Life in Japan: cicadas and the sound of summer

It’s been a long, hot summer in northeast Asia, with Korea and Japan both suffering record-breaking heatwaves. Things are finally cooling off somewhat here in Seoul, but my recent research trip to Japan coincided with their hottest temperatures on record and it was ridiculous, worse even than the summer I spent in the cauldron of Kyoto while working there a few years ago.

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Hozukyo Station

A train stopped at Hozukyo Station

From this distance the train appears to be suspended in the air across the valley, high above the river and motionless with its lights standing out like beacons against the backdrop of brooding forest in the deepening gloom. The tinny sounds of station announcements and departure chimes waft over on the breeze,

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Yokai: the monsters and demons of Japanese folklore

Tengu at Yakuo-in temple, Mt Takao

Japanese folklore is a rich tapestry of mischievous spirits, child-eating monsters, and shape-shifting animals, a little knowledge of which can give great insight into the culture when you visit.

Most trips to Japan will involve visiting some (usually many) temples, shrines,

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Which Shrines & Temples Should You Visit in Kyoto?

Torii gates at Fushimi Inari

Kyoto has so many shrines & temples, where do you even start?

There’s no way you can see them all in a short visit (I haven’t come close even after many visits and living there for over a year), and if you tried you’d soon find yourself suffering from a bad case of temple fatigue.

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A Few Random Things to Do in Tokyo

Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Bay

If it’s your first few days in Tokyo, chances are you have a to-do list including the usual spots like Asakusa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Meiji Shrine. But how about if you’ve done all that before? If that’s the case, here are a few random ideas for some cool stuff to do or places to check out in Tokyo –

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Tokyo’s Niche Shopping Districts

Tokyo’s quite an amazing city for shopping – if you’re looking for electronics, home furnishings, toiletries, medicine, beauty products, luggage, clothes, etc, you can find them all over the city; the myriad department stores and big chains like Uniqlo, BIC Camera, and Donki Hotei make it easy to find whatever you’re looking for.

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Gundam Got An Upgrade

The new Gundam statue in Odaiba

Having never seen an episode, I know very little about Gundam other than that it’s a classic Japanese anime about giant mecha robots defending the Earth, or something like that (I’m more of an Evangelion fan).

The new Gundam statue in Odaiba

But you don’t really need to know the show to appreciate a giant life-sized robot statue (especially one that does light displays while it transforms),

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Kowloon Walled City, Kawasaki

Reproduction of Kowloon Walled City at Anata-no-warehouse, Kawasaki

I first heard of Hong Kong’s old Kowloon Walled City in William Gibson’s Idoru (which is a great novel if you’re interested in sci-fi & Japan), which features a virtual reality community based on it.

Reproduction of Kowloon Walled City at Anata-no-warehouse, Kawasaki

A lawless, ramshackle, and insanely densely populated corner of Hong Kong,

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Life in Beijing: catching the bullet train

Chinese CRH bullet train

You’re woken up by the sound of an old man violently expectorating in the hutong alleyway outside, cringing during the pause while he holds his mouthful of phlegm for a second or two between noisily bringing it up and noisily depositing it on the floor with typically exaggerated sound effects.

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Hospitality and Scorpions in Marble Canyon

We were two weeks into our epic road trip around the US, now driving through the incredible southwestern states of New Mexico and Arizona; we’d just spent two days in Albuquerque for the July 4 Independence Day celebrations (and also one of my companion’s birthdays), and the next point of call was the Grand Canyon.

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Drugs Busted After the 2006 World Cup. Sort of…

“Sir,” she said in a suddenly stern voice, “your bag’s tested positive for amphetamines.”

My jaw hit the floor. My bag? Amphetamines? You what?

I was standing in the customs area of Christchurch Airport, the entire contents of my bags laid out before me on the cold metal counter,

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A Week of Fruit Picking and Verbal Abuse in Bundaberg

“Stop chatting to your girlfriend and get back to work, you Pommie cunt!”

The speaker was my supervisor, and we were in a Queensland tomato field pruning vines. My ‘girlfriend’ was my male coworker who, being a white Australian, couldn’t really be subject to the usual racial or national insults so was instead a ‘blooming pufter’

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Sailing in the Whitsunday Islands: 3 days of vomit and misery

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Islands, Australia

I looked along the deck at the picture of youthful beauty alongside me, all the long tanned legs and all the long blond hair fluttering in the breeze, and I looked out at all the beauty around us, all these magnificent tropical islands with their perfect white sand beaches;

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Chinese Visa Extensions in Leshan and Kaifeng

If you’re in China on a tourist (L) visa and want to get more time in the country without having to go down to Hong Kong for a new visa, you may be able to extend your existing visa at a Public Security Bureau office.

The extension rules officially require you to have several thousand dollars in a Chinese bank account –

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Overland Adventures: the stinky Filipino fish bus

Naked children leapt from the ramshackle pier in the tropical downpour, laughing and screaming as lightning flickered across the edges of a sky as threatening as any I’ve yet seen.

“That boat?” I asked hopefully, indicating the larger and (slightly) more seaworthy-looking of the two pieces of junk lashed to the pier.

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Whale Shark Snorkelling in Donsol, Philippines

“There, there!” he kept shouting, “go straight, go straight!”

I kicked on through the murky water, peering through my goggles into the plankton-deepened gloom before me but seeing nothing.

“Where, where?” I yelled to the spotter on the boat, surfacing and looking back to shout, “I can’t see it!”

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Life in Beijing: the Street Barber of Shilipu

Pop-up street barber in Beijing

I was just going through some old photos and found this one of a pop-up street barber near my old place in Beijing. There isn’t much of a travel blog post I can write to go with it, but it shows a side of Beijing (and China) quite different from the grandeur of the Forbidden City or the Greatness of The Wall.

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The Best Places to See the Autumn Colours in Tokyo

Autumn colours at Tokyo Imperial Palace East Gardens

Seeing the cherry blossoms in spring probably tops the wishlist for most travellers visiting Tokyo, but an equally awesome time to visit the Japanese capital is during the autumn colours (the Japanese word is koyo, 紅葉, literally ‘red leaves’). The cherry trees are first (and least spectacular),

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The Five Grand Palaces of Seoul: which Seoul palaces should you visit?

Cherry blossoms at Gyeongbokgung palace, Seoul

The Five Grand Seoul Palaces of the Joseon Period, along with Jongmyo Shrine, make up the main traditional sightseeing spots in the Korean capital. Although the sites mostly date back to the 1300s – 1500s, the majority of the buildings standing on them today are actually recent reconstructions,

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The Best Places to See the Autumn Colours in Kyoto

Seeing the spring cherry blossoms in Kyoto is on many a bucket list, but an equally awesome time to visit the city is during the autumn colours (the Japanese word is koyo, 紅葉, lit. red leaves). The cherry trees go first, starting in mid-October, and by November the hillsides are mottled with varying shades and colours;

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