Posts Tagged With: city

Madrid: Street Entertainers, Lottery Booths and Ham Museums

I was surprised with myself that I’d never visited Madrid. After 10 years of learning Spanish, I guess I’d just never got around to it. I had in this time taken three trips to Barcelona but Madrid had never happened. So I felt a sympathy for Madrid before I even boarded the plane from Lisbon. Madrid turned out to be a pleasant surprise and an arty and bohemian yet smart and classy city.

Having said goodbye to Hannah in Lisbon, I was travelling on my own for the first time since I was in hospital in Bangkok and it felt really strange! On one hand, it was easy to just trundle around but on the other hand, I was yearning for someone to point out the street entertainers to. Street entertainers. That’s something they’re not short of in Madrid. There’s the good kind – my favourite was two men coated in gold, one of whom appeared to be floating on top of the other. Then there’s the Winnie the Poohs and Bart Simpsons and Spongebobs. I’ve never seen so many! They hover around La Puerta del Sol and the parks waiting for photos to be taken with then and cash to be handed over. I don’t have a problem with this, everyone has to make a living, but some of the costumes are just awful!

They don’t directly approach you, or maybe I just didn’t look like the type who wanted a photo with Woody Woodpecker. I was, however, approached by a couple of Eastern European deaf and dumb girls with a clipboard of “donations” who I’m sure I encountered once before in Paris. Pleasure to see them again.

There’s also a lot of ‘Once’ lottery booths, which although they make for pretty urban photos, did look a little shut most of the time. I have a feeling I remember studying about the Spanish lottery at A level and I’m sure I remember it’s a big thing, but perhaps only at certain times of the year. Do you know?

Other than the obvious choices of the Reina Sofia and Prado museums (both of which have free evenings on the weekend – a great time to visit Madrid!) I had been recommended by Hannah to visit a Museo de Jamón. This translates as Ham Museum. I’m not a big meat eater but I followed her advice and entered one of the infamous ham museums one lunch time. I didn’t regret it! With rows of meat, strip lights and mirrors, the place looked like it never ended. And with a ham baguette for just 1 Euro, I was onto a winner! I sat casually at the bar as if I knew what I was doing and ordered myself the 1 Euro sandwich advertised.

“Señor? Señor, can you cut it into two, please? Gracias.” A thick American accent questioned over my shoulder, “Dos, por favor? Gracias!”

With a mouthful of ham and bread, I turned to smile at him for using Spanish. I think he interpreted that as me being Spanish because he and his friends seemed a little taken aback when I asked where they were from in a rather British accent.

Another favourite from Madrid was visitng El Rastro flea market early on Sunday morning (see, I told you the weekend was the time to visit!). Just like Marrakesh, El Rastro is a place to visit when you’re buying your first house. Full of quirky antiques, toys and comic shops it’s a real delight to meander your way through as it gets busier, before diving into a cafe for some churros for breakfast.

However, I think my absolute highlight was the terrapin pool in Atocha train station. I didn’t have to take a train, but being drawn in by the awe inspiring exterior, I felt it rude not to take a look inside. The terrapin tank proved it a worthy venture!

Overall, Madrid won me over and I think it’s a shame so many people come to Spain and don’t see it. Madrid shows a very different side of Spain to that of the other cities I’ve visited in Spain and that’s what keeps me engaged about this country – the sheer diversity. Every region, every city has it’s own story to tell, and they tell them well.

Have you visited Madrid? What were your highlights? I’d love to read about it in the comments below! 🙂

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Lisbon: Trams, Hills and Sexy Toilet Paper

Being so close to Portugal following our Andalucian adventure, we couldn’t not go to Lisbon. That would have been rude! So we scheduled a few days in the Portuguese capital into our plans. Definitely a worthy detour from Spain. After a sleepless late night bus from Seville, squashed next to a rather nosy Romanian lady who insisted on shouting “DORMIRE?!” in my ear once I’d began to drift into dreamland, I think you’ll understand when I say we were relieved to arrive early morning at our hostel.

Once suitably freshened up, we headed out on the hunt for food. I was keen to try out my newly learnt Portuguese on the locals and enjoyed ordering a custard tart and orange juice for breakfast in a local restaurant. (Yes! Custard tart for breakfast! Amazing, right?)

Shortly after our morning stroll introducing us both to Lisbon and Portugal for the first time, we joined a free walking tour we’d seen advertised in the hostel. Our  tour in Granada had convinced me that Hannah was onto something with her love of free walking tours! Unfortunately, this one wasn’t as good in my opinion. The guide was clearly passionate about Lisbon and he had some interesting facts to share with us – he even recommended a great local restaurant to us that we would never have found on our own. However, the one memory that really stands out was him taking us all through the underground system passage to get from one place to another by skipping a rather large hill climb, and instead escorting us up escalators through throngs of commuters. Not really my idea of making tourists, or locals, feel comfortable.

Still, there were some nice photos to be had on the tour – and as I said, the restaurant he recommended was excellent. With a handwirtten menu on a paper tablecloth stuck up in the window, we knew this was the place we wanted to eat. As it turned out, we got lucky with our food in Lisbon, and managed to find a “paper tablecloth menu” place most days. The prices were amazing (and a great shock after Spain) and the food was delicious.

The city of Lisbon is beautiful. However, after over a week of nothing but urban landscapes (well, minus a few language filled days in Essaouira) we planned for a day at the beach! Cascais to be exact. Cascais is an easy day trip from Lisbon, as the crowds of tourists and locals alike on the train proved. The journey takes 40 minutes by train and the beach is just a stone’s throw from the train station in Cascais. We’d read about surfing possibilities there but the water looked rather calm and the wind looked rather strong. Feeling a little doubtful, we asked at the surf place but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. Minus surfing, Cascais still made a great excursion from Lisbon and I’d definitely recommend it if you fancy a little peek out towards the US of A! (Disclaimer: You can’t actually see America!)

One of my favourite things about Lisbon, other than the food, the cute yellow trams and the company that make multicoloured toilet paper, was the Oceanarium. Partly because it’s the biggest aquarium in Europe. Mainly because they had a sea turtle exhibition at the time. Yes, please. I don’t think the exhibition is still there,  but if you go to Lisbon, I would say the Oceanarium is a worthy morning or afternoon chilling with some penguins and jellyfish.

Lisbon did not fail to disappoint. In fact, I preferred Lisbon more than I thought I would and was slightly disappointed when I had to leave for Madrid.

Have you ever been to Lisbon? Did you like it? I’d love to read your thoughts below! 🙂

Categories: Europe, Portugal | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Slightly Secondary Seville

Granada is amazing. So wherever we went after Granada was going to have a lot to live up to. Wanting to make our way over to Lisbon, me and Hannah headed to Seville once our Lorca dreaming days in Granada were over. I was excited about Seville! Oranges, bullfighting and more flamenco! How very stereotypical of me. However, personally, Seville was just another city, really. It didn’t grab me the way that Granada did. Sure, there are a few cool sights and I enjoyed our tour of the bullring, the Mirador, Plaza de España, the Alcázar and all of the other must-sees. I just didn’t “feel” Seville as a city.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’re visiting Andalucia, or even just Spain, Seville is still worth your time, and I have spoken to people since who said they preferred Seville over Granada! Shock horror!

Our first day was spent wandering by the river and gradually heading inwards to the city. We soon stumbled upon the Plaza de España, which is a very impressive building built for the Expo in 1929. Currently being used as Spanish Government offices, the huge structure encompasses little nooks for each region of Spain with a mosaicked image of the area. My favourite thing about this was seeing a woman lounging beside the Canary Islands nook!

We made our way across town and ended up visiting the bullring in the heat of the day. Now, I don’t agree with killing animals for ‘sport’. However, having spent an afternoon in Indonesia at a cock fight, I feel it’s sometimes part of a culture and something that I’m prepared to see once, form an opinion on, and move on. There was no bull fight on the days we were in Seville though – I think, in all honesty, we were both slightly relieved about this. We did opt for the tour of the bull ring though in an attempt to understand more about bull fighting. The tour was really informative and worth the 4 or so Euros.

Something that costs a little more than 4€ in Seville is Isla Mágica! A reasonably sized theme park that Hannah decided to treat me to for my birthday! Is it good? Well, without looking at my photos, Isla Mágica is where the majority of my memories of Seville lie. So, yes. Especially   Indígenas contra alienígenas (Indigenous vs. Aliens). I know, right?!

Writing about it now, and revisiting Seville in my mind, maybe I was a bit harsh at the start of this post. Maybe I would have felt the same about anywhere post Granada. I take it back – Seville is cool.

Have you visited Seville? What did you think? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below!

Categories: Europe, Spain | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Grand Granada

Back in July, my friend Hannah and I took a bus all the way from Morocco to Granada in Spain. Due to the fact it was Ramadan and all ticket holders for the early morning buses had been transferred to the lunchtime ones, we didn’t arrive until 4 hours later than expected. Considering we were originally due in at 2 in the morning this was actually a welcome delay. Arriving about 5.30am, dawn became daylight as we walked into the city from the bus station desperate for food. There’s not a lot of choice for breakfast at 6am on the streets of Granada. Churros and chocolate it was then. Shame, eh?

Our hostel, White Nest Hostel, was a great place and very easy to find down a side street from the riverside cobbled road. We were able to leave our bags there until check-in and even allowed to take a shower after our long, long bus journey. We headed out for the day thankfully clean and fresh! We’d been told about a free walking tour (well, tour for tips) of the city that started at 11am. Hannah is a lover of free city walking tours so we opted in. I’d never done one before but the guide was very interesting and knowledgeable, and clearly a huge fan of Granada so we even decided to rejoin him that evening for the Sacromonte Caves tour, which was a great move! After a rather filling 3 course €8.50 Menú Del Día and a stroll around in 40° heat, we met our guide again that evening and he took us up and away above the city to places we wouldn’t have dared to go as tourists. We were even allowed to visit inside one cave and speak to the residents. Unfortunately, the Spanish government is trying to evict them.

On heading back into the city, we decided to go the whole hog on the gypsy front and managed to bag ourselves the two last tickets at Le Chien Andalou, an authentically styled Flamenco bar. Arriving for tickets moments before the show, we were able to grab 2 reserved but uncollected tickets, which meant we found ourselves right on the front row. Although I wouldn’t recommend risking it on tickets until the last minute, as we got really lucky getting those tickets, I would recommend the show at Le Chien Andalou. The Flamenco dancer and band performed in a small cave shaped room, with the audience crammed onto rows of benches and the alcohol flowing. The atmosphere and the performance were absolutely fantastic – the dancer’s skirt swished upon my lap many times! It was exactly what we wanted from a Flamenco show. It was intense, intriguing and intimate. The perfect introduction to live Flamenco!

That first day was jam-packed, but it was nothing compared to our next day visiting the attraction in Granada: The Alhambra. The Alhambra is so sought after, that tickets need to be bought online via Ticketmaster. We opted to collect our tickets at a ServiCaixa machine in Spain, often found outside CaixaBanks. The online process felt slightly ‘unofficial’ so we were glad when we had our tickets in our hands!

We’d spent the previous day oooing and ahhing at the Alhambra which dominates the view from the city, however, that didn’t compare to seeing it up clopse and personal. The Alhambra is a real highlight of Spain, and dare I say it, Europe. Compared to the big sights that everyone knows about such as the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben, the Alhambra remains to feel slightly secretive and personal. Shh, don’t tell!

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Granada itself is one of Europe’s best kept semi-secrets. It really is a gem of a place, memories of which linger long after leaving.

Have you visited Granada? What did you think? Leave a comment below, I’d love to know your thoughts! 🙂

Categories: Europe, Spain | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Marrakesh: Foot lathes, friendship levels and feasts.

From the start of my degree, I knew I’d be heading to Spain for a week in the summer of 2013 for a summer school. I also knew I wanted to make the most of it and see some more of Europe in the process. A trip I’d wanted to do for some time gradually began to click into place.

For a number of years, I’d wanted to take the ferry between Spain and Morocco – this was the perfect chance! As things began to work out, we realized we could also hit Portugal on our travels. So this July, my friend Hannah and I set off on our Iberian (and African-ish!) adventure!

When we landed in Marrakesh, the first thing I noticed was how much French is spoken here. I had spent many a car journey listening to Arabic stuff to give me a grounding just in case French wasn’t as widely spoken as I’d hoped but it turned out you don’t always need the language of the country you’re in to survive, as we discovered in Essaouira.

We stayed at a Riad where Hannah had been before but they had moved buildings (sounds strange, I know!) so we’d agreed to meet someone in the main square to take us there. However, it was Ramadan and so by the time we arrived in the city and eventually got through to them on the phone, they were having their Ramadan breakfast. Not having eaten ourselves, we headed over to the food stalls in the square that was now buzzing with life. We found ourselves being called to various stalls, and eventually chose one with lots of locals and what we (wrongly) assumed to be free bread on the tables. I love Moroccan food and the food here was good. However, we were lucky enough to be invited to eat Ramadan breakfast almost everywhere we went every day in Morocco! So that tagine was the only real meal we had to buy in Marrakesh.

We headed out early the next morning with very little direction other than the loose idea of visiting souks, buying a little something and maybe chilling in a hammam As it turned out, a hammam was the first thing we found and not really having a great idea of exchange rates or normal prices of a hammam, we went for it. My God. I didn’t know I was that grubby. Or that it was possible to get that much grub off of someone’s skin. I’d bought a very modest swimming costume back home for moments like this, and felt very proud and respectful when I stripped down to it for the lady to scrub me.

She motioned her hands from her shoulders downwards. It looked like she was telling me to pull down my swimming costume! I repeated the movement and tentatively lifted the strap from my shoulder. She nodded. I pulled down my swimming costume to my waist. There’s no way I was taking it all off! I paid good money for that costume for this exact moment. I was going to get my money’s worth. A few minutes later, after a good scrub down and being covered in mud soap, I was ushered into the sauna where Hannah was already sat sweating it out.

“New friendship level.” I shrugged. Hannah had worn a bikini and so was still ‘fully’ clothed.

After various scrubs and washes, we were shown into a shower cubicle. Although we were washing ourselves at this point, the ladies stood and watched ready to indicate to me to pull the whole costume down when I turned to face them. I didn’t.

We were then given a gown along with our scrub mitt to keep as we were told to relax on the beds in the first room. Finally we were sent upstairs where we were told to relax yet again on individual beds. This bit was weird. I think there’d been some miscommunication as to which package we paid for. We didn’t pay for a massage but we kept quiet just in case they were feeling generous. After about 5 minutes, we entered the final room and were given a pot of mint tea.

We soon headed out into the heat of the day, both secretly knowing but neither wanting to admit that we’d be filling up our sparklingly clean sweat glands very soon. This is where the souks came in. Undercover window shopping with compliments of our French proved to be a very relaxing way to spend the rest of the day. Especially when one man carving skewers with a one foot lathe offered a free demonstration and made me a personal necklace before our eyes after I asked him a few questions in French.

Once filling our scrubbed pores with fresh sweat and sun cream, we decided to head back to the Riad before dinner. Best. Timing. Ever. Just as we were preparing to leave again in hunt of food, the Riad owners were preparing to start their Ramadan breakfast as dusk was approaching, and they were very adamant we join them. Wow. What a feast! It was really lovely to be involved with a personal example of the breaking of the fast up close.

Overall, Marrakesh proved to be just as beautiful, orange and sensory as I imagined, but also a lot safer and friendlier than I’d imagined before arriving. Definitely a place I’d like to go back to and would recommend.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

Awesome Warsaw.

Hello!

This is nearly a 2 month belated post! It’s been a rather busy year. I’ve started my own business which has taken off well and consequently taken up a lot of time! I’ve also spent the year learning more French and Italian as part of my degree. I finished this in October and am now working on a comparatively easy German course before starting Spanish again in February next year.

So with all this language learning going on in my life, what would seem a good place to go for a weekend break back in November? Paris? Barcelona? Rome? Berlin? Nah, we went to Warsaw.

It was a very last minute decision so our choice was mainly based on price seeing as we booked very late on a Tuesday night to fly out Friday morning!

Last minute Eastern Europe = budget airline = paying for every possible thing considered an extra. So off we trotted with our French exchange student style rucksack. Woop!

Now, I’d visited Poland once before, I say Poland, I mean Auschwitz, it hardly seems fair to consider that part of the country. Although everything else about Poland had been a bit gritty in my memories…crossing the smooth Autobahn at the German border to be greeted by a rickety rockety pot-hole laden track, to shortly being stopped by a man waving frantically by the side of the road meaning my granddad stopping to help, only to have him claim to be out of petrol and offering his Argos chains in exchange for petrol money. Where he was gong to find petrol in the forest I still don’t know, needless to say we drove off.

Landing with these memories was a little nerve-racking, especially considering the airport was half build. However, within seconds of getting off the airport bus in the city centre, me and Ashley looked at each other with the same thought.

“I, err, it sounds mean, but I feel safer than I did in Budapest all ready!” I said.

Ashley nodded, “Yeah, I was about to say that.”

And as it goes, first impressions do count for a lot. Not once did either of us feel remotely unsafe during our time in Warsaw.

Not once did either of us go hungry either. With the most incredible Singaporean style glass shopping mall minutes from our hotel, finding food was never an issue. I’d been advised by my good friend Hannah, who speaks pretty niffy Polish and has spent a lot of time in Poland, that we must try “pierogi”. Everyday we passed many a chain restaurant selling this mysterious word, but that wasn’t good enough, we wanted the real deal. Imagine a Pole coming to England and having a Roast in a Little Chef not a pub and going home and telling all his mates it was “just alright”. This was not what we wanted, we knew there must be better, and so we waited.

On the Saturday, we headed into a “milk bar” which is a traditional canteen style place serving home cooked meals by a group of old women heating their story filled faces from the giant bubbling vats of sauces and broths. But alas, pierogi was all sold out. Thankfully, on the last day, a moving yet inspiring visit to the Warsaw Rising Museum provided us with the goods just in time before we left Poland! They were delicious! Thank you for the advice Hannah!

The last day also happened to be Independence Day as in-keeping with my unexpected and unplanned visits to countries on their Independence Days. Although Indonesian Independence Day was also the saddest birthday of my life due to being treated as a Couchsurfing pet, this foreign Independence Day was the scariest. Yes, I know I said we never once felt unsafe…maybe once. After a morning of contemplation and appreciation for a nation so brave and strong, we headed back to Homage To A Singapore Shopping Mall (name as decided by myself, right now.) which was conveniently next to the bus stop. But we weren’t the only ones, there was a small crowd near the Palace of Culture and Science, which was a gift from the Soviet Union. I think socks would have done the trick, but they was feeling generous I guess.

“That’s nice! Nobody does anything on St George’s Day!” (That’s the closest thing us English have to an Independence Day for any international readers!)

“I know right! Loads of flags, loads of support. I’m glad we went to that museum this morning.”

And in we went to the glass dome for some food before the flight. Or should that be food before the fight?

As we wandered the mega dome we began to hear some rather loud bangs. We decided to check it out so made our way to the glass, which wasn’t difficult in a snow globe. Wow. Just wow. Each time we headed back to sneak a peek, the crowd had multiplied like bacteria in a Petri dish. That’s right, I know science. What’s more, each time we headed away from the glass again, the bangs became more frequent and interluded with sirens.

As we walked to the bus stop, I felt like I was in the midst of a war torn city but still felt relatively safe standing in the middle of a car park about 500 metres from the protests.

Still, with all of that taken into account, Poland remains a fond memory. It’s quite interesting writing about it so far after it happened, because I was quite literally reliving the Independence Day tales I’ve just told for the first time as I wrote them. That’s not actually what stuck with me at all.

I’m currently teaching various groups of immigrant workers, the majority of whom are from Poland, and not only do I now feel less naive about their history and country, but I also feel better prepared to engage with them on a personal level and have even ventured into a couple of Polish shops since our return for a sneaky packet or two of pierogi.

Categories: Europe, Poland | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Whistle Stop Tour of KL.

Back in the day, when I was out here all alone, these 5 weeks with Ashley became a difficult thing to organise over Skype. After a bit of sketchy planning in Myanmar I came up with a plan. Ashley’s birthday/Christmas present could be diving! We had 5 days ‘spare’ in which I could fit what became known to Ashley as the “Mystery Destination”. For a while, the Mystery Destination was also a mystery to me. Do we go to the Philippines? But we’ve never been so would 5 days be enough? Do we go to Indonesia? But I hated it; do I really want to go back there? Or do we go to Malaysia? The place I was originally planning to dive myself – the Semporna Archipelago – has sea turtles. Sea turtles!! I opted for Malaysia. To Ashley it was still Mystery Destination.

When it came to booking flights, it was always going to be a two flight trip from Tokyo if we were to go to Semporna, so I booked us on a night flight from Tokyo and an evening flight to Tawau, the airport for Semporna, leaving us with a day in Kuala Lumpur in between!

It took us some hot and sweaty trips back and forth from the left luggage area to the check in area before we found the security scanner and the lady with the bag stickers that meant we were allowed to leave our bags having been scanned for guns and the like. Phew. It also took us some hot and sweaty trips back and forth from ATM to ATM before they decided that yes, I do in fact have sufficient funds and yes, they can in fact serve me today. Double phew.

Finally on the bus into the city, I glanced up at the clock. 8.30? Of course! Kuala Lumpur is an hour behind Tokyo! The near hour spent shuffling from ATM to left luggage had been a freebie! Hooray! The bus journey was an hour long.

It must have been quite a tiring bus journey because Ashley fell asleep. I managed to stay awake. The prospect of navigating my way around the place again but without a map helped. We arrived at KL Sentral and I had a vague, vivid yet hazy memory of my mum back in August picking me up from KL Sentral and telling me and my sister we only needed to take one stop on the LRT train. The next stop up was Pasar Seni. Pasar means market, we wanted to head for the Central Market, I guessed and luckily it was right. It felt weird to be back there. We stopped off for a little drink in the Central Market food court, it being nearly 10 and us not having had the chance to get breakfast. I told Ashley there was a place I wanted to take him to eat so we didn’t eat there, but instead made our way down Petaling Street and found the food court where my mum and me ate on the last night in KL. It was just as I remembered!

After our curry laksa to welcome us to Malaysia, we headed back on the LRT to the Petronas Towers, wandered around the Suria mall a bit, took some Petronas Towers photos and whizzed back down to the market so that we were closer to KL Sentral to get our bus back to the airport. Still having some time to spare, we ate again (it was past 12, this could be classed as lunch) and decided to have a little look around the market. We were soon distracted by what was my first Malaysian experience last time – a fishy foot spa. It was the same place and possibly the same woman working there. This time I was a little braver and didn’t waste half of my time with my feet out of the water. I think it must have long lasting effects though – the fish nibbled me a little but not half as much as they flocked to Ashley. FRESH MEAT!

It was a quick little jaunt but pretty fun! And much more rewarding than I think 12 hours in the airport would have been. As a matter of fact there was only one hour in the airport, and off we set to Semporna.

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If you buy clothes in Harajuku, does that make you a Harajuku Girl?

So I’ve talked about Akihabara, I’ve talked about food, now I’m going to enlighten you to the wonders of Harajuku. If you don’t know me that well, you might not know that I’m a bit of a No Doubt fan. They’re amazing – the most underrated band ever. So consequently, I quite like Gwen Stefani. Now, when she got those 4 Japanese girls and gave them names and stuff, like you I presume, I also thought it was maybe a little extreme. However, having been to Harajuku I can see why she’d want to spread the word. You can walk around Harajuku wearing almost anything. Having said that, wearing  jeans covered in 3 weeks of dirt and sweatand my big baggy coat, I did feel slightly uncool. We’d read that weekends are the time to see all the girls gathered in their Cosplay get-up so had to wait until our last day to see them. There were still plenty of shops to be trawled during our weekday trips though. Despite most of it being “vintage” aka, overpriced charity shop, I did manage to find a 2 for 1000 Yen rail. Get in. So I got me some threads from Harajuku. Oh yeah.

After almost a week of waiting, we arrived on Sunday morning to a mass of tourists but no girls! All I can think of is that they have naturally moved on, as young people do, and now congregate somewhere else. If you know where, I’d love to know! This meant we had our last morning in Tokyo to kill in Harajuku, which meant I finally got to do something I’d really been looking forward to – KARAOKE. The daytime prices were a fifth of the night prices so the lack of Harajuku girls meant we’d hit the karaoke jackpot at 11am. The only catch was you had to buy a drink per person as well. I’d just indulged myself in another Calpis from the 7/11. I wasn’t ready for another drink. So I settled for a rosehip teapot, at least that way I get more than one glass full. Anyway, it was awesome. I absolutely loved it.

When we went in, we opted for 30 minutes, sticking to our budget ‘n’ all, but we ended up staying two 30 minute blocks longer. They don’t tell you when your time is up by the way – you have to keep track, which we did, we just wanted to stay longer.

You get a little room, with a built in sofa around 2 walls, a coffee table, a TV on one wall and the door and phone (to order more costly drinks) on the other. At first, we didn’t really know what to do. I pressed a few buttons and BAM! AKB48 came blaring through the speakers. I think I failed to mention them on the Akihabara post. They’re very specific to Akihabara so I won’t go into them now, but Google them. It’s mental.

Anyway, we found our way back to the menu screen, found the “English Songs” button and sang away! I think it’s fair to say Adele would have been proud of my rendition of Rolling In The Deep. Hey, she’d probably be a fan of Harajuku too and end up with some Stefani style girls. You never know.

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Categories: East Asia, Japan | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Watch E.T Toddle and Bobble to the Maid Cafe!

Tokyo is exciting. We were both really excited about coming here, and it’s definitely lived up to expectations. As soon as we arrived (ahem, perhaps coming from China helped, ahem) people couldn’t have been nicer. Strangers ask if you’re ok when you’re looking at maps, shop assistants smile and are incredibly polite and best of all – NOBODY SPITS!!

We had a bizzare double plane journey from Beijing to Shanghai and then Shanghai to Tokyo. We were put in a torturous glass holding area in Beijing because we hadn’t really left the country and were going to land again in Shanghai for an hour. This meant that we could see the beautiful shiny restaurant sign but only through a big glass wall. We had no restaurant – just toilets and a water machine. It was a real last minute “This is China, thanks for coming, now buggar off” moment.

When we arrived in Tokyo, we were overly excited yet overly exhausted so headed straight to the hotel and arrived about midnight after we got lost and 4 staff and a customer held a mother’s meeting with an iPad in the 7/11 to help us before the customer walked us to the hotel! Japan 1 – China 0.

In case you’ve missed my excited rambling over the past couple of months, we’re staying in a pod! A capsule hotel! The best thing about which is the shared bathroom. Loads of products to use (including Skin Water and Hair Water), a spa bath and Ashley has told me the male bathroom also has a sauna and a massage chair! The pod itself is pretty cool too. There’s a TV, radio, alarm clock and an internet cable all built in. You get new towels, pyjamas and slippers everyday as well as fresh sheets. It really is very cool.

What’s turned out to be another good thing is that the cleaning begins at 10am, so you have to be out by then, which means we’ve been setting our pod clock to wake us at 8 and having a little spa treatment before heading out for the day to explore. And there’s so much to explore!!

The first couple of days were spent hitting different districts but today I’m going to write about one. I’m in awe of Akihabara – the manga/”geek”/anime/neon/maid cafe capital of Tokyo – aka, Electric Town. It’s insane. Everything is so kitsch and cute and trashy yet somehow you want it in your life. There’s Sega arcades with floor upon floor of teddy pickers (I didn’t win the Squid Girl headphones), there’s shops selling retro in-packet toys (you can watch ET toddle and bobble), there’s sex shop “department stores” (you can easily mistake for manga stores from the outside) and then there’s the maid cafes. Maid cafes…hmm, how to explain maid cafes when I’m not sure I understand myself? Here goes…

You’re walking through Akihabara, you see a girl on the street with bunches in a French maid dress, handing out leaflets, smiling and talking in a squeaky voice. You notice them a lot. You kind of get the idea that it’s a bit like an anime geek’s version of Hooters – instead of big jugs, they got big frills and Hello Kitty hair bands. But you’re not sure if tourists are allowed, if girls are allowed, maybe they’re allowed but maybe it would be awkward. After a few days you give in to the curiosity and up you go. Now replace the word “you” with “Me and Ashley”. and you’re up to speed.

So this evening – one of the girls hands us a leaflet and we ask her where it is, she walks us to the building with her friend who also works there.

“Ahh, ok, thank you!”

They come in the lift with us and take us straight in. Now that’s pretty good service. In we go. A warm welcome from the maids! Lots of high pitched ‘konichiwas’ and big smiles. Not such a warm welcome from the single, hairy men in there.

We’re given some seats and shown a menu and asked in Japanese to choose between “Cafe” or “Bar”. We looked back at our maid blank faced. Luckily she spoke a little English.

“Erm..you have 30 minutes with Cafe for 800 Yen or 60 minutes with Bar for 3,000 Yen.”

We really wanted a meal. Plus, we’ve been avoiding Starbucks because it costs so much – 300 Yen – and you get to stay longer than 30 minutes there! It seemed offensive to Starbucks to spend that much on 30 minutes worth of cafe time.

“Food? You do food?” we asked, pretending to nom nom nom with our hands.

“Erm…yes, little food.” She went through the overpriced menu. So we’d have to pay 800 each and then more for food? We can get a meal for 500 Yen!

“We’re really hungry. Big food? Big meal?”

“Erm…sorry, I don’t know!”

We pretended to confer and left. They were very nice about it all, she even waved us down the lift. I think it’s because I said I liked her necklace.

So, yeah, that was our maid cafe experience. I was thinking it was all very cute and (mostly) innocent until I saw the clientele. But I guess if I had to choose, I think I’d rather work in a maid cafe than Hooters, at least then I get to wear a nice necklace.

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Shanghai: Land of lights in tunnels and dogs in zoos.

We were expecting things to get a lot more difficult by the time we got to Shanghai. We were prepared for much less English writing, and a lot more Chinese. But no! Still plenty of bi-lingual signs to help us navigate our way around. Excellent! When we arrived at the hostel, the men were wrapped up warm in their coats, sat in the dark.

“Ni hao. We have a reservation, under Williams?”

“Ahh yes. Budget private double? I’m afraid we have no power, we have a power cut. So we need your passports and we can give you the room card and your passports back at 6pm, the power should be back then.”

We offered a copy of our passports but I think they needed the visa bit. So we left our passports with 2 men in a dark room, headed up to our room and back down and out to explore. Our journey to the hostel had transferred us through People’s Square Metro station, which was quite busy and seemed a good, central starting point. We were greeted with a mass of neon lights, mega malls and offers of hashish. Things I would expect in Vegas, New York and Amsterdam respectively. It wasn’t what we expected. It was huge and relatively modern, yes, this we were expecting. However, it also felt quite spacious and if you look down the backstreets, the mega malls soon vanish.

At risk of spending 5 weeks in shopping malls, we made our way down one of these back streets, to find what can, perhaps patronisingly, be called “real China”. What you’d really expect, where the majority of the population probably shop, eat and socialise. It didn’t take long to find a baked sweet potato stand, and it didn’t take long to get confused by Chinese finger numbers once we’d ordered. Instead of using all ten fingers in order, they somehow (in a way we haven’t figured out yet) do it all on one hand.

By dark, we headed to the Pudong area on the other side of the river. Now this was what we’d expected. Uber-modern buildings, skyscrapers galore, an amazing pedestrian high walkway around the roundabout and a beautiful array of lights on the buildings. We found somewhere to eat, which was surprisingly cheap for the calibre of the shops and the size of the mall we were in – I think it’s fair to say, food in China is cheaper than Hong Kong. About half the price. Yay!

On our second day, we started at Shanghai museum, which was free and not bad considering. We then went to the Bund with the potential aim of doing the “Bund Sightseeing Tunnel” to cross the river and walk around the Pudong area in daylight. Well. The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel costs £5 one way or £6 return. I’m telling you now, don’t worry about the return. Ashley made a video of the…experience…. I’ll let you know when it’s online. I think it says more than I could with words.

Ashley and me have something that seems to have become a “thing”, you know, a “thing”. Could be called a tradition, could be called …well, a “thing” really. We go to zoos. That’s our thing. We went to Budapest zoo, we went to London zoo, we went to Hong Kong zoo and now, we’ve been to Shanghai zoo. What can you say about Shanghai zoo? Hmm. It’s an interesting one. It starts well, with a small aquarium and a reptile house – aka, lots of sea turtles and tortoises so I’m a happy bunny. Then there’s the goldfish section. Genuinely. Then you find the main attraction – the pandas! They’re really funny to watch, they sit around like slobs, legs apart, belly out,  chomping on bamboo! The type you’d imagine on Jeremy Kyle. Most of the enclosures aren’t actually too bad, including the panda enclosures. However, “Pet World” is a little bizarre. If you see a sign at a zoo saying Pet World, you would enter expecting…little fluffy bunnies? Guinea pigs and hamsters? Maybe even some more goldfish (borrowed from the goldfish section)? Well you’re all wrong. Unless you guessed dogs in glass suburban houses that is. Yep, different breeds of dog all in their own little concrete and glass “houses”. It was a very depressing place. The mating porcupines didn’t seem to care though. I know, I don’t know anyone with a porcupine as a pet either.

All in all, Shanghai is alright. It’s not as modern and shiny as it’s often billed but it gives you an idea of what China seems to be about – spitting, shoving and staring. Not necessarily in that order.

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