Trying out fast travel in the Balkans

In 2013 when I travelled solo across Asia and Oceania I travelled extremely slow. I’d bought into the idea that slow travel was the only real way to travel. The only way to fully immerse yourself in another land and culture. I had a great time and visited many places off the beaten path. I saved a lot of money by travelling slow too because I wasn’t paying for planes, trains or busses every few days.

Looking back I kind of think I wasted a lot of time on that trip. Yes I was exhausted after years of fruitless studying and working but I visited just 10 countries in 10 months. I was so close to so many countries but for some reason I just didn’t go.

Exploring GOT sights in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Thinking back I could have easily caught a cheap flight to China and Korea from Thailand. Flew to Borneo to Malaysia to see the Orangutans and then maybe pop over to Indonesia to relax in Bali. I didn’t even go to Fiji when I was in bloody Australia! A place that I’d dream’t of and fantasised about when planning my big trip.

Even when I lived in Japan I decided to spend most of my time travelling within Japan, except for the disastrous two weeks that I spent in Thailand. I went to a grand total of Zero new countries in over 18 months.

 

Balkans Itinerary

Now that I live in Moscow and get an amazing 2 months off in summer, I decided to try fast travelling for a while. I’d initially decided to travel to 6 new countries in the Balkans but I managed to travel to 7!

Here is my whirlwind itinerary:

Croatia: 3 nights Dubrovnik, 2 nights Split.

Bosnia and Hercegovina: 2 nights Mostar, 2 nights Sarajevo.

Montenegro: 2 nights Budva, 3 nights Kotor, 1 night Ulcinj.

Albania: 2 nights Shkoder, 1 night Tirana.

Kosovo: 2 nights Prizren, 1 night Pristina.

Macedonia: 3 nights in Skopje.

Bulgaria: 2 nights in Sofia.

The gritty streets of Shkoder, Albania

My feelings about fast travel

Firstly I travelled extremely light. I had a carry on sized backpack weighing 8kg which made travelling from place to place easy. It’s a front opening backpack too which makes it easy to open and close fast. I wasn’t sending ages packing like I did when I went travelling with a 20kg backpack in 2013.

I tended to stay on the beaten track more because there’s more transport options. However I feel like 2 nights in most places was sufficient to see the town/city, eat some local food and relax. In most places I did a free walking tour if it was available because I didn’t have time to discover places for myself.

It’s impossible to take an ugly photo in Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina

Fast travel was quite lonely though. Because I had a limited time in each place I spent most of the time exploring on my own or going on group tours. I didn’t make the type of friendships that made travel in Southeast Asia so special.

I was so tired near the end of the trip. I paid for a night of luxury in a penthouse suite in a boutique hotel with sauna for one night. It was lovely to relax in privicy after spending so long in hostels. I did the same in Ulcinj too, just relaxing on my balcony and watching the handmaids tale.

Something that surprised me was how confused I felt. There are many similarities between the language and culture of the Balkan countries but many differences. I would get confused about where I was sometimes and what language they used. At times I would also forget what country I was in. I’ve never felt this way before and it was quite disorientating. As I said before I usually spend time discovering a countries culture and I just couldn’t do it on this trip.

One benefit to travelling so fast is the amount of things that I saw and experienced in such a short time. It was a great taster for the Balkans and gave me a hint of which countries I’d like to explore more of in the future (Bosnia and Montenegro).

Enjoying a super cheap feast with a travel friend at a restaurant in Prizren, Kosovo.

My thoughts on fast travel

Fast travel was extremely exciting. I realised how adaptable I was and was proud that I navigated so many cities and countries in such a short period of time. Although it was exhausting it was refreshing. In the future I think that 2 weeks of fast travel is enough for me, maybe 3 at a push. I lost a lot of my enthusiasm in Bulgaria and felt like I was just going through the motions rather than truly enjoying my time there.

At Matka canyon in Skopje, Macedonia
Guards in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Do you prefer fast or slow travel? Why? As always I’d love to hear your replies. Remember you can also follow my adventures on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/pearlsandpassports

 

 

 

My epic summer travel plans

One of the highlights of working as a teacher isn’t playing with paint or toys everyday, It’s having an amazingly long summer holiday each year!

This summer I will have 2 whole months off. At first I planned an epic trip to China and North Korea but I changed my mind after Trump’s threats. I think it would be an extremely interesting place to visit but I value my life to highly to go there at the moment.

I’ve actually been extremely stressed trying to plan my summer holidays. I decided to go to India and Nepal but I found out August is the height of the rainy season. I also nearly booked an Annapurna trekking tour only to find out that the age limit was 29! I can’t believe I’m apparantly over the hill at 30. I’ll admit I cried a little when I found that out.

After much deliberation here are my summer travel plans.

July

2 nights Suzdal, Russia

I absolutely love living in Moscow, but I have a busy and fast paced life. I have booked 2 night in a Russian country house in Suzdal to have a social media detox and learn to relax again. I want to spend my days exploring the towns of Vladamir and Suzdal, sunbathing, reading and eating local food.

My house is right on the banks of the river in Suzdal

1 night in Brussels, Belgium

Th benefit of there being only 1 direct flight from Moscow to the UK is that you can easily see another city or country when travelling to and from Moscow. This time I’ve decided to spend a night in Brussels. I arrive in the evening so want to drink some Belgian beer and do a walking tour in the morning.

Did I mention that I love beer?

2 nights in the Lake District, England

I’m a very spiritual person. When I was in Thailand I lived with an ex monk in the Thai mountains and I spend 2 weeks at a meditation and yoga retreat in Cambodia. I miss it so will spend 2 nights at a meditation retreat in the beautiful Lake District, a place of immense natural beauty that I used to visit frequently when I was a rambler.

Sometimes I forget just how beautiful England is

6 nights Travelling around Ireland

One of my dreams has always been to travel with just my Mum. And it’s finally coming true. We will be renting a car and driving all over Ireland, staying at a different place each night. I’m excited to see the beautiful greenery, taste Guinness in Dublin and kiss the Blarney stone. Mum’s family are from Ireland so we might even meet family members in Sligo.

July and August

Backpacking around Eastern Europe and the Balkans

After a few days back home in England, I’ll be backing up my backpack and catching a 1 way fright to Croatia. Once there I will travel to various countries in the region overland, just like when I travelled in South East Asia. I’m excited for some spontaneity, even if I did have to plan half of my travels due to travelling in the high season.

I prefer to arrive in a country without researching it first. I like to have no pre-conceived ideas about the country and just experience it firsthand by myself. Does anyone else like to travel like that? I’m travelling solo as I do most times.

Here is my itinerary-

Croatia– 3 nights Dubrovnik and 2 nights Split

Bosnia and Herzegovina– 3 nights Mostar and 2 nights Sarajevo

Montenegro– 2 nights Budva and 3 nights Kotor

Albania– I’ve not planned it fully but I want to spend some time by the beach

Macedonia– Again, I’ve not planned it but I would like to go Kosovo for the day or night

Bulgaria– Not yet planned but I will probably fly out of here.

Croatia

As I said It’s not yet planned and I haven’t booked a flight back to the UK yet. I just want to relax and see where I end up going. At least I know what countries I’d like to visit! I just can’t wait to have weeks of freedom where I go where I like and do what I like.

What do you think of my itinerary? Do you have any tips for places to visit in Eastern Europe or the Balkans? What are your summer plans?

 

 

 

 

How to arrive in Moscow without getting ripped off

Moscow seems like a scary city to arrive in. It has four airports, Domodedovo, Sheremetyovo, Vnukovo and Zhukovsky airport. You will probably arrive at Domodevdovo or Sheremetryovo. Throughout the years I’ve read many horrifying accounts of how people were confused or ripped off when they arrived into the city.

I’m going to tell you exactly how to avoid this.

Passport control

Russian customs can be quite daunting for someone who doesn’t speak Russian and who isn’t familiar with Russian’s naturally moody faces.

*As soon as you exit the plane, follow the signs in English to passport control. When you get there remove your passport from it’s wallet and wait in line.

*If you are unsure what line to join simply show your passport to one of the attendants and shrug your shoulders. They will soon point you in the right direction.

*Take your glasses off when you reach the counter and wait patiently until they let yo through the mechanical gate.

Collecting baggage

The baggage carousels are close to passport control and they will say in English which carousel the bags for your flight will be on.

*Simply grab your bag and head out of the door to customs. They also have free trolleys available if your baggage is bulky or heavy.

Customs

Russian customs is similar to anywhere else. They randomly stop people to search or X-Ray their bags. Luckily I have never been chosen.

Russian customs has the same rules as most other countries except you cannot bring more than 50kg of luggage into the country. When I arrived I had near to the amount and was terrified that I would be checked, luckily I was just ignored as I confidently walked through.

Ordering a taxi

Now comes the part where you could easily be ripped off. If you follow one of the many men shouting ‘Taxi, taxi!’, you can be sure to be ripped off and probably for an obscene amount. I took an unregistered taxi once for a short journey and they tried to charge 4000 rubles, approximately £54! When we wouldn’t pay it he became violent, locked the taxi doors and tried to keep my friend hostage.

Do not take an unregistered taxi in Moscow.

You have three choices.

*Buy a sim-card from one of the vendors on the floor. Download Uber, Yandex taxi or Gett taxi and order a taxi to take you to your address. You will be given the registration of the car and the colour and wait outside to try and spot the taxi. It is usually extremely busy but after a while you will find each other. If you can’t find the taxi driver simply order another one. This is the way I get home after a flight. It’s a bit chaotic but hey, you are in Moscow! It usually costs 1100 rubles (£15)

*The second choice is to order a taxi from the yellow taxi counter. This usually has a fixed price of below 2000 rubles (£27) to take you to your accommodation. Personally I’ve never tried this way but many of my friends have and they state that it’s safe and effective.

Russian taxi drivers don’t normally talk to the customers so you don”t have to worry about the language barrier. They also don’t expect tips but do appreciate a small one of 50-100 rubles.

*At the baggege carousels there are computer screens from Gett where you can order a taxi. Last time at the airport they weren’t working, I did arrive at 4.30am though so maybe they are only operational during office hours?

Tips

*Have your hotel address written on paper or your phone in Cyrillic and English. Simply show it to the taxi driver if there is any confusion.

*Stay confident and calm outside the airport and don’t talk to anyone who tries to engage you in conversation. Some men hang around outside offering to help people with their heavy bags or into taxis.

*A small number of Russian taxis don’t have seat belts.

*Please don’t take an unregistered taxi!

Arriving in Moscow shouldn’t be a scary process. Just stay calm and relaxed and you will get to your hotel safe and as fast as possible.

 

 

 

 

Living in Japan and Russia, a comparison

When I look at my timehop app on my phone, I see a recurring theme. Although I had a lovely boyfriend in Japan, lived in a 2 bedroom house (Anyone who has lived in Japan knows how rare it is to find and afford one!), lived an hour from Tokyo and spent free weekends travelling around this beautiful country…

I was lonely.

Lonely at work, lonely at home. I had a few friends but I couldn’t see them as often as I could. I longed for connection with people which can be extremely hard to find in disconnected Japan. Couple this with a long distance relationship and many days brought dread rather than joy.

One day I just realised that although I loved many aspects of Japan, it just wasn’t where I was meant to be. It was stifling me and I needed to be free. A friend from home once talked about living in Moscow, a place I found exotic and intriguing. I found out I had been offered a job as a kindergarten teacher and snapped it up. Even though I was leaving an awful lot behind in Japan.

Settling in to work

I arrived in Russia a week before I was due to start work. The weather was hot and sunny and I enjoyed walking around the seemingly empty city, gawping at the magnificent architecture and trying to read Cyrillic.

Work started and it was a baptism of fire. In Japan I taught the same lessons day in, day out. I felt like a performing seal rather than a teacher. Although it was easy to plan, it lacked creativity. In Russia I was given a brief theme for each week but expected to plan a challenging curriculum for the children teaching maths, English, phonics, science, fitness and physical skills. At first I was overwhelmed but I soon grew to love the freedom I was given and excelled in creating creative and interactive lessons that the children loved.

Soon I had many Facebook messages offering me extra tutoring or English classes. Unlike Japan people actually wanted to learn English and it made me feel important and in demand. I turned down the majority of tutoring and teaching jobs to focus on getting higher paid clients. It was one of the best decisions that I made.

Learning Russian

Prior to arriving n Moscow, I tried to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Although not perfect, my skills enabled me to identify words that were similar to English. I watched many YouTube videos, and used the duo-lingo app whenever I could. After I gained some confidence I started going to lessons, and suddenly found out that my level was low and I didn’t even know the alphabet properly.

This knocked my confidence. I now knew the basics but the language seemed to get more complicated the more I learnt. I started practicing with a Ukranian Skype teacher but as my work hours increased my motivation decreased.

Now I can read the alphabet, know key phrases and words. At the moment it is enough for me. Next year I will hopefully have more free time and be able to practice more.

Making friends

The expat scene in Japan was weird. Many people were just there to get with Japanese women or were ‘Otaku’ and obsessed with the Japanese culture. I made some amazing friends but I couldn’t bond or empathise with the majority of expats. They just weren’t like me. Thee expat scene was really snobby too, many foreigners would snub other foreigners and try to talk only to Japanese people. Everyone bragged about how much Japanese they knew or how many years they had lived in Japan like it was a competition.

Japanese people can be extremely closed off to people. Do you know that I never once went into a Japanese persons home? Although I had a few Japanese ‘friends’ I felt that many tried to keep me at arms length and I never formed real friendships with Japanese people that hadn’t travelled outside of Japan.

Moscow couldn’t be more different. It has a diverse and friendly expat scene and there are so many events happening throughout the city where you can meet new people. When I first arrived I met up with people I met on Facebook groups and at language events. I accepted every invitation and as a consequence I started to know more and more people.

Now I have a fantastic social life and am friends with British people, Australians, Russians and Americans. I have genuine friendships and we are all there for each other. I have been inside many Russian homes and have been made welcome. I go to new and exciting places each week and have a cosmopolitan lifestyle. I am truly happy.

Japanese countryside vs Russian super city

When I moved to Japan I was actually excited about living in the countryside. After a month or so I felt suffocated and trapped. I had no car and my world was extremely small. Trains didn’t run until late so I was pretty limited about what I could do after work and at the weekends.

Now I live in one of the biggest cities in the world in an apartment on the 16th floor. Worlds away from my life in Japan. Moscow has no shortage of exciting and interesting things to do. I’ve done something new every weekend and have still not run out of things to do or places to go. Although city life can get overwhelming, I absolutely love it.

Travel

One of the best things about living in Japan was the diversity and beauty of the country. During my time in Japan I was lucky enough to travel to many places such as Fukuoka, Sapporo, Sendai, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Tokyo, Yokohama and even climb mount Fuji. Travel is convenient and safe although it can be expensive.

Moscow is such a big city that it can take hours to travel from one side to the other. Trains are generally slow and because Russia is the biggest country in the world, cities and towns are extremely spread out. Since I’ve lived here I’ve travelled to St Petersburg, Sergiev Posad and a small village in the South. It’s a lot easier to go back to England or visit other European countries. Next month I’m renting a country house in Suzdal, a small but beautiful town about 3/4 hours from Moscow. I don’t feel the same urge to visit as many places in Russia as possible because I feel theat I will live here for many years.

Conclusion

Life in Moscow can be hard. I work long hours but for great money. The city is overwhelming but there’s a vast choice of things to do here. Although I miss Japanese food and hospitality I’m extremely happy in Moscow. I have a great job with prospects, I’m inundated with private students and I have a great social life.

I have a feeling that I will live here for quite a few years, watch this space!

 

 

2016, a year of Travel: Part 2

You can find part 1 here.

July, 2016

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

I’ve travelled to Dubai many times but never to it’s exotic neighbour. My Abu Dhabi story started out badly after I was placed in the hostel from hell. I didn’t feel safe and it was extremely dirty. I moved to a nice hotel for my remaining two nights. Abu Dhabi is charming but lacks the diversity of Dubai. I loved walking through the streets with the locals at night though and took local buses to see the sights such as the Emirates palace. It was 50 degrees one day and stupidly I decided to go for a walk to the beach. At first I was surprised to see no-one walking about but then I realised why, beacsue they weren’t insane like me. Luckily I survived to tell the tale after hailing a local taxi.

The Sheikh Zayed mosque was my main reason for visiting Abu Dhabi. I wore my best Arabian style makeup to try and take some interesting photos but it kept slipping off in the intense heat. I went on the free guided tour and it was definitely worth it. The Mosque felt so calm and serine. I really didn’t want to leave. It was magnetic.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

For my third visit to the Emirate I saw a different side of Dubai. I visited my friend from Windsor, (who I met in New Zealand, friendships get complicated when you are a traveller!) in her luxury hotel on Jumeirah beach. It was nice to catch up in such an exotic location and enjoy poolside smoothies and waiters serving ice cold towels hourly. After luxury I travelled up to Deirah where I stayed in an apartment near the gold souk. I didn’t feel safe but I felt uneasy with the large groups of men that would gather on the streets. For my remaining time in Dubai I saw all of my favourite sites again, ate at my favourite Lebanese restaurant in Bur Dubai and managed to catch the fountain shows at the Burj Khalifa.

September, 2016.

Moscow, The Russian Federation.

I was on the move once again and accepted a job offer in Moscow to teach in a kindergarten. I arrived in Moscow when it was extremely hot and I was pleasantly surprised by the city that I continue to love. I spent the week before I started work wandering aimlessly around the gargantuan city, getting lost on the metro and drinking in a beer garden near the red square.

 

October, 2016.

Saint Petersburg, The Russian Federation.

I had a well deserved week off work so decided to spend it exploring the so called ‘Venice of the North’, Saint Petersburg. I also had my first encounter with Russian trains when I rode the Sapsan to Saint Petersburg. I was surprised how luxurious and efficient it was, it was like being on a plane.

Although it wasn’t even winter Saint Petersburg was freezing. I bought a fur hat from a street vendor because I felt like my ears were going to drop off. I attended the free walking tour on my first day to orient myself. I was amazed by how beautiful Saint Petersburg is, it felt completely different to Moscow in so many ways. I would like to revisit in the summer during the ‘white nights’ when it barely gets dark.

I spent most of my days wandering around the city and eating amazing Russian and international food. Saint Petersburg is a lot cheaper than Moscow so I was able to splurge without going over-budget. I spent a day in the Hermitage and another day in the art gallery opposite. I’ve never seen so many works of Renoir, one of my favourite artists in one place.

December, 2016

Nottingham, England.

My year ended with a not so exotic trip to Nottingham to catch up with friends that I met in New Zealand. We chose Nottingham as a base because of it’s location in the Midlands. Nottingham turned out to be a charming city and we enjoyed visiting a cat cafe, the castle, and even enjoyed a pint in the oldest pub in England, (probably in the world!).

How was your 2016? My life seems to change so much every year of my life. I never thought I would find love in Japan and I never planned to move to Russia, it just happened. I wonder what 2017 will look like for me?

I really want to visit more new and exotic countries, I miss the thrill of visiting somewhere new and forming an opinion on it. I want to visit North Korea in the summer but I’m putting m travel plans on hold until I know more about the volatile situation there.

First impressions of Cyprus

The plane landed smoothly on the tarmac at Larnaca airport, but the plane of Russians started clapping vigorously and smiling at their loved ones like they had survived a near miss. Larnaca airport seemed fresh, clean and relaxed after the chaos of Moscow Domodevodo. I picked up my luggage, bought a sim card and a Lipton iced tea and strode out into the sun.

I got the bus to Larnaca centre, not a long journey, but I found myself looking at the passing scenes with a manic grin on my face. I was in a new country, a country I knew little about and it excited me greatly.

The bus dropped me off right next to the beach. The strip was full of modern restaurants and coffee shops like Starbucks, Pizza hut and the Hard rock cafe. Not exactly what I was expecting. Nevertheless it was nice to stroll down the street and watch the people relaxing in the bars and restaurants. I couldn’t find my apartment so I asked in a local shop. The woman was incredibly kind and sincere and gave me much-needed directions in English.

I eventually found my apartment, it was a stones throw from the beach. The owner was once again genuine and kind, offering me as much advice as he could. I chose the apartments because it was called apartment Stephanie, and it didn’t disappoint.

I left my bag in my room, had a quick shower and headed out to explore. I had been advised to walk further down the beach to see the more traditional area. After six months of winter in Moscow, it was nice to feel the sun on my bare skin. It wasn’t hot but pleasant and I enjoyed strolling down the beach, watching the laughing Cypriots and the many tourists.

Happy to feel the sun after an eternal winter

I decided to stop off for some food and ordered a feta cheese crepe. Once again the service was friendly and genuine, there’s no fake smiles here. I decided to eat my meal on the windy beach to the sound of the waves crashing. It was so peaceful.

For some reason I decided to walk an hour out of my way to see the flamingos at the salt lake. It was just my luck that the flamingos were stood right in the middle of the lake, I could only see their shadows in front of the setting sun.

On the way back to my apartment I decided to walk through the narrow residential areas. Everywhere seemed a little dilapidated with flaking paint and broken balconies. However sporadic bursts of colour and the noises of living coming from the houses made it seem quite romantic. It was like I was on a movie set.

I explored a small mosque and an extremely old church located just metres away from each other. I love it when religions can live in harmony. I was yet to learn about the Turkish occupation of the North side of Cyprus and the problems that face the people because of this division.

Grand Mosque, Larnaca
St Lazarus church, Larnaca

In the evening I strolled along the beach-side bars and restaurants. Cypriot teenage boys walked proudly with their arms draped over their girlfriend and chatted in an animated and confident fashion with other groups of teenagers. I saw many nationalities of tourists too, all going about their business in a relaxed manner. It’s at times like this when I feel lonely. I guess it’s the downside of solo travel. I spotted a packed local kabab shop and enjoyed a chicken gyros and a beer in solitude.

Cyprus seemed like a relaxed and happy country. I immediately warmed to Cypriots with their honest hearts and sincere words. I had originally planned to spend 6 days in Paphos, diving and relaxing. But I realised that I wanted to see more of this beautiful island. The next day I rented a car and set off travelling around the island. It was the first time that I’d driven in over two years and i felt nervous yet exhilarated.

I felt at home.

2016, a year of Travel: Part 1

In 2016 I felt like I barely travelled anywhere. I can only add one new country to my ‘list’ and that is Russia, my new home.

However looking back 2017 was probably one of the most important years of my life. I fell in love, decided that Japan wasn’t the country for me and decided to take a huge risk and move to Moscow, leaving my love behind in Japan. Even though I only travelled to one new country, I travelled to many places in Japan, travelled to Abu Dhabi, explored Dubai in different way and visited the Venice of the north, Saint Petersburg.

February 2016

Sapporo snow festival, Hokkaido, Japan.

Ever since I moved to Japan, the Sapporo snow festival or ‘Yuki Matsuri’ as it’s known in Japan was mentioned nearly every couple of weeks. It seemed like a right of passage for many Japanese and something that nearly everyone wanted to visit. I had a few days off in February and managed to book last-minute flights and a great hostel, despite many people saying that I had no chance of booking a ticket or a hostel and that many places book up months in advance.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I disembarked the plane in Sapporo. I arrived in the middle of a massive blizzard and had never seen so much snow in my life. I found my way to my cozy little hostel where I had a self enclosed bed and set off exploring Sapporo. Hokkaido was surprisingly more relaxed than the mainland. I saw tattoo shops and just felt a lot more relaxed when walking around, like there was less societal expectation.

The snow festival itself was absolutely amazing. There were many giant statues made of snow and smaller statues dotted around the main park in Sapporo. I was surprised to see Russian dolls being sold and Russian food stalls at the festival. I bought a pierozhki and ate it as I wandered around, no inkling at all about what the future would hold.

One of the weirdest things I saw at the festival was a girl band performing next to a statue and middle-aged men singing along to the lyrics and acting like obsessive fans, jumping up in tandem.

Tokyo, Japan

When I lived in Japan I travelled to Tokyo at every given opportunity. The worlds biggest city is also one of the worlds best and I never got bored with its energy and innovation. One day I travelled to Tokyo with some fellow English teachers and we had an amazing day exploring Akihabara, buying used panties from vending machines, visiting a maid cafe and we ended the day with one of the greatest experiences in my life, Robot restaurant in Shinjuku.

April 2016

Kanamara matsuri, The penis festival.

Life in rural Japan is extremely boring, sometimes Japan delivers something extremely quirky and crazy, the penis festival is one. The trains to the festival were paclked like sardines and the streets surrounding the small temple where the parade starts from were also heaving. It was worth beating my way through the crowds when I saw the giant, pink phallus sitting serenely in the middle of the crowd. Later it was joined by an even bigger black phallus and they were paraded through the streets. I touched the phallus, it is a festival of fertility and I certainly want children someday.

The best part of the festival was buying realistic penis and vagina lollipops and shocking the innocent citizens of Japan as we paraded with them through the streets.

Hiroshima and Miyajima, Japan.

Hiroshima was probably my favourite place in Japan next to Tokyo. I absolutely loved it laid back vibe, beautiful wide, tree-lined streets and its abundance of canals. I found it such a romantic city and was blessed with perfect weather during my visit. I visited the harrowing historical sites such as the museum, flame and the dome. I attended a German beer festival and enjoyed one of the most expensive half pints of beer I’ve ever had. I ate the best food of my life and became inexplicably addicted to oysters after trying them grilled in Miyajima, after that I ate oysters at least once a day. I also realised that I had never truly ate okonomiyaki before, the food in Hiroshima was amazing.

Miyajima is an island not far from Hiroshima. I knew it was famous for the burnt orange floating tori gate but I was astounded by the islands natural beauty. It was like paradise and made me a little bit homesick for Thailand. (Is it possible to be homesick for a place other than your birthplace?).

Hiroshima dome

Miyajima oysters

May, 2016

Sanja Matsuri, Tokyo

I attended the biggest and best festival in Japan with a group of amateur photographers. I was not disappointed with my decision. I got some amazing photos because the other photographers kept moving to different vantage points to photograph the parade. I only got a few sly shots of Yakuza (Japanese gangsters) but It was great to see such an enigma in real life. After the Matsuri I ate my favourite Japanese food, okonomiyaki with a group of fellow teachers. I found out that one of them lived in Moscow for a few years…

A birds eye view of the action from Senso-Ji
The body suit of a Yakuza member

 

 

June, 2016

Sendai, Japan

Sendai is a city in Northern Japan, like every big city in Japan it felt completely different to the others. What I loved most about it was it’s proximity to nature. You could literally walk from the skyscrapers in the centre to a quiet river or secluded mountainside in 40 minutes. I think it would be a great city to live. My then boyfriend lived there so I travelled up as frequently as I could to visit him. We ate amazing ramen, visited Sendai zoo (sidenote, don’t visit zoos in Japan, they are extremely sad places) enjoyed walking around the city and attended a few festivals.

Ushiku and Tskuba, Ibaraki, Japan

I moved to Ushiku in March but I waited until the summer to see it’s most famous sight, the Ushiku Daibutsu, the tallest standing buddha in the world. I didn’t think I would be too impressed, after all I’ve travelled to Thailand so many times and seen so many giant buddhas. I was awestruck when I saw it though and felt calm and spiritual.

I went to Tskuba alone on a lonely weekend and ended up attending an international festival. It felt so nice to see other cultures being celebrated and to see people of different races together. During my time in Japan I felt acutely aware of the fact I was different to most people, this day in Tskuba was welcome respite.

The famous Ushiku Daibutsu

 

Part 2 of my year will come soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Testing the Travel bra: Keeping valubles safe when travelling

Security is one of my top priorities when travelling solo. One of the downsides of travelling solo is that you have no-one to look after your bags when you most need it . A travellers most treasured possessions are their passport and bank card. Without them life can get extremely hard and complicated. But how can a solo traveller keep their valubles safe?

When I travelled solo in Asia I used night trains and night buses frequently to travel the long distances to each new destination. I had all of my possessions in a Pacsafe bag that I would wrap around the arm of my chair or bed and try to hug as I slept. Despite this I never truly felt like my possessions were safe, I felt a bit vulnerable.

When Amanda contacted me to send me a sample of her travel bra it seemed revolutionary. I opened the package when I lived in Japan and I instantly wished that I had this bra when I was travelling in South East Asia and Sri Lanka.

Support

The bra is made from super soft and strong material and looks like a sports-bra. I initially thought it wouldn’t fit my quite large boobs, but it did and offered a little support and was extremely comfortable. I didn’t even buy the largest size. I tested the bra out for a couple of days at work and although not as supportive as a regular bra, it was supportive enough for non strenuous activity and felt extremely comfortable.

Hidden pockets

The best part about the bra is its hidden pockets. It has many hidden pockets in the straps, waistband and a larger pocket that flips down to fit a passport in. When paired with a baggy travel top it would be ideal to conceal money, credit cards, jewellery and a passport.

I think the bra is especially useful when on sleeper trains. It would be impossible for someone to detect that the valuables were in the bra, and if anyone tried to attempt to take them you would be woken up fast because they are right next to your skin.

Security

When I travelled in some less-safe countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, I frequently stored my daily money down the side of my bra. I got some weird looks when I went to the bar at night but I wasn’t victim to drive-by robberies by scooters like so many of my friends. This bra is ideal for this purpose and it would keep the money away from the skin. I need more support when out and about so I would wear this bra over a regular bra when undertaking activities. It’s fine on its own for general travelling between places, even if you are a larger busted girl like myself.

In conclusion: I wish I had this bra when I was travelling. It’s comfortable and inexpensive. I would recommend keeping your passport in a plastic wallet to protect it from sweat stains though. The company are very friendly, I would advise emailing them with your clothes size and bra size if you are unsure about what size to order. As a solo female traveller this bra will give you peace of mind when travelling to some destinations where robbery is rife, or when travelling overnight.

I received a free sample of the travel bra to review. As always, all views are my own.

Experiencing Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa, Tokyo

I grabbed my camera close to my chest as another surge of people passed me. A purple pram clipped my heels but I somehow managed to stay on my feet. The shoving stopped, I relaxed and looked up. A gold Mikoshi was lifted high in the air by Japanese wearing bright green robes. Despite the obvious weight of the large mikoshi, the team bounce it through the crowds with the ease of bouncing a baby on their knee. All around I can hear chanting, `A, Sa, Ku, Sa!!!` and my hairs stand on end due to the frisson and energy around me.

This is the Sanja Matsuri.

One of the most famous festivals in the whole of Japan, and also one of the wildest; the Sanja matsuri is certainly unique.
It`s a Shinto festival hel in honour of the three men who founded the vast Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa. Over three days there`s mikoshi paraded through the streets, traditional taiko (Japanese drums), traditional music and dancing.


I visited on the Saturday, the day where 100 Mikoshi are paraded through the streets to Senso-ji shrine where a Priest blesses and purifies them for the coming year. Saturday is one of the busiest days and a day when local Yakuza (gangsters) display their tattoos with pride. Tattoos are still extremely taboo in Japan so this display is one of strength and defiance. The Geisha of Asakusa also join the festivities and support their local neighbourhoods.

I arrived about 12pm with a team of local photographers who all wanted to capture the celebration. Initially we meandered along the narrow streets leading up to Senso-ji. Locals were already drinking cans of silver Asahi and the smell of Japanese street food tempted me. Suddenly the swell of the crowd carried us forward and I saw my first glimpse of one of the 100 mikoshi. It was extremely hard to photograph the scene due to the excitable and jostling crowd. After a hike I gave up taking photographs and just enjoyed the energy of the festival.

The group of 20 photographers was split up in the crowd and I was alone with a Chinese photographer who experienced the Matsuri last year, so she knew the best places to go. We tentatively made our way up the steps to Senso-ji shrine, thinking that we would not be allowed up. Surprisingly the shrine area was near empty and we had a great view of the mikoshi meandering through the throngs of people outside. I even saw one old guy carrying an extremely expensive camera  with his own step-ladder so he could see above the crowds. Clever guy!

A birds eye view of the action from Senso-Ji
step-ladder guy

Around this time the locals usually go for a quick drink, my Chinese friend said. So we headed through the crowds to the Izakayas to photograph locals drinking and having fun with their friends. As we walked down one side street, a float of taiko drummers came floating past! it was great to see everything up close.

We then met up with another group of photographers and we all had one goal in mind; find Yakuza. During this festival Yakuza commonly show off their tattoos, it was definitely something I wanted to capture. The thing is, gangsters are not known to be the friendliest of people so are extremely hard to photograph.

Some outfits left little to the imagination

Unfortunately we missed the Yakuza float so had to try to capture a photo of lone Yakuza. One guy walked past and our eyes were drawn to his legs, completely covered with Japanese style tattoos. Quickly he turned and we caught a glimpse of his tattooed torso as his shirt blew open. We were all so mesmerised we forgot to take a photo. He also looked like an extremely mean guy so it was probably for the best.

Eventually we found a float with many Yakuza. They weren`t proudly showing off their tattoos, instead they seemed quite self conscious and tried to cover themselves as soon as the wind blew open their coloured shirts. amazingly I managed to capture a photo of one guys full body suit as he turned around and faced the camera. He didn`t look so happy so we decided to scarper.

Many people were dressed in Yukata or Kimono for the Matsuri. It was especially cute seeing the children wearing traditional dress or Matsuri clothing. i spotted one couple who looked like they were straight out of an anime!

Enjoying a post-Matsuri beer and snacks
The body suit of a Yakuza member
Enjoying a picnic on the street floor
Straight out of an anime

I went back to the festival later in the evening with friends. I saw taiko drummers and extremely tired people parading the mikoshi as the sun set on Asakusa.

Attending a Matsuri is a must do when visiting Japan. The Japanese change from polite to raucous and it`s great to see the energy and passion of the people. Most festivals are also extremely cultural so you will see local dress, music, dance, culture and have the opportunity to try traditional festival foods.

Have you ever been to a festival in Japan or to the Sanja Matsuri? If so what did you think?

Why I had to breakup with Japan

It’s weird to move to a country you’ve never visited isn’t it? Let alone one on the other side of the world with a unique culture and one of the worlds most difficult languages. The differences just made the move seem all the more exotic and exciting. Like any great love story mine starts with high hopes, craving for adventure and a little naiveté.

When I arrived in Japan I instantly fell in love. It was completely different to any other country that I had ever visited and was an enticing mix of old and new. After the blur of Tokyo I was whisked back to Narita to start training for my new job. Training was strenuous and difficult, but after years of doing the same thing day in, day out as a podiatrist my brain relished the increased cerebral activity.

On the shinkansen to my new home of Nasushiobara I gazed out of the window and saw the city scape slowly escape until all I could see was fields, rolling hills and low-rise buildings. Suddenly the landscape changed and I was greeted with towering snow-capped mountains slowly creeping closer. My heart filled with joy at the beauty of this site and skipped a beat when I realised that this was my station.

This was my new home.

The first few weeks had their ups and downs but even the mundane mutinae of daily life was fascinating. Supermarkets were scaled down, combikis sold everything imaginable and were located on nearly every street corner and shops played quirky music and jingles constantly. It sounds cheesy but in parts it felt like I was in another world.

Locals were friendly and smily and seemed so relaxed. I felt so safe and could walk around my town at night in the dark.

I settled into my tiny apartment, made friends with other English teachers and settled into my role at school. I was new to teaching and I absolutely loved lesson planning and teaching. After years in a strictly controlled profession it felt great to have freedom in what I did. I was happy.

I spent many weekends in Tokyo and travelled across Japan in my spare time. As the summer break approached and I sat at my sweltering desk at school, some of the magic began to fade.

I needed to get away to somewhere both exotic and familiar so I headed to Thailand. Whilst  there I got into so many scrapes and had so many near misses that I breathed a sigh of relief once my feet touched Japanese soil. “Maybe Japan isn’t so bad after all, at least it’s safe…’.

Autumn came and went and it was now winter in Japan. After paying for my flight back to England for Christmas I was low on funds. My apartment was freezing and only had heating in one room. I sat there on my floor sofa, shivering because of the cold. I felt lonely and life in a small town had begun to lose its shine. I’d been to every local bar and restaurant, walked in every park. Without a car I felt trapped.

Despite my best efforts I just couldn’t grasp Japanese. I found it confusing and it was impossible to find someone to explain it to me. I tried local classes taught by grannies who meant well, but It just confused me further. The only lessons I could find were over an hour away by train. I found my lack of Japanese embarrassing and was sometimes shocked by locals lack of patience when dealing with me. I felt like I couldn’t connect with co-workers or other Japanese people I met. Even other foreigners with perfect Japanese felt the same.

Conversations with locals seemed empty and superficial. On most encounters I was asked ‘please teach me English’, they never meant it though. I found it hard to make local friends and I found it impossible to work out who liked me or hated me since everyone treated me the same. It was hard to tell what was genuine and what was fake.

As an extroverted person who thrives on personal connections I felt myself slowly atrophying. Kind of losing my personality.

After Christmas I had made my decision. I was going to move to a different country. I applied for jobs and was accepted for one near Chiang Mai in Thailand.

And then….I fell in love. It always happens when you least expect it doesn’t it? I decided to scrap my plans to move to Thailand and give Japan another chance. Maybe if I moved closer to Tokyo I would like it better?

As the weather started to warm up I moved to Ushiku, a small town just an hour away from Tokyo, I rented a whole house with a tiny garden and honestly thought I had found happiness. My work was uninspiring and my colleagues barely acknowledged my presence. I felt like a ghost when I was at school, kind of present but outside looking in. My boyfriend moved to Northern Japan so I was even further away from him. When we were together I loved Japan because I saw it through his eyes. When I was apart I was lonely and irritated by the constant micro-aggressions that many foreigners face.

I tried to buy a fuse in an electrical shop and all of the sales attendants literally ran away from me. In school they would constantly try to give me a fork to eat my school lunch with and comment about every ingredient, discussing amongst themselves whether I could eat it. On a packed train the seat next to me would remain empty. I was constantly stared at wherever I went. I used to love wearing 50s style clothes and dresses with red lipstick. It was my signature style. Whenever I wore something different I would get stared at even more and lots of comments with hidden meanings. Slowly my style changed to be more toned down and casual. I couldn’t handle any more sly comments.

These seem like such minor things but when they happen day in day out they really begin to affect you. They all remind you that you are a foreigner in this country and different to everyone else.

It made me realise that I would never be accepted into Japanese society. Even if I was fluent in Japanese, married to a Japanese guy or if I had a Japanese child. I would always be different.

In Japan they have a saying, ‘The nail that hangs out the highest gets hammered down’. I feel that’s what these micro aggressions did to me. Slowly hammered me down until I couldn’t recognise myself when I looked in the mirror. I was fed up of conforming, fed up of following thousands of written and unwritten rules.

I just wanted to be me.

So that’s how I ended up in Moscow, a place that’s the antithesis to Japan. Life here isn’t easy and It has its own challenges but I’m allowed to feel like myself. Life in Japan wasn’t all bad. I made some amazing friends for life (Both foreigners and Japanese), experienced hundreds of unique experiences and was eased in slowly to my new career as an ESL teacher.

Japan is an amazing country. To be honest I’m still in love with it and even dream about it. But, it was ultimately an unhealthy relationship.

Japan just isn’t the right guy for me.