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Osaka, My Japanese City

I’ve lived in Osaka for the past five months, and I love this city! When I first came here I wasn’t too impressed, especially since I’d just spent a week in the beautiful and traditional Kyoto. Osaka and Kyoto are very close distance wise, but they couldn’t be further apart looks wise. Kyoto is full of temples, shrines and nature, whereas Osaka is full of impressive skyscrapers, bars and restaurants. At first glance this city did not have much to offer me, but I stayed here for work as getting an English teaching job was much easier and more available in this city. After five months of been here I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in Japan. The city is big enough to offer the average local plenty to do, but small enough to get around cheaply and even by walking. The city also has an airport, which flies all over the world, and getting around the city is easy by its subway and JR lines.
I describe Osaka like Manchester in the UK. There isn’t much for a tourist but to live it’s a great city as there is a lot of work/business, there are great shops and even better bars and restaurants. Osaka also has a good handful of foreigners, but not too many. As the city isn’t great for sightseeing and tourists, let me help you out on good ways to spend your time here.

Sightseeing
The tourist books will first tell you to visit Osaka-jo (Osaka Castle), don’t bother I say. Unless you’ve never seen a Japanese castle, then maybe have a look. Japanese castles are vastly different to Western castles, but it really isn’t worth the entrance fee. Take a trip to the castle grounds, have a few pics then you can be on your way.
A second sight might be Kaikuan (Osaka Aquarium). It used to be the biggest aquarium in Japan until Okinawa took the sea crown. It is a good aquarium with the likes of dolphins, penguins and a whale shark, but even I, as an aquarium lover, got a little bored. A good sight, and in a good little area of Osaka near the bay, but if you miss this sight then it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

USJ (Universal Studios Japan). I’m yet to go here due to the 6500¥ price tag. As Japan is crazy busy at the quietest of times, you really need to plan your trip accordingly. A few friends of mine went and had to queue for over thirty minutes just for the popcorn stand…
A few other sights which I’ve visited include the Osaka Peace Museum, the History Museum and the Science Museum. Take a look at the Peace Museum, it’s cheap and it shows some great insights into the wars from Japan against the Americans, Korea and South East Asia. Finally, if the weather is nice (for example during sakura season or autumn) then have a walk round Tennoji-koen (Tennoji-Park) a beautiful park complete with a zoo. It’s worth your time in good weather.

There is the odd temple and further sightseeing spots in Osaka, but I really wouldn’t recommend anymore. The best way to spend your time in this city is to explore the three areas of Umeda, Shinsaibashi and Namba.

Umeda is the area around Osaka main train station, where you can find some great department stores and lots of bars and restaurants. There are also some great amusement arcades there and a great reflection of Japanese nightlife, with rows upon rows of tiny bars, neon signs and all you can drink beer. Check out Osaka Grand Front in this area for some very nice bars and restaurants, and also check out Umeda Sky Building as it hosts quite a few beer festivals throughout the year.

Shinsaibashi and Namba
Shinsaibashi and Namba are next to each other so both are often covered on nights out, and these two places are where I spend my most time. Both areas are great to explore during the day, and many guide books might refer to these places as Dontonbori and American-mura. Dontonburi is one long street full of bars and restaurants and the Osaka famous takoyaki stalls (fried octopus-balls). You will find the famous Glico sign near the Namba Bridge on Dotonbori. This is a great place to simply grab a few beers from the local convenience store and to people watch. I’ve spent many an hour watching drunken locals here and also watching the Osaka host boys prowl for their next customer.

At first glance some areas of Namba and Shinsaibashi can be quite daunting, as you will see lots of rows of five-storey buildings holding hundreds of tiny bars with 5-10 seats in each. It is difficult to know which bar to go into, as most look like flat entrance doors, and you have no idea what is behind them until you go in. The best thing to do is make friends with a local and they’ll tell you the best spots. However, you can find bigger bars which aren’t as terrifying to enter such as Cinquecento (every cocktail 500yen, great flavours and strong), although this bar will be full of foreigners it is still a bar to visit! Balabushka is also great for a relaxed vibe. It has pool tables, dart boards and huge TV screens for the football. There is a strange little bar called Game Station which is worth a look inside. It consist of a small bar with a Nintendo 64, Wii, PlayStation 1 and 3, Xbox and a Sega megadrive, all available to play if you buy some drinks.

Club wise there are some good clubs in Osaka, but just like most of Japan, they can be fairly small. You usually pay on the door and most tickets will include a free drink. Some personal favourites, which are in Namba and Shinsaibashi, are Bambi, Wax and Sam & Daves.

Overall, the best way to spend your time in this city is to explore the quirky little areas full of shops, restaurants and places where you will find Japanese locals. Namba and Shinsaibashi are you’re best shots. Shop-wise they are fantastic for quirky cheap clothes, high street favs of H&M and Forever 21, and also your designers such as Chanel, Marc Jacobs and Prada. A city that is probably worth two or three days of your time in Japan, but make sure you save most of this for the nightlife, you’ll probably see me out if you do.


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What To Do In Taiwan

Over the summer I spent just over a week in Taiwan, and I explored some of the top places which were recommended on many a blog/website/travel guides blah blah blah. I only really visited Taiwan as firstly I had never been, and secondly it’s really close to Japan so it seemed only apt to hop on over and see what this country was all about. After spending nine days, I can’t say I’d spend much longer. My trip wasn’t bad at all but overall there isn’t a great deal to do in this country, and I wouldn’t feel the need to visit it again. However, the people are friendly, the majority of signs are in English and the country is pretty different to any other South East Asian country I have visited.

Taipei
I started off in the capital of the country, Taipei. Flights to the city are easily obtainable from a lot of south east Asia, and also fairly cheap. Getting from the airport to the city centre is easy enough and there are English speaking staff members to send you on your way. I spent four days in Taipei overall, which were split between the start and end of my trip. My travel itinerary for Taipei was pretty tourist filled and I spent most of my time in the tourist hotspots of the National Palace Museum, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taipei Astronomical Museum, 2-28 Memorial Museum and Taipei 101. Some of these places are worth visiting, such as the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which has beautiful buildings and is also in a good location. The National Palace was beautiful from the outside but very dull inside, basically a lot of old pots and artefacts, and all in Taiwanese. The Memorial Museum and Park was ok, but also a bit small and not too much to see.

I found that a great way to explore this city was to visit the temples, which is great if you haven’t experienced many temples on your travels. However, other great ways to spend time in this city are to stroll around the night markets and the million and one tea shops. Great iced flavoured tea and fairly cheap. The night markets hold a million wonders, varying from tacky souvenirs to fried chicken cartilage. There are plenty around the city and definitely worth a few evenings of your time.
 
Accommodation wise I stayed in JV Hostel and Banana Hostel. JV Hostel is near Taipei 101 tower but a twenty minute walk from the nearest subway, and overall a basic hostel with nothing exciting about it. The Banana Hostel was a quirky little place. You can have your own twin room for a cheap price, with cute Ikea décor and it’s also in a great location, however not the type of place to stay if you want to meet people as no bar and only three rooms, but I’d still highly recommend. Overall a fairly cheap capital city, but not as cheap as some of its neighbours. Plenty of restaurants and bars including a Toilet Café, where the food is shaped like the contents of a toilet...

Sun Moon Lake
After Taipei I caught a four hour bus to Sun Moon Lake. I booked the bus on the morning of travel from Taipei main bus station. Make sure to take layers for the buses and trains as they go overboard on the air conditioning in summer. Once at Sun Moon Lake I strolled around to find accommodation. There are several town sections to Sun Moon Lake and I know there is a hostel in one of the sections but not sure where or even how I would have got there in the evening. I stayed in a hotel style room above 7/11 for £18, then on the second night I found a twin hotel room for £16 which seemed more the norm. It may be worth booking a hotel in advance but I just winged it and it turned out to be fine. Sun Moon Lake can be covered in two days unless you’re a really avid walker. On the first day I took a boat hopping trip around the different sections of the lake. This was beautiful to see and you could spend as long as you wanted at each section but it was quite confusing to then find out which boat you were allowed back on. A lot of trailing around, and different people pointing me to different boats. Not too many bars in this place, however there are enough restaurants for the size of the town, but not a place to party.

Hualien
After Sun Moon Lake I got a bus to Taichung where I had to get a train to Hualien. Many guides said I would have to change trains in Taipei but there were direct trains. It took about seven hours in all as it had to go around the mountains on the east of the island. Once at Hualien I had already booked a hostel from Hostelworld.com which displayed a varied number of places. I got a taxi (very cheap) from the station to Tidal Surfers Hostel. As the town isn’t big you’ll find all the hostels in a good location. My hostel seemed strange at first as it tended to be the workers then me and my friend, but on the second night a number of visitors stayed and the whole hostel had a big drinking party, all paid for by the owner. If that doesn’t sway you to stay then nothing will! Overall, Hualien is a bit of a dull town, the main reasoning for staying here was to visit Taroko Gorge (Taroko National Park).

Taroko Gorge
Taroko Gorge day tickets can be bought at the bus station next to Hualien train station on the day of your trip. You catch the bus to whichever point of the gorge and then you can hop on and off whenever you like with your day ticket. The gorge is quite spectacular and worth at least a day of your time. There are plenty of walks/hikes/river treks available and all give fantastic views. Make sure to wear good shoes, and take a waterproof. I spent a day here and could have easily spent a second.

There are other places to visit in Taiwan which I’ve heard recommendations of, including Taichung and Alishan. I only wanted a week in the country, but ended up been here two extra days due to a typhoon which cancelled all planes from Taipei. However, I tweeted Air Asia to ask if I could switch my flight to the next available one, and they did it within a few hours. Fantastic service and I always think it’s great to recommend good flight companies and the service they provide! So there you have it! A great country but not an action packed one. Expect lots of tea, everything flavoured with something that tasted like weird liquorice, photos from the locals at every available chance they get and overall, amazing scenery and great views!

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By Becky on
About Taipei City, Sun Moon Lake and Hualien
Tagged with Taiwan and Air Asia

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Have You Ever Backpacked Somewhere Because Of A Movie?

I always wonder where people get the inspiration on where to backpack and travel to. Hopefully if you’re reading this, then you rely on travel blogs for inspiration. Some people listen to friends stories, but I think a lot of people get their inspiration from movies or TV shows. There are many movies which have inspired my travels and made me want to go to certain places. A recent destination on my travel to-do list is Gunkan Jima, which is an old mining island off the south coast of Japan. A lot of Japanese people question why I want to visit such a place, and I say because it featured in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall. A travel blog I follow on Twitter alerted me to the fact that this island existed and that it was in Japan, so I jumped at the chance to look up trips as I’m a huge James Bond fan. Therefore I thought I’d list a few other places I’ve visited and want to visit which have been inspired from movies.

Halong Bay
Another James Bond inspiration. I didn’t go to Vietnam just to visit this place but as soon as I found out a James Bond setting was in this country I had the urge to go! Halong Bay is featured in James Bond, Tomorrow Never Dies. James Bond swirls around in a jet-ski and shows just how beautiful this Vietnamese paradise is. The film shows the bay with a sense of eeriness which only added to the appeal in my opinion. I may not have ventured round in a jet-ski when I was there but I could appreciate what the film offered this great beauty.

Salzburg
Of course from the Sound of Music. I’m a huge Sound of Music fan, which can be seen in my post about this Austrian city. When I went interrailing I noticed that Austria was on our destination list so I didn’t pass up the chance to visit Salzburg. If it wasn’t for the Sound of Music I don’t think I would have visited this town, and I’m so glad I did. Apart from sightseeing round the locations in the film, this city has a great deal more to offer than just the Sound of Music references. The city has a true Austrian charm and is one my favourite cities in Europe, and one of my most enjoyable destinations on my interrailing trip. I yodelled, sang Sound of Music songs and pretended to be Julie Andrews for a few days. A place that was definitely inspired by a film.

St Petersburg
A favourite VHS from my childhood is the movie Anastasia. Recently, I have been researching a second Eastern Europe trip, to follow mine and James first one. I wasn’t sure just how north of Eastern Europe I wanted to start, but thought Russia may be a good place to begin as I’ve always wanted to go to St Petersburg. My only images of St Petersburg are from the childhood film Anastasia, which tells the story of the missing story Romanov daughter and the priest Rasputin. The film made St Petersburg look mystical, beautiful and full of interesting history, and I’ve wanted to go ever since I saw this film as a youngster. If it wasn’t for this movie I really don’t think I would want to visit this great Russian city, but now I just want to a grab a fur hat, some vodka and learn all about the Romanovs. Although, I obviously added the vodka, it was a children’s film after all.

Egypt
The film The Mummy is another one of my favourite films, an unrealistic guilty pleasure of a movie. There are many myths and stories surrounding the ancient Egyptians, which are brought to life in this film. The Mummy tells a story about a cursed priest who was mummified in the pyramids of Giza and who came back to life to destroy the world. Doubt any of that will happen on my trip but this film has only grown my curiosity for the pyramids and the secrets they have to offer.

Driving down the East Coast of America
I dream that one day I can grab a Cadillac, put on some 80’s tunes and drive down the East Coast of America, stopping off in hillbilly towns and eating in diners. This obsession of a trip has grown with the film Thelma and Louise. Even though this film centres around two women who are driving through America to escape the police after a murder they committed, their adventure still inspires me. Murder and police aside, this is the kind of trip I want. They have an open top car and drive through sandy, empty roads in America which I would love to do. All I need now is a friend willing to join my journey, a Cadillac and a mixed tape of 80’s tunes.

What movies have broken your purse and inspired your backpacking trips?


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El Nido, Hey Paradise

I’ve just recently come back from a trip to El Nido, which is a paradise backpacker destination on the Island of Palawan in the Philippines. Apart from a lot of friends’ recommendations and tips of advice, I really didn’t have much of a clue on how to get to El Nido and the best possible way to tackle the trip. All I got told was, “you have to take cash as there are no ATMS” and, “power shuts down by 11pm” the power advice was a lie but the cash situation was true, however I’m here to tell you exactly how to get to El Nido and the ins and outs of this paradise place.

Getting to Palawan
Getting there was an adventure and a half for me, mainly because I hadn’t booked a flight ticket and I arrived into the Philippines at a different airport to where I was supposed to leave from, but I did make it in the end. Manila is the main airport and the capital of the Philippines and the place you can leave from to get a domestic flight to Puerta Princesa which is the capital of the island of Palawan, where El Nido is. I would recommend booking flights a day in advance as you’ll save a lot of money. I arrived at the terminal and wasn’t allowed in the airport without a ticket so I had to trail around in a taxi to a ticket office, and then to an ATM which would accept either of my cards. This turned out to be double the cost of a ticket online and lot more effort. On the way back I used skyscanner.net which is my trusty flight site, and I got a single ticket for £22 including baggage. Baggage however is tight, they only let you take 10kg for your check in baggage, but you can load up your hand luggage to 10kg also. Also, if you book your tickets online or on your phone, you only have to show them the email on your phone, so no need for a printer.

The flight is just over an hour, and there are plenty of flights through-out the day.  Also, the terminals at Manila are a bit hectic and miles apart. For Puerta Princesa make sure you’re at terminal three.


Getting to El Nido
Once arriving in Puerta Princesa, you’ll be able to find accommodation fairly easily. I stayed in two places: D’Lucky Inn which was booked through hostelworld.com, nice enough but you can find cheaper places. The second and better place I stayed at was Banwa Art Hostel which I found online with a fair few good reviews, and was only 400 pesos a night. We just turned up and hoped they had a spare room, luckily they did. A great hostel, which had a good bar and it was also in a good location. Puerta Princesa is small enough that you can flag down a tricycle from the airport and they’ll take you anywhere in the city for a very low price.

Once in Puerta Princesa you will find plenty of travel agents offering buses to El Nido, a lot of these offers can also be booked through your accommodation, which was the case for both the places I stayed.

My bus from D’ Lucky Inn cost 700 pesos, and I believe you can find cheaper elsewhere. It was more of a van than a bus, and packed pretty tight. My bag was tied on the roof, and some American guys who were on the bus had very little leg room. However, the majority of vans booked through hostels are air-conditioned which does make a big difference. The van will drive around Puerta Princesa until it’s full and then expect a six hour drive up to El Nido. It’s a rickety ride, and a lot of the journey is over stone roads and dirt tracks, so if you’re not a good passenger then take some travel sickness tablets beforehand. The bus stopped just the once on the way there as well.

Hey El Nido
Once at El Nido, you’ll get dropped off in the market place, then you can take a really cheap tricycle for about ten minutes to the beach front where a lot of the accommodation is. We didn’t book any accommodation and just turned up to a pension and luckily there was room (Zaniyas Pension) we paid 500 pesos a night each for a room, bathroom and air con. Other friends have paid less, they tend to be further away from the beach front and they may not have air con. We went during off peak season so you may need to book online, or make sure you get to EL Nido early, buses do run there from 6am from Puerta Princesa. My friend was right about no ATMs been in El Nido, however there are plenty in Puerta Princesa so you can stock up on cash before you go. Also, there is a currency exchange stall in El Nido. Some of the scuba diving shops did accept cards but there is a high transaction fee. Also, the power does get shut off but between 6am-2pm, which didn’t hinder our trip at all.

I’d say this is the main info on what you need for a hassle-free trip to El Nido. Once you’re there they are plenty of cheap bars and restaurants for great food and drink. Also there are plenty of scuba diving shops to go diving for the day. I chose El Nido Marine Club which was 2800 pesos for three dives including lunch and hire for the day. Great company, and great dives, and really easy to book, we just saw them the day before the dive to book. We also took a boat trip, which are very easily available from the beach front. A great place to travel to, with the most beautiful beaches I have ever been to which aren’t crowded by tourists. Expect a beach to yourself and the most gorgeous of oceans. Not been too cheesy, but this place really is paradise.

 

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By Becky on
About El Nido, Puerto Princesa and Manila
Tagged with The Philippines

Shoreditch

Shoreditch: Drinking The East Dry

Having now lived in the middle of Shoreditch for the last 6 months, I feel now is a great time to pass on some tips for how and where to drink in one of London’s most vibrant quarters.
 
East London is famous for its creative-types, big hair, skinny jeans and technology startups. This smorgasbord comes together to create an interesting mix of drinking venues, however - like much of London – you will find it hard to make the most of it without knowing the right direction to stumble. A wander out of exit 6 of ‘Old Street Station’ is generally the right direction but without a destination in mind, I imagine many backpackers passing through might spot the greasy Kebab shops and decide to make a hasty retreat.

‘Hidden’ Bars

Shoreditch and surrounding areas are home to a range of ‘hidden’ bars. These are generally speakeasy-style places underneath exiting venues. If you’re coming from Old Street (or heading back that way), check out ‘NightJar’. This prohibition style venue features live jazz, awesome cocktails and is open until 3am at the weekend.
If you’re approaching from Liverpool Street then drop by ‘The Breakfast Club’. If you arrive after 9pm expect to queue but the basement bar is a great experience and is accessed through a fridge. When you head in, ask for the Mayor and the staff will usually get you in as fast as they can. Expect to buy a drink in the ‘normal’ bar whilst you wait for a subterranean cocktail, though which can make this a more pricey start to an evening of boozing.

Brewdog is admittedly a chain, bar but this branch located at the top of Brick Lane has a twist which sets it apart from the rest. On offer are over 40 different types of beer and ales and staff are super friendly. If you’re not sure what you want, ask for a taster and their suggestions are usually top class. In the middle of the bar is a staircase which looks non-descript but reveals a basement bar featuring ‘beer cocktails’ – surely a unique to London experience – although there may be a reason for that.

The last one that I’m aware of is Ruby in Hoxton Square. I’ve yet to go and research this venue (update will follow) but I’m told it’s a great place to be if you’re around the square.

Rooftop Bars

There’s a few ‘rooftop’ bars I’ve found in the area but none that I would really recommend other than the ‘Queen Of Hoxton’. It’s far more of a place to end the night (despite it closing at 2am), the entry fee makes it a place to hit up for at least a couple of hours. The bar is spread over 3 floors, features different genres of music, and the rooftop is amazing.

‘Cheap’ Bars

Unfortunately there’s no such thing as a ‘cheap’ night out in London. However, there are a number of cool bars on Kingsland Road which often feature drink offers most nights of the week. Often overlooked by the masses (but with a hipster following of their own), bars such as ‘Prague’, ‘Jaguar Shoes’ and ‘The Dictionary Hostel’ (incidentally also a cool place to stay) are great if you want a chilled vibe and plenty of interesting people to meet. 

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By James on
About London
Tagged with Bars, London, Shoreditch, Drinking, Hidden Bars, East London, Cheap Bars and Rooftop Bars