Kunitachi/ Stripped down

I had been told about the onsens before I came, but never really understood what they were all about, and had some men’s sauna type club in my head. So when my mums friend offered to take us and show us the ropes, we were well up for it. Though neither rachel or I were shy of nudity, it was strange to think in half an hour, the three of us and her 19year old daughter would all be walking around, kit off. 

Entering it was much like a private gym. A restaurant, vending machines with snacks and ice creams. Then as we turned things got crazy again. A room full of fat boy chairs, each with their own tv. Bookcases of dvds to choose from. The room was filled with people in their robes chilling out, relaxing. As we kept walking to the changing rooms, we passed a massage parlour. Coco explained how people sometimes would come and spend the day here; steam room, hot spring, food, movie and so on. We stripped down and filled our lockers, left only with a small square towel equivalent to a face flannel. To everyone else this was all very normal. They would grow up coming here with their parents, just like going to the swimming pool. 

Laid out in front of us we’re two rows of open boothed vanity mirrors. Sat on low stalls were long slender backs of clear fair skin. Their slight curves delicately balanced as they reached up to run their hands through their long dark hair. Water showering upon them. 

Every unit, had a hand held shower hose, and three large pumps of high quality fragrant shampoo, conditioner and shower cream. Each women would sit on their stall and slowly wash themselves. Taking their time and enjoying the ritual. It was a strange experience to sit their naked, to be publicly sat in front of the mirror watching yourself wash. Intimate and relaxing, apposed to the shower rush we would have in such a space at home. The idea was that you took your time to cleanse yourself before sharing the water with others. It was a sign of respect and therefore done thoroughly. 

Once clean, you would place the little square on top of your head, balancing it their in case you need it later. As for the pools. So many opinions, a cherry blossom infused spring, a normal hot spring and cold bath. A shallow pool, maybe a few inches to lie in and rest your head on the wooden block. A jacuzzi with chairs inside to lie back on outside looking to Mount Fuji. Deck chairs to just lie naked under the starts and feel the fresh air. Back inside a steam room, equipped with a tv to sit and watch the latest episode of a Japanese soap. Then finally the steam room, again tv, but also buckets of sea salt to scrub on you and let melt in the water. A full spa experience for sure! 

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Toyko/ A dichotomy

 

Arriving in Japan I was ready for a glimpse of the future. Of bullet trains and tall glimmering towers, of technical advancement, robots and super slick efficiency. It certainly was all that and more. Filled with quirks and contradictions, it took me a while to get my head around both the city and the culture. 

The first thing to observe entering the airport was how clean everything was. Four bins lined up to separate out rubbish for recycling. No litter, sparkling floors. For the first time in months I wasn’t in mud, dirt and flies! Instead I had traded by bucket of water and hole in the ground, for a toilet that not only provided you with a warm seat and music, but would spray warm water and dry you too! 

The next thing I would start to notice, was how ordered everything was.  People stood patiently in lines to board the metro. They generally kept themselves to themselves, quiet, reserved. Later I would experience how much so, when getting stares for crossing the road- not a car insight, but people would wait until the light was green to cross. They respected the system. They were well dressed and presented, smiling, friendly. It would seem they didn’t often show much outward displays of emotions, no holding hands. Just small notions to recognise each other. Soft uttered words. Modest people. Though here lay a city screaming with adventure, a playground of lights and oddities, anything but reserved and modest. High fashion luxuries, harajuku girls, the skater goth crowd with purple streaks in their hair. Cat cafes, maids cafes, love hotels, 7 storey sex shops covered in sexualised anime characters, manga, gaming centres, rows upon rows of bars, magic bars, massage parlours, puppies parlours, naked Onsens, geishas, robot kabore, robot run hotels, sleeping capsules, comic stores with sleeping capsules, kareoke booths, vending machines serving meals….the list goes on. 

Here lies a city that could keep you entertained for years. Incredible art exhibitions, beautiful parks, even better food. Behind all of its tall glimmering buildings, something to please your every desire! 

Boracay/ Drum to the rhythm of your heart

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Long white beaches, crystal clear waters and a stirring drum beat that echos from bar to bar. The party island. With my best girlie in hand, together we were ready to take on the island. Checking into your classic party hostel, where beers were being served to hungover travellers for breakfast! By day enjoying the many beautiful beaches, getting our tan on, sampling one to many beachside cocktails, making our way to Spiderhouse for sunset as come night Boracay had different plans for us.  The night would bring The jungle boys. 15 Filipino Rastas drumming to the night, howling down the moon. Jumping the fire. Chests bare, hair swinging they’re primal beats filled the air as we were sired in to dance. Learning more about the island drum circle we discovered one of them, from New York, was in fact the lead drummer of Santa and part of the New York 72nd circle, but left for love of the island! Later I would try my luck at drumming only to wake up the next day with swollen bruised hands- oops! 

El Nido/ Paradise on earth

A horizon of sparkling deep blues and greens sit beyond us. Crystal clear waters wash upon the powdered white sand. On either  side shadows the valleys of lagoons, heavy, dark rocks, with their imposing weight framing the tropical pallete upon us.

Digging our toes into the sand and sipping on a fresh coconut and rum, surely this had to be paradise. Natural beauty. Completely untouched, a breathtaking force of scale and power. Serine. It makes you think what the hell we did to the rest of the world, how could you destroy this- pollute it, cut it down!  From private islands you can hire for dinner for two, to my favourite floating rum bar, or the tower catherdral caves and shallows of nemo styls fish, this was incredible. To top it off we stubbled across the beautiful Bird’s Nest. Set up by honeymooners Mark and Camilla, they had created a glamping spot just off the beach in the hills looking out to the ocean. Decor that you wish was your house, great playlists, the perfect book collection, homebaked treats in the afternoon and delicious large bottle of red for sunset, what more could a gal ask for!

Manila/ Wacky races

Its hot, sticky, noise in every direction. Street food vendors calling out at you, the whiff of fried chicken and BBQ meat. Tightly compact buildings and a skyline of towers in the distance. Manila was familiar to many other Asian cities I had previously explored. Only this time it was like real life had been inter cut with a comic strip. A brush tainting reality. Bright pops of primary colours filled the streets, as 1/3 men passing you by rocked a basketball jersey. Big trucks, scattered everywhere where tricycles. Colourful geometric- transformer like boxed shaped vechiles, powered by a bike. Each one rocking its own cartoon like slogan; ‘thunderbird’ or ‘princess leia’ Even the bikes looked like the belonged to power ranges! With their sharp angular shapes and vivid paint jobs. Nothing about the public transport here was either subtle or formal! 

As the traffic whizzes by it was like looking at a scene from wacky races- the cars, vans and tricycles in all their shapes and sizes, waiting for the lights, revving ready to take off. 

Amongst the madness, Manila holds its own quirks- with loud brash kareoke, obscure cafes such as the random Harry Potter cauldron cafe or cockerel fighting, which I made a swerve for! 

Coron / Only mermaids

 

My teeth clenched hard, tense, aware I was breathing but certain I may stop. Heavy deep breaths, telling myself to relax, then in pours a rush of cold salty water to my eyes, up my nose. Ok…just breathe, hold your googles, head back, blow your nose. Ok my googles weren’t quite free from water yet. I think it was fair to say Jade and I hadn’t quite mastered our diving training. The next 15 mins were spent half choking and spitting salt water, the other half offering moral support looking back into each other’s eyes, counting down our next emergency practice.  Our instructor came back to test us and gave us the thumbs up- we were mermaid ready! Channeling my inner Ariel, we kicked our way down to the deep blue oceans. 

Coron is all about the world that lays beneath the water- numerous sunken shipwreck and coral reefs. As we kicked we got closer to the Irko wreck. The long dark matter that sat amongst the many blue tones and small fishes. It’s uneven edges, where it has become part of the sea bed. It’s presence known to all around, as we swam around it. 

I felt like part of the documentary team exploring the titanic, as our instructor pulled us through the open door into the wreckage. Immediately your sense of gravity disappears. The boat on a 45degree, we swam through the archways, exploring each room no longer sure which way was up and which was down. Darkness pours into the room, we stay close as we make our way to the exit, a void of dark blue. Nothing to distinguish your location. You did not want to get lost down here, in that moment it was easy to see how one can feel trapped in a mass is space.  Before pondering too long on such a thought, we would move to the corals. A beautiful array of colours; schools of fishes, the spikes of sea urchins and slowing moving organisms, one minute closed the next an array of colours. A whole new world for sure! 

Japan/ Sushi

‘Oshii’ or as we would say delicious…four styles of sushi that I learnt from the lovely Reira

To serve 4 or about 40 pieces:

  • 3 Cups of sushi rice
  • 120ml of sushi vinegar
  • 3 cups of water, plus an extra bowl for keeping the knife and your fingers wet
  • 300-400g of fresh raw fish (we used salmon, fatty tune and seabream
  • Wasabi
  • Seaweed paper (Nori)
  • Veg as you wish- cucumber/ nettle leaves/ avacado
  • Dark Soy Sauce
  • Pickled ginger
  • Sesame seeds (for Californian rolls)

 

Norimaki style-

Wash the rice in cold water, place in saucepan and add 3 cups of water. Reira’s trick – The rice should come up half way up your finger, then the water would come up to you knuckle.

Add saucepan lid and on full heat bring to the boil. Once bubbling, reduce to a low heat. Leave for 10-15mins, until the water has absorbed. Take off the heat and leave to cool. ideally if you have a flat lid you canDSCF0244 - コピー turn the pan upside down, resting in the lid to cook further very, very slowly whilst cooling.

In a wide wooden bowl add a heaped serving spoon size of the rice. You could yous a salad bowl. You want something that is wide to cool the rice down and want conduct the heat, added benefit of the wood is the vinegar when DSCF0235 - コピーyou add it wont sit at the bottom as it would in glass. Add a large drizzle of the vinegar and fold in. Continue to keep adding more rice, then vinegar to evenly mix together. Ideally if you had another person they could fan the rice for it to cool as you mix. When nearly there taste- the rice should be a bit softer than al dente, slightly sticky and gluttonous with a subtle hint of the vinegar.

Now theDSCF0297 - コピー rice is ready time to get rolling! Put the sushi bamboo rolling matt on a chopping board. The rolling matt should have a varnished side, have this facing up. Now lay down the Nori, then put a few dollops of rice on the paper, leaving around 1.5cm gap at the top. Then  wet your fingers and use your knuckles to press it out. It DSCF0269 - コピーshould be only a few mm high.

Then take a pea size amount of wasabi and line down the middle evenly. Now, time to cut the fish. Slice with a sharp blade, each slice should be around 0.5mm thick. Don’t squeeze or press to hard- slice gently. Now the fish is prepared, you can add a layer of fish to the roll. DSCF0305 - コピー

Once the fish, has been added, and any veg you may like you can roll.  With your thumb and forefinger hold the corners, then with your other fingers press in the middle where the fish is and fold over.DSCF0306 - コピー Roll, once rolled press firmly, squeezing the roll. some rice may come out the edges, so using wet fingers push it back in and tidy it up. then unroll the may to leave you with the sushi roll.

When it comes to cutting, always cut in the middle, cutting each piece in half then half again and so on.  Fold some kitchen roll and wet, then wipe the knife so it too is wet. Then put the back of the blade on the middle, knife point tilting up, slice through in a semi circle motion. Once you have cut all the pieces, tidy them up and serve with dark soya sauce and picked ginger.

 

California roll style – (essentially inside out!)

Put cling film over the rolling matt. Scatter seseame seeds, then add the rice as you did before. Add veg and fish, then the nori ontop. Once you have done this a little more rice, you could get fancy and add a thin layer of cooked egg! add wasabi, then role as you did before. Before cutting remove cling film, Slicing sushi will be harder so ensure knife is always wet.

So if you have lots of people and can’t be assed to spend the time rolling then this style is for you.

Temaki  (Basically you make your own cone)

Put the Nagi in your hand, add a dollop of rice, then add wasabi and the fish and bend into a cone shape.

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Finally one for the picnics.

Temari

Get a square of cling film, lay the fish down in a cross pattern, add thin layers of veg if you like then add a dollop of rice. fold the cling film around the dollop to form a ball, tighten the edges and twist. you can leave them in the cling film until you are ready to eat, remove layer and all the tasty balls await you!

Inle lake/ Stilted

It’s so bloody cold. Dressed to tan, we wrap the blankets around us, as the water splashes back and the air hits us hard. The long narrow boat cuts through the water, through the hazy grey setting, as we lookout to a what seems like a sea of pale blues and whites. The river is wide and on either side is the occasional spouts of the green and muddy brown marsh land.  Entering our vision, are what seems like flamencos; gracefully stood dancing on the water surface, long silhouetted lines of their extended legs, forming balletic postures.  In our sight were the famous long boat men. Each with a foot wrapped around long sticks, as they guide their boats and fish.  We had arrived at Inle Lake, a cluster of villages living on the nearl water, home to over 70,000 people!

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Unlike in Kerala, where man made banks had been made around the houses, these villages sat wholly on the water. house raised on stilts and boats parked underneath. As you go through you can find temples, monasteries, markets, silversmiths, silk makers, blacksmith. Rowing through the villages, past the small raised spaces you can start to feel claustrophobic, the idea of being prohibited to this defined space. Yet on the other hand you are in awe at the way they have utilised the space, wondering how different it would be to live in this way moving from boat to station, to pavements or large spaces to run free.

The most innovative use of the water is the floating gardens. You see men hauling green gloopy weeds out of the river into their boats, as it engulfs all around them, sure to soon sink the boat,  yet they keep on loading. Later they will use bamboo poles to create an initial structure buried into the ground, where they will then weave the greenery around them creating a layer which they can then add compose to grow above. Lanes of fruit and veg will start to grow, a women on very narrow boats can then weave through piking up the produce as they reach out on the very edge of the boat. Watching this happen makes you think what the world could be like if we continue to flood all around us, the way we may have to life- on the edge of a boat!

 

Malange/ A simple life

DSCF7618Cycling through the dirt tracks, you can hear the giggles of children ahead. Entering the village, they wave, big grins eagerly awaiting our arrival. Some shy, they grasp at the leg of their mothers, poking their head around to see what all the excitement is about.  Today, we would visit four villages and be given the same warm welcome throughout. They would embrace us into their homes and show us the up most hospitality.

As part of the tour we would learn about the way of life, how each village was governed by their elder, their elected leader. If someone did wring they would discuss it as a village, Whilst the Burmese laws did of course apply, they very much run in isolation, only elevating matters to authorities if required. They explained the struggle they face and their collective objectives- security, electricity, more resources for education and medical security.  They would receive help from the government, but still looking for ways to see how they can improve their quality of life. Each village working the farms or local trades to earn a living and now welcoming in tourists, to show them around and feed them. Collectively they would take it in turns to cook dinner, distributing the wealth angst the four villages.  Despite, having little, working hard and facing some fundamentally living challenges these people seemed genuinely happy. They were sat around laughing together. To an extend they are living hand to mouth, not driven by the same competitive nature that drives the west.  Of course not all is as it seems on the surface, but to see so many with what seemed like genuine happiness in their faces, perhaps there is something to be said for less is more.

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Bagan/ Finding Nirvana

Sun creeps through the blinds and the chants of prayers, which have become our new alarm, ring loud around us. Throwing my tierd heavy body out of bed, into the shower and out the door, I would stand absorbed by the morning routine that awaited my eyes.  A stream of red robes, hung off the shoulders of young boys, shaved heads, bare foots as they stood patiently in line each holding out their bowl to collect food from the village. These were young men in training, a right of passage for all boys to enter a life devoted to Buddhism. Once they have learnt the teachings of Buddha and spent several weeks living on the monasteries they may choose if they wish to return to their families and lives or continue to the path of enlightenment.

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Buddhism for these people is more than a religion, a way of life. It is integral to their being.  It distinguishes their values, their beliefs, behaviours.  Like a Holy Communion or Bar Mitzvah, they will grow up to learn the teachings, celebrating their entrance into the monasteries, spending weeks away from their families.  Monks wondering the streets is a common site, as people continue to dedicate themselves to the teachings of Buddha.  A country adorned by temples. When Looking out to Old Bagan, to the earthy washed landscape of dry baron land, ancient temples take to the horizon.  Walking across the land, amongst the temples, there is a sense of calm, stillness across these quite grounds. Grounds that have been respected, worshipped for centuries.  It is these pagoda’s and temples where the people spend their time. When travelling you see limited places fro entertainment, cinemas, sports, clubs all limited, if at all. it is the festivals at the temples that people part take in. As a result you notice, how gentle, kind the Burmese are, they are modest and respectful. Despite, all they are subjected to  by the rulings of the country, they have faith, they stay true to what they belief in.