Friday, September 30, 2005

Philosophy and religion

The Heian Shrine, Kyoto

Japan has two major religions - Shinto and Buddhism - and most Japanese practice at least both (and some Christianity and Confucianism as well). Kyoto has hundreds of shrines and temples, many dotted in the forested hillsides that ring the city. The Nanzen-ji temple in Eastern Kyoto is a good example. Originally built in 1291 it was razed during a civil war in the 1400's. The buildings there today date from 'only' 400yrs ago, but walking around the huge pagodas it seems as if they have been there for many hundreds of years more. We paid Y500 (GBP2) and climbed a two-story gatehouse - in our socks as it is part of the Buddhist temple building. Another Y500 bought us tea in an adjacent building - but it was very different to a cup of Earl Grey and a digestive. We knelt, shoeless, in front of a waterfall framed by a dark green garden. A kimono-clad woman appeared and knelt on the tatami matting in front of us, presenting us with an earthenware bowl of foamy green tea (ocha) and a carefully wrapped sticky sweet.

The Tetsugaku-no-michi (Path of Philosophy) is apparently a good place for a contemplative stroll. We wandered along as a route between temples, looking at the cherry trees the Japanese have a particular fondness for, and the small fish, swimming frantically against the strong current in the stream. The path finished at Ginkakuji, created in 1482 as a weekend retreat by a Shogun. He wanted to cover the two-story pavilion in silver, but the tough nature of the Shogunate life claimed him before he could sign the cheque. The grounds were interesting though, being dominated by moss. There were labelled displays of the particular 'very important moss' that carpeted the forest floor. Gardeners were on hand, performing minute weeding underneath the trees.

Just one of the dishes for dinner

Traditional Japanese guesthouses are called ryokans. Ours is reasonably modern in parts, but the rooms are all tatami matting and you sleep on futons (pronounced 'huton' as the Japanese haven't an equivalent for the letter F) laid out on the floor. We changed into long cotton yukata robes printed with a jazzy white and blue pattern. Dinner was served in our room - just my Dad and me seated at a low table, with the elderly hostess distributing our food. After carefully (and exactly) arranging our dishes, she bowed and left us to it.

The food was amazing - almost like a Japanese form of tapas - many delicate bowls and plates of sashimi, tofu, egg, soup and tempura. It all looked far too good to eat, the preparation time must have been incredible. It all tasted good as well - despite over half of what we ate being simply unrecognisable. Of course you can identify a raw prawn (they melt in your mouth as you eat them) - but there were blobs of this and cubes of that which we couldn't even determine if it was animal or vegetable. It's an odd experience eating something that you can't identify - but certainly makes dining more exciting...

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Toyko - Kyoto

Train lunch - Japanese style

The literal translation of the word 'Shinkansen' is 'new trunk line'. Not as exciting a meaning as it could be perhaps, but riding on the bullet train (a phrase which isn't used in Japan) is about as classical a Japanese experience as you can get. I'm not going to start the obvious comparisons with rail travel in the UK - but let's just say it woiuld take many, many leaves on the line to delay one of these things.

We arrived at Tokyo station early enough to buy an obento (boxed) lunch. After taking our allocated position on the platform (oh yes), the white torpedo-shaped train cruised slowly alongside. The journey to Kyoto took about three hours, but seemed faster - probably because of the scenery belting past the window at about the speed of sound. Every member of staff who passed through our carriage bowed to the passengers - from the guard to the young lad pushing the drinks trolley.

At first glance, Tokyo and Kyoto seem at completely opposing ends of the spectrum. The one exception is Kyoto station - it has several layers of platforms underground and then a nine-floor retail arcade on top. The pictures I took cannot possibly do it justice - imagine if the Death Star had a shopping mall - that might give you some idea of what it looks like. As I said though, that's the exception - the Kyoto we saw from our taxi (which in itself was immaculately presented) was very different to Tokyo. Admittedly we've only seen a fraction of each, but the first impression I got of Kyoto was the old age of the place. Of course, this is because Kyoto was deliberately avoided by the Allied bombers during WWII - you can only imagine what Tokyo would have looked like today.

Playing hunt the Geisha in Gion

To get a better idea of what Kyoto itself used to llok like, we joined a walking tour of the old Gion districts of the city. The guide was an ex-Canadian footballer (soccer player) who moved to Kyoto twelve years ago and married a geisha. Not surprisingly he knew an awful lot about the often-misunderstood profession, and was keen to quash some preconceptions. Geishas aren't prostitutes; they aren`t forced into their lifestyle; and apparently anybody can hire one. It`s not an easy process though - you need to become a member of a teahouse, which only happens if you are sponsored by a member and then attend dutifully for several years without incident.

Teahouses sign geishas like a sports team - and if you are well-liked you have a chance of hiring their star players. They sing, dance, play instruments, serve food and drink - essentially making you feel special. For this you can expect to pay several hundred dollars for the evening, assuming you are trusted enough to be left in their company. The walk was very interesting - I hadn`t a clue about the role of a geisha - but when we actually spotted one the mood instantly changed. They don't mind being photographed, apparently, and we saw a couple walking to their evening appointments - which prompted a barrage of photographs and the walk became something of a duck hunt.

The best part by far however, was when the guide (who was over 6ft and 20stone, by the look of him) hurriedly ushered us to one side of the street. Tottering in our direction was a wizened old man in sunglasses and a battered yellow t-shirt. He was walking a small dog, and a man my age dressed in black was qiuetly at his side. Our guide nervously whispered that this was a retired yakuza gang boss, and that we mustn't take pictures of him. Everyone obediently lowered their cameras as the old man approached. 'Good Evening he said, and turned the corner, his minder checking the road for cars.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Old and new Tokyo

All you can glimpse of the Emporer`s Palace

A later start today, thankfully, and a chance to sample the buffet breakfast laid on by the Shinagawa Prince. It took place in a huge dining room, with various self-service food stalls. You could choose from Western breakfast with the usual things like bacon and eggs - and spaghetti, for some reason, or two types of Asian food. We all went for the Japanese breakfast as we`ve become used to the style - miso soup, sushi, rice, small pieces of pickle and egg. It was pretty good, although the curry I tried from the Chinese stall tasted a bit odd. Maybe it was having it for breakfast.

We took Mum back to Narita airport for her flight to London, and then came back to get our bags from Shinagawa and transfer to our new hotel in Ginza. This is the older part of the city - part of the `low city` where the original merchants lived. Today it is full of swanky department stores - a different kind of merchant activity. Our hotel is nice enough though - no aquarium but it`s got all the right things in the room, including another eletronic toilet. I`ll have to write something about that at some point.

We took a short train ride to the Imperial Palace and had a look at the corner of one building that you can see. The Palace is only open on two days out of every year, so for the rest of the time you`re reduced to craning your neck at a distant (and probably unused) wing. The grounds are an odd mix of acres of gravel for parades, immaculately manicured lawns with clipped trees, and a four-lane road that is constantly clogged with rumbling traffic. An odd place to put a road, but I suppose it`s no worse than Buckingham Palace and the cars that run around that.

So we had our old parts of Tokyo - in the evening we took the train to Akihabara. Also known as `Electric Town`, it is an entire city area crammed full of electronic shops, computer games showrooms, model and curio shops, and costume shops. We wandered around for a while staring at the neon and flashing from every angle. One shop we went in was the 7-floor Radio Hall, which sold every kind of plastic toy imaginable. You know those large plastic spheres you see outside newsagents for kids to put in a pound coin and get a large plastic egg with a toy inside? This place had a floor of just those. To my joy, I found one that dispensed models of crabs, and stuffed in Y200 (GBP1) as fast as I could. Despite wanting the spider crab, I got a swimmer crab, but it`s still the best crab model I own. Another shop we went in - Aso Bit City - also had seven floors, but of different types of models. You had a floor of cars, then planes, then remote-control cars, then boats and ships, then model railways (where I lost Dad) and above that toy guns. The top floor was a shooting range, where you could try out your purchased weapon. Tokyo is one amazing city...

Photos from Tsukiji

Here are some bonus photos of the scenes at Tsukiji fishmarket, to give you a better idea of what delights were on offer. This picture above shows a group of workers scything a tuna carcass in half using what looked to me like a ninja sword.

These cockle-like shellfish were about the size of a large potato each. Obviously popular as there were only two left, I can't imagine what you would do with them. Well, cook them and eat them, I suppose.

This colourful jumble of fish are the much-prized fugu - blowfish (or puffer fish as we would call them in the UK). According to things I've read, the actual taste is a bit bland - but they are eaten for their excellent texture and of course the sheer thrill of eating something poisonous that has the capacity to kill you. People do die eating it - albeit not that often. There's apparently a famous fugu saying that you should always let your dining companion take the first piece...

Arm-length sized squid all neatly laid out - everything was very well presented.

We arrived at 8:30am and a lot of the action was over. It seemed to me that the best bargains had gone early. We were wondering what happened to things like this head, and thought that there's probably someone who buys things like this for fish stock or animal food. I doubt much is wasted.

Live crabs trussed up for easy boiling. It was hard for me in places - I'm a fan of marine things of course - but I do like seafood, so of course you have to know things like this happen. The sushi breakfast we had afterwards was wonderful...

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Tsukiji and Asakusa

Plenty of blood and guts at the fish market

So, fishmarkets. I remember going to the indoor fish market in Preston when I was young and staring at the fillets of cod and haddock behind the glass. A few years ago I went to the Sydney fishmarket and saw the computerised auction of prawns and seafood. Today I added another fishmarket to my collection - and one that is surely impossible to top. Tsukiji fishmarket in Tokyo is simply staggering. Every day 2,500 tonnes of seafood are sold there (a bit more than bought by the old women at Preston market). The daily bill for all the fish sold comes to Y2.9billion - that's GBP15m (or US$26m for my American readers) - and they only trade for 5 hours. GBP3m per hour in marine life. Amazing.

The market is just as I imagined - maintaining the theme I was talking about yesterday. It was frantically busy and seemed completely chaotic, but was very organised at the same time. Each stallholder had a set area of floorspace, and a tiny wooden hut at the back where a person sat to take the money. We arrived at 8:30 (it opens at 5am) and already a lot of them had sold out, shut up and gone home. As for what was on sale - just about anything. From bags of 1cm-long see-through baby eels to tuna heads the size of sheep. All kinds of fish, both dead and alive, shellfish - including mussels almost at long as your forearm, crabs, octopus, squid.

Walking between the narrow lanes of stalls was a mission, with buyers and workers rushing everywhere. Motorised pallet trucks zipped all over, transporting white polystyrene boxes around. Outside a mountain of these two stories high was piled up - after all, 2,500t of fish need a lot of boxes. We wandered around trying to avoid getting in the way, and just looking at the sheer variety of things on offer. One thing I wasn`t prepared for was the blood - all over the hanger-sized building men were hacking and chopping, using lethal-looking axes, knives and hooks to dismember unfortunate creatures who were only swimming around that morning. But hey, I`m no hypocrite - we went for a sushi breakfast at the market and it was amazing.

Beatiful pagoda at Senso-ji temple

After Tsukiji we walked for a few minutes to the Hamarikyu-teien, or detached palace garden. It was here that the early shogunate hunted ducks, and so wanted a more picturesque setting whilst they were waiting for the birds to fly into their nets. The garden sits on the edge of the Sumida, and is surrounded on the other three sides by skyscrapers. From there we took a boat ride up the river to the old shopping area of Asakusa. The river cruise was interesting, but both sides of the Sumida have been channelled, dredged and built up so much it was very industrial. Still good though - interesting to see how people live so close to the water.

Asakusa has been a centre of entertainment, religion and shopping since the 13th Century, and is one of the parts of old Edo (Tokyo in the time of the Shoguns). We walked around and looked in the millions of small touristy shops on Nakamise-dori before the giant Senso-ji temple. Another Buddhist temple, this one is for Kannon - the Goddess of Mercy, and was founded in 628 after two fishermen pulled a statue of her out of the Sumida. A temple has stood there ever since. It was interesting to watch people praying - unlike yesterday`s remote temples Senso-ji is bustling and active. You could pay Y100 and take a paper fortune from a drawer - they can be either good or bad. Mine was a 'Regular Fortune' - apparently 'talk with tongue entangled by your getting drunk gives no unpleasant impression to others'. That's always good to know. My Mum had two attempts and my Dad one - all three were 'Bad Fortunes' of marriage and financial strife ahead. Fortunately if you tied the piece of paper your fortune was written on to a nearby wire rack, it negated it and you were back to square one - with nothing bad hanging over you. Handy that...

Monday, September 26, 2005

Ohayo gozaimasu

Detail of the roof of Engaku-ji temple

Well here I am. I`m writing this on a kanjii-enabled keyboard on the 7th floor of our hotel in Shinagawa - the Shinagawa Prince. I`ve only seen hotels like this when I was in Las Vegas all those years ago - it`s enormous. There are thousands of rooms - the hotel is divided into about half a dozen buildings and has it`s own shopping mall, aquarium (with shark tunnel and dolphinarium), two cinemas and an IMAX, two bowling alleys (two!) and sixteen restaurants. It`s mammoth - essentially a city within a city - within a city, as Shinagawa is huge as of itself. Anyway, we arrived with no problems from Sydney, as overnight flights go it was reasonable. The plane had a party of 104 Japanese schoolkids returning from language schools in Australia, but they were down the back of the 747.

So what are my first impresssions of Japan? Well, I`ve spent so long planning this trip, reading about it, etc, that it was pretty much as I was expecting. That`s not to say it was a disappointment - the exact opposite, it`s amazing. Tokyo is so vast, so busy, so hyped with energy. The 25th floor view we have overlooks the grey tower blocks of the central city, merging with the smoggy haze hanging over the city. In the distance we can see the Bladerunner-esque lights of Shinjuku glittering away. Eveything is fast paced, people bow to you, taxi drivers wear white gloves, there are vending machines everywhere, Japanese TV is bizarre - it`s all present and correct. You just have to go into a supermarket and see how alien a place you`ve arrived in. I can`t wait to explore more tomorrow.

Dad at the Tokeiji temple

Today was by necessity a slow day, as we arrived off the plane at 6am. We converted our JR passes - the multiple-use rail ticket that covers all of Japan`s JR railways for two weeks - and were given an immediate train reservation for the Tokyo express that left within three minutes. So after legging it down to one of many platforms we were soon winging our way into the city. Fortunately our hotel is near the station, but unfortunately we arrived at 10am and couldn`t check-in until 1pm. So we left our bags with them and had a GBP15 cup of tea in the cafe before taking a train trip. Oh - that`s GBP15 for three of us, by the way, not each. We caught a local train from Shinagawa via the port city of Yokohama to Kamakura - an early centre of the Buddhist faith. We spent the afternoon wandering amongst leafy temples and cemetaries, looking at crows, eagles, and amazing butterflies. The trees looked ancient - some of the sites were constructed in the 1300`s. After a few hours the tiredness set in and we returned to the city. It was a short, but good, introduction to the Japanese way of life (and death) and was a great way to spend an afternoon. Tomorrow is the first full day, and it`s going to start nice and early...(again)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Near to the off...

The pre-dinner photo

Well, these are now the last days for me in Australia - tomorrow I'm off to Tokyo. I spent most of the day today sorting out my stuff - which to be honest didn't take all that long. I made a conscious decision not to acquire the usual amount of crap that I tend to do when I'm living somewhere, as I knew I'd have to either throw it away or somehow carry it all home. In the end I had to buy a small suitcase-type thing to take care of the overspill from what I'm taking to Japan. It only cost $18 (GBP7) though, so no great expense. Even so, it took me a few hours to organise what I am going to need over the next couple of weeks and what I'm not. Oh - and in the afternoon I watched the AFL Grand Final and cheered the mighty Swans on to their first Premiership for 72yrs. Go the Swans.

Tonight I went out for dinner in Surry Hills with my flatmates (see picture above taken beforehand), to a very fancy Thai restaurant. The prices were similar to the French place we went to a few weeks ago but the portions were about twenty times the size. I ate so much that when we went for a drink at a nearby pub I could hardly finish it. Unlike me, I know. Anyway, so that's it for my stint living in Sydney. Tomorrow it's off for two weeks in Japan - which I can't wait for. I've been planning this for so long that when our plane rolls up to the terminal in Narita I'll be hopping about like a 3yr old at Christmas. Expect lots of photos and a fair bit of blogging. Oh yes. After the two weeks there, I'll be back in Sydney for 24hrs (the 11th October if you're taking notes) and then from there it's a flight to Seoul and another overnight stop on the way back to London. Bring it on! See you in Tokyo...

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

WA Coast day 4

Taking photos at Shell Beach

The four days went very quickly, but I always knew it was going to be a fast tour. The final day of my trip was more relaxed than the previous three - we set off at 10:30, for one thing. I had a wander on the beach at Coral Bay before we got underway. We drove up to Exmouth and checked into our holiday park hostel, which was pretty good value for $20. Exmouth was founded in 1967 to support a US submarine tracking base. We rolled through it and round Cape Vlamingh (he of Rottnest Island fame), which today houses the mothballed Harold Holt Communications station - the Australian Prime Minister who vanished off the face of the earth whilst out for his morning swim in the 60's (not here though). Today they site is abandoned, and lies rusting under the unyielding sun. The peninsula is famous for more than that however - the Ningaloo Reef lies off the Western tip. The Ningaloo is Buzz Aldrin to the Great Barrier Reef's Neil Armstrong, but is quietly becoming more popular. The big draw there - apart from the usual coral - are the Whale Sharks that cruise lazily up the coast from May to July each year. Wrong time of year for us, though.

We stopped off at Turquoise Bay - a beautiful snorkelling spot. This was your classic tropical reef beach - white sand, clear water, warm breeze. Steve the driver produced a battered box of snorkelling gear, and we all had a go. Although being a pretty rubbish swimmer, I saw a few different kinds of fish in waist deep water - although it would have been great to go out over the reef - I'm just not good enough to negociate the currents. Still, it was great to see the fish that close up, and I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon, really. It was great.

On the way back to the holiday park things got better, though. We drove up to the Vlamingh lighthouse and Steve produced a box of wine and a pile of plastic cups, so we had a drink and watched the sun go down over the Eiffel Tower-sized communication pylons. Out in the bay, a series of splashes caught our attention, and suddenly a humpback whale breached the waves and crashed back into the sea. It was stunning - they were a long way out, but we were high up enough to see them all coming out of the water. Every 30 seconds a whale would come up for air, or splash out of the water. We saw two go almost completely out of the sea before slapping back with a huge white plume. That more than made up for the cancellation of my whale-watching tour in Kaikoura (which seems like such a long time ago). We weren't as close as a boat trip gets you, but these were wild whales splashing around in the afternoon - and we were up on a hill overlooking the sea it felt as if they were putting on a show for us. It was breathtaking - and a great way to end my trip. I flew back from Exmouth to Perth with a huge smile on my face...

Monday, September 19, 2005

WA Coast day 3

Dolphin checking out the crowd at Monkey Mia

Another dawn start today, but a chance to get as close to wild animals as you can get without jumping in the water. We saw a few native species on the trip - kangaroos (two of them boxing), a wombat, emus, wedge-tailed eagles, whales (more on that later), and dolphins. Just east of our second overnight stay at Denham is a place called Monkey Mia. 'Mia' means 'place of' in the local aboriginal language, and the Monkey was an early trading vessel that anchored in Shark Bay. For years a group of local dolphins have arrived at the beach each morning and are quite happy to swim in knee-deep shallows looking at tourists. They are fed - but carefully and are only given 5% of their daily needs so they don't become reliant. I'm not sure about that, but it was incredible to stand there and be a metre away from wild dolphins swimming around. You got the impression they were amused by it too - every so often they raised an eye out of the water and had an inquisitive peek. Of course, it's really popular, and there were about 100 people in a long line on the shore - but the dolphins don't seem to mind. You can't go any closer though, and touching isn't allowed - apparently human viruses are lethal to them.

After that we had a choice - go on a catamaran in the bay, or go for a nature walk with an aboriginal guide. Now I've been on plenty of boats - but have never talked to an aboriginie, so I chose that. It turned out that I was the only one - so I had a private tour of the bush for a couple of hours. The guide was called Capes, and was a member of the local Malgana people. I've lived in Australia for almost a year and done nothing aboriginal, so I was interested to hear what he had to say. We walked around, and he showed me tracks of the various animals and birds in the dark red sand. He talked about the influence of nature on their way of life - it's everything to them - and their outlook on how to conserve it. He explained how they catch goannas to eat - they listen for alarm calls of bush wrens, and use them as a guide for where the lizards are likely to be. He was pretty good at bird impressions, he did an alarm call and all the wrens flew up to check out the danger. It was all interesting, he picked a few native beans for me to eat - they tasted disappointingly beany. We saw loads of lizards and birds, but no mammals or snakes. He knew a heck of a lot though, and told me that schoolchildren in the Denham area are now learning aboriginal language in their school - even the white children. Oh, and that his tribe call ants 'mingers'.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

WA Coast day 2

The Stromatolites at Hamelin Pool, Shark Bay

This morning started early - we set off at 7am every day, so get all those stereotypes about lazy backpackers out of your heads! There was a lot of dozing on the bus though - try riding for three hours in 25C heat and stay awake, it's tough. The first port of call today was close to our overnight stay at Kalbarri. We had a walk down one of the famous gorges - Kalbarri National Park has over 1000sqkm of them, so we had it to ourselves. At the bottom was a trickling river dyed a stunning green by massive amounts of algae. WA is home to all kinds of natural animals, but also feral foxes, goats, rabbits and pigs. There's a fence that runs along the length of the state border to keep them out, but it seems to be a losing battle. Fortunately there's a natural poison that all local animals are immune to, but introduced species aren't. There are a lot of poison warning notices everywhere.

One place we stopped in the afternoon was at Hamelin Pool - a special site for all biologists as it's one of only two places in the world where you can see living Stromatolites. What are they? Well, they are groups of simple bacteria that decided to live together in a colony for safety and produce a rocky home for themselves. Ordinarily, these footstool-shaped rocks would be unspectacular, but when you realise this action was the first instance of single-celled life joining together the importance strikes you. That moment was when simple life started the long path that resulted in everything else, including us. Stromatolites have been quietly going about their business, unchanged, for 2000 million years. They used to cover the entire planet, and did so for far far longer than all other forms of life put together. These rocks are special - and now they are only found at two salty bays on opposite sides of the world (the other being in the Bahamas). Hamelin Pool has every UNESCO World Heritage qualification there is. The examples in the photo are almost 3000yrs old. If you know me - you can imagine how stunning I found this. It was brilliant.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

WA Coast day 1

The Pinnacles Desert

The only real way to see the coast is to get on a tourist bus and be driven about - at least if you can't hire a big 4WD and do it yourself. I booked myself on the Easyrider bus tour and had a four-day trip up the coastline of Western Australia from Perth to the northern reef destination of Exmouth. They do love those UK place names in Australia. It was very similar to the trip I took in New Zealand - the same kind of 'jump-on, jump-off' idea, but again I hadn't the time to jump off so I did the trip in one go. Actually as I write this they are still going as the trip continues to Darwin and takes almost two weeks.

The first stop was the Pinnacles Desert - aptly named as you can see. Hundreds of thousands of limestone pillars are scattered around the sand, and you can wander around anywhere you like. Early ship-bound explorers looking at the land thought it was a ruined city, which maybe explains why they kept crashing into reefs and sinking. It was very impressive, and I could have spent hours there - but bus travel being what it is we were off after half an hour. Still, it was worth seeing. The Easyrider buses run every four days - so if you wanted to jump off you really needed plenty of things to keep you occupied until the next one turned up.

The main difference I noticed with the NZ trip (and of course this is blindingly obvious) was the sheer distances involved. In NZ we would stop every hour or so and look at something, but here in WA there was hour after hour of arid scrubland and bush rolling past the windows. Have a look at an atlas - Western Australia is simply huge. It's the same size as India - but with 0.5% of India's population. This is a big, empty country. But a spectacular one...

Friday, September 16, 2005

Where Quokkas Rule

Not a rat - a Quokka

In 1696 the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh avoided wrecking his ship like so many of his compatriots, and discovered an island off what became Fremantle. His men were amazed to find it covered in giant rats - much bigger than the ship rats they were used to. They camped for a couple of days, and then sailed away North leaving the furry mammals in peace. They named their discovery Rottnest Island - Rat's Nest. They were wrong, of course - the animals weren't rats, they weren't even mammals. The Dutch explorers became one of the first groups of Westerners to see marsupials, and the first ever to see Quokkas.

Once common over all of WA, Quokkas are now extremely rare - but thrive on Rottnest Island thanks to the isolation. A 20-minute boat trip from Fremantle, Rottnest is a small fish-shaped island perched on the edge of the Indian Ocean. I spent most of the day there, wandering around the beaches and paddling in the stunningly clear water. The island is famed for the white sandy beaches, and the wind keeps the temperature down when it gets too hot. Holiday homes dot the bays, and people have been coming here for many years. The island has a controversial past too - aboriginies charged with breaking settler's laws (concepts which most of them didn't understand of course) were sent to Rottnest to be interred.

So that's the Perth part of my trip over - for now at least. I'll be back here in a few days. Tomorrow I've got a 7am start on a bus trip up North into the Pinnacles Desert and the Kalbarri National Park. I'm not sure what internet access will be like up the WA coast - but if I can find a terminal I'll let you all know how I get on...

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Freo to the locals

Old dock-type buildings in Fremantle

After wandering around Perth late yesterday I realised I'd pretty much done it. So today I took a train out of the city and visited the neighbouring port city of Fremantle. 'Freo' as the locals call it, is about 20mins from Perth, and is a proper working port, with massive container ships loading up right near the centre. The buildings have that old warehouse feel to them, and the ornate plasterwork everywhere reminded me of the restored docks in Hull. That's about it for that comparison though, as it was gloriously sunny and the air didn't have a fishy tang to it. I wandered around for a bit, admiring all the porty-goings on. Both Perth and Fremantle have one major bonus for tourists (and pensioners and students too, come to think of it) in that every bus that crosses the city centre is free. So you can hop on and off as much as you like - provided you know where you're going, of course.

I consulted the famed LP guidebook, and it led me to the 'stunning' and 'fascinating' Maritime Museum of Western Australia. It could quite easily have been both of these things, but unfortunately it was also 'half-closed' for 'renovation', so I'd whizzed around it in about 20 minutes. Still, that meant I went next door into the Fremantle Motor Museum - and that was much better. I'm no petrol-head (still have never got round to driving), but the cars there were great - including some old Formula 1 classics, which really got me interested. The entire collection is owned by one man (presumably a very rich man) - and he was there in overalls tinkering with one of the displays, doing some renovating of his own.

I know I said in an old post that I'm a museum junkie - but I outdid myself in Freo. In the afternoon I went to the Museum of Shipwrecks, and that was the best of the lot. They had all kinds of exhibits - apparently Western Australia is littered with wrecked ships from the hapless Dutch traders who ploughed into the rocky shores whilst trying to work their way up the coast to the then Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). The museum gave the impression that the Dutch were practically hurling their ships onto the hostile shores - particularly the Alhobros Islands (the name means 'look out'). If you're ever in Fremantle I urge you to go - it was fantastic, and I learned all kinds of things I'll be looking out for when I go up the coast on Saturday. But tomorrow - I'm off to look for giant rats...

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The most isolated city

The Perth skyline at night

So the start of the 'month of travels' began this morning with a whopping five-hour internal flight across to the other side of Australia. Now if you're American or Russian, flying that long and still being in the same country isn't new - but to me it certainly is. I was trying to think of how many countries I could get to within 5hrs of Edinburgh, but gave up when I was well into double figures. They don't call Perth the 'most isolated capital city on Earth' for nothing. It's closer to Singapore than Sydney. I got a ramshackle bus into the city and found where I was staying fairly easily - Perth is very small. Although maybe I've been in the spectacularly sprawling mass of Sydney for too long to appreciate the smaller cities.

My flight over was reasonable, considering the cold I've picked up - the last one I got was the last time I went travelling - and the hangover I had saddled myself with after the final Japanese lesson. It wasn't much of lesson, more a end-of-term meal and piss-up. We went to a Japanese lesson and had a great meal - which Nobuko-san instructed us to order in Japanese. She also ordered bottles and bottles of steaming sake, which we kept polishing off with increasingly loud cries of 'kampai!!'. I tell you, warm sake does wonders for a blocked nose. So that's it for my return to student-hood, I'll be able to try it for real in a couple of weeks.

The night ended on an amusing note, when the bloke I sat next to for the lessons confused me with another bloke in our class, and gave me a couple of anime DVD's. Hey, I do watch it - but I'm not the fan he thought I was. I managed to duck most of his questions, and took the disc home. I didn't feel bad, as the guy it was intended for didn't show up, and it wasn't bought specially - just downloaded from a laptop onto a blank disc. At that point we were both pretty drunk, and he seemed pleased that I'd taken it. So I've got some anime to watch when I get back - my Japanese education continues...

Monday, September 12, 2005

Tour Guide

M&D take in the harbour view from a ferry

If you've been wondering why the flurry of activity has died recently on DUaB, it's because I've been employed as a tour guide for the past week. My parents arrived on the 3rd of September and I played the part of tour leader. Initially this involved me getting up at 4am to meet them off the plane from Singapore, and watch as the evils of jetlag took hold and they slipped into the traveller's fug (before lunch, no less). But after a couple of half-days at the beginning of their stay, they attuned to the Antipodean timeframe and were keen to get out and about. We were undone by the weather to begin with - rain and cold winds for the first couple of days. My carefully-planned itinerary quickly went down the tubes and I spent much of the rest of the week winging it.

They had eight days in Sydney, all told, so managed to see practically everything the city has to offer. We did all the usual central attractions - Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Botanic Gardens, Taronga Zoo etc. I tried to get them out on the harbour ferries as much as possible, and I think they appreciated the city more for that (see photo above). We also took in day trips to the Blue Mountains and the Hunter Valley, both in spectacular Spring weather. I'd not been to the Hunter before, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

So they are now off up on a Barrier Reef cruise, and my tour guide duties are on hold for a while - at least until we get to Tokyo and I can show them round a city I've never visited. Tomorrow I fly off to Perth and the gaping expanse of Western Australia. I've got just over a week there - doing the backpacker thing again - before I come back to Sydney for my final 3days in Australia. How time flies, eh? Look out for more blog posting over the end of this week as I get on the road again.