A dedicated traveller, teacher, dreamer, and lover with an unquenchable thirst for expedition. I've got two calloused feet that take me anywhere and everywhere I need to be.
How to start a blog post about Tokyo? I’ve sat here with the cursor flashing at me, beckoning me to make a move for a good half hour. We’ve been back in Daegu for a week now and I am still trying to wrap my head around our whirlwind (wallet-busting) four day, Lunar New Year trip.
I should start at the beginning, with getting off the plane. The Japanese streamlined, fast-paced, efficient attitude greets you right at customs. Passport, fingerprints, photo, stamp (actually a sticker), done, a minute tops. It’s a country that actually uses all of their customs counters. I had heard about the efficiency of Japan, and ease of logistics, particularly for Tokyoites, but little did I know it would play into the identity of the megapolis as much as it truly does.
In fact, you see this impressive efficiency everywhere in the city, mostly in simple things. But, as travellers, common gripes often stem from the ineffectiveness of a place—late trains, long lights, obscure hotel regulations, dog shit on the sidewalk—so we notice when things don’t work properly. Tokyo is free from it all; the trains run on time and are plentiful, there is an odd absence of car traffic, it’s clean and people stick to one side of the sidewalk.
I suppose all of this efficiency is rooted in a few things. One, being the sheer size of Tokyo’s population. We’re talking THIRTY FIVE MILLION people! Fit all of the people in Canada, plus a few extra into a city, and voila! If people walked on any side of the sidewalk they wanted, there would be shoulder to shoulder gridlock. To get from A to B, people have to move as one here. And so the lack of traffic and the impressive metro system are also a necessity because of this population.
Tokyo’s well oiled machine is not only born from necessity for it’s population, but also because of the complexities of Japanese society itself. It is structured and layered. It is rooted in history, tradition. Japanese are under constant pressure by a bombardment of exceedingly high expectations, from family, to friends, to work and school. If Tokyo was a relaxed, slow paced, laissez faire, dimly light city, it wouldn’t, couldn’t be, the capital of Japan.
The onion that is Japanese culture also has a few surprising layers hidden beneath the surface but manifest themselves in Tokyo, in all the right places. Not trying to make any cultural, or politically incorrect assumptions here,but, a lot of Japanese expectations, and I see it here in Korea too, translate to a certain kind of conformity. Okay, I said it! The C word. But it’s true, and talking with my friend from Tokyo, she confirmed it.
From early life there is a more or less predetermined road a child’s parents direct them down. And this happens for everyone. This typically means having the best grades in their class, being involved in umpteen extracurricular activities, and eventually getting the job that is expected of them and marrying whoever is presented. This social pressure sometimes reaches a breaking point and with very few outlets to express it, individuals, and Tokyo as a whole, turn to fashion. It’s in the stores and subways, the neighbourhoods, the boys the girls, the men and the women. It is fashion for expression. It is meant to shock you, to make a statement, to make you laugh, and to ask questions. You can only begin to wonder the backstories of some people. Some of it might be of debatable taste, but it has become a focal point of identity for the city and all the different styles reflect its diverse cultural make up.
The fashion isn’t the only thing that’s bright in Tokyo. The neon lights stretching up up up into the sky are a sight in itself. But what’s more interesting though, is that no matter how high they build in Tokyo there will still be a spreading, sprawling underground. Another way Tokyoites rebel from the constraints of their high stress, fast paced life, is through sexual expression. Tokyo is a perverted city with clubs and shops catered to satisfy all the mild and wild sexual appetites out there. It is in the open and embraced, because after all Tokyoites compartmentalize, not only their restaurants and bars, but their different spheres of life too. You can be a husband and father at home, a business man at work, and a sleazy manwhore at the hostess bar. But hey, as long as they don’t interfere with each other, it’s alright.
It’s a city of madness and organized chaos.
Tokyo, an enchantingly wild city.
See: Harujuku Girls
Hear: Tsukiji Tuna Auction
Smell: Yoyogi Park Cedars
Don’t plan on going just yet?
Read: Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto)
If you’re not an ESL teacher, a friend or family to an ESL teacher, or an American serviceman or woman stationed here, you’d probably never choose to come to South Korea. It’s understandable, really. Sandwiched between China and Japan (and it’s more infamous brother to the north), Korea is most certainly overlooked in the region. But, as a fully developed first world country with a tourist infrastructure even the mighty Germans would gawk at, combined with breathtaking scenery and an embattled history, Korea has surprises around every corner.
It was only a mere sixty years ago that the entire Korean peninsula was completely destroyed and quiet literally torn in half. While the North was fed roubles and yuan, the South was fed American dollars and assistance which helped propel it into economic revitalization. That tank is still running and this has not only made South Korea an Asian Tiger, but it has also visibly altered their culture and way of life. Today Korea is awash with all the latest globalized trends and associated superficiality. Luckily there are still older generations who know and remember how it was, and these adjumas and ajoshis keep glimmers from Korea of old alive.
Alas, this post is not about Korea itself, but rather Daegu, the country’s third largest city tucked into a wide valley somewhere between Seoul and Busan. For a large metropolis, Daegu remains a pure Korean city despite the American military bases and the teaching community.
Being a foreigner in this city still makes you…well, foreign. With the odd ‘hello’ and the copious stares you’ll receive, it is clear you’re not from around here. There is a mix of intrigue, confusion and at times downright disgust, but it all combines to make it feeling to remember.
The city is sprawling but with a decent public transport network it is easily manageable. Most sites are outside the city proper, with gorgeous mountains and provincial parks a simple bus ride away. Daegu is an excellent hopping off point for the surroundings. It is there in the country side you see where Korean history, tradition and culture are hiding. Mountains, temples, Buddhas and rice terraces. A slower pace. A more uniquely Korean feel.
At first impression Daegu is just a transit point, a concrete jungle with a conservative face. But wait until the sun goes down and the blinding neon comes up to see that Daegu is a truly lively city that can indeed rival the experiences to be had in Seoul and Busan, just with smaller crowds.
See: Giant Buddha
Feel: Like a Waygookan (foreigner)
Hear: Fruit trucks
(Don’t) smell: Cooking silkworm larve
Sadly, KL is probably most famous for its brief appearance in Entrapment. In the late nineties KL was just hitting its stride; the opening of the landmark Petronas Towers and a leading role in a Hollywood blockbuster along side Catherine Zeta-Jones. Kuala Lumpur even held the title of home to the tallest freestanding skyskrapers for a handful of years.
So, where is Kuala Lumpur? Somewhere north of Singapore, south of Bangkok in a country called Malaysia. For those in Southeast Asia, most often opt out of Malaysia because there is (relatively) less bang for the buck. There is (relatively) more development and less chance of finding a genuine hilltribe village when compared to the other countries in the region.
It’s really a shame though. Kuala Lumpur is a three way junction of some of the most diverse cultures in the world. Malay, Indian and Chinese. Muslim, Hindu and Taoism. Temples beside mosques beside shrines. The result? A colourful, vibrant and intriguing cacophony of faces and foods.
Aside from the clean and cutting edge towers that reflect the repressive sun, There are buildings reflecting the islamic influence and buildings built in the finest British colonial style. The most impressive buildings in the city are by far the malls.
Don’t come to Kuala Lumpur for the museums, or the nightlife. Come to KL to swipe your card. Come to KL to spend. Between the night markets, black markets and upscale malls selling the finest couture, there is a purchase and bargain to be found for all budgets.
Haggle. Eat. Shop.
Don’t plan on going just yet?
Read: My Life As A Fake (Peter Carey)
It’s doubtful that few people living outside the British Commonwealth could even name the capital of Canada. No, it’s not Toronto.
Toronto’s smaller, cleaner, friendlier, more appealing brother, living to the northeast actually holds that title. Welcome to Ottawa.
Like all capital cities, it’s got a well manicured facade, but step two blocks past the East Block from Parliament Hill and it’s seedy and youthful underbelly is quickly exposed. Don’t let the eight inch mohawks or the screaming addicts deter you though. Oddly enough, the mix of capital charm, and grime seems to work.
Ottawa does a fine job of mixing its bureaucratic stagnancy with a potent music scene and spices it up with a substantial French influence. A city of water and ample green space. A city of concrete ministries and gothic revival. A city of accessible museums and galleries, and overpriced public transit. A city trying to stay local and sustainable, Ottawa is tax dollars working at its finest. (Use your discretion to read into the level of sarcasm on that last line).
As a visitor, it is easy to fall into a local lifestyle. Ottawa’s pockets, the neighbourhoods, the festivals, the bike lanes, the bakeries, organic food stores and the indie dive bars are all screaming to be discovered. By 5pm the paper-pushing bureaucrats have exited en masse to the suburbs and the streets are yours and yours alone. Given the chance, it’s easy to see that Ottawa is a small town at heart, and above all else, a very liveable city….if you can handle the winters.
See: The Rideau Canal
Feel: Green grass
Smell: The Byward Market
Hear: Sketchy buskers
Don’t plan on going just yet?
Read: An Ottawa Album: Glimpses Into The Way We Were (Marion Van de Wetering)
Sofia isn’t usually on the typical European backpacking circuit.
It doesn’t have the most grandiose architecture and it isn’t so culturally saturated as some of it’s neighbours. There might not be the best variety of super clubs, so as a backpacker, why would anyone want to visit?
Maybe it’s because Sofia is completely untapped. It’s a genuine city. It is real and isn’t pretending to be anything it’s not. Modest, small, clean and airy.Sofia is the quintessential former communist capital turned twenty first century. Like any other city in this situation, parts are derelict, but still oddly charming. The city is awash with casual and slow paced chatter. Afternoon in the park with a pint is the norm.
The museums might not be worth the visit, but in a city that has a little known, but astounding history, there is a sight around every corner.
See: Open air antiques
Taste: Hot spring water
Smell: Rotting bananas
Hear: Roaring trams
Don’t plan on going just yet?
Read: Party Headquarters (Georgi Tenev)
Understanding what a city is meant to symbolize is an important and formidable task for all travellers. What a city means to a country and, how is it projected to the world is a fundamental key to understanding it’s identity. So what can one read into the symbolism behind St. Petersburg?
A city built on the western border of Russia; ‘a window to the West’.
A city built by the finest French and Italian architects.
A grand capital meant to symbolize the rise of the Russian Empire.
A city where the buildings are painted vibrant colours to ward off the depressingly long and dark winters.
Let’s not kid ourselves. As beautiful and well manicured as it is, this is not Russia. This can be a blessing and a curse for visitors. Of course Pitor (to the locals) beats the social and cultural pulse of the country. It is home to the second largest museum in the world with one of the most impressive art collections. It is a city criss-crossed with canals.
But, is Novosibirsk like this? What about Arkhangelsk? Vladivostok? Not entirely an accurate depiction of a country, St. Petersburg is nevertheless a wholeheartedly romantic and culturally rich must-see city.
See: Soviet superblocks
Feel: Slightly unwanted
(Don’t) taste: Ketchup and mayonnaise pizza
Hear: Church chorus
Don’t plan on going just yet?
Read: Crime And Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
The city of a thousand spires. Vibrant and painfully gorgeous. Party central.
This is Prague.
Prague has seen a tough history much like most other European capitals in the infamously grey (and arbitrarily defined) region of eastern and central Europe. Domination, repression, growth, decline and rebirth. But, unlike most major capitals in Europe, Prague escaped WWII with only but a few scrapes and bruises. The result? An old town city centre unrivalled in its beauty.
But up until 1989, Prague and her famous Staré Město were under veil of this little thing better known as the Iron Curtain. But since the collapse, Prague has embraced the future in all it’s globalized beauty.
Now an overrun tourist and party epicentre, Prague is still teeming with culture, history, and a cityscape that will make you wish you had a bigger SD card.
See: Dancing House
Taste: Pilsner Urquell
Hear: Pounding beats
Smell: Tourist traps
Don’t plan on going just yet ?
Read: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Milan Kundera)
Istanbul, one of the world’s truly cosmopolitan cities is literally at continental crossroads. The megapolis’s backbone, The Bosphorus dissects the city and is the true pulse of it’s identity.
Juxtaposition is the theme here; east meets west, antiquity versus the ultramodern, fast and slow, beautiful and depressing. There is a potent mix of ingredients in Istanbul to satiate every kind of traveller. From the most hardened of backpackers to the Hilton penthouse prima donnas, there is an infectious feeling impossible not to feel.
So, skip the guide books and let your senses guide you…
Smell: Rose perfume
Hear: Ezan (call to prayer)
Feel: Unrivalled Turkish spirit
Don’t plan on going just yet?
Istanbul: Memories and the City (Orhan Pamuk)