Back in London, I'm currently living in a flat that is part of a row of Victorian houses that all have gardens (not our flat, though, we're a level up from them), and disheartened to see that nobody seem to use them, even though they must be paying dearly for them.

random house in Osaka, decorated (attacked?) by house plants

In Japan, the situation is similar - except in the remote countryside, it's extremely unusual to have access to a garden. But the Japanese don't let that fact stop them from surrounding themselves with lots of plants. People constantly put potted plants outside their houses and also cram small apartments full of plants. Sure, not everyone, but you'd be surprised how many plants you see outside houses even in downtown Osaka, Kyoto or Tokyo. As soon as someone seems to have just a square metre of dirt to their name, they seem to start a vegetable garden.

I would love to start the potted plants outside trend here in London, but I guess they would be stolen in no time...

small private allotment in Naoshima

rice, fish with peas, simmered and steamed veg and some fried fish

Food by itself is, in my book, a completely legit reason to travel to Japan. No matter what your budget, excellent hygiene and food standards mean that it's almost impossible to have a bad meal. Eating out can cost you a fiver or less for a bowl of noodles or a daily lunch special, and if you want to go even cheaper, the convenience store is your taste 24/7 friend. If you want to drop some real money on fine dining, though, the sky is the limit though. 

Somewhere in between is the food available in the basement of virtually every Japanese department stores. It's nicer and fresher than the convenience store meals, and you have a lot more options. Prices for most range between $5-10. If you go in the evening, before the store closes, you can get food up to 50 % reduced, and sometimes even get a little extra for free. 

You will see lots of Japanese picking up their dinner there, too - not only busy people in their 20s and 30s, but fathers, mothers and grandmothers, too! Because it's good and healthy food. Now, why can't 
other countries offer this service? 

Vietnamese-styl fresh spring rolls... some with smoked salmon! 
How about a sushi dinner? This was about $7! 

chirashi sushi - fish scattered on rice

Growing up in Germany's Wild West (geographically speaking, not politically), I had more than my share of prejudice about East Germany. The German media paints a picture of poverty, unemployment, homophobia

and racism. We were warned by many people that travelling as an inter-racial lesbian couple might get us into trouble. 

Apart from East Berlin, I had never been "East" until our trip to Dresden last month. Sure, I can't judge a quarter of Germany by two cities, and actually, my prejudice was confirmed in East Berlin. Dresden was a whole different thing, though. 

And as it always goes when you don't expect anything, I was blown away by the city! And I say that with not the least of a pun intended. More than 80 % of the Saxon capital was ruined in WWII air raids, but unlike some cities with a similar fate, you wouldn't guess it today. Yes, outside the city centre, it's mostly communist housing blocks, but the center has been painstakingly and perfectly reconstructed. On top of that, the people were incredibly nice (and Germans are known to be surly and offer terrible service) and food was cheap and good.

Here are just some of the amazing buildings:

Die Semperoper

Dresden's Opera House is not what it seems! It's lavish inside and outside, but much of what you see is actually an illusion - not because they had to save money on renovations (the building collapsed once before the war, and was also damaged heavily in floods a few years ago). The building is one of the most well-known opera houses, maybe the second most famous after Sydney's. No, it was planned like this by its architect, who wanted the illusion not only to take place on stage. Tickets for the opera and ballet are relatively cheap by Western European standards (they start at 27 €), but you can also join a the daily guided tour for around 10 Euro. 

Der Zwinger

The lavish former palace of the king of Saxony is currently still being restored. The main buildings are ready and now house several museums, but there is still at lot of work to be done in the gardens. Currently, it's free to walk around and pinch the many chubby cherub statue's bums, but I can imagine that they will charge a handsome entry fee when the reconstruction has been finished. Ironically, "Zwinger", means something like "dungeon" or an outside cage where you'd keep dogs in German.  P.S.: It's pronouncer with a hissing "z", not "Swinger", like some people I won't mention here said ;) 


This is not really a building, but a giant image along a building wall that has been made out of over 20.000 porcellaine tiles (nearby Meissen is famous for its porcellain). I stumbled across it by chance and was very impressed!


I'm not usually into churches, but the Kreuzkirche has a particular meaning: it was one of the Lutheran protestant churches in Germany. Most protestant churches look rather modern and bare, but this one has stunning Baroque features!

Katholische Hofkirche

The Kreuzkirche's Catholic equivalent was built much later, but is the central point of Dresden's New Market, providing an impressive backdrop to one of the city's Christmas markets we visited during our stay. 

These are only some of the cities great buildings, and I haven't even started on the modern buildings and the many castles located in the city's suburbs. We spent three days in Dresden, but I will definitely go back. If you want to learn about German history, and see more than the typical and overly kitschy Bavarian wonderland that Munich offers visitors (sorry Munich, I know you are beautiful!), why not check out Dresden? As a plus, it's just a 2 hr bus or train ride away from both Prague and Berlin!

tortoise hanging out in a pond in Nara
I think it's a myth that cities and urbanized countries have no more nature and wildlife to offer. In fact, spending time in Japan, I've seen more animals in and near the cites that I ever did growing up in a small town surrounded by forests and agricultural land! The most I ever saw there were domestic animals and cattle. Japan has very little land and is densely populated, yet it offers many a refuge for animals, whether they are wild or set into gardens and parks on purpose. 

Urban areas, after all, are not only for humans and cars! In spite of being such a crammed and urbanized country, if you look closely, there are many animals to discover! 

duck at Shuri Castle, Nara (Okinawa)

find the heron! At Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu City

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