A Travellerspoint blog

Climbing Over Clouds

A trip up Jade Mountain

all seasons in one day 6 °C

Have you ever felt like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? I was offered an invitation to climb Jade Mountain (Yushan) in the wee morning hours of a cocktail bar party in Taipei. A few local friends had decided to make the journey and convinced me to tag along. At the time, I didn’t even know what mountain I had agreed to climb. But Taiwan is a small island. I assumed even its highest peaks couldn’t be as demanding as those I mounted in Western China or South East Asia. It was only after doing some investigative work that I realized what I had gotten myself into. Upon typing ‘Jade Mountain’ into the search bar on my computer, the words ‘North East Asia’s highest peak!’ immediately popped up. I thought this must have been a mistake. Japan was home to several giant volcanoes. Eastern China was full of sacred mountains. Even Eastern Russia had a large mountain range. How could the small island of nation of Taiwan hold such a title? But it was true. Rising abruptly from the ocean floor several kilometres below, Yushan’s summit stretched four kilometres above the ground I was standing on.
With that said, the mountain certainly did not seem insurmountable. I read that there are two lodges in the park, one at a rest stop called Tataka just off the road which runs past the base of the mountain and one on the mountain itself six hundred metres from the summit in a settlement aptly named, Paiyun (Line of Clouds). The majority of people hike from Tataka to Paiyun on the first day, then onto the summit and back to Tataka on the second. Apparently, anyone in reasonable good shape can do it. So why was I worried? Well, because we didn’t have two days to finish the hike. We planned to do it in one. In order to obtain a two day permit, a reservation in the Paiyun lodge is required. When my friends applied, the waitlist was two months long. Thus, our group’s only option was to attempt a single day ascent, hiking from Tataka to the summit and back in less than twenty four hours. This undertaking was not to be taken lightly. We had to provide the permit office with photographic evidence of high altitude climbing experience and give assurance that we were physically fit enough to complete the journey. According to travel blogs, the single day hike could take anywhere from eleven to sixteen hours. But these estimates were posted by adventure climbers who clearly had years of climbing experience. How long it would take our ragtag group of city boys to reach the summit, only time would tell. What was clear was that we needed to start training.
We organized three practice hikes to whip our bodies into shape, but they were by no means strenuous. Apparently the Taiwanese method of training for high altitude climbing amounts to strolling up a small peak in the Taipei area and smoking cigarettes at the top for an hour or two. Needless to say, these pleasant day trips were not the rigorous training regimen necessary to prepare us for the difficult climb ahead. But they did give me a chance to get better acquainted with my climbing mates. Two of them I already knew quite well. Yo, the trip organizer, was one of the first friends I made in Taiwan and one of the most amicable people I had met in all of Asia. He was a people magnet to whom others are immediately drawn. Through his events, I had made many other friends. One of those friends was Xiao P, another sociable character who always brought a smile to my face with his cheerful demeanour. Yo and Xiao P owned a graphics design studio together. They were like beacons of positive energy, always making those around them feel at ease. The third member of the group was named Justin. He was much more reserved than Yo and Xiao P but still pleasant company. As a marathon runner and biking enthusiast, he was perhaps the best prepared for the gruelling climb ahead. The last member of the group was George. George had decided not to attempt the climb, but graciously agreed to drive us from Taipei to Tataka. It was a gregarious group of friends. I often had trouble keeping up with their conversation, but I did my best to pick up some local slang and follow the banter.
We began our journey to Yushan at noon on a Sunday. I was full of doubts at the time. Was I in good enough shape? Had I brought everything I needed? Were my climbing mates prepared? What about altitude sickness? I had climbed well above four thousand metres before, but the climbs had always been gradual. Our plan was to go from sea level to four thousand metres in less than twenty four hours. Odds were that at least one of us would be struck with altitude issues. How would we handle such a situation? My climbing mates were surely having similar thoughts. We went through long periods of silence as we sped down the highway. Everyone did their best to keep the doubts at bay, but they lingered above us like dark clouds.
After three hours on the highway, we turned onto a narrow mountain road and began our ascent to Yushan. The road was windy and steep, transporting us up above the clouds to a height of over two thousand five hundred metres in only a couple short hours.
It was dark when we finally arrived at Tataka, the mountainside settlement where we would stay the night. It consisted of only two small buildings; a police station and a hostel. We first stopped at the police station to have our permits checked, then onto the hostel to get settled. The accommodation was basic. There was neither a heating system nor a fire. We had to remain bundled in clothes to battle the near freezing temperatures after dark. There were no beds either, just long wooden planks jam packed full of blankets and pillows. Each individual section was only half a metre wide providing barely enough room for one to sleep on their side.
The hostel was run by a sweet elderly lady. Her chubby little frame was wrapped in so many layers of clothing that she reminded me of the Michelin man. She was kind enough to prepare a large bowl of fried rice and meatball soup when we arrived. It was the hearty meal we needed to warm our bones and relax our minds. After dinner, we quickly prepared our bags and went straight to bed. It wasn’t yet nine o’clock but we had a very early start ahead of us.
Nervous about the long day to come, I didn’t sleep well. I tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable position. People entering or exiting the dorm often woke me up. I only managed about two solid hours before my alarm clock began to buzz at one in the morning.
Breakfast was simple, just fruit, bread and chocolate. It gave me a nice boost of energy but left my stomach in disarray. I had been dealing with stomach problems for a few days before leaving. The early morning jolt to my system did not help. Unable to relieve myself, I could only hope that there would be outhouses on the trail in the case of an emergency.
We double checked all of our belongings before we left. I had brought several layers of clothing, a poncho, a headlamp, gloves, medical supplies, water and lots of snacks. But I still couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was forgetting something. The doubts continued to linger.
At two on the dot, we set out into the cold dark night with only moonlight, headlamps and a brilliant starry sky to guide the way. The dry mountain air was refreshing. It reminded me of a late autumn evening back in my hometown of Calgary. Small animals stirred in the brush around us as we trudged down the road. They were likely just as uncertain as us as to what they hell we were doing on this mountain in the middle of night.
Three kilometres separated the hostel from the park entrance, most of which was downward sloping. I never enjoy beginning a hike on a descent. I knew every metre we descended was another metre we would ultimately have to climb again. By the time we reached the trailhead, one thousand seven hundred metres separated us from the peak.
We stopped for a moment at the entrance to stretch and take a commemorative photo. Then we set out on the trail proper. The first couple kilometres gently sloped upwards with only a few switchbacks. It was not terribly demanding. In fact, it felt more like a nice morning stroll. Once I got into a rhythm, my stomach settled and mind was put at ease. I finally allowed myself to relax. My climbing mates, however, were not enjoying the same serenity. They were having some serious difficulties with the incline. Every thirty minutes or so, we had to take a five or ten minute break. They huffed and hawed as if we were running a marathon. Perhaps having grown up next to the mountains, I was more accustomed to high altitude climate, but I really couldn’t understand how they could be having such trouble on what was undoubtedly the easiest part of the trek.
With twenty five kilometres of hiking still ahead of us, I tried to keep a steady pace of about two and a half kilometres an hour. This seemed reasonable if we actually wanted any chance of completing the hike before sunset. Every time I tried to pick up the speed, however, I heard cries from my comrades. “Man yidian… Tai kuai!” (slow down a bit… Too fast!). Our first real test of endurance, a series of steep switchbacks up a rocky slant, nearly killed them. I began to worry that there was no way we could complete the hike in time.
Eventually we came upon a patch of steep cliffs with only a narrow path cut from the surface of a sheer rock face. In the dead of night, it was difficult to determine the size of the cliffs. To our left, they stretched high above our heads, to our right was only a deep abyss. Our headlamps revealed nothing in the darkness. It was only later, after returning in the daylight, that I realized how dangerous this patch of trail actually was. Some sections were less than a metre wide and one slip in the wrong direction would have surely spelled disaster. There was nothing to stop us from tumbling several hundred metres down into the ravine below.
As the sun approached the horizon, our surroundings were slowly revealed. It was a truly stunning setting. An immense mountain range stretched out far below the trail. In between its peaks was a thick sea of mist which swirled about the tree line. In a few short moments, the sky turned from black to dark blue to all shades of orange and red. When the sun finally poked over the horizon, it caught the peaks of several mountains in the distance, painting them a golden yellow. We were caught off guard by the beauty of it all.
Unfortunately, we did not have much time to admire the scenery. Our group had fallen far behind schedule. We were averaging one and a half kilometres an hour. At this pace, it would be impossible to finish the hike in time. In fact, if we did not reach Paiyun before ten in the morning, the park rangers would not allow us to climb to the peak.
Furthermore, one member of our group started feeling ill. Xiao P had developed a bad headache and nausea. Although he did not want to admit it, these were clear signs of altitude sickness. It was an unfortunate turn of events, but we all expected at least one of us to come down with symptoms. The odds were not in our favour. Thus, we had brought along the best treatment available: Viagra. The doctors in Taipei had advised us to bring several caps of this wonder drug onto the mountain. In addition to providing a long lasting hard-on, apparently it also treats altitude sickness. Xiao P took a large dose and a long rest. When he felt a bit better, we slowly continued trekking, taking frequent breaks and constantly checking his status.
Unfortunately, the little blue pill did little to relieve his ailments. As we gained altitude, his condition quickly worsened. The look on his face expressed his discomfort. It became clear that it was not safe for him to continue. It was imperative that we turn back and get him to a lower elevation. If his symptoms continued to worsen, he could be in serious trouble.
My heart sank as I realized that this spelt the end of our attempt to climb Yushan. After so much build-up, it was disappointing to say the least. But safety comes first, and no one wanted to see a friend get seriously ill. Yo, Justin and I made the decision to slowly return to Tataka where better treatment was available. But Xiao P did not want to see everyone turn back. Instead, he suggested that we split into pairs. One team could continue climbing and the other could return to Tataka. We all agreed that this was the best way to handle the situation, but who would continue and who would accompany Xiao P back to the hostel? There was a short moment of silence before Yo stepped up and took the responsibility. He was unwavering in his decision. Even when I protested, he would not have it any other way. “This is your only chance to climb Yushan” he said. “I can come back next year.” It was a noble gesture. After all, it was his idea to climb Jade Mountain in the first place. I was only tagging along. But that’s just Yo. He is a truly selfless person.
Our two teams split ways at about half past seven. Justin and I still had a long uphill battle to make it to Paiyun by ten, but we were ready for the challenge. We picked up the pace and started eating up the kilometres. The higher we climbed, the more difficult the trail became. The gentle slope was replaced by several sections of steep switchbacks, narrow bridges and stone steps, but we maintained a good speed. Just after nine, we arrived at Paiyun with enough time to spare for some snacks and a rest.
The lodge was a barebones establishment. There was no food, no bottled water, no garbage cans and no electricity. Nonetheless, with another six hundred metres of climbing and a long journey back to Tataka ahead of us, one night in Paiyun sounded like a dream.
We only took thirty minutes to regain our composure before beginning the final ascent. We could see the summit, but the trail leading there posed a much greater challenge than the one from which we had come. Although only two and a half kilometres long, it was very steep and rugged. It began with a series of steep switchbacks which brought us above the tree line and out into the open sun. The temperature was no higher than ten degrees but the sub tropical rays were intense. I began tearing off layers of clothing to prevent over heating.
After one hour on the peak trail, my legs began to shake and my knees buckle. My head pounded and my stomach turned. Even with frequent breaks, the pain in my calves never subsided. I didn’t know whether these were symptoms of acute altitude sickness or simply the result of ten hours of hiking on two hours a sleep. In reality, it was likely a combination of both. But I was not about to give up only three hundred metres from the summit. I continued to push my flailing body upwards.
The last couple hundred metres were the most difficult of all. The terrain was very steep, rocky and devoid of vegetation. Chains driven into the cliff face were necessary to pull ourselves up steep inclines and over large boulders. Loose stones were a constant danger, for one slip could easily send us tumbling down the face of the mountain. I carefully stepped from one rock to another, gripping the chains for support, slowly gaining metre after metre. My legs were on fire and my mind was running on fumes. I could never seem to catch my breath in the thin atmosphere. But I forced myself to keep moving.
I became so lost in my own zone that the summit actually snuck up on me. I didn’t realize I was even close until I caught sight of Yushan’s commemorative stone a few steps away. Those final steps were the easiest of the entire journey. I knew I had finally made it. It was high noon, ten hours after we had left Tataka, and I was standing on the highest point in North East Asia.
It took me a second to grasp the beauty of my surroundings. A full three hundred a sixty degree turn revealed a dream like landscape. Layers of rocky peaks poked through the mist as far as I could see. Deep green forests filled the ravines between them. Puffy white clouds floated past us like sea creatures in an aquarium. We had climbed up into a little Taiwanese heaven.
We were lucky to arrive when we did. Since very few people attempt to climb Yushan in one day, thus arriving at the peak around noon, there wasn’t another climber in sight. Furthermore, only thirty minutes after reaching the summit, a thick mist enveloped the mountain, after which visibility was reduced to about a hundred metres. Had we taken any more any more time to reach the peak, the breathtaking view would have been completely obscured.
With limited time, we were only allowed a short break at the top before beginning our descent back to Tataka. Mist followed us the entire way, occasionally splashing us with rain. After our final push to the peak, my legs had been turned to jelly. I fought to get one in front of the other. My stomach growled with hunger, sick and tired of its recent diet of snickers bars, nuts and crackers. Having already conquered my lower extremities, pain invaded my back and shoulders. I struggled to stay alert but exhaustion was fast setting in. The lack of sleep was becoming more and more troublesome.
Despite these difficulties, we kept a good pace, reaching the trailhead at about five thirty. Unfortunately, the bus which transports exhausted hikers from the park entrance to Tataka had stopped service at five. As a result, we were forced to walk another three kilometres, most of which was uphill, to reach the settlement.
We arrived at the hostel at seven in the evening, a full seventeen hours after we had left. The hostel owner prepared for us a large delicious meal of rice, beef stew, cabbage, soup and dried fish. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. The food immediately soothed my aching head and growling stomach. After remaining motionless for a few minutes, however, my legs seized up significantly. I could barely get up from the table after the meal, I nearly fell over in the shower, and three attempts were necessary to reach my top bunk bed. The minute my head hit the pillow, I was out. I slept like a rock for eleven hours straight.
The following morning we started a long trip back to Taipei. Two buses were necessary to get out of the mountains to the city of Jiayi. From there, we caught a train north to the capital. The trip took eight hours total, leaving us in Taipei at dinner time. As exhausted as I was, I could not go straight to sleep. I had a Chinese test the following morning for which I was not prepared. Thus, I capped off my Yushan adventure with a long night of memorizing sentence patterns and stroke orders. It was an abrupt return to reality for which I was not fully prepared. Half way through the chapter, I fell into a deep sleep only to wake up ten hours later, still in pain and still exhausted.
Climbing Jade Mountain certainly wasn’t a walk in the park. I dealt with aches and pains for several days after returning. But the scenery and the adventure were worth the trouble. I recommend anyone who plans to visit Taiwan to work this mountain into your itinerary. Just remember to take two days to get to the top, not one.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 04:25 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

Cycling Taiwan

A Short Trip Around the Island

sunny 25 °C

My thighs felt like cinder blocks and my hips were on fire. A burning sensation dug deeper into my flesh with every turn of the pedal. I was soaked with sweat and fighting off dehydration. My stomach was growling with hunger. The sun was intense and, on the highway, there was no escaping it. The thick layer of sun block smothering my face was doing little to prevent my skin from turning a painful red. Instead, it traveled with perspiration down my forehead and into my eyes where it left a lasting sting. I was far from comfortable, however, these aches and pains seemed to slowly drift away in the wake of my surroundings. To my right, layers of immense forested mountains and steep cliffs climbed from the highway to the misty clouds above. To my left, the blue coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean stretched from the shore to the horizon. The windy road was dotted with small towns full of curious weather beaten faces. We often heard “Jiayou!” yelled from the porches of roadside homes or noodle shops as we passed through. It literally meant ‘add oil!’ and was the most common of the many gestures of encouragement we received from locals along the way. The mountain roads were back breaking but the scenery was spectacular and the people were friendly. This was bicycling Taiwan.
The inspiration for this journey came from Zoe, a girl I had met while traveling in Osaka almost a year before. We met again when she returned to her hometown of Taipei to visit family and friends. Over a late night beer at a dingy University pub, we discussed our Chinese New Year plans. She was going snowboarding in Japan. I told her I had two weeks off work but nothing to do. “Take my bike and bike around the island!” She said, half serious and half joking. Perhaps I was a little drunk at the time, but this sounded like a relaxing way to spend my vacation. I accepted her challenge and arranged to pick up her bike the following morning.
The initial idea was to bike all of Taiwan’s one thousand two hundred kilometre coast line. This overly enthusiastic plan was quickly downgraded to a much shorter trip down the East coast from Hualien to Taidung. My time was limited and biking over a thousand kilometres in twelve days meant four to eight hours on the road everyday. Being the turtle like traveler that I am, this was not really my style. I would bike what was heralded as Taiwan’s most beautiful area of coast line and utilize trains for the other legs of the journey.
I soon enlisted a friend to join me for ride. I had known Stephen and his girlfriend Kelsey since first arriving in Taiwan. They were a couple from New York with whom I hung out with quite a bit. With his laidback attitude and unique sense of humour, I was convinced Stephen would be a good travel mate. He only had five days off work but was making the most of it. He would meet me in Hualien, bike to Taidung over three days then return to Taipei.
Given the fact that we would be traveling over Chinese New Year, train tickets and hostels were tricky. Stephen ended up having to book a train leaving Taipei at five in the morning in order to make it work. But with only a couple days to spare before the holiday madness commenced, our plans were solidified and our tickets purchased.
My train left a grey and dreary Taipei at noon the following Tuesday and arrived in sunny Hualien only a couple hours later. It was my second trip to this small coastal city. On the first, I had spent only one night at a guesthouse and seen very little. This time, I gave myself three days to explore the seaside landscape and the nearby Taroko gorge.
My hostel was owned by a friendly brother sister duo. They were a couple of backpackers who had recently opened for business. The place was full of character. Sitting on the porch was a rescued chocolate lab who they had aptly named Kaluha. He waited patiently on the door step for travelers to return from the night markets with scraps of food. The hostel lobby boasted a large library and Japanese style pond. Inside the pond were many colourful carp and one unruly crab who refused to stay put. I remember the first time I met him. I was chatting with another traveler at the bar when I noticed a strange red creature waiting patiently under my bar stool, claws in the air and in attack position. We often found little bugger all over the building, hiding in under couches or scurrying across the bathroom floor.
Behind the bar, the two siblings whipped up drinks from a wide selection of bizarre spirits they had collected on their travels. Upon pouring a drink, they would always ask “Is it strong enough? If it’s not strong enough please tell me and I will add more!” It was always strong enough and they supplemented our drinks with free shots of whatever unique bottle of boos they had recently acquired. My first sample was from a bottle of polish vodka that was no less than 96% alcohol. It set my chest on fire for the remainder of the evening.
Hualien was just as laidback and friendly as the hostel. The people were much more receptive than in Taipei and locals often stopped to chat. The town did not have much to offer in terms of attractions. There were a couple temples and a half decent night market, but Hualien’s main draw was its proximity to Taroko National Park. I had been to the scenic area before but only for an afternoon. My plan was to rent a moto and spend a day exploring the gorge.
I had a friend who lived in Hualien named Jirou. I had met her in Taipei at a couchsurfing meeting a few weeks previous. She was a recent graduate who was preparing to teach Chinese in America. I sent her a message when I arrived and told her of my intentions of visiting Taroko. She told me not to bother with renting a moto as she had a car and could drive me through the gorge herself. I hardly knew her and was surprised by this generous offer. I jumped at the opportunity.
It was once again clear and sunny the following morning. The weather was a welcome relief from the dreariness I had been enduring in Taipei. Jirou arrived at the hostel at around ten in an old Honda accord. We stopped for breakfast at 7-11 before beginning the short drive to the park. From Hualien, the mountains of Taroko loomed large in the distance. They grew in height as we drew closer to the main gate. At the entrance, in between two steep slopes, a clear water river forced its way through the rugged landscape and emptied into the coastal waters. Inside the park, the scenery was spectacular. Layers of rugged peaks swiftly sloped down into the narrow blue rushing river below. Bright green vegetation clung to the mountainsides and sheer cliffs rose vertically in the gorge’s tightest squeezes.
Having a car, we were able to cover quite a bit of ground. Snaking around cliffs and through tunnels reminded me of driving through the Rockies in Canada. Jirou drove so fast it made it nervous. Once in a while, we parked the car to hike a small trail. Growing up in the area, my guide knew all the best spots. She took me to her favourites. The most impressive sight was a large cascading waterfall which tumbled over three steep cliffs before finally meeting with a pool of crystal blue water below. But this was only one of many picturesque areas we visited. We were forced to head back to town before sunset. After Jirou dropped me at my hostel, I spent and hour grazing the night market, grabbed a drink at the bar and got an early night. It had been a nice opening day to my trip.
Stephen arrived early the following morning, dead tired after a painfully early train ride. With a day to spare before we began our biking trip he took a long nap to recover. In the early afternoon, Jirou offered us free tickets to Hualien’s Farglory Ocean Park, a small seaside amusement park. Admission was pricey but she had a friend who worked at the door. It was neither mine nor Stephen’s idea of a fun afternoon but I felt bad refusing after Jirou had spent an entire day showing me around Taroko. Fortunately, the park was not as bad as expected. We watched a seal show, we battled each other in bumper boats and we rode the log ride. It was only when we were lined up for the children’s roller coaster that we realized we had exhausted the park’s opportunities for fun. With a long trip ahead of us, Stephen and I thanked Jirou for her hospitality, grabbed a quick dinner and got some sleep.
In the morning, we packed our bags, loaded up our rented bikes and strapped on our helmets. Stephen pulled on a pair of skin tight padded biking shorts as an added precaution. I didn't have the heart to tell him that they were nearly see-through in the sun.
Soon we were pedaling our way out of the city. The adventure had begun. As we came to our first traffic light, I noticed a broken down car parked on the side of the road. The front tire had exploded and was in strewn across the pavement. “Perhaps that’s a bad omen” I joked to Stephen pointing at bare rim. We both laughed. Little did we know how correct I was.
The sun was intense. I was sweating bullets by the time we reached the city limits. But the first stretch of highway was smooth and flat. We quickly found our rhythm and started eating up the kilometres. I was feeling confident when we reached our first obstacle, a steep climb over a mountain separating Hualien from the rest of the East Coast. We slowed to a snails pace as we winded our way up the hillside. It was far more difficult than I had anticipated. My confidence quickly waned as my thighs began to burn and my stomach turned. At every twist in the road, I expected to reach the summit but was disappointed but yet another incline. It was an hour before we reached the top with aching muscles and sweat drenched clothes. Our reward was a speedy descent back down to the coast. The wind on my face and neck felt great.
The scenery along the coast was spectacular. The mountainside terraces afforded stunning views. Layers of immense mountains hugged every kilometre of the shoreline. The water was bright blue and the vegetation deep green. Every ten kilometres or so we would find ourselves in another small village or town. Since we were traveling during Chinese New Year’s Eve, the shops were all closed but the streets were lined with families eating, drinking and laughing the afternoon away. The sounds of fireworks and firecrackers rang out everywhere. As we pedaled past family homes, we were greeted with waves, thumbs-ups and horns. These gestures of approval were always encouraging. They were a nice distraction from the fire burning in my legs and hips. This fire was spreading fast and showing no signs of letting up. I was doing my best to pedal through it but taken aback by how much difficulty I was having.
A few hours into the journey, while turning a sharp corner, Stephen popped his back tire on a patch of gravel. We had brought with us a spare tube, a pump and some tire irons but I had no idea how to change a flat. As Stephen showed me how to remove the tire and replace the broken tube, I realized how ill prepared I was for a long distance biking trip. I was, after all, originally planning to do it by myself. I was glad at least one of us knew what we were doing. It wasn’t long before we were back on the road. The short pit stop had given my legs time to organize a revolt. They responded to me remounting my bike with staunch stiffness and pain.
I trudged on and ignored the discomfort for as long as I could. Six hours after we had left Hualien, however, with still another hour to our destination, I began to run out of gas. I was gasping for air and struggling to keep pace. I didn’t understand why I was having so much trouble. In Taipei, I had been running and working out three times a week. I rode the fixed bike at the gym quite often and went hiking almost every weekend. Generally, I thought I was in pretty good shape. My bike was a bit too small for me and, since I was on a twelve day trip, I had quite a bit of weight in my backpack. Nonetheless, I felt as though riding a bike just shouldn’t have been so difficult.
Eventually I admitted my issues to Stephen who seemed to be fairing far better than I. He offered to take a look at my bike. He rode it down the street and back, jumped off and examined the wheel. “Your front tire is almost flat…” he said with a look which clearly conveyed what he was thinking: seriously dude? I was embarrassed by my negligence, relieved to know I wasn’t actually such a weakling and worried over what do about the flat.
Our options were limited. We had already used our spare tube on Stephen’s bike and none of the coastal towns had any bikes shops. Even if we did manage to find one, it would surely be closed for Chinese New Year. Luckily we still had a bike pump and our destination was less than twenty kilometres down the road. Our best option was to inflate the wheel and ride for as long as it would last. Once we reached a hotel we could worry about patching it. The pump was tiny. Each inflation required a few minutes of strenuous movement and only lasted only ten kilometres or so. Two pit stops were necessary before we reached Shitiping, a tiny fishing town which would serve as our overnight stop. It was another hour before we found an affordable place to stay. It wasn’t so much of a hotel as a house turned design studio. A mother, her two grown sons and a multitude of cats ran the joint. It was decorated with all sorts of interesting sculptures and paintings produced by the family. Attached was a small café where they whipped up specialty coffees and tasty breakfast. On the top floor were three small but comfortable rooms separated by thick curtains. That is where Stephen and I stayed.
Shitiping was set upon a stunning section of rocky coastline. The tiny town was built around a fishing port with a few guesthouses and family homes scattered along the shore. Since it was Chinese New Year, there was only one restaurant open in the middle of town. Amongst celebrating families sitting on little red stools, Stephen and I devoured fish braised in soy sauce and shared a plate of sashimi. Likely as a result of colonial Japanese influence, Sashimi with wasabi and white radish was a common sight along the East Coast of Taiwan. It was always fresh and delicious.
After dinner, we bought a few giant sparklers, cracked a couple beers and sat on the rocks next to the ocean. Red and white bursts of light could be seen all down the coastline. They were fireworks being set off in nearby towns. The stars were brighter than anywhere else I had been in Taiwan. In fact, I don’t think I had ever even seen a star Taipei. We didn’t last until the midnight countdown. After eight hours of biking underneath the baking sun, we were both pretty tired.
I woke up at six in the morning to watch the first sunrise of the lunar year. The sunburnt skin on face and arms was dry and painful. My legs were frozen stiff. Getting out of bed felt like an acrobatic stunt.
A crowd had already gathered on the rocks by the time I arrived on the seaside. A wall of clouds sat on the horizon. Once the sun managed to climb over it, the coastal vistas were well worth the wait. I sat there for more than an hour. Eventually elderly fishermen began to congregate around me on the shore. I took this as my queue to leave.
I met Stephen back at the guesthouse for a quick breakfast. Then we finally addressed the flat tire we had been ignoring since we arrived. The tube looked to be in pretty good shape when we removed it from the tire. We quickly found the leak, patched it, re-inflated the tire and assumed the problem was solved. Ten minutes later, however, the tire was flat once again. The patch had failed. We repeated the process but used five patches instead of one on the second attempt. If this didn’t work, nothing would. With fingers crossed, we hit the road an hour behind schedule.
The scenery on our second day was even more impressive than the first. The mountains were taller, the vegetation was thicker and the towns more interesting. The ride was much less painful too. A full tire made more of a difference than I could have imagined. We were moving at double the pace and enjoying the breeze of speed. That is until my tube failed again. I could feel the difference immediately. We stopped on the side of the road to assess the damage. I could hear the air spewing from the tube from outside the tire. Patching clearly was not working but we still had no spare tubes. Our only option was to inflate the tire and ride it as long as possible before stopping to inflate it again. It was frustrating and time consuming, but at least it gave me the chance to take more pictures.
We were also afforded a nice opportunity as a result of our troubles. My tire was nearly flat when we rolled into the small town of Daman. As I hopped off my bike and unscrewed the tire cap, I heard whistles and yells coming from a house across the street. A large family was inviting us to join them in their Chinese New Year celebrations. They greeted us on the porch with glasses of beer and Chinese whiskey. There must have been about thirty in the party. The women were dancing and the men were pouring back drinks. Some of them were totally wasted. Strewn across a couple tables was a smorgasbord of random meats and vegetables. They encouraged us to try it all. We chowed down on the sashimi and mountain goat stew. I did my best to communicate with those sitting next to me. Every time I answered a question we were rewarded with another glass of beer. Neither Stephen nor I wanted to get drunk but it was difficult to refuse. When I tried to explain that we still had a long day of biking ahead of us, they told us just to sleep in their house. A kind offer, but we politely refused. Before the next round of Chinese whiskey arrived, we made our exit, thanking them for their hospitality.
A short distance later, we were flagged down by a Taiwanese family who were parked on the side of the road. As we approached, we recognized a friend of ours from Taipei named Yo. He was vacationing with his family for Chinese New Year and was on his way to the same destination as us, a coastal town called Dulan. I thought this highway rendezvous was quite the coincidence. However, I quickly realized that there was only one road along the East Coast and, as two Caucasian bicyclists, Stephen and I stood out like sore thumbs (especially Stephen in those shorts). Anyone traveling down the coast for New Years was bound to see us at some point.
It took us another couple of hours to reach Dulan. It was not far but, in addition to our tire issues, Stephen developed a sharp pain in his ankle which only worsened as we approached the town. By the time we reached our hostel, he could barely walk. This did not bode well for our final leg of the journey the following day. With a warm bowl of noodles and a glass of whiskey, the stiffness in my legs subsided considerably. Stephen’s ankle, however, quickly worsened. We realized that he would not be able to ride the following day. There were plenty of local buses to transport Stephen but getting his bike to the rental shop in Taidung was another issue. Unsure of what to do, we gave our friend Yo a call. Fortunately, he jumped at the opportunity to finish the final leg of the journey with me. We agreed to meet the following morning. With the problem solved, we found a local bar and had a few more drinks.
Dulan was one of the more touristy stops on our journey. The town was small but clearly popular among foreign hippies and surfers. We had been told it was a good place to experience local aboriginal culture. However, most of this experience seemed to consist of paying to watch cultural performances. As it was Chinese New Year, the bars were busy and the streets were alive. Local families drank and set of fireworks from their porches while circles of hippie foreigners played bongos and sang kumbaya. I wasn’t really sure what I thought of this scene. Tired from the biking, I went to bed too early to get involved.
Yo was waiting outside our hotel when we woke up the following morning. He had been patiently waiting for over an hour. We gobbled down some egg pancakes for breakfast before hitting the road. It was a short travel day. Taidung was only twenty kilometres away. Over that distance, however, Yo managed to take enough footage with his iPhone to make an epic little movie which he sent to me a few days later. It highlighted the coastal scenery and holiday traffic.
We arrived in Taidung just after noon. With plenty of time to spare before I had to catch a train, Yo suggested that we drink some 7-11 beers and chill on the sidewalk. I had hung out with Yo quite a few times in Taipei but had never conversed with him one on one. He was an interesting person to talk to. I quite enjoyed our time spent aimlessly walking around town chatting about travel, music and girls.
We made it to the train station mid afternoon. Stephen was already waiting for us when we arrived. As he was on his way back to Taipei, Yo was going to Hualien, and I was continuing my trip south, it was time for us to say goodbye. I thanked Stephen for being an easygoing travel mate and thanked Yo for stepping in for us in a pinch. Then I jumped on a train bound for Kaohsiung. With the biking section of my trip finished, my legs were already in rebellion from what I had put them through.
I arrived in Kaohsiung after dark and took the MRT to my hostel. The place felt more like a fancy penthouse flat than a hostel. There was large flat screen TVs, cushy leather sofas and bowls of free candy in the common room. The bathroom included a rain shower and a stone trough sink. After dropping my bags in the dorm, I went straight to the closest night market to fill my empty stomach. It was packed during Chinese New Year and difficult to navigate but I found a few interesting treats. My favourite was a giant deep fried dumpling about the size of my fist filled with spices, vegetables and meat. Once I had my fill of snacks, it took me more than a half hour to find my way out of the maze of stalls and hoards of people.
Back at the hostel I met an Aussie traveler named Tim who was hanging out in Kaohsiung while his girlfriend was finishing her PhD. Since his girlfriend was out of town doing field work, Tim was alone and invited me to join him at his favourite local watering hole, a late night rocker bar called fusion. It was a fun little joint but I was tired and fading fast. After a couple beers, I had to call it a night.
My head was pounding and my legs were stiff when I woke up the next morning. Instead of drinking two giant beers, I really should have drunk two giant waters the night before. But it was a beautiful sunny day and I felt ridiculous wasting it in doors. Eventually I mustered up the strength the wander around the harbour side. Kaohsiung was far more interesting than I had anticipated. I was expecting a big dirty port city. Instead I found a lively metropolis full of art districts and seaside walkways. Random statues, galleries and street art could be found all over the downtown area. The city was far more laidback, sunny and open than Taipei. In contrast to the capital, I felt like there was plenty of room to breath. I spent most of the afternoon slowly strolling from one place to the next with no apparent destination. When four o’clock rolled around, I went back to the hostel for a nap.
I was awoken from my slumber by a text from a Kaohsiung local who went by the name Tweety. I had posted on the local couchsurfing website earlier that day asking if anyone was interested in going to a night market. I guess Tweety was. We met in the early evening. She was a tiny little woman who taught Chinese in a private Kaohsiung school. She took me first to a local lantern festival and then to her favourite night market. It was called Wufu and was full of Kaohsiung specialities. We gorged ourselves on all sorts of random eats. There were quite a few seafood dishes I had never seen before. Unable to shake the headache that had plagued me all day, however, I returned to the hostel quite early to get some sleep. I guess the bike trip had taken more out of me than I realized.
I felt much better the following day. The aches and pains had subsided and I was no longer fatigued. With a little more power in my step, I decided to venture over to Cijin Island, a long piece of land running parallel to the downtown core. It was far busier than I imagined. The line up for the ferry was nearly a kilometre long. Thousands of Chinese tourists, all brandishing large cameras and colourful hats had the same idea as me. Without the crowds, the island would have been quite relaxing. There was a decent beach, a long street filled with local seafood and a hill top lighthouse. But there were just too many people to really enjoy it.
When I returned to the hostel a large group of thirty something year old locals had congregated in the common area. The owner of the establishment was among them. They were having a reunion. The group had graduated high school together more than ten years previous and held this party once every year to commemorate. I was invited to join the festivities. There was food, beer and wine. They cycled through a list of drinking games they used to play when they were younger. Some were fun, others were strange. I always seemed to loose regardless. They disbanded at around ten as most returned home. Soon after, I received a text from Tweety inviting me to go drink with her and her friend.
I met them at a British pub called “Bottoms Up” for a beer. It was a dingy place with a long wooden bar and posters of classic British rock bands on the wall. From there we proceeded to hop down the street from one bar to the next. Most establishments were small and lacked class. The patrons were mostly weathered-looking old expats. It was not the most exciting atmosphere but we made the most of it. We forced tired bartenders to crank up the tunes so we could dance amongst the tables. We were rewarded with a few free shots for our efforts. It ended up being a surprisingly fun night.
I slept in as late as was possible before catching my eleven o’clock train. I was bound for Tainan, the last stop of my trip. It was only a short ride north of Kaohsiung. I arrived just after noon and waited in the sun amongst the palm trees in front of the station for my couchsurfing host to arrive.
Couchsurfing is a network of travelers and hosts who apply for and/or offer free places to stay around the world. I had decided to give it a try in Tainan. I thought, of all the places I was visiting, it would be the best city to have a host. The former capital was quite small but supposed to have some of the best street food in all of Taiwan. I assumed having a little local knowledge would go a long way. I applied to four or five locals but only one responded. Her name was Acid Lin and she was a twenty year old art student who lived with her family in nearby Madou. With a name like ‘Acid’ I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I be spending my three days in Tainan lost in an inebriated daze? No. Instead Acid kept me in a mind altered state without any mind altering substances.
Upon arriving at the station, she greeted me with a smile and a big hug. I felt like I was meeting an old friend who I hadn’t seen in ages. We quickly delved into a conversation about travel and living abroad. For a girl of only twenty, I was immediately impressed by her many profound insights. When she said “Travel is more about the people you meet than the places you go”, I knew we were going to get along well.
She took me to the flat where I would be staying. It belonged to a friend of hers who had returned to France for the holiday. It was a large space with interesting décor. The guy had red ceiling lights, a mannequin hanging from the roof and an old arcade game from the eighties in the corner. We spent the entire afternoon on the couch listening to music and chatting about life. In those first few hours, I felt a strange connection with this girl. It was like we already knew each other quite well. We were constantly finishing each others sentences. We must have met each other in a past life.
After sunset, she took me to a local night market called Dadong where I had my first taste of Tainan street food. It was just as delicious as expected. Most of the recipes were similar to those in Taipei, but with a twist. The twist typically involved more sugar. Deep fried chicken breasts which would be dry and peppered in Taipei were slathered in a rich sweet dressing in Tainan. Noodles that would be soft and salty Taipei were crunchy and sweet in Tainan. We stayed there for hours sampling all sorts of random bites. As midnight approached, Acid caught the train back home and I returned to the flat to get some rest.
Early the following morning, I strapped on my shoes, grabbed my camera and set out into Tainan to explore. The city was a wanderer’s paradise. Like Kaohsiung it was warm and sunny. There were temples and shrines everywhere. Even little back alleys in remote neighbourhoods seemed to have a small place of worship. I think I saw more temples in Tainan than in all the rest of Taiwan combined. It was difficult to walk more than a few blocks without stumbling upon some market or food street. The selection of restaurants was bewildering.
What I found most intriguing about the city, however, was its vibrant street art. There was beautiful graffiti, murals and random drawings all over the sides of buildings, underground passages and concrete pillars. They were more than just simple tags or names. Some artists had painted entire stories on a wall. Pockets of street art seem to pop up just about anywhere, even around temples where the juxtaposition of traditional against modern art was quite interesting. I remember one hidden courtyard in which I stumbled upon a large yellow submarine on wheels. Someone had built it and left it there as a blank canvas.
I must have walked around for more than eight hours before finally returning to the flat. Acid arrived soon after me. She was hungry and she took me to a local restaurant, well-known among the student crowd, for onion pancakes and local dumplings. Every restaurant, food stall or hole in the wall we visited was delicious. Later in the evening we went to an artsy little pub hidden away in a back alley for a couple beers. We talked about all sorts of things, from photography techniques to reincarnation. There were no awkward silences with Acid. When the bar thinned out, we went back to the flat to share music and continue the conversation.
The following morning she took me to a local market to try coffin bread, one of Tainan’s most famous dishes. It was a thick piece of fried toast filled with a creamy mixture of chicken, squid and vegetables. She explained to me that they call it coffin bread because the fried portion looks like a coffin and the creamy portion looks like rotting flesh. Despite the disturbing mental picture, the meal was excellent. From the restaurant Acid took off to a job interview while I continued wandering the streets. I made an old sea side district named Anping my target for the day but got lost on the way. Somehow I ended up at a naval yard. At least I was allowed to walk around on one of the battleships.
When I finally reached Anping it was late afternoon and my legs were pretty tired from all the walking. The district was far too touristy for me anyways. I just caught a bus back to the flat to take a nap. I met Acid at the train station later in the evening. She had one more night market to show me. It was called The Flower Garden and was Tainan’s most renowned. Many of the stalls were similar to those in Dadong but we managed to try a few new treats. My favourite was a doughy pancake fried with egg, onion and meat. This is a common snack throughout Taiwan but the one in Tainan was a little sweeter and heartier. After one hour of grazing, I was stuffed. We found refuge from the market crowds on the patio of a 7-11 where we drank beers and chatted. Time always seemed to fly with Acid. We missed the last bus home and ended up having to cab it back to the flat. We spent our last night exchanging music and stories on the living room floor.
My train left at about eleven the following day. Acid accompanied me to the station. Like our time together, our goodbye was brief. I gave her a hug and thanked her for showing me her little corner of Tainan. I was sad to be leaving but I had the feeling I would be seeing her again one day.
The train pulled away from Tainan and began rumbling its way north to Taipei. As I peered out the window at all the passing neighbourhoods, I remember feeling like a backpacker again. In the year since I had finished my journey around Asia, I had almost forgotten that feeling. I missed it. There was nothing quite like it. Living in Taipei was one thing, but nothing compared to the freeing experience of pure uninhibited travel. It’s like a drug that takes hold of you and leaves you forever an addict. Nothing is ever really the same again. It haunts your daily routines constantly injecting that little thought into your mind: I could be traveling right now…. I got my fix for now but how long would it last.
I assume another trip around Taiwan lies in the near future. I can’t stay off the road for too long and I am living in the middle of truly fantastic backpacker territory. This island is a hidden gem. The people are very polite, friendly and welcoming. The East coast is stunning, full of adventure activities and still relatively undeveloped. The cities are big enough to keep you entertained but not so big to be frustrating. The island is small but well connected by an efficient yet cheap transportation system. Outside of Taipei, there are few western travelers diluting the local culture. And perhaps most importantly for me, the street food is amazing. What’s not to love?

Posted by bradenelsewhere 20:23 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

Credits

If there is one lesson I learnt while backpacking, it’s that the experience is more about the people you meet than the places you go. Only when traveling can you make a best friend in a week. So a big thanks to all the friendly, funny, kind, caring, honest, warm hearted, open minded, odd, adventurous, dynamic, down to earth, modest, laidback, sarcastic, energetic, brave, passionate, independent, ambitious, outgoing, outrageous, outlandish and downright weird people I made friends with along the way. Here is a random selection of quotes for you all that I collected during my travels. They will probably only make sense to the individual who spoke them but… whatever.
“Donkeyville” – Dana
“What are those groundhogs called? Groundhogs?” – Rachel
“These aren’t even my clothes” – Ben
“If we go to Canada, I think they will put him in the zoo.” – Zul
“This temple is nice because its fat person proof” – Random
“China: The customer is not always right…” – Braden
“Lets go find a stinki schlumpa” – Sascha
“Three million people died today when Singapore was covered in twenty seven feet of snow… all at once.” – Singapore Hippie
“I tell you what, Africa!... What the fuck?” – Sophies
“I think everyone is strange in their own way. And yet some people spend their whole lives trying to hide it… I think this is the most strange part.” – Rains Ng
“Julie, stand down! Minsung, finish him!” – Amanda
“If I got this fat on tofu and vegetables Id be pissed” – Kevin
“I go to bars but only for milk shakes” – Zhuqi
“Before we go to the killing fields, we have to have a snickers pancake.” – Braden
“A little bit of old advice that will get you fucked for sure. Wear those santa hats.” – Bruce Lee
“Lets go down to electric avenue and crotchrub.” – Roger
“I popped a lot of shit when I saw your face man” – Yahia
“Lets all come to work on Monday wearing sandals, short shorts and a tie.” – Jim
“Get your balls on!” – Joanne
“Why you not fat?” – Ling Li Na
“Teacher, may I have a hello kitty?” – Yerin
“Lets just burry them all.” – Spring
“It’s a great feeling to be as uncomfortable as you has ever been in your life and as content as you have ever been in your life at the same time.” – Braden
“Right there man. People are happy, people are sad, people are healthy, people are dying… Fuck… the world man.” – Yahia

Posted by bradenelsewhere 22:52 Archived in Canada Comments (1)

The End... For Now

sunny 20 °C

As I gazed out over the snow capped mountains which hug the west coast of Canada I knew I was almost home. I hadn’t slept in two days and yet I didn’t feel tired. A slideshow of memorable moments from the last two years, both good and bad, raced through my mind taking precedence over my body’s cries for sleep.
I was having mixed feelings about returning home. I was grateful for all the things I had experienced in Asia but perhaps not ready to leave it behind. I was excited to see a family I had not seen in far too long but dreading the thought of returning to the real world. It was all very confusing.
As the plane taxied into the terminal I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some eager Japanese backpacker onboard just beginning his adventure in the west as I was concluding mine in the east. Instead of feeling nostalgic and confused he would be nervous and excited, full of expectations which would soon be thwarted and limits which would soon be tested. If there was such a person onboard, I envied him. I hoped to be in his shoes again one day soon.
I know my stay in Canada will not be long. For the time being, I am hooked on life abroad. If you have followed this blog, I don’t think it should be not hard to understand why. The sights are mind blowing, the culture intriguing and the people extraordinary. It challenged me in ways I never expected. It allowed me the opportunity to connect with some truly inspiring individuals. It altered my perspective on life and forced me to reconsider what is significant and meaningful. It broke me down both physically and mentally then rebuilt me.
It taught me so much about myself and what I am capable of. It taught me how to go slow and enjoy the journey as much as the destination, in life and in travel. It trained me in the art of patience and presence of mind. It showed me how to avoid quick judgements and expectations. Quite simply, the experience is something that has changed me for the better.
I guess every adventure has to come to an end sometime. We all must eventually return to reality. No journey can last forever. But now that this journey is over, the only question left is where to go next…

Posted by bradenelsewhere 22:51 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Couchsurfing in Japan

sunny 16 °C

I have always had an interest in Japan. For an ethnically homogenous island nation which has remained isolated for much of its pre-World War history, Japan has managed to export its culture throughout the world. Japanese restaurants line our streets, Japanese idioms have infiltrated our languages, Japanese technology fills our homes and Japanese design has made a marked impression on the things we build and wear. When I booked my ticket to Tokyo, I was curious to explore the inter workings of this culture exporting machine.
Even though my home in China was only a short distance from Tokyo, I had avoided traveling to Japan due to several accounts of backpacker killing prices. Apparently just a simple dorm bed in central Tokyo could cost upwards of $25, more than my entire daily budget in a developing country. Nonetheless, if I kept my travel distances to a minimum and utilized my couchsurfing account then I figured I could make a few weeks in Japan manageable on a backpacker budget. Due to small living spaces and long working hours, finding a couch to crash on in Japan is not easy, but I took the time to apply to many hosts and managed to organize a couch (or at least a floor) in every destination I was to visit before I even landed in the country. It was going to save me bundles but saving money wasn’t the only reason for finding hosts. To be honest, I was not particularly interested in temple hopping. I was more interested in Japanese culture. Staying with locals would provide interesting insights into typical Japanese life.
After a comfortable overnight flight from Jakarta I landed in Tokyo just as the sun was rising but I had to wait until the evening to meet my first couchsurfing host. So with a day to kill I threw my bags into a coin locker and set out to explore the city.
My initial impression of Tokyo was that it felt completely different from China or South East Asia. For a metropolis of over thirty million, many of Tokyo's districts feel quite quaint. I rarely encountered a traffic jam and the sidewalks were not particularly crowded. Few Japanese were outside save for a couple people walking their dogs. I guess everyone was at work.
The narrow streets of smaller neighborhoods just outside city center were lined with tiny cafes and sushi shops, many of which allowed only enough seating space for three or four patrons. Old temples and small green parks dotted the landscape. As I moved into more developed areas, I encountered larger more modern buildings, lots of bright neon signs and tree lined boulevards. The architecture and city layout took on a more futuristic element but it was not the futurism I was expecting from Japan. It was the sort of retro futurism. The technology was advanced but the design reminded me of the set of some ultramodern movie made back in the 1980s. Bubbled glass, colourful lights and shiny metal walls were common. Blade Runner came to mind. The thing I found most interesting, however, was the strong emphasis on detail. Everything, from the buildings to the parks to the table cutlery, was designed down to the smallest element to be both aesthetically pleasing and functionally efficient. I had never seen anything quite like it. Everything was beautiful in its own practical way.
After absorbing this initial impression, I returned to Nippori station to gather my things and meet my host Yuki who had just finished work. Of the fifteen people I applied to in Tokyo, Yuki was the only one who accepted my request. I really could not have found a better host. Yuki is a genuinely kind young woman who really seemed to care about my experience in Tokyo. Before I had even arrived she had read my blog and brainstormed various activities she thought I would enjoy during my stay. As is the case with most Japanese, her living arrangements were modest. She had only a small room with a bed and barely enough space to fit an extra futon. But even though her space was limited, she kindly allowed me to sleep on the futon for four nights.
After I dropped my bags at her place, we went out to find some food. She knew all the best cheap eats in her neighbourhood and we ended up at a popular sushi joint where you order from a computer attached to the table then snag your sushi as it passes by on a mobilized track. High tech shit. Each plate was only $1, one hell of a deal for Tokyo. We got to know each a little better over dinner before we went back to the apartment so I could finally get some much needed rest.
The following morning Yuki went to work and I set out to further explore Tokyo. While my initial impression of Tokyo was focused more on layout and design, my second excursion into the city was focused more on its inhabitants. Everyone I encountered was extremely polite. People often greeted each other by repeatedly apologizing for some small mishap. I heard ‘sumimasen’ (excuse me) far more often than ‘konnichiwa’ (hello). Simple rules seemed to dominate daily conduct. Everyone kept to their own personal space, lined up properly when necessary and religiously obeyed all signs and traffic signals. I never once encountered a J-walker. Even if there was only a narrow one lane street with no cars in the vicinity, the Japanese would not cross until the little man turned green.
Everyone appeared to be in a hurry to get somewhere. The few who did seem to have a little free time took part in one of several bizarre past times. Some shamelessly read graphic anime pornography in full view of those around them while others walked down to one of the city’s small rivers to a fenced enclosure where they could pay a small fee to fish for carp in the middle of the city. It was a catch and release system.
The fashion was also out of the ordinary. In the more youthful districts, woman dressed like hipster school girls. In the high class areas everyone looked super chic and stylish and in the business districts I rarely saw a man not wrapped in a dark black suit.
In my worn Levi jeans, ripped shirt and dusty brown cap, I certainly had the feeling I was a little underdressed for Tokyo when I returned Yuki’s apartment that night. Unfortunately, my vanity was no the only thing that was damaged. I had also developed a sharp pain in my left knee which had demobilized me by the end of the day. I thought a good night sleep and a couple of IB Profen would do the trick but I was wrong. The random pain ended up staying with me for the rest of my trip and slowed me to a limp for much of it. But even if I had to hobble instead of walk, I only had 18 days in Japan and I was not going to stop exploring now.
So the next day I loaded up on painkillers, bought a Tokyo metro pass and set out into the city once again. The expensive metro pass decreased my walking distances but increased my stress level. The Tokyo transportation system is probably the most extensive in the world but it is not the easiest to figure out. There are countless overland and subway lines which are run by several different companies. If you buy a ticket for one company’s trains, you cannot use it on another’s. It’s not like typical metro systems were you just need to buy a ticket for the subway and can transfer anywhere you like. In Tokyo, in order to buy a ticket you have to find the closest line, figure out the transfers necessary to make it to your destination without using any other subway company’s lines, then calculate your fare using a massive fair table posted above the ticketing machines. This system is just one example of how Tokyo can be likened to a big super computer. It’s huge, complicated, and takes time to understand, but once you have trained yourself in how to use it, it is incredibly fast and efficient.
Having the metro pass allowed me to explore many different areas of the city in a short time. I soon came to understand how every district of Tokyo has its own unique flavour and feel. I started in Shiodome, a high class business district next to the water. Unfortunately, it was a cold rainy morning and I only spent an hour or so enjoying the sophisticated architecture before I was forced to find refuge in the Subway station. Thankfully, the weather improved as I rode the subway to Shibuya, Tokyo’s hip youthful area and likely my favourite district in the whole metropolis. The buildings aren’t huge like in Shiodome, but they are more unique. The immediate area around the train station is home to a cool restaurant and nightlife scene packed full of more trendy joints and neon lights than you can imagine. In the surrounding area trendy artists, skateboarders and dancers occupy small green parks sandwiched between tree lined boulevards to hone their respective crafts. I happily spent a few hours hobbling from place to place and absorbing the atmosphere.
In the late afternoon I returned to Nippori station to meet Yuki who had just finished work. It was Friday night and Yuki had the following two days off so we hit up Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most developed nightlife districts, for some darts and drinks. At a small bar on the 8th floor of an office building, we ate edamame and ordered cocktails from an Ipad perched on our table. I was a little buzzed and Yuki was nearly falling asleep when we caught the last train back to Nippori at midnight.
After a good night sleep we awoke early enough to catch breakfast at Tsukiji market. Tsukiji is one of the world’s largest fish markets and it’s quite common for tourists to catch a sight of the early morning catch around 5AM. Yuki and I were satisfied with showing up at around 9AM to get a fresh sushi breakfast from one of the market restaurants. I’m not going to pretend I could actually taste the difference in freshness but it was definitely good sushi.
After breakfast, we took the subway to Asakusa to see Senso-ji, Tokyo’s most famous temple. It was big and beautiful but too busy to enjoy. From the temple we took the bus to the base of Tokyo’s brand new sky tree, the tallest tower and second to tallest structure in the world. The observation deck was not worth the price tag so we just admired the giant building from the base until the rain forced us into the metro and back to Yuki’s apartment. My knee was bothering me and it was too rainy to explore so Yuki and I decided to stay in for the evening. I taught her a little guitar and we rented a movie.
The weather did not improve the next morning. Neither of us wanted to brave the cold so we spent the morning at a modern art gallery. I’m not really into the modern art thing but there was an exhibition on the evolution of industrial design in post war California which was actually quite interesting. After we were sufficiently sophisticated we walked to Roppongi, the foreigner district of Tokyo and home to a slew of international restaurant chains. We finished the afternoon by taking the elevator to the top of the Bunkyo municipal building. We only had a half hour at the observation deck to enjoy the view before I had to grab my things and head for the train station to catch a bus to Kyoto. Thank god Yuki came with me since the bus actually picked up at some random intersection a few blocks away from Tokyo station and I would never have found it on my own.
As I boarded the bus I thanked Yuki for her hospitality. She had been a great host during my stay and really added to my experience in the city. I then settled into my seat and prepared for an eight hour overnight ride to Osaka. Luckily, I was seated next to a friendly Australian traveler who had both a Gameboy and an Ipad. He was engrossed in the Gameboy and let me use the Ipad to watch movies. I was able to complete The Hobbit and few TV shows before we arrived in Kyoto at around 6AM. My host in Kyoto worked late and could not meet until 10PM so I had a lot of time to kill. I hadn’t slept on the bus so I put my backpack in a coin locker and found a nearby park to take a long nap. When I awoke a few hours later, I took a stroll around the center of Japan’s former capital.
Kyoto is a small relaxed city but due to its wealth of historical sights it attracts hoards of tourists. The city is a patchwork of small apartment buildings, old thatch-roofed wooden homes and some modern high class shopping areas. Thousands of ancient shrines, temples and parks are scattered throughout the town and its surrounding hillside districts. It would take weeks to explore them all and I had neither the time nor the money. Instead, I paid to see only a couple temples then spent the majority of my time walking the city, its parks and its shrines, all of which are free. I also spent quite a bit of time at Kyoto Station, an incredible piece of modern architecture. The station itself is full of photo opportunities and the roof has a nice garden which offers nice views over the city.
After sixteen hours of aimlessly exploring, I was finally able to meet my host, a friendly recent graduate named Manami who works a ridiculous schedule. She was not able to meet me until 10PM since she works sixteen hours a day six days a week. Everyday she left her home at 6AM and often did not return until after 10PM. This astounded me but I would soon come to understand that this type of work schedule is not that unusual in Japan. Given her crazy hours, I was not able to spend a lot of time with Manami but she generously gave me the key to her small apartment and told me to come and go as I like. I was amazed someone as busy as her still opened her small home to travelers in need. I hope she is shown the same courtesy when she travels the world.
After a long and well needed sleep, I found a cheap bento box for breakfast then started walking north towards Ginkakuji (The Golden Pavilion). This gold covered pavilion is Kyoto’s biggest draw and it certainly deserves the attention. The temple is small but shimmers with a coating of pure gold leaf and sits next to a beautiful Japanese garden amid colourful hills.
After snapping a ton of pictures of the temple I made my way to Arashiyama, a forested district north of Kyoto where many beautiful temples and parks can be found. The area had a nice mountain setting and a thick bamboo forest, but all of the temples were too expensive to enter. When I had my fill of nature walking, I bussed back to Kyoto and ate fried pork cutlets at a Japanese style diner before going to bed.
The following morning was dark and wet. I did not want to explore the countryside in the rain so I made my way to Gion, Kyoto’s old geisha district. The small neighbourhood was beautiful in the rain as the wet stone streets reflected their ancient surroundings. Occasionally, I would see a geisha, her face painted white and dressed in a colourful kimono, scurry from one beautiful old wooden building to another. The attention to detail in the design of these aged wooden buidlings was amazing. Everything from the windows ceils to the flower gardens were attractive and well maintained. When night had fallen, I bussed down to Kyoto’s main night life street. The neon laden alley followed a small river lined with cute pubs, chic restaurants and strip clubs. I did not have any intention of drinking. I was just curious. Beers started at $8 a piece anyways.
The weather improved the next day so I caught a morning train to Nara, Japan’s ancient capital before Kyoto. Once again I had several hours to wait before I could meet my host so I went straight to Nara park where most of the city’s attractions are concentrated. The park is thousands of years old and is home to many of Japan’s most important historical sights along with hundreds of deer which have far become too accustomed to humans. The area was full of cherry blossom trees, lakes, pagodas and gardens. The main attraction was the Daijo-ji Temple, the largest wooden building in the world which houses the largest brass Buddha in the world. Both the temple and Buddha were very impressive but overrun by loud Japanese school groups. I found refuge from the busloads of kids in the many peaceful gardens and canals surrounding.
When evening came I made my way to Heijo station to meet my hosts. A smiling middle aged woman with a beige Japanese akita named Tan was waiting for me. Her name was Ayako and she led me through a neighbourhood of old style Japanese homes to a cute bungalow. The house was small but cozy and had matted white walls dissected by thin symmetrical wooden beams. When I used the washroom I was a little intimidated by their high tech toilet. It had a heated seat, an electronic control box which performed various cleaning functions and an automatic tap which dispensed water to wash one’s hands when it was flushed.
Ayako could not speak very much English but her husband Toru, who spoke English well, soon arrived home from his job as a social studies teacher. Like most Japanese, he had just finished a twelve hour work day. After I had settled into the guest room I joined Toru and Ayako in the living room. I noticed a sign taped to one of the houses wooden support beams which brandished a Canadian flag and read Welcome Braden. It was a very nice gesture. We sat on the ground of the living room floor, our legs kept warm under a small heated table which had a thick blanket attached. Since the house had no heating, this was how they kept warm in the winter. Ayako watched a manga cartoon about zombies while Toru and I got to know each other.
After a little small talk Toru declared that it was time to start drinking. He opened the fridge to reveal three different brands of Japanese beer and a couple bottles of sake. He then turned to me and stated his two house rules.
First, the guest must help himself to whatever food and drink he pleases during his stay and second, the more the guest eats and drinks, the more honoured the guest.
We both smiled broadly as I opened a can of Asahi lager and Toru poured himself a large glass of sake. Ayako soon appeared with a large bottle of Kirin, a plate of seared tuna sashimi and a bowl of edamame. We chatted about life in Canada and traveling in Asia while we ate and drank.
Once we had polished off the appetizers and a few beers each, Ayako returned to the kitchen where she put on a pair of surgical gloves and prepared a delicious meal of pan fried pork cutlets, mixed greens with mandarin dressing, tofu and miso soup. It was one of the best meals of my Japanese adventure. We watched a few bizarre Japanese TV shows before hitting the hay. Stuffed full of Japanese food, beer and good conversation, I slept very well that night.
When I awoke the next day Toru had already gone to work. Ayako took me on a quick tour of the neighbourhood then I wondered into downtown Nara. I spent most of the day exploring the ancient neighbourhoods surrounding Nara park which were full of temples, craft shops and cafes. I came across a local micro brewery and purchased a bottle of cherry blossom sake for Toru and Ayako before returning to their home at dusk.
Our evening was quite similar to the one previous. Once Toru returned home we all started drinking. Ayako made each of us a large sashimi rice bowl topped with pieces of salmon tuna and fish eggs for dinner.
I’m sorry, it is to difficult for us to make proper sushi
, Toru said as Ayako placed the large bowl of fresh fish, a salad and a miso soup in front of me. Not only were these two kind souls giving me a place to sleep, they were cooking me fantastic Japanese food then apologizing for it. They were too generous. After dinner Toru requested that I play them a couple songs on the guitar before bed. I gladly obliged.
I said goodbye to Toru and Ayako as they left for work the next morning and thanked them for their extraordinary courtesy. I showered, gathered my things and I caught a midday train to Osaka. As is typical in Japan, more than half of the train passengers were asleep. Some were sleeping standing up, others with their head between their knees. One girl feel asleep on my shoulder then, as if she possessed some internal arrival warning system, jumped up as soon as we reached her stop and exited the train without missing a beat. For someone who can’t even sleep on a train much less wake up promptly when required, I found this all pretty impressive.
I arrived in Osaka mid afternoon and, once again, had several hours to waste before I could meet my host. It was a beautiful day so I just wondered the city. Osaka felt quite different from Tokyo. It was a little busier and less organized. The people were a little friendlier but dressed crazier. I stumbled upon a youthful area called Amerika mura (America Village) where Osaka’s peculiar fashions were on full display. Goths, skateboarders, hipsters, hip hop MCs, Barbie girls, emos… you can find it all in Amerika mura. It’s like Halloween everyday down there. I ate one of Japan’s favourite snacks, doughy octopus balls covered in various sauces, as I people watched. Since it was a holiday everyone was in the streets drinking with friends, buying up the latest fashions and enjoying the nice weather. It was also one of the few places in Japan where I had a few locals approach me for a little broken conversation. The whole vibe was pretty fun and interesting.
The vibe changed as I moved into Umeda, Japan’s business district. The buildings were more imposing, the people more hasty and the atmosphere far more serious. After sunset I made my way to Dontonburi, a busy nightlife district plastered from head to toe with colourful neon lights and signs. It’s an amazing sight at night. My host was waiting for me at an Irish pub nearby where a couchsurfing meeting was being held. It was there that I met the majority of the people I would end up hanging out with during my stay in Osaka. First there was Shu, my excellent host who always seems to have something interesting planned and Zoey, a Taiwanese born kiwi who had recently moved to Osaka to teach kindergarten. We bonded over our similar experiences teaching cute little Asian kids. There was a Belgium party animal named Michael who was in Osaka for a month to learn a little Japanese and tear rip up the dance floor of every club. A friendly local woman named Aya joined us. She had such a youthful demeanour and appearance that I swore was younger than me. She was actually 38 years old. And finally, we had a Spaniard with us named Ivan, a romantic intent on finding himself a Japanese girlfriend. We got to know each other over some Kirin stout on the eighth floor rooftop patio of Dublin's Irish Pub. Since Osaka`s subway close at midnight, as the night wore on we had to make a decision to go home or stay out until sunrise when the subway starts again. Our small crew opted for a party so we searched out an underground hip hop club and danced until they kicked us out at closing time.
Since we didn’t get back to Shu`s place until about 7:30AM, we slept quite late the next day. Shu had some business to take care of in the afternoon so I met Zoey at the Umeda Sky Building to catch the sunset from the observation deck. We chatted about life in kindergarten and enjoyed the view before meeting Shu for sushi and beers.
The next day Shu organized a large group of couchsurfers to meet at a local festival. The festival had something to do with boys becoming men and carp. Hundreds of carp shaped kites were hung from lines running across a river. Children played underneath and various dance groups competed for a prize. We just sat on the steps and drank. In the evening Aya invited myself and a few other surfers to her favourite hookah bar for pizza and shisha. We finished the night with a few drinks at the pub before catching the midnight train home. No partying til sunrise on this night.
The following morning I thanked Shu for showing me a good time in Osaka and caught a mid day bus to Nagoya, the last destination of my Asian adventure. My host was a friendly young Moroccan name Otoman who was studying engineering. Otoman was busy with school and we spent much of our time together in the lobby of his residence surfing the net. But I rather enjoyed chatting up all the beautiful female students, many of whom spoke mandarin, as they passed by.
Nagoya itself is not the most jaw dropping destination but a nice relief from the more touristy areas I had visited previously. The city’s main draw is a big old castle which was rebuilt after World War II. The view from the outside is impressive but the inside felt more like a museum. It even had an elevator. The rest of the city center felt more low-key than Tokyo or Osaka but was still full of interesting modern architecture, fancy restaurants and some nice cafes. I found a great udon noodle bar just off of central park which had the feel of a New York style bar on one side and an entire wall of graphic manga novels on the other. The décor and the noodles were some of the best I had experienced in Japan. I returned to Otoman’s residence after sunset and caught an early night sleep.
I had to wake up early the next day to catch a 7AM bus back to Tokyo. The bus arrived in Shinjuku mid afternoon on a clear sunny day. It was the first time I had seen Shinjuku during the day and I was mesmerized by all the tall modern skyscrapers shimmering in the midday sun. I took the elevator to the top of the municipal tower for a nice view of Tokyo before heading to my hotel for a rest.
It was my last two days in Asia and my uncle Steve was in town to show me around. My Dad also generously booked me into a beautiful hotel room near Shibuya station as a welcome home gift. It was the nicest room I had seen in several months. This was bound to be a more comfortable weekend than I was used to. I met Steve at the station in the evening. I had not seen him since he showed me around Beijing over a year earlier. And just as he had done in Beijing, Steve treated me to some great local cuisine. For dinner he found a fancy Shabu Shabu restaurant. Shabu Shabu is Japanese style hot pot with thinly sliced beef and vegetables cooked in a large pot of boiling water and served with various dipping sauces. We were in Tokyo, the food capital of the world, and since Steve had been in over forty times before, he really knew how to find the best places to eat. The food was fantastic and the staff polite to the point of irritation. I’m pretty sure sumimasen came out of our waitress’s mouth more than three hundred times during our stay. We spent a couple hours chatting about life in Asia and chowing down on various Japanese delicacies before meeting a couple of Steve’s friends for a drink at a Shinjuku pub. Steve had picked up a bad cold before arriving in Tokyo and I had been up since 5AM so we packed in it a bit early to get some rest.
The following morning we strolled around Harajuka, Tokyo’s equivalent to Amerikamura in Osaka. Unlike Amerikamura, however, Harajuka is all about the teeny bopper style. Lots of pink, plastic and glitter. We moved on to Ginza district to stop into the Sony building and catch up on all the latest gadgets from Japan’s electronics giant. As we left the building, we witnessed something very peculiar in the streets of Ginza. A long line of people were chanting and carrying banners down the side of a busy boulevard. It was a large peace protest in the middle of downtown Tokyo. I was rather surprised. Japan and public demonstrations did not hold a close association in my mind. But in true Japanese style, the protest was incredible organized and well mannered. Pylons were placed along the road to mark a clear protesting path so that traffic would not be disturbed. The march was organized into blocks, each led by a patrol car. When one block reached an intersection everyone would quietly stop behind the car and allow traffic to pass. Once the light turned green, they would continue chanting and marching down the pylon marked path.
There were almost as many riot police as protesters but their presence was actually more amusing than intimidating. They were decked out in thick riot gear but all looked lost or bored. They had nothing to do. When one of the protesters finally stepped out of line he was surrounded by over thirty police. There was no violence. They just huddled around the unruly gentlemen and slowly moved him towards the police van. It was the most organized and gentle protest I had ever seen in my life. We never did figure out exactly what it was for.
Once the tranquil protest had passed and we caught the tram to Odaiba, a man made island covered in modern architecture and a five story transformer toy. We stumbled into a German beer festival where hundreds of young Japanese were getting wasted on fine European beer and jumping up and down to a live western cover band. It was a ton of fun. In fact, if the beers hadn’t been $10 a piece we could have stayed there all night.
Steve once again treated me to a great meal in Shibuya for dinner. The set feast included a little taste of basically everything on the menu. We were each given close to twenty small plates of tasty Japanese delicacies. It was delicious.
Since it was my last night in Asia I decided a night out on the town was in order. Steve was still feeling ill and had to get some rest so I was running solo. I made my way to a couch surfing meeting to see if anyone was interested in a night out. There were over fifty people at the event and a group of ten were down to party. We went to Roppongi, Tokyo’s largest night life district, and found a little club with a big cover charge. The club was far too packed, the drinks were far too expensive and, to be honest, the night was a bit of a disappointment. Nothing bad happened, I guess I just had high expectations for my last night in Asia. I failed to realize that when your traveling solo, your the only one that really cares if its your last night. But I was stuck there until sunrise when the trains started running again. I paid for it the next morning when after less than an hours sleep I had to leave for the airport. I met with Steve briefly to thank him for, once again, showing me such a good time. Then, with my feet dragging, I boarded the train bound for Narita airport.
It was a sombre ride. After twenty months, my stint in Asia was coming to an end and the simple truth was just starting to sink in. I hadn't really allowed myself to think about it but as the train sped towards the airport, the thoughts were unavoidable. A sinking feeling lingered as I checked in and passed through security. It deepened as I boarded the the plane and I was nearly in tears as I settled into my seat. I knew that it would eventually pass, that soon I would be laughing and sharing experiences with a family I had not seen in ages. But for the time being, it was inescapable and exacerbated by sleep deprivation and a bad hangover.
I peered out of the cabin window while the aircraft gained speed and lifted off of the runway. As Tokyo disappeared below the clouds, I finally allowed myself to realize that this long crazy adventure was at last over. It was sober moment. The mackerel with brown rice, Haagen Daz ice cream and personal TV with a decent selection of Hollywood flicks onboard were a nice distraction. But there was no denying it, I had an amazing experience in Asia and I was sad to be leaving.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 21:30 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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