration works going on, the gates were open and plenty of people, locals and tourists alike, just walked in. The scale of the place is impressive – although currently it's just some crumbling walls, the size is similar to Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. I can imagine them charging a high entrance fee once they are done.


view from the fortress... and smog!

Skopje reminded me a lot of cities in Asia (particularly Vietnam!), where you can see remains of the many different cultures that have lived the city over the centuries. Some might think it's an odd mix and that today's brutalist city planning is no better than the Yugoslav one, but in a strange way, all of this worked together. The city is very proudy of their Greek ancestry, and the fact that Alexander the Great was Macedonian. Roman, Greek, Ottoman, Renaissance, Soviet and 21st century architecture – you can find it all in Skopje.

Where is Skopje on the “tourist” or “backpacker” scale? I'd say it's a 2 out of 10. There's barely any hotels or hostels, and we didn't actually see anybody who would fit into the “backpacker” category. Instead, it seems to attract a few Americans and Brits and the usual culturally and historically interested middle-aged French and German visitors. There isn't an awful lot to do or see in the classical “do and see” way, but there is a lot to explore and discover in the city (and Macedonia overall – I'll be back for sure!). The Ottoman quarter felt more touristy than in, say, Sarajevo, but it might be because they are just so much less used to tourists. The city museum, on the other hand, felt very low key (and was free - I would have been so happy to leave them a donation). 

A friend referred to Skopje's building style as “brutalist”... but it's neither modern investment nor Soviet planning that made this necessary. In 1963, a terrible earthquake destroyed more than 80% of the city, which goes back over 4.000 years. Ten thousands of people lost their home. Personally, I don't think the want to re-build your home town is unnatural. Yes, the statues are a little Las Vegas-y, but at the same time, you can tell that people have a lot of pride in their city and roots.

Which kind of architectural style is your favourite? Do you think all modern architecture is terrible?

I dare you show me another city with more statues!

I can't wait to see those boat-buildings finished!


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