A Travellerspoint blog

From the Metropolis to Fuji

Nikko, Alps, Fuji and Sushi

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I apologise for the delay in writing this blog, I did actually write it on the 12 hour flight back to London from Tokyo just under a month ago!

After stomping the streets in many cities, Mike and I headed to the countryside for a spot of R&R. Heading up into the Japanese Alps to a small town called Nikko. The town is fames for its shrines and temples which are scattered among its hilly woodlands. Unfortunately the moment we decided to visit Nikko, the weather turned-persistently raining every day we were there.

The temples were absolutely stunning. After viewing so many in each country I had visited, there is a danger of suffering ‘temple fatigue’, but these were striking, it was clear to see the Chinese architectural influence. We decided to follow a path up into the mountains, where we stumbled upon yet further moss covered shrines and gardens tucked away untouched under cliff faces.

Japan

Japan

Japan

Japan

Japan

Japan

Japan

Japan

To the west of Nikko lies striking views of lakes, 97m high waterfalls and dormant cone shaped volcanoes. When we arrived at the waterfall, all we could see was a thick wall of mist. We could hear the bellowing sound of the water fall, yet could not see it; we could see the path leading up the side of the volcano yet not it. Rather than wondering around miserable, we decided to give on the sulphuric bubbling onsons a go! Having read up on my onsen etiquette, I felt ready and mentally prepared for the plunge. It took a moment to get used to the boiling temperatures, stench of eggs and mineral deposits of the water; but looking out onto the lake from open air onsen made the experience instantly relaxing. Revived and refreshed, Mike and I headed back to the invisible waterfall, luckily the mist had cleared and we were finally able to see it.

Japan

Japan

Waterfall

Waterfall

Me and Mike

Me and Mike

The highlight of Japan and the rural scenery definitely came a few nights later when me and mike climes the iconic Mt Fuji. After spotting the volcano from an observation tower in Tokyo, the weather conditions looked promising. We started the hike at 10.20pm from the 5th station, part way up the mountain. Climbing frantically in pitch black with the aim of reaching the summit for sunrise. We were so lucky with the weather; the night was completely clear, I spotted two shooting stars, the Milky Way and the lights of Tokyo in the distance. The path is only open one month of the year, and the ranged from clear and paved to bare rock face, at times we were scrambling up the steep mountain side or over other hikers in the rush to reach the summit as the sun started to break. Japan is a country were at 4am in the morning, in the freezing cold, halfway up the mountainside, you will still be surrounded by thousands of people, politely shuffling past in a rush.

Fuji

Fuji

The sunrise was beautiful, with low level cloud sat like cotton wool, the views were remarkable. The moment was made strangely magical as Buddhist monks who made the climb up alongside us started to play music and chant. It was absolutely freezing on top, so it was a life saver to see a tiny cafe at the summit serving steaming bowls of ramin (noodle soup) and hot chocolate. We needed the energy in order to survive the demanding zigzag decent down- which felt sooooo much harder than the ascent, perhaps due to the sleep deprivation and the 6 hour climb we had just completed.

sunrise

sunrise

sunrise

sunrise

Fuji Lakes area

Fuji Lakes area

Japan

Japan

The trip was topped off nicely with a visit to the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium accompanied by thousands of fanatical Japanese baseball fans to watch a match between the Tokyo Giants and Hiroshima Carps. And a final night eating, I think the best meal of my life: sushi, eel and sake in downtown Ginza (Tokyo’s equivalent of London’s West End).

Sushi

Sushi

Tokyo

Tokyo

Japan has been a fascinating country in which to travel, their cities are stimulating and thrilling, enabling me to view consumerist modernity in full force. A striking image when compared with the traditional culture and mentality that still exists here. I am already planning my next trip back- skiing in Hokkaido and then to northern Honshu for spring. I would also like to experience the night life a little more, something that was not accessible on my backpacker budget...hummm next time.

Its strange looking back at what I used to see and experience in the space of 24 hours, I have come back to England with a bump of reality with my days now consumed with applications and CV’s! Well a career can be a mighty fine adventure too, I’m simply in the planning stage of the trip.

Posted by skerrigan 03:45 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Contrast and Contradiction

Japan

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After getting off to a shaky start due to disruption over my flights to and from Japan, I feel I finally have my stride back.

Japan is a country full of contradiction and contrast- it is wonderful! I spent the first couple of weeks city hopping around Honshu and Kyushu; from the metropolitan jungle of Tokyo, to Kyoto, the countries cultural capital, Fukoaka the Kyushu beach city and to the A-bomb site of Hiroshima.

I must admit, I think I did experience a bit of a culture shock coming over from Sri Lanka, from traveling by my self, always on guard and in a developing country, to traveling with Mike, having to make decisions together and in a country which is extremely developed. Everyone looks immaculate at all times, people tap away of their iphones, ipods and ipads. The material wealth did take a few days to adjust too- now I stare enviously at their clothes and gadgets!

Though there are shopping malls, neon lights and gadget shops on every corner, the 'old culture' is still very visible. People are extremely respectful of one another in their interactions, and the bopping bowing ritual happens everywhere, with suited businessmen trying to out bow one another to show their respect. I've seen a girl bow to a deer after feeding it, and numerous train conductors bow to their carriage when they depart it. The latter scenario is part of the huge emphasis the country places on honor. Workers must be proud of their work and honor their employers. A conductor will bow to the carriage (not the people in it) as it represents his employer, so demonstrating his respect.

The stereotypes of the businessmen and giggling school girls are definitely true. Women still work around in light summer cotton kimono, and teenage girls get out their brightly coloured fashion kimono for festivals. I've even spotted a few elusive geisha whilst wondering the alleyways of Kyoto; in their white face make-up, they are always escorting businessmen. Women, geisha or not, still accompany, escort and entertain men. I've not seen many 'friendships' between the two genders. Men stick together in packs, and women float around in groups. Speaking to several people I've met out here who live here, there is a huge pressure for women and girls to appear 'cute' at all times. They don't raise their voice, always wear heals, giggle and eat with their hands covering their mouths. Needless to say Japan, though the 3rd largest economy (taken over by china 3 days ago) and one of the worlds most developed countries suffers one of the worst gender wage gaps.

This country has been fascinating to people watch, especially in Tokyo, I LOVE this city! Scratch beneath the urban jungle of the city, and you see groups of people practicing performance art on top of roofs, in alleyways and in parks. The lack of space forces people to perform in public. Galleries, cafes, amazing restaurants, boutiques, bookshops and manga outlets are hidden away. It has been wonderful to finally eat fresh healthy food- that's not curry! It is comparably cheep to eat here, which has allowed me to try some of the freshest sushi in town for breakfast, at the fish market at 6am.

I have been amazed with the architecture here. The average Japanese town looks pretty dull, with poor town planning, just prefab, gray boxy buildings. But then you will stumble upon a temple or shrine, nestled away half way up a mountainside or in the middle of a city business district, dripping in opulence and design. Coming in summer, though extremely humid, has allowed us to stumble upon many religious and cultural festivals which are celebrated this time of year. From the Gion Matasur festival where 35 giant floats are pulled by local men in Kyoto, to the O Bon festival (festival of the dead) at a controversial temple in Tokyo which commemorates the WW2 Kamikaze suicide fighters. The Japanese don't do festivals be half's either; fireworks, drums, dancers, floats, food and music fill the streets and and skies on festival nights.

Wonderful!

Posted by skerrigan 05:43 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Stick Fishermen and Tea Pickers

Sri Lanka South Coast and Hill Country

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The moment my internship finished, I packed my bags and ran to the south coast beaches! After months of boiling hot and humid weather I could FINALLY cool down in the sea. The landscape in the south is utterly beautiful, radiant green rice paddies and swinging palm trees contrasting with the golden coloured sand and the rich turquoise ocean.

Marissa Beach

Marissa Beach

Marissa Beach

Marissa Beach

Boat men Unawatuna Beach

Boat men Unawatuna Beach

Unawatuna Beach

Unawatuna Beach

Hopping along the coast I have viewed crumbling Dutch fort towns, brightly coloured fishing boats and stilt fishermen. I was out taking a sneaky photo one morning, when the monsoon rains decided to intrude. I was led to shelter and served king coconut and tea until the sun shone once again. Much better than lounging on a beach like a roticiary chicken.

Stick fishermen

Stick fishermen

Stick Fishermen

Stick Fishermen

After a few days in the south I headed inland to the lush Hill country region, where the slopes are a carpet of emerald green tea plantations and waterfalls appear around every corner. It was just as easy to allow days to lazily drift by here as on the coast. Spending mornings walking with the tea pickers through the plantations, and the afternoons eating curd and treacle (a kind of yogurt made from buffalo milk).

Ella sunset

Ella sunset

Dumbulla Buddha

Dumbulla Buddha

Hill country waterfall

Hill country waterfall

Hill country

Hill country

Tea picker

Tea picker

Tea pickers making their way to work

Tea pickers making their way to work

Tea picker

Tea picker

I am currently exploring Kandy, the old capital of the Sinhalese Kingdom. It if full of Buddhist temples and colonial left over’s.
Kandy

Kandy

Buddha temple Kandy

Buddha temple Kandy

Considering I’ve been in the country almost six weeks, I feel as if I have run round a lot of the sights very quickly, spending only 1 or 2 nights in each place. However it is my belief that Sri Lankas greatest attributes are the two things I have been able to enjoy the most; the people and their food!

Posted by skerrigan 01:49 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Subjects of Great Passion

Religion, Food and War

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Whilst working in Sri Lanka I've been staying in a small family run guest house. This has given me the chance to sample the culinary delights of Sri Lankan home cooking, from dosai to hoppers, string hoppers, roti, rice and noodles- all accompanied of course with curry. And my God is it HOT! it must be at least double the spice of what I had tasted in India or Nepal. They put chillies in the meat, in the veg, in the source as well as the rice; there's no escaping it! Even when I order an egg for breakfast it comes with a thick black layer of pepper on it.

The family is extremely religious, they hold 4 services at the house every Sunday, which starts at 6.45am with a lot of singing. The mother invited me along to the English service at her Baptist church, so I went-for kicks! It was insane; everyone was singing at the top of their voices, not mumbling along to the hymn like we do. They were clapping, stamping their feet, and occasionally a congregation member would lift their lands to the sky and shout over every one "Hallelujah" or "Thank you Jesus Christ!" I didn't know what to do. I was shocked. It felt like I had just walked into one of those awful American bible conventions...saying that, I went back the following week and started tapping my foot!

Spicy spicy chillies

Spicy spicy chillies

Around the country you see many 'Disco Buddha's' and 'Disco Jesus'' in their huge (very kitsch) glass cages lit up with flashing coloured lights. In this country religion is such a major part of peoples lives, influencing social position, education and job opportunities. The two questions I get asked the most- on a daily basis in fact, are 'are you married?' and 'what religion are you?' I receive quite a shocked look when I explain that I used to live with my boyfriend, but no I'm not married, and yes I call my self a Catholic.

Disco Buddha

Disco Buddha

Disco Jesus

Disco Jesus

Giant buddha

Giant buddha

Since being in Sri Lanka I have really started to pick up on the religious background to the civil war, which saw the Sinhalese and Tamils fighting, and Muslims quite often caught in the crossfire. The majority of the Tamil population are Hindu, originating from South India they were brought over to Sri Lanka by the British to work. They are considered to be at the bottom of society, the lowest caste. The Tamils are much darker skinned that the Sinhalese, it is very easy to distinguish the two. Comparably the Sinhalese Buddhist population comprises of 50% of the highest caste. After visiting the Tamil villages a week before, it was clear to see that these communities are receiving little government support and are living on the very edge of society.

Mud hut in Tamil hill village

Mud hut in Tamil hill village

The Tamil and Sinhalease languages are completely different, with a sepperate alphabet entirely. Most children in the country attend faith based schools which traditionally teach one or the other. It is not uncommon for two families living on the same street all their lives to never speak to one another. This language devision has also fostered segrigation. Tamils were legally restricted (up until 1 year ago) from working in the government or military. Sharlini, one of the girls at the NGO is of Tamil decent, and was telling me how her brother changed his name before applying for the military. He looked and spoke Sinhalease, so managed to get in indetected. Military personell in this country are treated like Gods, there are 'war hero' statues everywhere.

Having no political, economical or physical presence or power in the country the Tamil population grew resentful of being pushed to societies peripharies. Hostilities between the Sri Lanka military/government and LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) intensified throughout the 80s and 90s as the Tamils started fighting for an independant state called Eelam in the North. Things erupted in 2009 as the government pulled out of a ceasefire and pushed to resolve the tension and but an end to the conflict with physical force. In May '09 after 30 years and approximately 100,000 deaths, the LTTE conceded defeat.

I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with a larger international NGO 'ZOA' who work in partnership with LEADS to focus on refugee care. I spend several hours asking the country director as many questions as possible. Approximately 1/2 a million Tamils fled the country during the war, many of whom were educated; a 'brain drain' effect has happened in the Tamil communities causing the remaining citizens to loose their voice so to speak. The government is moving many Sinhalese families from the slums in the south to the north, giving land and building Buddhist temples (yet not repairing the heavily damaged Hindu ones). And this is all in the name of 'Tamil integration'.

I have obviously only witnessed life post war, so I know there is more to this story, but I am extremely eager to learn more about the conflict.

Posted by skerrigan 07:23 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged volunteer Comments (1)

NGO relief and development work

My first couple of weeks in spicy Sri Lanka

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Well I’m settling into the rhythm of Sri Lankan life quite nicely now. I must admit it was hard at first, after backpacking around with fellow travelers to getting back into the a working routine. (I thought I had escaped it 2 months ago!) My hours of work are 7.30am-4.40pm Monday to Friday, however I’ve worked significantly longer hours than this. The NGO, ‘LEADS’ (Lanka Evangelical Alliance Development Service) is focused upon development of communities and humanitarian relief to areas of natural disaster and human conflict. There is also a sub-department called ‘ESCAPE’ (Eradicating Sexual Child Abuse Prostitution and Exploitation).

NGO work

NGO work

The organisation has a well structured program for interns, taking me around its various departments. I have spent a couple of days working with ESCAPE, at their small childrens home. I must admit I found working with the children quite challenging. They came through the courts, hospitals and childrens homes, identified as being sexually abused, quite often trafficked into child prostitution. Their ages range from 12-17 and with limited or no English ability communication was hard. They are very sad children, with an awful lot of issues- I felt completely out of my depth being there. I was given two hours to work with them…no preparation, so I made theatre masks with them and taught the song ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes!’ It may have got a smile. The support and one on one counseling which LEADS offers prevents these children from falling through the net in society. I have also had to brush up on my Excel skills, as I was asked to develop a spreadsheet for the ESCAPE department to collate 3 books worth of information on the children and the home. I had the opportunity to sample the relief side of the organisation, working a 14 hour day packing relief aid packs of rice, lentils, sugar and onions for villages inland which have suffered from major flooding. When I arrived at the relief area, it looked like a scene from a comic relief film- hoards of people queuing for hours in the monsoon rain to get their aid packs.

Relief work

Relief work

rickety bridge

rickety bridge

Water project

Water project


My favourite experience so far has had to be the field research I've been doing Monday-Thursday of last week. Monday and Tuesday were spent visiting eight villages in the dense jungle region near Peradeniya- in the centre of the island, while Wednesday and Thursday were spent in the hill region near Kandy. LEADS has been working in the two regions for the past four years with the aim of alleviating poverty by providing funds to build basic facilities such as wells and toilets, while also providing micro-finance start up business loans to a number of village members. LEADS is not simply handing out money, which fosters a culture of dependence. It is essentially project managing sustainable development within the community. The village leader and council must show their account books and log income and output of the businesses. Projects range from agriculture, with tea plantations and fruit and vegetable crops; to live stock, clothing garments, and manufacturing of clay bricks.

Goat project

Goat project

Clay Brick Manufacturing

Clay Brick Manufacturing

It has been a fantastic opportunity to learn about poverty alleviation and sustainable development- experience I just couldn't get at home. Though I have been shocked at the disparity between the cities and the villages. I thought on first impressions that Sri Lanka was much more developed than India and Nepal, Colombo recently held the IIFA awards, Bollywoods Oscars; holding very lavish parties for its stars. While people are still needlessly dying in the villages due to poor sanitation. The government has been very reluctant to help these communities, highlighting the importance of Non Governmental Organisations. Very few of the villages inhabitants have English speaking ability, so I've been improving my language skills instead. 'Lassanai' means 'beautiful', 'etha hodi' meas 'very good', 'rasi' is 'tasty' and 'si thuthi' means 'thank you!' People react ecstatically when I speak, and come and hug me repeating what comment I had made. Furthermore, I have had an insight into Tamil traditions, village culture and food. When first arriving at a village, they will greet you, bow to your feet and offer a beetle leaf, which is believed to have medicinal properties, so seen as an offering of good health.

Though I am eager to return to the backpacking lifestyle, the experience of the past two weeks has been invaluable, and nothing like what most tourists wee when visiting Sri Lanka, I feel very privileged. I'm looking forward to seeing what the next few weeks at the NGO have in store...

P.S Thomas, unfortunately no speedo sightings as of yet; I was hoping for a surprise sighting in the jungle. Instead there are just an awful lot of men in sarongs.

Posted by skerrigan 08:10 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

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