Sometimes, you travel visit a place based on a lot of promotion and other people raving about it, but may find it not to be as woundrous as you had expected. Maybe that's exactly the problem: Having too many expectations of a place.

Then, on the other hand, you might come across a place by accident and simply can't understand why nobody has ever written about it. For us, such was the case with Hirosaki, a small castle town a little bit south of Aomori, on the northern tip of Honshu.

I honestly had never even heard the name of the town, it hadn't even come up when I looked up places we could visit in Tohoku, Honshu's north west. After a mild disappointment with Morioka, Tono and also Aomori (which seems to be reinventing itself as a shopping mecca for the elderly), we were looking for a place to fill our last day in the area.

Looking at the map with attractions in the area at Aomori station, Hirosaki popped out. By all means, it's not Kyoto. It doesn't have dazzling lights or age old buildings (actually, most in Japan are reconstructed). It's a small town that can be explored easily within a day, and maybe that is what made it so charming.

We arrived around noon and quickly realised that this was not the kind of town where you can eat around the clock, and that most decent restaurants would be closed once we had done the first round of sightseeing. So we popped into the first major restaurants

After travelling in Japan for more than 8 years, I can rightfully say that this was the best meal I've had in the country, and that for unter 1,500 Yen! The tempura was oh so light, the sashimi perfectly fresh with a heavenly texture, and let's not even mention the scallop dish which is a signature dish in the region. Ever since, I'm measuring all Japanese meals by this one - and that means a lot, since I've never had a bad meal in the country at all.

After lunch, we walked another kilometer towards the castle area. Hirosaki castle is tiny, with essentially just one room over three floors, which houses an exhibition about the castle. There's a combination ticket for the castle, the botanical garden (which is part of the castle garden) as well as the privat Fujita Memorial Garden, located half a mile away, which offers great views into the surrounding countryside.. In total, it cost us around 500 yen, well under $5, to see all three.

Will these places blow your mind? Absolutely not, especially not if you have seen the larger castles and famous gardens in Japan. But Hirosaki felt absolutely peaceful, and we were probably the only foreign tourists there - there were even barely any Japanese tourist, it was mostly locals enjoying the gardens and castle grounds (which are much bigger than the castle itself).

Not the real Hirosaki castle, but it felt a bit like that ;) 

Fujita Memorial garden was quite impressiv, and more surprisingly, empty! 

When was the last time you had a great time somewhere you never even heard about before turned into a great travel memory?

Dear Traveller,

I know, the world of travel has become so easy and convenient recently. Almost anywhere in the world, we can rely on the internet, apps and social media to help us out and find the best of the best. To squeeze every bit of fun, learning and “must-do” out of your trip, whether it lasts two weeks or two years.

In addition to guidebooks, blogs, Twitter, YouTube and all those all inform you about the best places to go and best places to see. It’s easy! Convenient! Those people know what it’s all about, after all, they do this travel thing for a living, right?

But what if I told you that it’s ok to completely let go of all that?

Do you know it’s ok to go somewhere and NOT see any of the “must-see” sights? Not to travel thousands of miles just to stand in line with folks who live around the corner?

It’s absolutely ok to categorically refuse to travel somewhere, because the culture, the history, the sights or the food do not entice you. Yes, even if it’s a place that EVERYBODY seems to agree is magical. Even IF you have the money to see what it’s like, and feel like you should go. You’re not ignorant and close minded because of it, but show that there’s a stubborn spark of individuality left in you.

Don’t visit places just because everybody else tells you you should.

Visit places because your heart and soul are yearning for them, fill you with a wild desire and spark of life. Because they mystify you, and reflect a piece of you. Or because they scare you and test your boundaries, make you step beyond your comfort zone. Go for the bold feelings, the uneasy feelings. Or go for boundless joy. Don’t go for “everybody loves it” and “you gotta do it while there”.

Don’t be a consumer, a product of the society you grew up in.

And if you go somewhere that everybody agrees is magical, and it doesn’t do anything for you, that’s ok. If somewhere sucks, say it out loud, because few on social media will, unless it relates to the official media canon… which wants to sell us things.

It’s ok to categorically refuse anything that the travel industry tells us to do. Go on a hiking trip all by yourself, or live in a monastery. Study something that makes your heart sing, like exploring some obscure jungle animals. Or simply do not do anything at all.
Go somewhere bloggers don’t go because there are no sponsors willing to take them or pay for them. Go to a place that’s not in any guide book, not on TripAdvisor, someplace that nobody has ever blogged about in a language you speak.
By the way, that includes visiting places that are perfectly easy, safe and commercial, developed and modern. There’s no need to live dangerously if you don't want to. Every place has a different, deeper story. Dive into learning a language most would not even learn a few phrases in, become familiar with a culture other visitors see as “weird” and “exotic” because they do not see behind the scenes. Meet the immigrants, those shunned by society. Visit the neighbourhoods where there are no other foreigners – they offer much more for you to explore.

Go and see the ugly places, the ones where locals would never expect a visitor to show up.

Visit the hard places, the ones where nobody is willing to reach you a helping hand or obey your wishes if you pay them enough. Ask questions that hurt, questions that make your mind spin, that might be a little rude. Open up your own world, and theirs.

In the end, all the media wants is to sell us something. An experience. A feeling. A brand. A lifestyle.

Reinforcement of our preconceptions and own social values (ouch).

It’s ok not to fall for any of it. In this world, travel is something that’s being consumed, and we consume what others sell us no less than we buy what’s on promotion in the supermarket or Amazon.

It’s great to drop out of the rat race and travel the world, nomadically. But you know what? There’s no need to make it all about promoting travel. Isn’t it a little contradictive, to leave your 9-5 cubicle world and to become a marketeer for travel, selling this dream, this lifestyle for others who can’t attain it. Like a graphic artist photoshopping models on a magazine, selling a lifestyle which is not feasible for most and has many drawbacks? A lifestyle that does not exist in the way to promote it. Has the thought ever occurred to you?

And just maybe, if you leave all the musts and shoulds behind… you’ll encounter a place, an experience, a feeling that none of these people have experienced before, and it can be all yours.

Even if nobody else understands.

A replica of the "Colonization Headquarter" of Hokkaido is used as an information and visitor centre.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth reading guide books, brochures or any information online at all. Especially with travel bloggers and YouTubers being paid to go to places and say they like them, we have recently found places that are heavily promoted a big waste of time, and places that nobody ever mentions or that people downright hate delightful. Often, it seems bloggers as well as people on TripAdvisor have no idea where they actually went. Insane new media world.

This was the case with The Historical Village of Hokkaido in the outskirts of Sapporo, which all Japan guidebooks seems to dismiss as “some old houses”, and online reviews shunned as “not worth the money”. SERIOUSLY. I am so glad we went, as it was the best place I have visited in Japan this year!
A horse drawn (!) tram runs down the main road every hour or so

It’s an outdoor museum/collection of historical houses, much in the same vein as the Skansen park in Stockholm and other ones we have visited all over Europe in the last few years. Some of these places are simply in a nice setting without much information, some have live actors and lots of information. The Historical Village of Hokkaido was the largest and most detailed of such parks I have been too, with lots of information in English and painstaking attention to detail.

Mind you, it’s not just a collection of old Japanese houses. Hokkaido is a special case within Asia, as the area was barely settled until the Meiji restauration, when the government promoted sending people there as “pioneer” settlers (sounds a bit American, huh?). So the park has buildings from all different stages of Hokkaido’s early settlement, from large university buildings in the western style to the poorer settler’s hut, and anything in between.

Here’s a small selection:

An old barber shop that used to be located just behind the Hokkaido Shrine in Sapporo.
Inside the Sapporo Shinbun (News) printing press building - Can you imagine what typesetting must have been like with Chinese characters back in the day?

Inside a general store - can you spot the Kewpie doll?

Each and every building was furnished as in a specific era, most buildings are originals which were trnasported there. All those fireplaces around tatami flooring in wooden buildings don't seem like a very good idea, do they?

Kitchen at an old-style inn, complete with modern fire extinguisher ;) 

No Japanese town can be without its shinto shrine - this one was donated by former immigratns to Hokkaido from Nagoya.

Don't be deceived by some of the grand buildings. This is the average immigrant's hut, just a simple straw hut that exposes you to pretty much all weather conditions. In a part of the country where it snows for 6 months a year!

Excuse the blurry picture, it was super dark inside. This is the lodging house for "pioneer" forresters who lived there, probably 30 people or more, and had come to rural Hokkaido to hack wood.

Hokkaido University's former martial arts dojo - a stark contrast to the former buildings.
 Some of the houses were “staffed”, such as the police station and fishing hut, some which people showcasing crafts, and literally every one could be visited (bring slip-off shoes, they provide slippers for each and every building). We spent over 2 hours and could easily have spent another if we had gone at a more leisurely place – we had to hurry a bit because of the bus schedule.

It’s a tiny bit tricky to get there, and buses only run every hour after noon, but even if you don’t speak Japanese, it should be easy enough: 1) Take a train to Shin-Sapporo station (every 10 minutes or so from Sapporo station, taking about 10 minutes). 2) Follow the signs for the bus station. 3) Hop onto bus 22 and ride it to the last stop (around 200 yen, grad a ticket when you get on the bus and pay when you leave – the bus also accepts the usual smart cards).

Have you ever been somewhere that you expected to be just so-so, just to be blown away?

I firmly believe that the best travel destinations are those that come without expectations. Or maybe I'm difficult to please and easily put off by places that are too crowded, too touristy, too "easy". 

Armenia was none of these, and had not even been a place I had considered visiting until we realised it was much cheaper to fly out of Yerevan instead of Tbilisi. So we booked the cheaper flight and embarked on a stomach-churning minibus ride across the Caucasus, along with a Russian guy who chatted to me in a mix of broken English and German for the entire 4 hour ride. 

Georgia had been the focus of my trip, and it did not disappoint. Neither did Ukraine, where we visited before. But Armenia... the landscapes are still haunting me. I was absolutely not prepared for such beauty.

Mount Ararat, symbol of Armenia, which is ironically located in Turkey.

A have hundreds of pictures like this - this is the Caucasus at its best.
The only church in the world whose second floor can be reached by an outdoor stair case.

A random Greek-style temple, the easternmost of its kind, although a replica

Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, which was our base for our short trip. I had expected something along the lines of Tbilisi, but no, it was even more modern and well laid out, with lots of green, art, fancy as well as hipstery places to eat. One of our highlights was the opera/ballet in downtown Yerevan, where tickets are sold from around $10 - we got very good seats for about $15 to see a ballet inspired by Armenian folk stories.

It's a very small country and you can see virtually anywhere on a day trip, although for my next visit, I would love to see more out of the way places. Armenia is surprisingly well equipped with tourist facilities, which many tour operators, a high level of English and good wifi access (EU citizens can use their regular EU roaming tariffs). Not to mention the food was amazing, too - a mixture of Eastern European, Turkish and Persian, which is an accurate  map of the countries culture and history, too.

Would you ever have considered a trip to the Caucasus, and Armenia?

A lion made of tires looking down at Yerevan and to Mt. Ararat

Random art like this is all over Yerevan, which saves the city from being too sleek and sanitised

private gardens in Hirosaki, a lovely surprise of a town in Aomori Prefecture

The first half of September was very quiet, but in the second half, we travelled faster than we have since March this year (when we visited around 8 countries in just one month, insane).

Chilling on Crete

Our terrace - most time in Crete was spent here.
I have a funny relationship with the European Mediterranean, but my short visit to northern Greece last year made me curious for more – Greece seems a bit more lively and culturally exciting to me than its neighbours to the west. And so it happened that we found a lovely apartment in Heraklion, Crete’s capital,
I’ll try to non-biased. The food was amazing, people were lovely and we definitely didn’t feel like walking wallets. I love the Greek people, there’s so much warmth, open-ness and a high average level of education and understanding of how our world works that not many countries can rival.

Crete is beautiful, sure. But it’s also incredibly touristy and if you aren’t staying at a major resort town, it’s virtually impossible to get anywhere without your own car. I had imagined long hikes, but hiking is hardcore due to the terrain, and you’re not advised to go yourself (if we had had a car to get to the hiking location in the first place). Stray dogs and cats are everywhere, as everywhere in Greece. There are lot of historical sites, but their management is presentation can be appalling. Even in September, it was waaay too hot for us and we found it hard to motivate ourselves to do much. Which I guess is the point of going to a Greek island in the first place.
Let’s say we spent to very relaxed weeks with evening runs, worked a lot and ate like queens. Still, I prefer the Arab speaking sides of the Mediterranean. I would go to Greece again, to explore another island or area.

Back to Japan and NOT to Australia – Osaka, Morioka and Aomori

After another 4 day stopover in London, we check in to our flight to Osaka, where we’ll be based at least until late January, with some other side trips in Japan, Korea and a short visit to Hong Kong.
Originally, we were thinking to go to Australia and Indonesia, maybe do some house sitting in Australia. After sweating to death in Greece, we both decided we prefer to stay somewhere colder. We also tried too hard to convince ourselves that Australia is a good idea. It’s super popular and I’m sure for a lot of people, it’s a great place to go, but personally, I’m glad to skip it again this time.

So, instead, we’re mostly in Japan now. After a few days in Osaka, we headed to Tokyo, where we jumped on the first train to Morioka, Iwate Prefecture. This was the first time in Tohoku for both of us. The area is being promoted a lot recently, not only around Fukushima (Morioka is a good 100 miles north of there)… and I have to say, maybe a bit over promoted. We went to Morioka as a stopover point and for a day trip to the small village of Tono. Tono is famous from Tono no Monogatari, which is akin to the Japanese version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The area has been touted as one of amazing natural beauty, but to be honest, it was just like any other tiny village in Japan, surrounded by rice paddies with a few folktale related museums. Unless you read Japanese (and I don’t mean read kana and a few hundred kanji, but be able to read novels easily), it’s not worth the trip.

Our next stopover was Aomori, the northernmost city on Honshu, Japan’s main island. Aomori is famous for apples and scallops, and the fact that they have mowed down everything at the harbour and replaced it with a new tourist development – lots of souvenir shops, a museum and a museum ship in a small area. There are also two small fish markets, but again, nothing too exciting. It’s pretty obvious that Aomori is mostly trying to get Asian tour buses to the area – everything is planned out for this kind of tourism, whereas the city itself was pretty dead and most locals well over 70.

The surrounding area is very pretty, though, and we wished we had rented a car so we could see more. The way it was, we only went for a day trip to the pretty castle town of Hirosaki before heading off to Hokkaido on the first of October.

...tiny castles in Aomori prefecture!
Does this make September sound like a bit of a downer? Maybe. It was an ok month, and we liked the places we visited. Celine started freelance teaching online, so we both got a lot of work done. Halfway through October now, travel has been a lot more exciting this month already, though!

It’s the middle of October, and we are on the road again! After a very, probably a little too relaxed summer in Western Europe, it was high time for some excitement.

Housesitting in the Netherlands
Sporty Dutch ridgeback!
We spent most of August still at our housesit south of Amsterdam, with a perfect house, perfect dog, perfect cat, in perfect town… with perfect boredom. I love the idea of getting an idea of somebody else’s life and spending time with dogs, but in the future, I would probably think twice before taking a housesit that’s longer than a month. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing wrong with this assignment at all, and we managed to see quite a few friends during this time, too, but small town life is just not for me, never was, never will be. Sure, there are housesits in big cities, too, but they tend to come with tiny dogs. I’ll keep an open mind and an eye out for housesits that fit our criteria, but we won’t be one of those people who constantly housesit.
Like couchsurfing, volunteering and other free accommodation options, there are just too many restrictions and rules. I’d rather spend money on accommodation and have complete freedom.

Germany & London
We spent the last week of August first visiting my family and some friends in Germany, and then in London with Celine’s parents, doing some admin stuff as well as catching up with friends in the big smoke. Then we were off for a little road trip to…

Ireland – The wild North-West
Cottage #2
We underestimated the price increase for basically everything in Ireland during the “high season” (June-August). It’s a con, basically, because the weather in Ireland is equally bad all year, just maybe 5 degrees warmer in summer. We regretted that we didn’t bring any coats, only jumpers and light rain jackets. Anyhow, we rented a little car and spent a week driving through County Sligo and Donegal. Sligo has beautiful beaches and cliff walks, plus loads of pre-historic sights. 

Donegal is an oddball, being cut off from most of the rest of the country due to the Northern Irish border. Trains don’t reach this county at all. It’s well worth visiting, because the scenery easily rivals the more popular counties in further south. It’s also super conservative and religious, and full of peculiar characters, like the 90 year old guy in a pub who was keen to get my number, or another old guy who is famous to hurl abuse as tourists who stop near his farm to take a picture of the scenery.

Another lovely, non windy summer day in Ireland
This corner of the island might become my favourite – most tourists that make it up here are Irish, or seriously adventurous. It’s wild and remote up there, to the point that you might have to drive over an hour to find an ATM or a petrol station. Americans might laugh, but that’s virtually unheard of elsewhere in Western Europe.

We stayed in two different cottages, one very luxurious and one very old-timey, ate a lot of bread and fish and went through lots of pairs of socks and jumpers. There’s nothing quite like lighting a stove in the middle of August because it’s 8 degrees and raining buckets. Ah, Ireland.

Celine once again did a stellar road navigating roads that don’t exist on any map, and motorways with sheep crossings, as well as some serious cliff drives and hairpin turns. She can easily apply as tourist driver for the Americans who don’t dare to drive in Ireland next year!

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