5 Things to Do on Okinawa Island

(Map of Locations)

Okinawa Prefecture is a chain of four main islands and smaller ‘island groups’ that stretch for over six hundred miles. Okinawa Island is the largest, its natural beauty dominated by the bustling capital Naha and a number of controversial American military bases. A weekend allows you to explore the most basic of tourist attractions, but leaves no opportunity for adventure on the paradises offshore.

Okinawans are known as ‘Ryukyuan’ for the chain of Ryukyu Islands of which they are part. They are quite used to the influx of foreign tourists and famous for being some of the longest-lived people on the planet. Alongside them is the resident United States military, whose presence is keenly felt. The sight of service members and their families is common around the island. Their American-style housing compounds are visible behind chain-link from the highway, and their cars are easy to spot thanks to the distinctive ‘Y’ on the license plate. Even the English-language music station serves both as reminder of home and unintentional source of humor due to its decidedly odd military commercials and public service announcements.

Tip: Stay in a Hostel Hostels in Naha are cheap, centrally located, and generally safe and clean.

It was a hot and muggy November when I arrived. I took a bus from the airport into the city, and spent some time trying to find my hostel. The staff at the Guesthouse Okinawa Monogatari were friendly and welcoming. The dorms had better security than most hostels, and the beds came with privacy curtains.

Naha has a half-tropical feel that many foreigners find incongruous to their preconceived image of Japan. We see the country in films as covered in rice fields and bamboo, mountainous, boasting festivals in summer and cherry blossoms in spring.  We’re not taught to expect Naha’s palm trees, beaches, or tropical skirts being sold to tourists along the streets.

Habu-shu or ‘snake liquor’ is sold in shops along the main road. The giant jars of alcohol contain a coiled habu snake - deadly pit vipers native to southern Japanese islands - with its mouth open and fangs out, as if ready to strike. A tempting drink for someone seeking an exotic experience, at least until I learned the somewhat horrifying methods used to create it.

Tip: Rent a Car The bus and monorail system in Naha is clean and safe, but for anyone wanting to explore outside of the main city, renting a cheap car is the easiest - and arguably only - way to properly do so.

The next morning I enjoyed a complimentary pancake breakfast and made friends with a cheerful Japanese guest in the hostel common room.

My travel partner arrived around noon with our rental car, and we settled on a small parking lot near our hostel. The system here was a complicated one; first one parks their car in one of the tightly-packed spaces, then gets the attention of an elderly woman living on the second floor above the parking space. She sends down a bucket on a string, into which you deposit your car keys. When you wish to retrieve your car, the bucket descends again; you give her the money, and get the keys back in return.

Then we set off to explore Okinawa Island properly.

The Castle

Our first stop that morning was Shuri-jo or Shuri Castle. Built in the 1300’s and a former jewel of the Ryukyu Kingdom, much of it was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in the 1990’s.

The castle is pretty, if somewhat standard in size. The patterns painted on its walls differ from the usual Japanese castle aesthetic, outlining an unexpected contrast between Japanese and specifically Okinawan culture. We admired it, but decided against paid admission to the central courtyard, which is visible from afar if you take the footpath that circumnavigates the walls.

The castle also hosts frequent demonstrations of traditional and beautiful Okinawan dances.

The Beach

The beaches of Okinawa Island cannot compare to those of smaller islands like Miyako-jima and Ishigaki, so we simply chose the one most readily accessible.

Araha Beach is not the prettiest or most unique stretch of coastline I have ever visited, but lying on the warm sand was a treat for mid-November, and there was some interesting scenery offshore. It seemed popular with foreign couples and their children - we saw a number of the ‘Y’ plated cars in the parking lot - but was far from swarmed, likely due to the time of year.

Relax (Massage and Hot Spring)

One of the things I most looked forward to in Okinawa was getting a massage, and we decided on the female-run, well-reviewed Secret Garden Aromatherapy Salon. Half an hour from central Naha, it was a clean and tranquil little place, with very skilled service for a very reasonable price. They cater to women and couples only. They worked magic, fixing months of back pain in under an hour. It was a revitalizing experience, and a relaxing end to the day.

We started the next morning at an onsen or Japanese hot spring.

Bathers with tattoos such as myself face something of a challenge, as hot springs generally ban us from using the facilities. This is so they can refuse - without explicitly stating so - to cater to the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. Of course, it is irresponsible to flout a country’s rules as a foreigner, and some hot springs will forcibly eject tattooed persons from the baths. On the other hand, tourists are very obviously not members of the Japanese mafia, and the country is beginning to relax its rules for foreigners, especially since smaller tattoos can be covered by a strategically-placed towel.

We decided on Ryukyu Onsen Senagajima Hotel, slightly pricey but not far from Naha. The morning rush cleared out around 8 AM, and we had the place entirely to ourselves. Though not large, the onsen was almost entirely salt-water - a rare treat. It had a number of fun baths, pools, and enormous clay pots suitable for a single person to soak in. There was also a standing pool, which submerged me up to my ribs and was situated overlooking the ocean. The sea view was gorgeous.

The Aquarium

Churaumi Aquarium lies on a peninsula one-and-a-half hours north of Naha. Once the largest aquarium in the world, it boasts a nice collection of aquatic animals and a cute gift shop.

The range of sea life is fascinating, and the whale sharks are especially stunning in their gorgeous main tank. However, while the sea creatures look healthy, their tanks are not large in comparison to their body size. Some tiny creatures in side-exhibits even seem to reside in fish-bowls.

There is also a shark ‘study’ room. Despite the fact that humans slaughter thousands of sharks daily, the room focuses almost entirely on shark dissection rather than preservation. More of the room is devoted to shark meat delicacies than educating visitors on natural shark behavior.

I also must unfortunately give a complete thumbs-down to Cafe Ocean Blue, the aquarium’s only restaurant. Their literal only option for non-meat-eaters was onion rings. The pasta, shrimp rice, and even corn soup (???) included meat. The staff was very kind  about trying to assist me, but there was not much they could do. On the plus side, the cafe was directly beside the beautiful main tank. It provided a welcome distraction from my hunger pangs and mediocre onion rings.

The Food

Naha has a number of interesting restaurants, bars, and clubs.

Our first night was concluded with a visit to Bacar Okinawa, a lovely pizza parlor. From the counter you can see chefs making and baking some of the best pizza in Japan. The mixed drinks are also delicious, and the service very nice. Go early or make a reservation - they were full except for a few pre-booked seats, and only let us kip there provided we finished eating before the next customers were due.

The next night we spent several hours at Mafali Cafe, close to our hostel. It was a very nice African-themed restaurant and bar with good food and fantastic drinks. I recommend the cheese platter.


Advice for the JET Program: Application and Essay

The Aim of Your Essay

The best piece of advice one can possibly receive when writing their essay is this: Don't just make it about the things you enjoy, make it about the things you can contribute. Every section of the essay should be useful as potential proof or evidence of what you can bring to the table, and why you will be good at your job. Don't worry about details that don't help show how capable you are.

The JET Program is self-described as being about internationalization (are you self-sufficient and adaptable and interested in getting involved in local culture as well as sharing your own? Can you survive for more than one year all on your own with a language barrier?) and team teaching (what experience do you have and how and why does it prove that you can work in a team, take direction, problem-solve, be imaginative, defer to guidance, learn quickly, be independent? What methods and techniques have you used in the past, and what results did you get?). This is what you should be crafting your essay to highlight.

Opening Hook

  • Make your first paragraph meaningful, striking, and unique, if possible. They will be reading a bazillion of these essays, and it would be all too easy to get  lost in the shuffle. Make them remember you.


  • How did you first become interested in Japan? And more importantly, what have you done since then to involve yourself in activities and learning opportunities associated with the country's culture? How long have you held this interest - can you prove its longevity? How hard have you worked to get to where you are with it? Have you received and prestigious awards, contest prizes, or commendations? Was anything you did in the field particularly noteworthy or even (within reason) unusual? Most importantly, what about this involvement demonstrates your ability to fit into the country's culture, and display a continuing interest after JET finishes?
  • Include any language studies/testing, study abroad experience, or appropriate hobbies that relate.
  • Avoid mentioning manga and anime, unless it is literally what you are planning as a career path.

International Experience and Culture Shock

  • What is your experience in terms of studying and living abroad? Again, this is not your chance to talk about your favorite travel experiences, though enthusiasm is certainly important. This is where you prove that you are highly adaptable, show that you would have no problem living in Japan for several years, and most importantly, will not break contract and go back before your time is up.
  • Have you submersed yourself in a foreign language before? How much of it did you use? Can you be self-reliant? Do you like to explore? Have or would you participate in community events, school clubs, or local teams? What has this taught you about teamwork?

Teamwork and Teaching Experience

  • List all of your teaching experience. State where and when you worked, and what you did - grade and age levels, areas of study, materials, application of knowledge, what ideas you had, how you implemented them, the effect they had, and what you learned from it.
  • For example - did you tutor a pupil in conversation and elocution? How? (I.e. by composing sample dialogues, breaking down words into phonetic pronunciation guides, crafting easy synonyms for difficult vocabulary words, etc.) Did you help pre-primary students read from picture books? How? (I.e. by correcting their misspeaks with clear enunciation and repetition, etc.)
  • What have these experiences taught you about teaching, and how have they impacted your ability to teach and your interest in being an ALT?
  • What is your current line of work? What does it show about your ability to coordinate, observe, understand the task at hand, make proceedings run smoothly, volunteer for last-minute tasks, be trustworthy, schedule accurately, deal with the unexpected, improvise, and above all, work as a team?

Hobbies and Cultural Exchange

  • They want to know about your hobbies and the things you love. Talk about anything that will help you teach, interact with students in clubs, bring your culture to Japan, bring Japanese culture back to your country, or make you stand out as an individual.
  • What of your culture can you share with your students? What of Japan's culture have or will you share with your own country(wo)men? How have or will you do this - photographs? Videos? Blog entries?

Future Goals and JET

  • They are looking for applicants who will stay connected to Japan, JET, and teaching after leaving. This does not necessarily mean that you need to have university classes or career goals that align with JET, or indeed even to know where you are going, but it does mean that you should prove your continuing interest.
  • As you conclude, remind your readers why your experiences will help you feel comfortable as a teaching assistant. Remind them that you understand the importance of cross-cultural understanding, and how you plan to use JET to make that happen.

3 Offbeat Things to Do in Birmingham-ish

(Map of Locations)

  • Indulge Your Pre-Raphaelite Nerd at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

While much smaller than the museums of London, Birmingham's Museum and Art Gallery features the largest Edward Burne-Jones collection in the world, and an impressive number of Pre-Raphaelite works. It also has the famous painting of Morgan le Fay by Frederick Sandys.

The museum is a quick walk southwest down Edmund Street from Birmingham Snow Hill Station, and northwest up Hill Street from Birmingham New Street Station.

  • Catch a Roller Derby Game

Roller derby is a (usually) all-female contact sport played on roller skates. Anyone who has not seen a derby match is missing out on a show filled to the brim with athleticism, passion, competitiveness, and skill. Also tattoos, fishnets, dyed hair, and more feminists than you can shake a stick at.

The world of roller derby was introduced to the West Midlands in 2006 with the founding of the Birmingham Blitz Dames, the first English league created outside of London. The Dames boasts over 70 members, some of whom compete at an international level, and two of whom were picked for Team England and Team Ireland in the 2011 World Cup.


Their mission statement reads: "Since modern roller derby began sweeping the globe in 2001, it's been promoting female athleticism like no other sport in the world. We're proud to be a part of that revolution. We bring women into the roller derby community (and occasionally men, too) from all backgrounds, sporting or non-sporting, and we train athletes. We love what we do and we believe there's nothing else quite like it."

You can keep up with their event schedule online, or drop by a practice session in Futsal and try it out yourself.

  • Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Okay, so the sleepy town of Wychbury is technically in Hagley, Stourbridge, Worcestershire, - an hour on the train or half an hour in the car from Birmingham city center - and not in fact in Birmingham at all. That's fine. It can still be done in a day trip.

The Hill has a bit of an odd history, which is remarkably unkown for something so unusual. Besides having been an Iron Age hill fort, Wychbury is the site of a two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old obelisk. In 1943, in the middle of World War II, a woman's body was found stuffed into the wych hazel (then thought to be a wych elm) on the site. It was estimated that she had been killed some two years earlier, and despite theories that she was a local citizen, a traveler, a German spy named Clarabella, or even a witch, was unable to be identified. The most recent theory draws a connection between these theories and the disappearance of a Nazi spy named Clara Bauerle in 1941, who was due to parachute into the West Midlands and then was never heard from again.

The next year, graffiti started to appear both in the town and on the obelisk, reading variations of Who put Bella down the Wych Elm? The writing has been repeated several times throughout the decades, as recently as 1999.

The Hill is a bit of a walk from Hagley Station.

10 Things to Remember When Traveling

The importance of good walking shoes/hiking boots cannot be overstated. They have to be comfortable enough for long treks, big enough for thick socks, waterproof enough for mud and rain, study enough to withstand a battering, and warm enough to protect your toes on cold nights.

  • If you are worried about money, you can find good footwear around the $50 range. For someone strapped for cash, that may seem like a lot - but it is absolutely worth it, especially if you are headed somewhere cold or wet. Invest a little, and the boots/shoes will last you for a long time.
  • If you do not have good walking shoes, your toes will get wet, pinched, and cold, and you may explode and die midway along the southwest coast path to Tintagel.

One thing that tends to screw over first-time cold-weather campers is the ground temperature.

  • You may prepare for wind coverage and heat insulation, but forget that if the ground freezes, it will be like lying directly on a block of ice. The cold will seep up through the floor of your tent, into your sleeping bag, through your blankets, and drag you screaming into oblivion. (Literally.)
  • Blow-up air mattresses are not just for comfort or show. Even a small, thin, light, and inexpensive one can do the vital work of keeping you from direct contact with the frozen earth.

Stay in contact with people that you know, both in and out of the country you are visiting.

  • Keep a cell phone with you. It can not only help you with information, travel plans, and emergencies, it can potentially keep you safe. Always try to have a way to communicate with people, especially if you are traveling alone.
  • Make the fact that you are regularly in contact with others known wherever you go. Never, ever give anyone the impression that you will not be missed for a few days if you go missing. That way, if dragons swoop down from the hills and carry you away, you can always call your Khaleesi for help. 

It's pretty important to both your energy and happiness level to bring food with you.

  • Energy bars are expensive but effective; if you can't afford them, you can try making your own with granola and high-protein-content foods.
  • Dried fruit and nuts will also do the trick.
  • As will sandwiches.
  • Don't forget water.
  • When you do have a break, eat up. Your meals don't need to be remotely expensive, but they do need to be hearty. Keep up your energy.

Pack lightly.

  • Really. You do not realize yet exactly how heavy your bag will feel at 11 PM, after a day of walking for hours, weary from hot sun or cold wind, on aching feet, after skipping out on a meal to catch your train.
  • Pack your bag, then put it on and walk around your house thirty times with it on. If you feel even the slightest discomfort, you are in trouble.

Have fun when everything is going wrong.

  • Seriously, this could be the difference between an amazing adventure and a complete disaster.
  • Take bad things as they come; take them with a sense of humor, take it as an adventure, pretend zombies are on your tail or you're hiking to destroy the One Ring.
  • If you decide a trip sucks, that's when it starts to suck.

You can never have too many pairs of underwear.

  • This also goes for socks.
  • And panty liners.

Bring something to do.

  • Not all of your journey is going to be adventure-filled and scenic. There may be long hours on planes, trains, buses, or cars. Getting to where you want to be might take time, so bring something to work on.
  • If you have something with a lasting battery and easy access to a place to charge it, that's fine - cameras and iPods can provide plenty of entertainment.
  • It's just as likely that you will not. Think about what situations you plan to be in, and bring along the proper distractions.
  • Books, notepads, sketchpads, and travel-size games work fairly well.

Realize that if you have been trekking and toiling for more than a day, you are gross. Accept this, and embrace it.

  • Don't feel shame in the fact that you are gross, because you are an adventurer.
  • But realize that it's happening, and take steps to counter it.
  • Breath mints/gum, wet wipes/deodorant, and a hair brush can work wonders. Keep them in the little outer pockets of your pack, and use them before entering establishments and scaring everyone in the vicinity.
  • But still don't feel any shame in your grossness, because Frodo was probably covered in more grime than you by the time he reached Mount Doom anyway.
  • Actually, Aragorn was always covered in more grime than you ever will be, and he was still bangin'. Take that to heart.

 Be nice to people who don't understand you.

  • If you are in a foreign country, someone's (insert your native language here) is not perfect, or they are unable to understand your attempts at theirs, remember that they are not here to cater to you. You are in their territory, not vice versa. Don't be a butt.
  • If you get annoyed at the 'locals' for their language skills, or the country you are in for being inconvenient, take a moment of quiet solitude to solemnly reflect on the fact that you are a butt.

General Tips for Shoestring Travel

In decreasing order of expense: Hostels, campsites, couches.

  • Hostels usually range from $10 - $25 and are the friend of backpackers and budget travelers everywhere, especially if they have hot showers, laundry, a kitchen, and wifi.
  • If the weather is right, camping can be even cheaper - many campsites are $5 - $10 per night. Look for ones with on-site hot showers and laundry. Bring a light tent you can carry, and you can sometimes even pitch it in a park for lack of other options.
  • Go to Couchsurfing.org and sign yourself up. Take the obvious precautions - verifications aren't as important as you might suppose, but references are vital and choosing a host of the same age group and gender is suggested - and you could stay for free in every city you stop at.
  • For more long-term stays, you could even look into housesitting.

Do a good amount of research into what methods of transportation are cheapest. Some countries have hideously expensive public transport, while others do not. Also remember to calculate in the number of people traveling with you.

  • Look into rail passes (BritRail, Eurail, JR Pass, Seishun Juuhachi Kippu) for the cheapest deals.
  • Taxis are really not a thing you should be doing. Check prices just in case - and remember they will go down per person if you are traveling with a group - but do your best to avoid them, especially from airports. Take a train or bus instead.
  • The same deal goes for bus passes, and full-day tickets.
  • Renting a car might be cheaper than you expect, especially on islands or in countryside locations. Southern Japan and Langkawi rent cars for around $30 - $60/24 hours, which is very cheap indeed when split between five friends.
  • If you need to fly, first do a search for local budget airlines, such as AirAsia (self-explanitory), JetStar, RyanAir (Ireland) or even tiny companies such as Peach Aviation (for domestic flights in Japan). You might be in for a slightly less luxurious ride, but it's worth it.
  • Hitchhiking is not recommended, especially for young women traveling alone. (This is absolute balls, but it is also something to be rightfully cautious about.) If you are planning to attempt this, bring your cell phone, a knife, a dog, a friend, a flamethrower, and at least three bazookas.

Food is another place you can save money.

  • Don't eat at restaurants, unless you feel like splurging.
  • Cook and pack a lunch, if you're staying somewhere where that is possible.
  • Bring snacks for the road - energy bars are expensive, but nuts, fruit, and dried goods may not be. That said, if you can spare money for energy bars, they can be very, very helpful.
  • Shop at grocery stores and convenience stores. Many of them sell cheap sandwiches, and have microwaves or free hot water - if you need to live off cup noodles for a while, that's okay.
  • But more importantly, shop for what is cheap, basic, filling, and high in protein. A shitton of candy will do absolutely nothing to help your long-term energy level, strength, and health.

If you're touring historic landmarks or local attractions:

  • Try to find things with free entry.
  • Also look for locations that you will be perfectly happy visiting the outside of, rather than dropping $25 (that could be going toward food) on a tour of some reconstructed and unauthentic interior. Plenty of castles, statues, parks, and city attractions are more fun to experience by exploring, picnicking, or climbing around the outside.

Know what you're doing with your money.

  • Make a budget.
  • Do it before you leave by calculating every single thing on your itinerary, plus food, accommodation, entry fees, transportation fees, and everything else. Figure out how much money you can spend each day.
  • Keep track of every single thing you buy, and keep an up-to-date ledger with how much money you still have. When in doubt, always overestimate what you spent.

Happy traveling!

15 Things to Do in London

(Map of Locations)

  •  Cross from St Paul's Cathedral via the Millennium Bridge...

Just minutes from the Old Bailey, St Paul's Cathedral was built in the 1600s and was the tallest building in London for several hundred years. It has seen the funerals, memorials, and weddings of many famous or royal persons throughout England's history. Perhaps most famous of those laid to rest there are Admiral Horatio Nelson and Sir Winston Churchill.

Entry is Monday to Saturday during working hours and tickets are roughly fifteen pounds for adults, but seeing just the outside is worth it, too.

Continuing southward on foot, one finds themselves at the Millennium Bridge. A modern-style suspension footbridge, the Millennium Bridge is interesting during the day and beautiful at night. It closed for several years after its initial grand opening to eliminate a much-complained-of 'wobble,' and now has been open for several years.

In popular culture, fans of Harry Potter might remember the Milennium Bridge as having been blown up by Death Eaters in the opening of Half-Blood Prince, and also as having offered Irene Adler a picturesque backdrop for one of her many calls to the titular protagonist in BBC's Sherlock.

The closest tube exit is appropriately named St Paul's Station. The Millennium Bridge's north side is also a short walk from Mansion House and London Blackfriars Stations.

  •  ...to the Globe Theater

Upon crossing to the other side and veering left before the Tate Modern, one finds themselves face-to-face with the modern reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theater. Nowadays it looks small, even unremarkable; but in its heyday it would have dominated the surrounding landscape. The original Elizabethan-style Globe wasn't open for fifteen years before it was destryoed by fire; however, during its years of use it served as the setting of some of the most famous plays known the the English language. Take the tour if you like - or just wave at it when you pass by.

Fans of Doctor Who will know it as the setting of The Shakespeare Code in Series Three.

  • (Maybe Don't Ride) the London Eye

A 25 minute walk west from Shakespeare's Globe, the massive London Eye - or Millennium Wheel, as it was built in the year 2000 - sits on the south bank of the Thames. One of the world's largest ferris wheels at 443 feet tall, it spins slowly - imperceptible from far away - and lights up a beautiful blue at night.

It has appeared in numerous London-based films, including 28 Days Later, A Knight's Tale, and Harry Potter. It was also used as a massive alien signal conductor in the first episode in Series One of Doctor Who.

Tickets to ride are about 30 pounds for adults and are not suggested for the seasick-prone or those strapped for cash - go just for the view from below.

The London Eye is a short walk from Waterloo Station.

  • Marvel at Big Ben/the Houses of Parliament, the Statue of Boadicea, and Westminster Abbey

Just across Westminster Bridge from the London Eye, Big Ben (or 'Elizabeth Tower,' its clock faces, and great bell) is one of the most iconic sights in London. A three hundred foot four-faced clock tower, it was erected late in the 19th century.

Built in the 11th century and rebuilt in the 19th after a fire, the attached Houses of Parliament - properly known as the 'Palace of Westminster' - have seen their own share of history, including Guy Fawkes's attempt to blow them up on the 5th of November in 1605. Gothic and intricately carved in a way impossible to detect from afar (or indeed from most photographs), the Houses put many of the other famous stone buildings of London - like Buckingham Palace - to shame. They are still in use by the modern House of Commons and House of Lords. Today you can attend debates and visit the Parliamentary archives, and guided tours of the opulent interior are just over fifteen pounds. However, the iconic views are all photographable for free from the street.

You can see the Houses of Parliament in many shows and movies, most notably including their triumphant and spectacular demolition at the end of V for Vendetta. Big Ben featured heavily in episodes of Doctor Who and The Prisoner, as well as ringing in the London Olympic Games.

The famous if innaccurate statue of Boadicea (traditionally and correctly 'Boudica') and her daughters stands at the end of Westminster Bridge, facing Parliament. It was erected in 1905 as a symbol of her rebellion (for those not in the know, she spent a fantastic if tragically short while kicking the Romans' asses), and shows her in a horse-drawn chariot complete with a scythe on each wheel.

Westminster Abbey - just down the road from Parliament - is towering, white, and was constructed in the 13th century. Historically a site of royal coronations (starting with William the Conquerer) and weddings (most recently Prince William and Kate Middleton), it now also houses as a burial chamber some of the most famous names in British history, including St Edward the Confessor, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Isaac Newton, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Charles Dickens. It commemmorates hundreds more. It is a living church, and therefore is open to the public for between fifteen and twenty pounds.

In popular culture it appeared in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus novels, but the real thing is rarely seen in film as it usually does not allow commercial filming.

All of these locations are immediately accessible from Westminster Station on the tube.

  • Feel Vaguely Puzzled at Buckingham Palace

There's no nice way to put this: Buckingham Palace (a 15-minute walk westnorthwest of Westminster), for all its fame, is a thoroughly unattractive building. If 'butt-ugly' is too harsh a term, then after the likes of the Houses of Parliament it is puzzlingly, almost offensively plain, golden gates aside. Even the famous Palace Guards are rarely outside the gates on off-hours. However, the changing of the guard is worth a look; it happens every day or every other day, before noon.

Much more attractive is the facing Victoria Monument with its many (unfortunately colonialist-themed) statues and fountains.

Buckingham Palace is a ten minute walk from Hyde Park Corner, St James's Park, and Victoria Stations on the underground.

  • Visit Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, and the National Gallery

Massive, stretching nearly 170 feet tall, and a 15-minute walk northeast along The Mall from Buckingham Palace, Nelson's Column - named after and bearing at its top the statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, one of England's heroes in the war against Napoleon - is mind-bogglingly large. Built in the 19th century after Nelson's death, the column is surrounded by great bronze lion statues and a beautiful fountain.

The surrounding Trafalgar Square is one of London's most famous landmarks, and has been used for celebrations during some of the nation's biggest holidays. It is also used for demonstrations, and has seen protesters and rioters gather there for over a hundred years.  It has been featured in productions like James Bond, Doctor Who, and BBC's Sherlock.

At the back of the Square is the National Gallery, started in the 1820's and home to some of the most famous paintings in the world, including Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' and Velazquez's 'Toilet of Venus.' No photography is allowed, though of course if you don't use flash and they don't catch you... well. It is open every day. The admittance fee, excluding special exhibitions, is 'suggested' only.

All these attractions are directly across from Charing Cross Station.

  • Explore the British Museum

If you like history and art museums, London has a huge amount to offer; however, the British Museum may be the best.

A twenty-minute walk north-northeast of Trafalgar, the British Museum was founded in 1753 with the collections of plunders worldwide and has been showing off the fruits of England's colonialist efforts ever since. Even now, many of the exhibits are items of contention, which their countries of origin argue should rightly belong to them and not to Britain. It has the largest collection in the world - over eight million items - as well as a number of curatorial research departments, and activities worldwide. Its most famous objects include the Rosetta Stone, the Sutton Hoo burial ship, Michaelangelo's drawings, Lindow Man, friezes from the Parthenon on the Acropolis, an Easter Island Statue, and Egyptian mummies. Entry is free aside from exibitions, and it is open daily.

The British Museum is near Tottenham Court Road and Holborn Stations.

  • Slam into the Brick Wall at Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station

It's always worth a try.

King's Cross is a 25-minute walk north from the British Museum. Platform 9 3/4 can be found halfway between Platforms 9 and 10 on King's Cross's National Rail line.

(For an extra challenge, try to find the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron near Charing Cross Station.)

  • Rock Out in Camden Town

A 25-minute walk northwest from King's Cross, Camden Town is legendary for having one of the best live music scenes in London. Whether you are looking for cheap underground venues that support up-and-coming bands, open mic nights full of passionate poetry slam artists, or concert halls with years of cred and precious history, Camden is still a great place for punk fashion and rock music. Create your own rock n' roll walking tour, or visit the markets, bars, parks, and waterways.

The nearest Underground exit is Camden Town Underground Station.

  • The Victoria and Albert Museum

Also worth a look (take the tube) is the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was built in 1852 and houses over two million items. The most exciting among these include a reproduction of Trajan's Column, the Flanders unicorn tapestry, a reproduction of Michaelangelo's David, and numerous works from Rome and throughout Asia. Entry is free aside from special exibitions, and it is open daily except for around Christmas.

This museum is close to South Kensington Station.

  • Feel Glad You're Not Locked in the Tower of London

This stone fortress on the north side of the Thames was originally built in the 11th century during the Norman Conquest, and it served most famously as a prison for over eight hundred and fifty years. It has held and/or executed thousands of prisoners including Guy Fawkes, Anne Boleyn, William Wallace, a young Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, and in the 20th centrury two high-profile members of the Nazi Party. It has also seen various other usages such as military stronghold, residential palace, and royal armoury. For the past few hundred years it has housed the Crown Jewels.

The inside of the Tower follows a complicated design that speaks of the many times it has been expanded and rebuilt throughout the years. There are towers, keeps, courts, chapels, belfries, kitchens, great halls, and dungeons ready for the exploring. In the 1200s, there was even a royal menagerie.

It is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list as a museum and tourist site. It costs around 20 pounds for adults per entry (if you'd rather not pay the fee, it's still worth a good look from the outside). It is open every day during regular working hours. It is also included on several of London's Ghost Tours, as it is said to be extremely haunted. Famous ghosts include Anne Boleyn, and a polar bear.

The Tower of London is a short walk from Tower Hill Station on the tube.

  • (Do Not Blow Up) the Old Bailey

A half hour walk westward of the Tower, the Old Bailey has been the site of proceedings in the criminal court since at least the 1500's. Destroyed in a fire one hundred years later, it has been refaced and rebuilt multiple times. The version that now stands was erected in the early 1900s, and still holds trials on many of the major criminal cases in the United Kingdom.

It is also known to fans of V for Vendetta as the opening act in vigilante V's rebellion, where on November the 5th it exploded spectacularly to the soundtrack of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Less famously, it held master criminal Jim Morriarty for his trial in BBC Sherlock.

The Old Bailey is a five minute walk from St Paul's Station on the underground.

  • Tour the (Real and) Filming Locations of BBC's Sherlock and Doctor Who

BBC's Sherlock is set in London, and therefore the city is full of fun locations for fans to visit even outside the aforementioned places that are culturally significant in and of themselves.

Sherlock's fake 221B Baker Street is next to Speedy's Cafe on North Gower Street, reachable via underpass from Euston Square Station.

Irene Adler's house is at 44 Eaton Square, one of the many affluent streets west of Victoria Station and northeast of Sloane Square Station in Belgravia.

Alberto's Italian restaurant is a small place called Tapas Brandisa in Soho, located on Broadwick Street at the end of Lexington (check for the cobblestones under your feet) and a ten minute walk north of Piccadilly Circus.

The real New Scotland Yard is just south of St James's Park Station. St Bart's Hospital - the site of Sherlock's great Fall and as well as the building behind which John Watson was so cleverly made to position himself - is just northwest of St Paul's Station.

Doctor Who has a fair share of London locations as well, aside from those already listed. Among them are Canary Wharf - the site of Doomsday - which is very close to Canary Wharf Station, 10 Downing Street - host of the real Prime Minister and area of the occasional alien takeover - just a walk from Westminster, Battersea Power Station - which fell to the Cybermen - west of Vauxhall on the tube or north of Battersea Park on the National Rail, and the Shard - taken over by UNIT in The Bells of Saint John - is just southwest of London Bridge Station on the tube.

  • Take a Ghost Walk

With its numerous plague pits, execution sites, cemetaries, and houses with murderous histories, London has its fair share of ghosts. The spirits of those executed at the Tower of London are said to roam the grounds, hounds are heard howling at Sutton House, and a modern-day book dealer's was the location of so many unexplained deaths that it has been given the official title of Most Haunted House in London and is regulated to this day by a law that states no one is allowed to be on the top floor alone after dark.

You can scope out locations on your own or take an official walking or bus tour (tickets are often available on sale). Either way - if you intend to go at night, we recommend that you always bring a friend.

  • Crawl the Pubs

If the idea of one big beer/shot-soaked, marked-up-t-shirt-wearing, rambling night out is your idea of a good time, them a London pub crawl is for you. You can get tickets for an official guided crawl tour (often hilarious thanks to the guide and often with at least one free drink per pub) or plot a course all your own with free maps from the internet (all it takes is a Google search).  Mix, match, create your own themes, bring some friends along, and... try not to spend too much money. Your night is unfortunately unlikely to end up as a fight for your like against aliens full of blue stuff as you race toward The World's End, but you should still have a good time.

Tip: For the love of all that is holy, wear. flat. shoes.

10 Things to Do in Hong Kong

(Map of Locations)

  • See the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island

The Big Buddha - or Tian Tan Buddha - is the largest seated bronze buddha in the world. It is fairly new - completed within the last twenty years - while the nearby Po Lin Monastery has existed for nearly a hundred. Dark bronze and 112 feet tall, the buddha sits facing north, high atop a stretch of 268 stairs (handicapped accessable by special vehicle) and surrounded by six other bronze statues of buddhist devas. Its right hand is raised in blessing. Beneath the statue is a relic of the Gautama Buddha, supposedly consisting of some of his cremated remains. Visitors who buy an offering are allowed to see it. Adjacent is a large bell that rings precisely 108 times every day.

There is also a vegetarian restaurant near the buddha. Tickets are available at the main gate.

Entry to the main complex is free of charge.

The Big Buddha is just under an hour from Mui Wo Ferry Pier (arriving from Central Pier 6) or MTR Tung Chung Station by bus.

  • Go Clubbing in Lang Kwai Fong

Club prices can be cheap in Hong Kong, especially for the visiting foreigner. For women, the best night for clubbing is Thursday, or Ladies Night. Many clubs will have free entry and/or free drinks for women, and the drinking age in Hong Kong is eighteen. Lan Kwai Fong boasts a fun and noisy atmosphere with several streets of clubs and bars, music blasting from the open doors into the warm muggy air and roads overflowing with tipsy men and women, both foreign and local. If you're daring, you can even find several buildings with a door to the roof and enjoy the bird's-eye view.

Beware of: Groups of over-forty Western businessmen, often found standing in the doorways of clubs looking to pick up Asian girls or grab the asses of women who walk by. Also be aware that several clubs tend to turn away non-Asians, or cater specifically to models and VIP parties. But don't be discouraged!

Lan Kwai Fong is a short walk from Central Station, but for the ride back home catch a cheap taxi ride.

  • Eat Nepalese Food in Wanchai Market

Tucked into a tiny hole-in-the-wall space nestled between shops in Wanchai Market is a nameless, blink-and-you-miss-it, family-run Nepalese restaurant. For a ridiculously cheap price one recieves a heaping tray of either rice or bread (with free refills of rice at any time) and a choice of currys. Recommended: Start with an appetizer of the island's best chatpate.

Warning: When the friendly proprietors say spicy, they mean it. Do not underestimate this.

The restaurant is a short walk from MTR Wanchai Station.

  • View the Oriental Gardens and Chi Lin Nunnery

On Hong Kong's Kowloon side - less built up than its island counterpart - is the Nan Lian or 'Oriental' Garden. The Gardens run a winding circular path through beautiful bushes, miniature trees, fake hills, and ornamental rock structures, creating an oasis of fresh-aired peace outside the hectic city.  There are numerous terraces, bridges, gates, and pavilions, all built in the classic Tang style. The most famous of these is the red and gold central structure, the 'Perfection Pavilion.' Pictures always make it look larger than it is - but it is still a sight to behold. There is also a large teahouse, and a vegetarian restaurant behind a waterfall. Water runs throughout the whole garden, while music plays in the background, adding to the atmosphere (though also to the occasional sense of artificiality). As night falls, gentle golden lights are lit, and the gardens become even more magical. Staying until nighttime is worth it. While noise barriers ensure that the droning of the city is completely blocked out, during the day the less than picturesque skyscrapers still rise above the tree line.

Entry is free.

Within walking distance from the Garden is Chi Lin Nunnery. Chi Lin is a quiet and picturesque complex, rebuilt in the classic Tang style in the 1990s but originally dating back to the early-mid 1900's.  Built without the use of a single metal nail, the wooden halls are entirely comprised of interlocking wood sections. There are tranquil lotus ponds and carved lion-head fountains, as well as large halls and courtyards. Inside there are a number of beautifully built buddhist statues. The only thing that mars Chi Lin's beauty is the city skyline not far in the distance - a simple glance upward shows towering white buildings on every side.

Please be aware that this is a working nunnery, and therefore you must be mindful of the temple's rules. 

Entry is free.

The nunnery and gardens are a short walk from MTR Diamond Hill Station.

  • Bargaining in Mongkok (and Jordan)

For thrifty shoppers not fussed on high quality, the afternoon/evening Ladies Market - or Tung Choi Street - in Mongkok is the way to go. The streets of bustling, packed, noisy stalls offer the best prices in Hong Kong. You can buy anything from painted scrolls, silken robes, and carvings, to lingerie, casual wear, fake brand names, and cheap DVDs. It is not a tranquil shopping experience - people will shove past you, bump into you, or yell at you. (If you are female, many shop owners may call you 'missy.' This is standard, not an insult.)

Prices are rarely fixed or written on the items - you have to ask how much it is, and then bargain it down. The stall owners will do their best to rip you off, especially if you are an English-speaking foreigner.

Keep these things in mind: Never look impressed or eager with what you see. Always remember that many stalls sell the same items at different prices, and this means you can play them off of each other. And never take a price as final. Depending on what you buy, you should be able to haggle items down to half price or even further. If you are dissatisfied, try walking away entirely. Stall owners will often shout increasingly lower prices at your back, or even grab you to stop you from leaving.

The Ladies Market is just a few minutes from MTR Mongkok Station on foot, headed toward Argyle Street.

Also worth a try is the night market at Temple Street in Jordan - to which the same bargaining rules apply. For dark-haired travelers looking to dye their hair, pop into one of the many hair supply stores along the right side of the street - and pay special attention to their vibrant reds.

Temple Street is a short walk from MTR YauMaTei Station or MTR Jordan Station.

  • Underground Rock Shows

At first glance, the hard rock music scene in Hong Kong seems fairly non-existant. However, an organization called Underground Hong Kong - tagline 'original rock for original people' - is dedicated to promoting and sustaining Hong Kong's alternative/punk/folk/synth scenes. They're the best way to keep up on Hong Kong rock music news, and often do their own reviews or host their own events. You can sign up for a newsletter that lists every local live show taking place within the month, keep up with events, or simply show up at one of the common venues on their music nights.

Prices vary but are usually reasonable.

  • Dim Sum in Kennedy Town

Hong Kong is a heaven for dum sum lovers, ranging from fancy expensive restaurants to tiny hole-in-the-wall eateries. For those strapped for cash, there is no need to worry - one of the best dim sum places on the island is both very cheap and very local. San Hing is small, located in Kennedy Town (Sai Wan), and has a standard opening time of three o'clock in the morning. It is a favorite of local fishermen, awake early and chowing down before the morning catch; university students, up late while studying; and late-night party-goers, looking to sober up before heading home. Their most famous dish is their mind-bogglingly delicious lau sa bao, or yellow custard buns. However, all of their food is worth trying.  Don't go there expecting anyone to speak English, but the food is worth the struggle, and the prices are fabulous.

Sun Hing is located on the ground floor at 8 Smithfield Road in Kennedy Town (Sai Wan). Kennedy Town can be reached most easily by tram. There are also several busses, including the 104 from Central and the 5B or 5X from Causeway Bay. Kennedy Town is also a 15-minute walk from the HKU bus stops via the 4, 4X, and 3B from Central, the 40 from Wanchai, 40M from Admiralty, or the 23 from Causeway Bay.

  • Visit the Fishing Villages of the Outlying Islands

Tai O is an old fishing town on the northwestern coast of Lantau, famous for its seafood and interconnected stilt houses. The fishing lifestyle is currently dying out and the community has weathered its fair share of natural disasters. However, it's still a wonderful place to visit for the day. You can see the temples, peruse the market street, take a cheap dolphin-watching tour, or eat some sweet soup. For the artistically inclined, it's a perfect spot to sit and paint as the sun goes down.

Tai O can be reached by bus from the Big Buddha in roughly twenty minutes, and Mui Wo Ferry Pier (arriving from Central Pier 6) or MTR Tung Chung Station in just under an hour.

Cheung Chau is a dumbbell-shaped fishing island that boasts good food, several temples, a pirate cave, and a 3000-year-old rock carving. Get out of the immediate village and explore; the fantastic views of the beaches and rocky shoreline are best seen from the northern lookout pavilion.

However, Cheung Chau is most famous for its Bun Festival, held annually sometime in May. Originally spawning from a local ritual to ward off pirates, it now coincides with celebrations of the Buddha's birthday, and has become a display of traditional Chinese culture. Expect to see floats, dragon dances, and extravagantly-dressed children performing balancing acts above the crowd. There is also the bun-snatching event, where people compete to race up high 'bun towers.' Enjoy the festivities while feasting on cool salted pineapple or other fruits and vegetables - the entire island goes vegetarian for the day, and the local McDonalds even serves a vegetarian burger.

Beware of: Extreme heat, threat of dehydration, and the most densely-packed sweaty crowd this side of a rock concert.

Cheung Chau Island is reachable by ferry from Central Pier 5. Be advised that on the day of the Bun Festival, lines will be hideously long - get there early!

Lamma Island has been the site of human settlements for thousands of years. With exactly zero cars on the island, it boasts a peaceful and quiet atmosphere. There are walking trails, craft stores, and an abundance of seafood. Lamma is also the location of famous Chinese actor Chow Yun-Fat's childhood hometown. Hiking paths range from the easy 4 kilometer Family Trail to the exhausting ascent up Mt. Stenhouse to view its strangely-shaped rocks.  There is also a quiet bay beach as well, though like all beaches in Hong Kong, it may be a disappointment to travelers who are frequent beach-goers. 

Lamma Island is connected to the main island by ferries from Central and Aberdeen, which arrive in the small towns of Yung Shue Wan or Sok Kwu Wan.

  • Get a Tattoo

Sound expensive? Yes, of course, but not compared to some of the more famous yet less talented artists you can find abroad.

The best place to go is Central's Tattoo Temple, which boasts excellent artists and exemplary custom work. Joey Pang is the famous name in the area - and she has a waiting list of between one and two years. She has pioneered the brushstroke tattoo style, and the official website lists her as 'the world’s only professional Chinese calligraphy tattoo artist.' If you can't afford that fee (or wait time), Wang and Jaimie both are excellent artists with reasonable rates, as is the shop's newer addition, Olivia. It's the perfect haven for picky, artsy types who want the perfect tattoo but don't have more than a few hundred to spend on it. (They will even let you pick as small an amount as you need for a downpayment.)

Tattoo Temple is located at 1 Wyndham Street in Central. Walk toward Lan Kwai Fong from MTR Central Station.

Also worth a look is Torrential Ink in Causeway Bay, whose main artist Jodic Chan is wonderfully talented in the brushstroke style.

  • Victoria Peak

The Peak is more expensive than most shoestring travelers would like, but it offers the best view of Hong Kong and Kowloon Bay. A famous scenic spot, the view from the top of the mountain - the highest in Hong Kong - shows the entirety of the tightly-packed city and water below. It is also home to an immense number of tourist traps (such as Madame Tussauds) and expensive restaurants in the Peak Tower and Peak Galleria, as well as ludicrously opulent real estate, but feel free to ignore this. Stay to watch the sunset over the water and islands below. When the sky goes dark and the city turns on its lights, the effect is enchanting.

For the optimal (and at times seemingly near-vertical) experience ascending to the top, take the Peak Tram from Garden Road, Central. For a slightly cheaper ride, take the scenic route on Bus 15 from MTR Admiralty Station.

Japan on a Shoestring - Nine Million Years on a Train

Japan on a Shoestring

Nine Million Years on a Train

It is common for the university student to undertake adventure while abroad. Vacation draws nigh, and the student sets off to explore the world. Oftentimes those of us with less spare cash either curl up in our dormitories and pretend not to be envious, or we get inventive.

I am happy to say that during Winter Break in Japan, my roommate and I got inventive.

Japan has four main islands that stretch latitudally 1,800 miles, and span from temperate to tropical climates. Those departing (main island) Honshu’s northern Akita Prefecture in below-freezing temperatures ride south to find the five-foot snow drifts disappear and the air warms upon reaching the more southerly Kyoto.  Shaping a trip to suit your needs is easy.

Look For:

  • Upcoming festivals and cultural events. Eg. Obon (August, festival); Kamakura (Winter, igloo); Karatsu Kunchi (November, parade).
  • Shrines, temples, and statues.
  • Natural hot springs, or onsen. (Remember: This means getting naked.)
  • National Heritage sites, scenery, and movie locations.


Tip: Check your resources and calculate how many days you can travel before winding up stranded in a ditch. Then get online and make love to Google and Google Maps.


I journeyed in the only way college students such as myself, penniless but full of wide-eyed enthusiasm, could. That is, slowly and without much glamour. But nothing matches the freedom of long hours spent dozing fitfully, rocked to sleep while rice paddies and persimmon trees pass by the windows, the sound of train tracks clattering below.

Public transportation in Japan is expensive. The famous ‘bullet train,’ or Shinkansen, can cost significantly more than a cheap hotel, or over $100 per ride.

What to Do?

  • If you are a student, look up the Seishun Juuhachi Kippu, or ‘Youthful 18 Ticket.’ Available during off seasons, 10,000 Yen (or somewhat over $100) will give you five days of unlimited travel on all ‘regular’ slow trains.
  • Try Night Buses. Reliable budget companies such as Willer leave late at night to arrive early morning, and can travel between major cities for 4,500 Yen ($50).
  • Peach Aviation is a domestic low-cost carrier, providing flights in and out of Osaka for often less than $50.


What to Expect:

  • More time on the train than off it.
  • Falling asleep on your backpack; alternatively face of your travel companion.
  • Waking up to paw frantically at drool while old ladies seated across from you giggle.


Tip: Go to www.Hyperdia.com for train schedules. Then double check at the nearest major train station how to get from point A to point B and C. Print out train lines, departure times, and transfer stations.


Finding cheap food and accommodation is easier than you might think. We avoided hotels and restaurants, focusing on what was easy to find, quick to grab, and cheap. Remember, you may be arriving late, leaving early, and fueling up on the go.

In Japan, English fluency is hard to come by outside of big cities.  Smile through wonky grammar and horrid misunderstandings, and be prepared to draw childish diagrams, do interpretive dance, and possibly cry. Carry a dictionary, familiarize yourself with the kanji of your destinations, and know basic phrases. When is the train? Where is food store? Can I stay here tonight? Why am I being eaten by domesticated deer? Etc.


  • The manga kissa or ‘manga café’ is the refuge of the penniless traveler. For as little as 900 Yen per night (just over $10), one gets a private cubicle with television and computer, free drinks, and access to shelves of Japanese comic books/movies. Fancier cafes have showers and food.
  • CouchSurfing.org is the perfect tool for finding a free bed. Exercise caution (I recommend staying among your own age group and gender) and it can be a wonderful, safe experience for those hard-up for cash.


  • The main Japanese travel food of yours truly was the onigiri. Flavored rice balls wrapped in seaweed, they are easy to snag off the shelf at Family Mart in the breaks between train departures. The best bottled drinks included lemon and milk teas.


Tip: Look up 24-hour cafés and hostels online, in English and Japanese. Print out street maps and directions.



A Further Account of Our Heroic Journey

Accompanied by a List of Helpful Japanese Words and Phrases

(Which May Not Be Entirely Accurate)

Night Zero

Wherein Our Heroes Kind of Embark

 My traveling companion – Daphne – and I had planned things to the minutest detail. The departure time listed on our train schedule (which we had printed out at the station the day before) was earlier than the first bus leaving our campus, so we stayed in the city center for the night, within easy walking distance of Akita Train Station.

We found one of several nearby manga cafes, and checked in.

Apparently, checking in is one of the many times when one’s scant language skills can become painfully obvious. After fifteen minutes of trying to communicate in English, Japanese, hiragana, and kanji – all of which failed – we progressed to doodled diagrams of stick figures, interpretive dance, and a silent moment spent weeping and crawling about the rug on hands and knees.

It turned out the poor mortified clerk was just trying to ask for our IDs.

Don’t be like us.

Carry a goddamn dictionary.

We eventually settled in for the night, warm in the silence of the café, refreshed by the free drinks (I was partial to the hot matcha tea – Daphne developed rather a disturbing obsession for melon pop) and feeling oddly dazed by the electronic light reflected on the ceiling by computers and televisions all around.

We set our phone alarms, crawled into our cubbies, and fell asleep under our coats.

Check-In Phrases:

  • I would like to stay here tonight. ここに泊まりたいんです。Koko ni tomari tain desu.
  • I want to leave by XYZ o’clock tomorrow morning. 明日の朝、XYZ時までに到着したいんです。Ashita no asa, XYZji made ni touchaku shitain desu.
  • Can I see your ID? 身分証明/IDカードをお持ちですか? Mibun shoumei/ID ka-do- wo omochi desu ka?
  • Do you have a member card? メンバカードをお持ちですか?Membaka-do wo omochi desu ka?



  • Manga Café. 漫画喫茶。Manga Kissa.
  • Internet Café. インターネットカフェ。Inta-netto Kafe.
  • Hostel. ホステル。Hosuteru.
  • Hotel. ホテル。Hoteru.
  • Hour. 事。Ji.
  • Yen. 円。En.
  • Television. テレビ。Terebi.
  • Computer. コンピューター。Konpyu-ta-.


Day One

Lots of Time Asleep

We dragged ourselves from the depths of sleep and trudged through the snow to depart on the 5 AM train. We rode south from Akita, traveling along the eastern rail line.

The train schedule was our most precious possession – a list of train lines, stops, transfers, and exact times all written down in order. We were on the train for more than 10 hours, and transferred nearly as many times.  

In retrospect, one of our most memorable stops was Sendai, which was a big, bustling, warm indoor station. Months later the same city would be slammed with the tsunami of 3/11, leaving houses destroyed and thousands displaced or dead.

We spent our time in Sendai like we did every other station – using our 30 minute break on solid land to run to the restroom, snatch onigiri and sandwiches from the in-station convenience stores, and find the track for our next train.

Back on board, we passed the time by dozing on one another, head on shoulder or head on head. Sometimes we drifted off curled in the seats and one another’s laps. Schoolgirls, grandmothers and grandfathers chatted quietly amongst themselves all around us. Daphne scrap booked, her giant knitted rabbit gloves lying on the seat beside her. I spent hours staring at the window at passing persimmon trees and rice fields, burrowed deep into my coat.

The going was slow, but it allowed us to experience the culture-seeped life and scenery of the countryside, and watch as the climate and landscape changed out the windows.

We arrived in Tsukuba after nightfall, having achieved proximity to our first destination and the assurance of another manga café.

I recommend Tsukuba’s green curry, especially eaten late at night after a weary day of travel.

Train Phrases:

  • When does the train depart? 電車は何時出発しますか? Densha ha itsu shuppatsu shimasu ka?
  • What track number is the train for XYZ? XYZまでの電車は何番線ですか? XYZ made no densha ha nambansen desu ka?
  • When is the next train for XYZ? 次XYZまでの電車は何時ですか?Tsugi XYZ made no densha ha itsu desu ka?
  • Where is the train for XYZ?  XYZマでの電車はどこですか?XYZ made no densha ha doko desu ka?



  • Train. 電車。Densha.
  • Track Number. ~番線。 ~Ban Sen.
  • Train Station. ~駅。~Eki.
  • Arrive. 到着。Touchaku.
  • Depart. 出発。 Shuppatsu.


Day Two

What’s so Aristocratic About this Forest, Anyway?

We arrived at our first destination – Shimotsuma in Ibaraki Prefecture of Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls) movie fame - in the early morning. Having watched the film a great many times, we knew exactly what to expect: A great deal of rice fields, rather too many cow patties, and a single department store.

We set off from the station on foot and found ourselves in a sleepy residential town.

Quoth Daphne, “I sort of thought there’d be more rice paddies just... right here. And a Jusco.”

We soon found ourselves trekking along the highway, tired and cranky, with nothing recognizable in sight.

“Daphne,” said I. “Let us hitchhike.”

“Nay,” said she. “Nay.”

We eventually found the Jusco. It was not unlike a holy experience.

The next stop had been a surprise – another 20 minutes’ track to the ‘Forest of the Aristocrats’ restaurant featured in the film, where we sat eating ice cream Sundays and happily missing our train to see the Ushiku daibutsu nearby.

At last, with aching feet, sweaty clothes, and windswept hair, we wrote Shimotsuma Eki in poor Japanese on the back of my sketchbook and walked along the road, thumbs stuck out in the hopes of finding a helpful stranger. Within ten minutes we were picked up by a lovely woman and deposited back by the station, hitchhiking successful.

That night we missed our very last connecting train to Kyoto, and were stuck in not-quite-Kyoto-but-almost for the night. There were no more trains, and our pre-booked hostel was waiting for us, warm and unreachable.  With sleeping huddled in the cold, empty station looming in our minds as a likely option for the night, we sat down to conserve body heat and tried not to cry, scream, or poo ourselves in front of Japanese late-night commuters.

We were, of course, eventually saved.

There was a manga café nearby.

Phrases for Journeying:

  • Could you please take me to XYZ Train Station? XYZ駅に連れて行って下さいませんか? Watashi wo XYZ eki ni tsurete itte kudasaimasen ka? 
  • I am going to XYZ Train Station. XYZ駅に行きます。 XYZ eki ni ikimasu. 
  • Where is XYZ? XYZはどこですか? XYZ ha doko desu ka? 
  • Is there a manga café nearby? 漫画喫茶は近くですは? Manga kissa ha chikaku desu ka? 
  • Where is a very cheap hostel? とても安いホステルはどこですか?Totemo yasui hosuteru ha doko desu ka?


Day Three

On a Downbound Train

Our journey inevitably clashed with that of the everyday Japanese commuter. Tight ponytails and schoolgirl skirts, business suits and ties, worn canes and bags of shopping – whatever the outfit of our fellow companions in the train compartment that day, we clashed.

We ate in public, slept in public, one with a headscarf and the other with a head of increasingly tangled, greasy hair. We tucked ourselves and our packages tight into corners so that we could doze off without bothering those around us, and inevitable curiosity followed us wherever we went.

Daphne helped matters considerably. More than once I woke to find the old ladies across the train giggling silently as my companion snapped a photo of my uncomfortably close, sleeping face.

This is fine. Daphne knows I know that she zonked out and began drooling on those very same seats more than once.

In this manner, we entered Kyoto – the Old Capitol, a city of legendary historical and cultural wealth, and ours to explore for barely the span of a single day.

We found our hostel, available to us for just another few hours as the morning faded into noon. Daphne chose sleep. I chose a shower and shave.

We saw what nearby temples we could and then hopped on the local train to Nara, half an hour away. The helpful folk at the station provided us with a convenient local guidebook and street map, and we found Nara Park with little difficulty after a 15 minute walk.

There are two things to enjoy in Nara Park. One is the many temples and statues, including the massive daibutsu (Big Buddha) in Todai-ji Temple. Massive and bronze, it has been rebuilt more than once after fires many centuries before. At its oldest base, it is over a thousand years old. Having studied the sculpture in university some years before, seeing its beauty right in front of my eyes was difficult to comprehend.

The second thing to see, of course, is the deer.

They roam the semi-enclosed park much like pigeons do city squares, nearly domesticated, close enough to pet, and very happy to receive food. They have a tendency to swarm when you have it, and because deer crackers are sold on every corner, you always have it.

If you do not give them food, they will take it anyway. Do not enter the park holding any paper shopping bags.

The deer were adorable and highly pettable. They became our friends, and I am happy to say that I dealt with them with the utmost composure. This cannot be said for everyone.

(“Help,” shrieks Daphne.

I remain unmoved.

“Help, it’s coming after me."

Serenely, I pet the deer nearest to me.

"Quick,” and now her eyes are a bit wild, “let’s make a run for it.”)

Phrases for Finding Your Destination:  

  • How do you get to XYZ Park? どうやってXYZ公園に行けますか?Douyatte XYZ Kouen ni ikemasu ka?
  • Could you please draw me a map? 地図を描いて下さいませんか?Chizu wo kaite kudasaimasen ka? 
  • Straight ahead. まっすぐ。Massugu.
  • Turn left. 左に曲がる。Hidari ni magaru.
  • Turn right. 右に曲がる。Migi ni magaru.
  • Please don’t eat that. 食べないで下さい。Sore wo tabenai de kudasai.



  • Nara. 奈良。Nara. 
  • Park. 公園。Kouen. 
  • XYZ Temple. XYZ寺。XYZ ji. 
  • Buddhist Temple. お寺。Otera. 
  • Shinto Shrine. 神社。Jinja. 
  • Kyoto. 京都。Kyoto. 
  • Big Buddha. 大仏。Daibutsu. 
  • Inari Shrine. 稲荷大社。 Inari Taisha.


Onward and Upward

The highlight of the day, however, remained Kyoto’s Inari Shrine (Inari Taisha).

This is a Shinto shrine – Japan’s indigenous religion. Dedicated to Inari-sama, the Japanese fox god of rice and the protector of travelers, it is massive and breathtaking. The thousand red gates – made famous in the west by Memoirs of a Geisha – wind up the hillside from the looming entryway below.

We did not make it all the way to the top. We paused briefly to gorge upon delicious udon noodles at one of the many food stops on the way up, and after venturing for a bit further, decided we could be quite proud of ourselves and decided to turn around.

At this precise moment, down from the opposite direction – having clearly climbed all the way to the top and now on her return journey – came an aging Japanese grandmother, leaning on her cane as she came trotting unsteadily back home.

We crept away in shame.

As the day crept to a close, we made our way back to Kyoto station and took one of the many busses leaving from right outside the building. Most of these will take you directly to various famous and historical sites. We chose the bus to Gion, and alighted on a fairly regular shopping street before and browsing while ignoring the yakuza unpiling form the cab next to us.

We turned down a street on a whim, and found ourselves on a cobbled path. Or feet pattered down the narrow lane, the walls of wooden teahouses stretching past us on either side. Tony and traditional, their menus displayed priced far beyond our budget range.

Moving past this, we came quite by accident upon a busfull of tourists unpiling in front of what looked to be a cultural center. After inquiring within, we were informed that there would be a performance of traditional cultural arts that night. The price was just around $25.

We were treated to a show obviously modified from the traditional and placed in a setting meant to accommodate to foreign tourists, rather than local enthusiasts. There was a high stage and rows of folding chairs; there was a narration given at least partly in English.

Despite this,  it was fabulous. We were treated to court music and tea ceremony, koto and possibly biwa. We saw a dance from two maiko, who were available outside afterward for photo-taking.

Tired and fulfilled, we staggered on aching feet back to the station and alighted the night train to Tokyo, falling asleep in our seats on the darkened train and waking in Shinjuku early the next morning.

Day Four

Tokyo, Your Stars Shine Bright

We woke up in Tokyo.

This was our last stop on our journey together; that afternoon Daphne would be flying to England, and I would not see her again for more than two years.

We went to Harajuku.

A hop away from Tokyo on the local train, one exits the station and crosses to the opposite market street. It is bustling with shoppers, food vendors, music, and clothing stores bursting with frilly, punky clothes. 

We found the store Baby the Stars Shine Bright. We bought frilly petticoats and fake tails, strawberry crepes and local noodles. We passed girls in Lolita dresses and boys with long hair and makeup. People passed in a swirl of thick soled boots and colorful wigs, hunched in the crisp wintery air.

And then Daphne was gone.

The end of the adventure was my own.  

Phrases for Shopping:

  • I would like this please. これを下さい。Kore wo kudasai. 
  • How much is it? いくらですか? Ikura desu ka? 
  • Do you have a (larger/smaller) one? もう少し(大きい/小さい)のがありますか?Mou sukoshi (ookii/chiisai) no ga arimasu ka?



  • Harajuku. 原宿。Harajuku.
  • Shibuya. 渋谷。Shibuya.
  • Tokyo. 東京。Toukyou.



Blue, Blue Christmas

I spent Christmas in Tokyo with friends, staying at a friend’s apartment and wandering the Christmas marketplace at Asakusa. Rickshaws (jinrikusha) passed, the drivers dressed in santa outfits.

That evening, there was Turkish food and belly dancing.

I missed Daphne.

Day Five

There’s No Telling Where You Might Be Swept Off To


I ended my journey somewhat abruptly, deadlines fast approaching and the holidays drawing to a close.

I had exactly one full day to reach Akita from Tokyo. It was snowing heavily in the north, trains were delayed, and station attendants assured me that it was entirely impossible to achieve my goal.

And yet the will of a student with limited time and even more limited funds is quite strong; I searched train schedules for myself, and saw a clear series of connecting trains that would lead me up north.

“It is impossible,” the station repeated gravely.

I asked them to tell me how to get to the station nearest to my destination, even if I could not reach it, and after a few missed trains and false starts, they bid me adieu as I went into the night and what I’m sure they thought was my certain death.

I was twenty years old, alone on trains for ten hours in the dark and the snow, and attempting to reach Point D after being assured that the closest I could make it was Point C.

It should have been terrifying. What I felt instead was the joy of self-reliance and unsupervised exploration.

I had been correct. There was a connecting train, none of the lines were delayed, and I was home before midnight.

Moral of the Story:

  • If your (thorough, informed) research tells you that something can be done and the authorities assure you it can’t, take a chance and trust your own instincts. 
  • Travel, even if you must do so penniless. 
  • Travel, even if you spend your journey with sweaty skin, tangled hair, and aching feet. 
  • Travel Japan.




  •  ‘Kamikaze Girls’ (Soundtrack). 下妻物語。Shimotsuma Monogatari. 
  • ‘Bulletproof Heart’ by My Chemical Romance. 
  • ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ (Soundtrack) by John Williams. 
  • ‘Watch You Sleeping’ by Blue Foundation. 
  • ‘Faithfully’ by Journey.



  • Kamikaze Girls. 下妻物語。Shimotsuma Monogatari.
  • Thelma and Louise.
  • Life on Mars (TV).


How to Have Fun When Everything is Going Wrong

I've done a wee bit of traveling by now.  My travels are always on a shoestring and often with a female friend, but sometimes I take shorter trips solo.

The one piece of wisdom I have managed to thus far accrue is: Eventually Something Will Go Wrong. It's an inescapable fact. The only thing we can decide is how to react when it happens.

And so I have settled upon five rules for myself (and anyone who finds wisdom in them).

Rule #1) Everything is an adventure.

Really. Sort of like when you were five years old and the bathtub was an ocean and your duckie was the Loch Ness Monster. 

Have to walk a few miles? You're Frodo Baggins going up Mount Doom.  Stranded? You're Kara Thrace on Kobol, or the Doctor without his TARDIS. Bad food? You're Harry Potter trying to eat Hagrid's rock cakes.  Sleeping rough? Maybe you're Jason Bourne, maybe you're Xena.  Run out of money? You're the Princess living as a pauper. Or Eugenides as the Queen's Thief, if you are a person of particularly shaky moral standing.

The Domain of Moo does not condone illegal action and claims no responsibility for your larceny.  Sorry about your life.

Rule #2) Be in a good mood.

Enthusiasm is key. Enthusiasm for anything. Enthusiasm for airplanes, enthusiasm for different languages, enthusiasm for bugs in your food.  You need a glass-half-full perspective, and an eagerness to have experiences. Laugh in incredulity at good things and bad things.

Be willing to fly by the seat of your pants, and excited to discover if you can weather the things life throws at you. It's an enthralling experiment. And remember, if you don't laugh, you will definitely cry.

Rule #3) Be prepared for it all to go sideways.

Make plans. Do. Research, write down, double-check, pack extra underpants. 

But sometimes, you get lost. Sometimes, bus schedules are wrong. Sometimes, your ATM card stops working.

If you are prepared for this, then when it's late at night in the freezing cold and no one speaks English and you just missed the last train - the train that lead to your pre-paid hotel at the next stop on your very tight schedule - if you are prepared for this, then maybe you won't wail and cry and poo yourself in front of startled Japanese commuters.

Rule #4) If you're not traveling solo, make sure you have an awesome friend.

You can sleep on each other during long trips, for one thing.  You can keep each others' spirits up, and talk and sing and dance and take stupid photos. 

However, if you are in fact traveling solo, you can also do these things with yourself and/or your travel bag. If people stare, don't worry. (If the travel bag starts talking back, possibly worry.)

Rule #5)  Take comfort in small things.

Like chocolate, for example. Cute animals. Blue skies. Unexpected flowers in the rain.

The Domain of Moo does not condone underage drinking and claims no responsibility for your angry parents.  Don't be a twat.