Accommodation Deals in Japan!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

When I was telling people I was off on a 3-week trip to Japan the most common response was, 'Japan, won't that be expensive?'

While that is a commonly held opinion in Australia, it seems that with a few things now in our favour (like a strong Aussie Dollar) and some careful planning a trip to Japan should be no more expensive than a visit to any other developed nation.

I will detail in another post money saving advice, but for now I just want to touch on accommodation.

In Japan, it is expected that you will book accommodation in advance, which can be difficult for a 'see where the moment takes you' traveller like myself.

As a result of this I came to love Wotif and Expedia where I could book my accommodation in the morning before moving on to the next town.

It also meant I was able to score some fabulous deals on rooms, and stay in places I wouldn't have been able to consider otherwise.

Take the fabulous Hotel Granvia in Kyoto:-











The Hotel Granvia, Kyoto. Yes, that really was the view from our room.












By Japanese standards, the bathroom was ENORMOUS!


I managed to secure a rate of under $200 AUD per night for two people in the above room via the expedia site.

When I contacted reception the next morning to enquire about staying an additional night, I was offered a smaller room, and a rate more than double what I had found on-line.

Polish Fun in Melbournes Chappel Street


On a recent trip to Melbourne I had a fabulous afternoon in a Polish themed bar called Borsch, Vodka and Tears.



A nice move away from the over-abundant Irish themed pubs and bars, this place has an extensive vodka menu (shots and cocktails), as well as European beers, absinthe and wine.

There is a lunch menu but we just wanted something simple to line the stomach as it was the cocktails that we were interested in! (Unfortunately pickled herring and excessive alcohol consumption don't blend too well in my stomach.)

The cocktails, were sensational and two turned rapidly into five, and before we knew it the afternoon had disappeared and it was time to start thinking about dinner!


RAMBLE COCKTAIL this featuring Vodka, Gin and Blueberry Liquer is potent!

Located at the Prahan end of Chappel St (173 Chappel St), this bar is definitely worth a look next time you're in town.

Dreams come true at Tokyo Disneyland

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

While in Tokyo I managed to convince the B-Man to take me to Disneyland.

I’ve wanted to go since I was a child, and needless to say I was very excited the day it came to fruition.

The Disneyland in Tokyo was the first to be built outside the USA and is a replica of the Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

The Japanese of course make it extremely easy to get to and from the park.

We were staying in Shinjuku so we took the JR Yamanote line to Tokyo station, which took about 30 minutes. Here we transferred to the JR Keio line and hopped off at Maihama, which was covered by our JR Pass.

At Maihama your Disneyland experience begins as your board the Disney Monorail complete with Mickey Mouse windows. A single trip is Y250 (adult) y 130 (child) or a day pass can be purchase Y650 (adult) Y330 (child) which is a good idea if your are staying at the Resort or visiting both Disneyland and Disneysea.

Something I foolishly hadn’t considered before visiting Tokyo Disneyland, was that the rides would be in Japanese.

It was quite an experience traveling through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride with the narrator speaking another language. Interestingly though the character re-enactments were in English.

Being in Japan, the park was well organized and visitors waited patiently in line to visit rides, meet characters, and to purchase merchandise.

Disneyland visitors attempt to get up close with Minnie Mouse

Having never visited a Disneyland before I was not familiar with the Fast Pass concept that would have saved us a lot of time.

Fast Passes can be collected at popular rides, and basically reserve you a spot in the line at a given period. We didn’t catch on to the concept until we reached Splash Mountain and its 90 minute queue!

We headed to the Fast Pass machine, and although it was only 1.30pm, the Fast Pass could not get us on the ride until after 6pm that night! Had we known about the system and collected our Fast Pass when we arrived we would have been able to enjoy more rides on the day!

Of the rides we did experience, the Mad Hatters Tea Cups were definitely my highlight. We headed to the ride just after lunch as the line was much shorter, but for those with weak stomachs this is not recommended!

All smiles on the Mad Hatters Tea Cup Ride, even though it was right after lunch!

Another tip for those wishing to limit their time lining up is to head to some of the more popular rides while the parade is on. A large number of visitors (especially those with young children) try to catch a glimpse of the parade and their favourite characters so the lines are generally much shorter during this time.

Crowds gather for the 25th Anniversary parade
Overall the day was thoroughly enjoyable and my childhood dreams were not disappointed.

Some Things You Should Know before heading to Fuji Rock!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last few weeks, I am currently travelling through Japan and have been too busy seeing the sites and enjoying myself to head to an internet cafe!

The initial reason for the trip was to check out Fuji Rock, a 3 day music festival in Naeba, north of Tokyo.

While the festival was fabulous, and considerably better than those at home, there are a couple of things I wish I had known beforehand.

1. Bring Ear Plugs
The campsite is directly behind the stage and the music will pump till 4 or 5am!







2. Campsite Selection is Key
While flat ground is more comfortable and certainly a good place to be if it rains (and trust me, it WILL rain), it also gets really really hot once the sun rises. If you have to comprise some level ground for shade, do it!











3. Don't Laugh at People in Gumboots
Like I said, it will rain, gumboots are a very good option.
The festival is also spread over a large area so comfortable working shoes are a must.


4. Don't Forget the Insect Repellent
At Fuji Rock you will see countless bugs you have never before encountered....Do as the locals do and cover yourself in repellent.

5. BYO Alcohol!
Yes, I know it's hard to believe, but at Fuji Rock you can bring your own booze to the festival and the campsite. No cans or glass can be taken into the festival site but they are happy for you to pour your spirits into a plastic bottle before heading in.
If you can, take an esky - again, no problems!

6. Embrace Your Nudity
The festival is visited by 160,000 people on average each year. Only 5 western showers are available (in addition to a couple of Japanese style bath houses) for each sex. The showers basically involve nuding up in front of others and stepping into an open cubicle which has a divider separating it from the others, while your backside shines to those in line.

7. Vegetarians love your Mushrooms!
Not the hallucinogenic kind.... Fuji doesn't have a lot of meat free people options and I found I was heading stir-fried mushies on rice a couple of times a day... It was tasty, but not after 3 days!





8. If you see a line join it.
The Japanese love lines...if you see one it is probably going somewhere you should be.






9. Bring your own chair.
Again, a change from Festivals at home, if you can bring your own camping chair and mark out a possie early. No seating is available and it is quite possible to go 4 days without seating in a real chair!





10. Sleep whenever and where ever you can!
The locals have the ability to sleep anywhere and everywhere - it makes the waiting in line go faster!

Tasty Delights off the Tourist Trail in Thailand

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I feel like I am giving away a secret that I will come to regret. A place of beauty off the tourist trail, which once named may not remain that way for long. I guess that is the irony of travel writing!

So, here's the big secret.....

In our trip south from Bangkok we decided to visit a number of small towns that were not frequented by tourists. We were hoping to experience the real Thailand, outside of tourist hot spots like Phuket and Bangkok. Which is exactly what we found in Prachuap Kiri Khan.

The town is roughly 280 kms from Bangkok, which equates to about 5.5 hours by train (although most information states between 3 and 4).




A number of chain hotels (think Hilton, Sheraton, Sofitel etc etc) attract tourists in droves to the beach resort of Hua Hin, 100kms north. If fancy pools, western toilets and comforts are your thing than look no further.

Those willing to sacrifice the creature comforts to meet local people and feast on the most amazing Thai food will be rewarded in Prachuap, although it does lack a decent swimming beach.
Prachuap Kiri Khan is a fishing town and it's worth visiting just to taste the cheap and abundant local seafood. A great place to try this is at the north end of town, where there is an amazing nightly food market.



I can recommend the seafood omellette, the mango salad featuring calamari, prawns and mussels and if that's not enough the seafood noodle soup. YUM!





Also at this end of town is Wat Thammikaram, which can be reached by climing a steep mountain to the top. I was keen to make the climb (and it is meant to be quite rewarding) but I was scared away by the monkeys at the bottom! (I'm not very brave!).






I strongly recommend a night or two in this town if you are taking the train south to Phuket. It break up the long and uncomfortable train journey, and you will be rewarded with the most amazing food (the best Thai food I've eaten) and an experience of the real Thailand out of the tourist resorts.

Cat Ba Island - Halong Bay

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Look at any itinerary for a visit to the north of Vietnam and it will almost certainly include a trip to the famed Halong Bay. Visiting in the winter months can see the beauty of the area shrouded in fog, and for backpackers who have invested money that is in short supply that is can be devastating. An alternative is a visit to Cat Ba Island, the largest of the 3,000 island that rise from Halong Bay.


We visited the area during the Vietnamese winter (between December and March) and had heard reports of travelers paying for an overnight boat-trip in the Bay only to see very little due to poor visibility and spend the evenings freezing cold. Not inspired by this, we instead opted to go straight to Cat Ba, which is often included on the second day of packages purchased in traveler cafes in Hanoi.

Getting to Cat Ba Island is quite easy on your own, no tours or guides are necessary.

From Hanoi, you need to make your way to Haiphong where the ferries leave for the island. We opted for an afternoon train ride from Hanoi, such that we arrived in Haiphong in the evening, stayed overnight to ensure we would be on the first ferry in the morning. Aside from the joys of negotiating a ferry ticket the journey was pain free.

We were greeted by a number or representatives from the guesthouses opposite the ferry dock. As it was the low season we were able to negotiate a large room with water views for under $10 US a night.

The advantage of being on the island and having water views was that we were able to avoid the cold and rain, and watch the fog lift and then descend again from the comfort of our room, which was truly beautiful. The limestone casts which the area is famous for are amazing and worthy of their UNESCO World Heritage listing.



While on Cat Ba, hire a moto driver and head out to Cat Ba National Park. There’s plenty of wildlife to spot and some great walks. Be careful if visiting after rain, as there is a steep climb and the track can get quite muddy. I managed to fall on the flat part of track after climbing back down much to the amusement of my partner and the moto driver watching on!




While in the park, Hospital Cave is a must.

Hospital Cave (as the name suggests) is a Cave that was used by the Viet Cong as a hospital during the Vietnam War. Visitors are guided through the Cave by a former soldier who served here. He has limited English, but that only adds to the experience.




The island is also home to beautiful beaches, Cat Ba Co 1, 2 and 3. We were fortunate enough to see sunny skies on our last day and headed down to the beach. They were the nicest we saw in Vietnam (and we did check out a number of spots including the tourist hot-spot Nha Trang) and because of the season we had the beaches to ourselves.


A great way to end out two month journey through Vietnam.

Cat Ba Sunset from our hotel window







Beautiful Dalat

For travelers with enough time, I highly recommend a visit to Dalat in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Dalat is an extremely popular vacation town for the Vietnamese, but is not on the tourist trail followed by many international visitors, which is their loss really!

I found the temperature in Dalat similar to home (Sydney), it was sunny and warm but with a chill in the air and jumpers were required at night. It was a nice change from the humidity of Saigon (HCMC) and made seeing the town on foot a real joy.

Dalat was popular with the French during their time of rule, and the town does have a European feel – delicious pastries can be eyed from shop fronts, manicured gardens are plentiful, and even a miniature Eiffel tower!

The town is about 7 hours on a bus from Saigon (beware the tourist cafes that say only 4) and 5 from Nha Trang.

If you’re looking for a break from the hustle and bustle, then Dalat is for you. The people are friendly and the children scream ‘hello…HELLO’ desperate for your attention. At the end of the day my mouth was sore from so much smiling!







The roads are much easier to cross in Dalat!




Some on the 'cheesy' local sites
















Surviving Ho Chi Minh City

Friday, July 4, 2008

So you’ve just arrived in Ho Chi Minh City before you head out there are some things you need to know.

1. HOW TO CROSS THE ROAD

The first thing a visitor to Vietnam must learn is that pedestrian crossings and traffic lights are virtually non-existent in Vietnam. HCMC (or Saigon as those in the south still call it) has one of the highest population densities for any city in the world, and its residents own over 4 MILLION motorbikes, so crossing the road is not at all like at home.

video

When we first arrived I heard an ex-pat, who had been in Saigon some time, refer to the traffic as being similar to a school of fish – a large collective that flows around obstacles. Motorbike riders are used to people stepping out in front of them, so the trick is to ignore your fear and walk slowly, in a straight line across.

DO NOT STOP!

If you stop the drivers do not know which way you are going and are more likely to run into you. If you walk slowly enough they will be able to move around you.

2. GET A MAP AND PUT DOWN THE GUIDEBOOK

The great thing about Saigon is the friendliness of the locals. You will be greeted by big smiles and teenagers desperately wanting to practice their English, you’ll be surprised what crazy adventures they are willing to take you on!

Most guesthouses will have easy to follow street maps with the main tourist spots clearly marked. Grab one of these and head out to see what you can find. The main sites can be seen on a guided day tour, but most sights are within District 1 and easily reached on foot, so save your $$$s.


So now you’ve mastered the technique to cross the road and you’ve got a map in your hand, what should you not miss?

1. FINE ARTS MUSEUM

I am not an ‘arts’ person. I’ve been dragged to plenty of art galleries by my partner over the years and to be honest I’m one of those who can’t tell the difference from one painting to the next, and I certainly can’t find meaning and emotion beneath the brush strokes. But I really did like this place.

The building itself is an excellent of colonial French architecture and inside is a range of art-forms including sketches, paintings and pottery.

The second floor houses the museums permanent contemporary works and it was here I was the most captivated. There are some brilliant paintings from the Vietnam War and it’s the first time a painting has evoked emotion.

2. THE WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM


This museum evokes different feelings from each and every visitor. It contains relics and photographs from the American phase of the Vietnam War and is run by the Vietnamese Government.

Regardless of your feelings on the war, it is definitely a worthwhile to hear the story told from the other side.

3. BEN TANH MARKET



Spend some time getting lost in the Ben Tanh Market. With over 300 stalls if it hasn’t got it you don’t need it!


4. THE CHRISTINA NOBLE CHILDREN’S FOUNDATION

This suggestion is not one you’ll find on any tour.

Having experienced a horrific childhood in Ireland in the 1940s, Christina was well aware of how much children could suffer. Armed with nothing more than a dream to assist the children of Vietnam, Christina arrived in Saigon in 1989. Against significant odds and with no understanding of the Vietnamese language, Christina established a Medical Center for abandoned and malnourished children and later followed The Christina Noble Children’s Foundation.

Her story can be followed in two autobiographical novels, Bridge Across my Sorrows and Mama Tina.

Visits to the Foundation can be arranged via their website Christina Noble Children's Foundationand it offers travellers an opportunity to get outside the tourist district and get involved in the wonderful work they do.

Spending time playing with the children in the Social Centre is one of my most cherished memories from Vietnam, and I will definitely be going back when we return to Vietnam in November.


SIDE TRIPS

There a number of day trips that can be taken to sights outside Saigon. Most guesthouses will happily arrange the tour for you, but they can also be booked at a number of stores in the backpacker area of District 1.

1. CU CHI TUNNELS

During the Vietnam War, Viet Cong guerrillas built an amazing network of underground tunnels that are now known as the Cu Chi Tunnels. Visitors to the area are able to learn about the life of the soldiers and how they managed to survive.

As part of the tour, guests are taken through a section of the tunnel, which has been widened to accommodate Western tourists!

At the conclusion of the tour, visitors have the option of purchasing bullets to fire off different weaponry.

2. TAY NINH (CAO DAI TEMPLE)


When booking your trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, there is the option of including a visit to a Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh.

Tay Ninh is the original home of the Cao Dai religious sect which is an odd mix of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity, and their patron saints include Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Winston Churchill.

It certainly is a colouful affair and if time permits I highly recommend a visit.






5. MEKONG DELTA

A boat trip on the Mekong is a must for any visitor to Vietnam.

We used the trip as a means of crossing in to Cambodia. Our tour took 3 days, which was a bit of an overload and I couldn’t wait for it to end.

For those not going all the way to Cambodia, one day would be sufficient to experience what life is like on the Mekong River.

Tasmania on the cheap!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Thanks to the Australian Government the cost of traveling to Tasmania by vehicle ferry is now even cheaper!

In the recent Federal Budget, the Government increased the rebate on the Bass Strait Passenger Vehicle Equalistation Scheme. This has led to fares being slashed by up to 30%.

Tasmania (the somewhat forgotten State) is truly beautiful and offers something for everyone. Reaching the island by ferry allows visitors the chance to travel with a vehicle and experience more than just Hobart and Launceston. Those without sea legs should avoid Dec/Jan travel, as the king tide causes rough seas increasing the chance of sea sickness (I speak from experience!)

The Sea of Tasmania now only operates out of Melbourne. More information can be found on their website http://www.spiritoftasmania.com.au/

A FOOLHARDY CHALLENGE

In a couple of weeks I’ll be embarking on a camping holiday in Japan and have set myself a challenge – to downsize my pack.

Yep, I’m going from a 65 + 15L to a single 30 litres.

In this I need to fit a camping mat and pillow, a sleeping bag, as well as enough clothes for several weeks to suit a range of conditions, and let’s not forget the hair straightener.

So why have I set myself this challenge?

It’s quite simple; my partner doesn’t think I can do it!

Over the coming weeks I’ll be featuring tips and suggestions for packing smaller and lighter as I rise victorious! I’ll also be featuring destination suggestions for Vietnam as I know a number of you are planning trips for the not to distant future.

Alas, I have caved!

Monday, June 30, 2008

As a freelance journalist trying to make her way in the big bad world of the printed word, I have decided to create a blog as an opportunity to write more and also link some of my on-line works.

So that's good for me, but what's in it for you?

  • ADVENTURE - Not one to spend my weekends at home catching up on re-runs of the Simpsons; I can promise colourful tales of life in the Inner-West of Sydney and abroad. There will be music, beer and the odd injury!
  • TRAVEL - Having spent 5 months backpacking last year, there will be plenty of tips and stories as I recount time in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Next month I will be 'lost in translation' as I enbark on a camping holiday in Japan!
  • TIME OUT - From time to time we all need a distraction or an excuse to procrastinate. That's exactly what this blog will provide and surely it has to be better than answering another 'How Well Do You Know Me' survey!

That's all for now.... but stay tuned!