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Phuket City, Thailand

After a hectic 24 hours in Hong Kong I hopped on another flight to Phuket, the gorgeous beach destination whose beaches and islands give Thailand it’s stellar reputation. While most of Phuket is heavily geared towards the tourist and beach scene, Phuket City offers a more laid back old town experience. I met up with the ever lovely Heather and after a brief stay on the sunny beaches of Naithon, we headed to Phuket City.

Naithon beach is a great place to stay close to the airport by the way. It’s around a twenty minute ride from the airport so it’s perfect for late flights (I landed at 2 am). I learned the first rule of Thailand while I was looking for a taxi, always haggle. I was first quoted a rather high price by a driver with a map. I looked at his map and the price he had there was half of his quote, so I offered him half of the map price. We settled in the middle and I was soon at the hotel.

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Taxis, tuk tuks and haggling

Every single price you’ll find on the street is negotiable. Never pay the first price you’re offered unless you’re really rolling or looking to make some locals very very happy. If you can get one, a metered taxi is less than a tenth what it might cost in the US and offers the blessed gift of air conditioning. If a taxi driver refuses to use the meter, just say no, it’s a bad call.

For tuk tuks, you negotiate a price and route beforehand. Have some fun haggling and you can get a good price and the great open tuk tuk experience. Costs will go up as the night goes on; drivers want to get home and make money too, so plan accordingly. Most drivers are willing to spend a good portion or the whole day as your driver if you offer enough. $30-$40 is usually more than enough to secure this service. You can also get discounts or even free rides if you agree to have them take you to their friend’s shop. Be warned though, you’ll be paying one way or another.

Thailand is a great place to get custom clothing made though, if you have the time I would really recommend it. Haggle here too of course. I had a suit made over a couple days and with two shirts and pants I had a very high quality suit, shirts that actually fit right (I’m 6’3″ and live in Japan…) for less than a cheap off the rack at home. Scheduling more than one fitting is a good decision when getting a custom suit or dress made. Once the tailor has your sizes, they will happily make you clothing and ship it to your worldwide as well.

Food vendors usually have already low prices, but if anything seems high, always talk them down. Most people will charge what they can, and if you don’t care that could be 5x the typical value. Souvenirs are of course negotiable, if you can’t talk a price down, ask to have something else thrown in and you’ll usually both be happy.

Massages, pedicures, etc are usually relatively fixed prices, but more than fair. Treat yourself. A thai massage is an absolute must while in Thailand. Prepare yourself though, it feels like you’re getting beat up for an hour or two.

Bottom line, if a price is higher than you think it should be, negotiate it to what you consider fair. I enjoy the haggling process, but if you don’t, at least offer one alternative price before you buy.

 

To the city

After some fun in the sun at Naithon beach, we snagged a long distance cab to Phuket City center and decided to stay at the central hostel in town, which was a phenomenal choice. We had a great room with high ceilings with a balcony overlooking the main street. We liked the room so much we stayed there three nights. We happened to arrive the night of the night market in Phuket City, where the street is filled with live bands, incredible food, and a medley of vendors. We feasted on Phad Thai, bbq pork, and even horseshoe crab (a crunchy experience…). Of course, this was accompanied by many bottles of Thailand’s wonderful Chang beer. A rich beer served iced cold… or even with ice in it, it’s strength varies quite a bit from bottle to bottle, so be wary. Overall, my favorite Thai beer though.

The principal reason we went to Phuket was of course, for the beaches. Specifically we wanted to do some diving. Heather finished her certification here, so we were limited to what dives we could do, so we dove Ko Racha Yai and Ko Racha Noi. These were some great experiences thanks to the crew of Aussie divers. I would highly recommend them, especially for new divers or those looking to finish out their certifications (PADI). Although the water wasn’t the clearest I have ever dove, the visibility was still excellent. We saw a myriad of fish spp. octopi and other sea life while diving damaged (but healing) reefs,  coves, and even a shipwreck. Thailand has been putting a lot of money and effort into conserving it’s natural resources after a long period of poor management, and the artificial reefs seem to be helping. Hopefully with diligence the ecosystem can return to it’s former glory. Next time I head to Phuket, I’ll probably stay on a live aboard and concentrate on diving, there are weeks worth of diving in the area, and most are pretty far from the mainland.

We spent our last day in Phuket chilling at Patong. Patong is a great beach, and a party town. The nightlife here is excellent, and offers something for everyone, but caters more towards wild partying than subdued nights. The beach is excellent as well, so kick back, put up an umbrella, and snag a couple drinks from the patrolling vendors (don’t worry, they’ll find you).

If you want to party and be close to major dive companies, stay in Patong. If you want to relax in an old town type setting, I’d recommend Phuket City. Either way, you’re going to have a good time in Phuket.

 

 

A Day in Hong Kong

What do you do when you have a twelve hour layover in a country you’ve never been to? Extend it to 24 hours of course! Flying to Thailand on a three week, four country tour, I was looking for the cheapest airfare I could find. A layover in Hong Kong cut my most expensive ticket in half, and I’ve always wanted to see one of the greatest business centers in the world, so it was a no brainer.

I landed at midnight, and would fly out at the same time the next day. With only 24 hours, I planned on hitting the nightlife for a few hours and then crashing until dawn to see a few of the peak tourist traps. My inability to sleep on airplanes had other plans though, and when I finally reached my hostel at 3 am after a cheap ride on a double decker bus I had a wonderful four hours of sleep and hit the city.

The hostel I stayed at was a bit different than advertised though… when I found the entrance after navigating through yelling drunks and empty streets there was a sign on the door stating that the hostel was completely illegal. Great. Apparently it had been operating this way since 2007 though, so I figured it would be fine. I entered the building carefully. A security guard greeted me silently by holding up three fingers, I took this to mean I either had three seconds to leave or head to the third floor. Naturally I took the elevator.

The atmosphere on the third floor was far more inviting and my fears dissipated significantly. The clerk/owner at the desk was really helpful, spoke good English (I tried learning a bit of Chinese before I left, but didn’t recall much more than Nihow when it came time to use it) and gave me a giant bottle of water. Another worker lead me to my room, which apparently was not on this floor. Or this building. She showed me the complex security code to get into a building on the next block and took me to a large apartment with plenty of full beds and exposed wiring in the hallways. The water came in handy in the morning though, don’t drink from the taps in Hong Kong.

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In any case, after surviving the night, I went to see the city. I asked around and the one sight everyone recommended was seeing ‘the peak.’ Victoria peak wasn’t a far walk at all so I took two hours getting there. I took a peek at the old Olympic stadium, which is in decent shape, much more than could be said for the buildings around it. An abandoned hospital and various decrepit athletic fields surrounded an otherwise bustling area. I eventually found the cable car up to the top and was rewarded with a nice hike around the peak and some great (if very smoggy) views. All of Hong Kong is filled with smog/fog. There is plenty of shopping and eating to be done at the peak if that’s your thing. Every big name western brand is there. Big names not being my thing I headed back down the peak to see the markets and street food that was Hong Kong in my mind.

My first stop was the fish street, where you can buy just about anything that lives near or in water in a plastic bag and eat most of them as well. I opted for some good ‘ol meat on a stick. The milk tea in Hong Kong came highly recommended from a friend, and did not disappoint. I must have had two liters of the stuff, it was all I drank there. Don’t miss it. It’s a much sweeter style than in Japan as well.

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Getting around on the train system is really easy by the way, if a bit expensive. The only frustration I had was the lack of ticket machines/vendors and the absurd walks down to some of the tracks. In some stations you walk so far to get to the train, you might as well have stuck to the surface.

One day is definitely not long enough to see the city, but I had a great taste of Hong Kong while I was there. You can definitely get in and out of the airport quickly as well. The train is only ~30 minutes to Kowloon and ~45 to Hong Kong central. The airport itself is one of the best I’ve seen as well. It deserves it’s own post, to follow.

 

The temple of Kannon, Ofuna

 

If while rolling down the JR line south from Yokohama you happen to past through Ofuna, make sure to look out the left window of the train and you’re sure to see the giant bust of Kannon sitting proudly atop a hill. I have seen the statue many times while making my way from Yokohama down to the wonderful town of Kamakura, but had never taken the time to see Kannon up close, even though the temple lies less than fifteen minutes from the station.

The top of Kannon’s head rises over sixty feet from the ground. Carved from two thousand tons of concrete and coated in a white, paint like coating (which turns out to be paint, go figure), this particular statue was built in part with stones from the blast zones of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kannon is a goddess of mercy, and represents mercy and peace worldwide throughout Asia. The statue was originally meant as a prayer for permanent world peace, but the construction of it was ironically halted by the advent of WWII. The statue was not completed in its present form until 1960, and has since been a popular destination, especially if you’re doing a Kamakura temple run.

As spring will quickly (finally) be upon us here in Kanagawa, flowers have just started to bloom, including the odd rogue cherry tree. At the base of the temple, one such tree was flowering brilliantly in soft pink. Kannon was quite beautiful in the clear day and wore a very peaceful expression. Inside the figure was an ornate shrine with some interesting instruments nearby with the largest wooden block I’ve ever seen. There were dozens of small wooden carvings within as well. The Temple hosts a festival in September prompting international residents and visitors to open stalls, with an array of vegetarian dishes from around the world and other cultural displays.

 

I just might come back then.

Taya Caves

 

Carved by monks over a span of 500 years, the Taya caves are an overlooked but excellent excursion from almost anywhere in Kanagawa or Tokyo. They make for a great day trip regardless of weather. The shrine sits about thirty minutes by foot from Ofuna station. The caverns are all hand carved and not natural, but they are a lot more extensive that I imagined. We spent the better part of an hour and a half exploring the passageways, altars and carvings of this soft walled subterranean work of art and dedication.

You light candles as your light source and use these to bring the details of the artwork out of the walls. There are incandescent bulbs throughout the tunnels, so don’t worry if your candle goes out, there are several sources of flame throughout the caves at various alters as well. I would love to experience these caverns without the incandescent lights though. It would make for an incredible experience, and as the cave was started around 1200, a bit more authentic. Some of the higher carvings might warrant a flashlight to get a detailed look, by the way.

 

One of my favorite parts of the shrine is a small circular spot with a fountain flowing to the right of a small alter and carvings of turtles and birds that have held up phenomenally. It is amazing that these carvings have stayed intact throughout the years in the damp cave. I’m no geologist, but the walls seemed to me to be nothing more than clay and dirt.

 

There were several long tunnels that stretched far beyond the light of a candle. They were partially blocked, so not open to tourists however. I haven’t been able to find any additional information out about them, but will update here if I do.

 

One note: I learned after leaving that no photos are allowed in the cave. The carvings and tunnels are best enjoyed by candlelight and not through a lens in any case.

Okinawa and Tokashiki Island

 

There aren’t many better places to sneak off to when winter is bearing its fangs than a beach and warm clear water. I really recommend anyone feeling the need to get away from the cold to just head south a bit from wherever you are, even if it’s only for a weekend. Flights can be found for cheap these days, and with a bit of creativity and an open mind, lodgings can be had for fractions of the costs of traditional hotels. Many places in the northern hemisphere have their ‘off-season’ in the first few months of the year, but they are still amazing to visit, with the benefit of ditching the crowds and discounted prices at many places. Some services and shops don’t open of course, and you might need to bring a light jacket, but I would say the benefits outweigh the slight negatives.

Okinawa is wonderful in January. I stayed for three nights and the weather rarely dipped below 25 Celsius (70s in F). It rained on and off sporadically while I was there, but that usually just presented opportunities to make new friends while waiting out the rain. Or, protip, if you’re underwater, the rain doesn’t matter much. I spent the entirety of one storm scuba diving with a great company.

 

Speaking of diving, the prices were really reasonable for basic dives. I paid ~$85 for a two-hour (one under) boat dive around a coral bay. I dove in the gorgeous waters of Tokashiki island, which are so blue the Japanese have a special name for the color. The water was also the clearest that I have ever dived in, perhaps sixty-foot visibility. There were some impressive fish and octopi around the corals, even though this time of year the area is practically barren relative to the summer, according to my dive lead. January is the peak time to see sea turtles and whales around Okinawa though. I met a nice Japanese couple, both teachers, who saw (from what I could deduce between my terrible Japanese and their good English) several humpback whales and sea turtles from a boat nearby. I did not unfortunately, see any sea turtles or whales. Sea turtles are my favorite animal as well. I ended up meeting the couple and their son again on the way to the airport and they were kind enough to invite me into a club while we waited for our flight; nice folks.

 

Tokashiki itself was a beautiful island that I would not have minded spending more time on. A short ferry ride (one hour or 30 min depending on if you take the ‘slow’ or jet ferry) brings you to the island. The ferry only runs a few times a day though, so I would recommend planning out your activities or staying the night. There are accommodations available there, both cheap hostels and hotels, as well as scooter rentals, and you could spend several days relaxing there with a full schedule. If I return to Okinawa, I will definitely make it a point to see what the island offers at night. Some friends I made at the hostel stayed there one night, and gave good accounts. The beaches are wide, the water is warm (in January, a wetsuit is optional) and there are plenty of places to rent whatever equipment you might want. The surf wasn’t terribly impressive at the beaches I went to, but apparently, there are decent places to ride some waves. The restaurant near the ferry is definitely worth checking out by the way. I had some solid curry udon, with a complementary ‘pumpkin’ (read: squash) soup that was some of the best I’ve ever had.

 

The hostel that I stayed at, Sora, was a great deal at ~$11/night for a shared room. Full services with washer/dryer, shower, etc. and recommendations and references to anything you might want around Okinawa, whether that is a tour, aquarium trip (incredible aquarium north of Naha), vehicle rentals, or restaurants. The staff is very friendly and so were the guests. I actually ended up meeting up with some of them in Tokyo a few weeks afterward for some delicious ramen. I’m not sure if they offer private rooms though. If you want, there are many options for accommodations in Naha, from open tatami mat hostels for less than 10USD to full hotels and ryokan. Sora is a great spot though, located near the monorail, downtown, and the ferry docks.

 

Okinawan food is a crazy and delicious meld of Ryokan, Japanese, Chinese, SE Asian and American cuisine. Local specialties include squid ink rice, goya/bitter melon, taco rice, uni-budo (salted seaweed-DIP THIS IN SOY SAUCE PLEASE), and Okinawan soba, which is a much more processed noodle than what you will find in the northern parts of Japan. On my first night here, after spending the day at Tokashiki, I went out for a ten (?) course meal with some people from the hostel and we were able to try a great assortment of local fare for less than $30 with nomihodai. Oh, the Okinawans are naturally big on seafood. On my last day, a group of us went to the fish market and had some seriously delicious and fresh seafood. I tried an Okinawan bitter melon beer here as well, which was pretty interesting. The bitter melon has a sharp bite to it that fads quickly and smoothly, and it is no wonder that it is a local favorite. The local liquor is awamori, made from Thai rice, and has a flavor similar to shouchu.. or a mild whisky. It is occasionally bottled with a viper, just for added fun and discomfort. Definitely worth trying while here. Speaking of drinking, after the meal, we went out for a nightcap and after shying away from the more interesting districts in town, ended up at a shooting bar. You could choose between a variety of dozens of pistols and semiauto airsoft rifles to shoot down a gallery set up alongside the bar. A fairly ridiculous concept that is really fun in execution. Check it out.

 

My last full day in Okinawa was spent visiting castles, shrines and museums. My first stop was Shuri castle, rebuilt after WWII, the castle takes up an impressive amount of real estate of the relatively small area of Naha. Walking the outer walls takes the better part of half an hour, and the gardens outside the castle spread quite a way down a river. The main portion of the castle is in vivid red and gold, and the whole grounds hold a relaxed, unhurried feel that went nicely with the warm day (sweating in January is excellent). I attended a tea ceremony in the castle looking out into a coral garden which was really relaxing. They served a type of sweet Jasmine tea with an assortment of cookies and sweets, including chinsuko, which tastes like shortbread, and various simple fat and sugar cookies in intricate designs. If you go to the castle, definitely attend a tea ceremony, they should not be skipped. Plus, the fee was only 300 yen (<$3).

 

After Shuri castle, I made the terrible mistake of deciding to walk to the imperial gardens “nearby”. Two hours later, I had seen some impressive graveyards, highways, ate some great katsudon (deep-fried pork and egg over rice), and was seriously regretting my decision. Once I got to the gardens though, the sweat was worthwhile. Once a second home for the Ryokan royal family, the gardens retain the peace and tranquility they once had. The main attraction here is the pond, with a carved stone and coral bridge crossing it, and the main house which was an intriguing snapshot of how the past kings of Ryokan spent their leisure time.

 

I spent the rest of the day traveling to shrines and museums, too many to go into here. A highlight was the Fukushu-en garden, next to the Confucian shrine, a large garden filled with sculpture and carved rock. The focal point is a pagoda on top of a massive carved stone, with a waterfall off the front face. You can walk inside the stone in a series of black tunnels, which is worth the entrance fee alone. Oh, a note on that, you can avoid the fee as a foreigner apparently. Not that the 300 yen is going to break the bank. Naminoue shrine was a great spot as well. It is remarkable to look at, built on a cliff above a beach. The temple was in the process of collecting and burning last years’ charms while I was there, so it was quite crowded, and I didn’t linger, but if you find yourself in Naha at the very least I would look up at the shrine from the beach below. Especially as the other view from the beach is the highway overpass.

 

On a more personal note, the past few months have been incredibly trying for me and my family. To be honest, I’ve never come up against a challenge as great as the one I’m going through now, and some challenges just can’t be solved head on. I have always found the ocean to be a restorative place for me though, both physically and mentally. I spent less on this vacation than I spend a month on transportation, and it was sorely needed. The incredible waters of Okinawa definitely brought me a bit of peace.

Sumo in Tokyo! Or rather, the Edo museum

 

The Grand Sumo Tournament takes place in Tokyo in September, and is the biggest of the six sumo tournaments in the year. Unfortunately, this also means that tickets sell out very early in the morning. Not knowing this, a few friends and I went to attend the tournament, arriving before the start to discover that tickets had sold out hours before. If you want to get a general admission ticket, be prepared to be at the stadium the moment tickets go on sale. Other tickets are available of course, but prices go up to several hundred dollars for other seats, and also sell quickly.

The day was not wasted though, as right next to the stadium is the excellent Edo museum. This museum has full scale building replicas throughout, including housing examples from the Edo period up through the 1960s. You can’t go inside the buildings, but they show the slice of life of Japanese citizens very well, and tell great stories intrinsically. There are also dozens of scale models of architecture and cities throughout the museum with beautiful attention to detail.

 

Tokyo has been built and rebuilt many times throughout its history, and the museum shows how the city has evolved throughout these changes, whether the changes were natural disasters like the great Kanto earthquake, fires, or caused by man and war. It is sobering to see some of the devastation, but the city and the people of Japan have always gone to rebuild something greater than it was before.

 

We ended the trip with a flight at a local brewery built under a train line, and the always delicious sushi train, where you can eat great food for cheap prices. It’s a great way to try samples of many different dishes without breaking the bank. Beer in Japan is heavily taxed (due to a malt tax on top of liquor tax) but the industry is starting to try novel styles lately to cater to westerners and adventurous Japanese alike. I’ll go more in depth into Japanese breweries in a later article.

Double tenth Taiwanese Festival in Chinatown

There’s nothing quite like attending a festival celebrating the beginning of a new era in China, the founding of the Republic of China, while in the heart of the largest Chinatown in the world. Yokohama’s Chinatown is deserving of its own article, with its plethora of great restaurants,  snacks, vendors and museums. The double tenth or ten ten festival dates back to the 1910s and the main celebratory affairs here were the lion dances and their explosive accompaniments.

There were at least four teams of lion dancers, who would dance under the lion costumes through small shops and crowded restaurants before emerging outside with some encouragement from drummers and loud crowds. The dance culminates at each store with the dancers hopping on each other’s shoulders during a “cai quin” and grabbing ‘green leaves’ (here the leaves were fortunes, cash envelopes or crisp bills from the business proprietors from what I could tell) held from the second or third story windows to bring luck to the business. The money in the envelope is a reward for the lion dancers. The lions seemed to leave behind symbols at each shop made out of food, but I wasn’t able to read the characters.

 

Of course, my friend and I had to get some pork buns while in Chinatown. When I first came to Japan these were my daily breakfast more days than not. Due to short funds, our main meal was at a cheap 24-hour ramen dive in motomachi, but even a three dollar meal is pretty filling if you know what to order. I will definitely need to return to Chinatown soon and experience a proper Chinese tabehodai with some friends.

Odawara

Odawara castle is a five story castle built in the fifteenth century, although the building you see there today is certainly not the original. The compound has been torn down and rebuilt several times with 1960 being the most recent work on the current building. The castle is a quick walk from the station and has an interesting museum inside with scale models of the original compound as well as various artifacts and tools from the Hojo clan. There is also a rotating exhibit on the third floor. The small fee of 500 en is definitely worth the price, the view from the top alone is almost worth it.

There are some spectacular views from the fifth story observation deck from where you can see most of Odawara and Mt. Oyama among a number of smaller peaks in the range. After leaving the castle, we went down to the beach and discovered that it was wetsuit season. Summer has definitely left Japan, although temperatures are still sweat inducing every now and then. We ate kurage (Japanese fried chicken breast) at a Hawaiian restaurant with colossal portions attached to one of the everpresent pachinko parlors. I suppose if you lose all your en gambling at least you can get a good meal afterward.

 

Sadly this month is a rather tight one budget wise, so I didn’t get to check out the nightlife in Odowara, which looks quite lively. But we headed into Yokohama for a brief hoppy sochu or two at a favorite izekaya to round off the night.

Lake Toya, Hokkaido

 

In the late spring I traveled up to Hokkaido with Heather on a trip meant to relax. Usually my travels around Japan center on seeing as much as possible in limited time. The trip delivered on relaxation. Hokkaido is a beautiful and open island, covered in rolling hills and endless greenery. I drove for the first time Japan, and after getting used to driving on the left hand side of the road I was having a blast. Japan has some confusingly low speed limits (80kmph on the highway… about 50) that everyone seems to ignore, which suited me just fine. The green hills rolling past reminded me of the Shenandoah valley in Virginia, with the added excitement of steam from geothermal activity and fog here and there.

It’s famed in Japan for its agriculture, and all of the fresh fruit and vegetables we ate on the island attest to that. The milk from its cows is exceptional too, due to diet or perhaps the lifestyle choice of the cows (there is a very low smoking rate among Hokkaido dairy cattle). If you do go, definitely get yourself some hot Hokkaido milk at some point.

 

We stayed at a nice hotel in a room overlooking lake Toya, formed in a volcanic caldera. The hotel had a public bath which I utilized as much as possible. Onsen and public bath houses are an essential part of any trip to Japan. I can’t stress this enough. The experience can be a bit disconcerting for westerners, but there aren’t many better ways to relax for an hour. They are typically less than 500 en ($5) to stay as long as you like and have everything you need to get clean and relaxed. When entering an onsen or public bath, the first thing you do is strip naked and clean yourself while sitting on a tiny stool in front of your own showered area. It’s really important to scrub thoroughly here, so as not to contaminate the communal bath (don’t be a dick). After rinsing any soap/shampoo you step into a large spa essentially. These can be heated at various temperatures, but 40 is a pretty standard temperature. There’s a rule that you can measure the tubs temperature by eyeballing the age of the people in the tub… in celcius. Some baths even have a cold tub you can dunk in after a good hot soak, but not here.

 

Lake Toya itself is gorgeous. Clear blue waters surround a large island that you can take a ferry to. The island has a floating shrine and some really relaxing footpaths, just be careful not to crush the giant snails that like to hang out on it (guilty). You can rent anything from speedboats to rowboats on the shores of the lake as well, for reasonable rates. Around 8 pm every night fireworks are launched over the lake as well. You can watch them from the shore or take a night ferry which is styled as a floating castle to enjoy them in style. We opted for the former.

 

The food around lake Toya is great as well. There are some excellent restaurants in town that are really cheap for the atmosphere and food quality. I had a dish of baked pasta and mussels for half of what it would cost anywhere in the US while in a gardened restaurant.

 

There is plenty of quality hiking around the area as well. Mt. Showa-Shinzan is an active magma dome that is an awesome shade of ochre. You can hike (or cable car) up some nearby hills to see it from above and enjoy some stunning views. The hike is a lot of work, but we met a 70 year old man hiking up, so you have no excuses. There are also some ruins from a mudslide you can explore. A school was completely enveloped by mud up to desk height, and there are several apartment buildings in down that had to be evacuated. Seeing modern buildings vacant reminded me of the constant dangers that the islands of Japan faces with regard to natural disasters. In a moment, you might have to change your entire life.

 

Koenji’s awa Odori Festival

The awa odori matsuri is part of the Obon (including bon odoris) festival season which celebrates the spirits of the dead (similar to Halloween in the west)  and dates back to the twelfth century and is famed in the Tokushima prefecture, where the biggest awa odori festivals are held. Koenji has its own spectacular take on the festival, with over a hundred groups of dancers and musicians playing the lute, drums (taiko), flute (shinobue), and cymbals or the kane bell while dancing in a parade. The music of the drums is epic and you feel it like standing next to the speaker at a wompy dub show [recording]. It’s pretty hard to resist the urge to join in the dance yourself! The food consists of typical festival fare, with most of it sold by locals or stalls operating from restaurants or conbinis.

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Each group does their own dance in various styles, including the ‘dance of fools’ which involves some graceful handwaving and big smiles all around. The dance originates from a large 16th century castle opening where everyone drank copious amounts of sake and started staggering about while friends joined in with instruments. I had a bit of sake myself as the festival wound down, joining a few new friends for gyooza (fried dumplings) and a drink or two. Koenji is a vibrant and friendly part of Tokyo that I would recommend to any nightlife lover. There is a multitude of izekaya and restaurants underneath and around the train tracks with cheap drinks and friendly staff. The district also has a lot of clothing shops, new and used, for any fashion lovers out there.