Apple Country

Stories of rural life as an ALT in a northern Japanese fishing town.


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Golden Week in Bangkok and Chiang Mai

Praise Japan and its generous number of public holidays.  This year’s Golden Week had a total of four holidays, which worked out that if you took two days off work as paid leave, you ended up with a rather tasty ten-day break!  Eager to cross off the next country on my travel bucket list, I rounded up three friends and began planning a trip to Thailand: three days in Bangkok and four days up in the mountainous city of Chiang Mai, with a day in Tokyo and two days travelling/recuperating at the end.

In March I posted about the plum blossoms in Kameido Shrine and how I wanted to go back for the wisteria festival – so that’s what we did in Tokyo!  It was significantly busier, but the weather was superb for a spot of terrapin-watching and gorging on freshly baked sweet potato chips and mochi.

As our other friends booked the wrong plane tickets, Lauren and I spent the first morning wandering around town.  We had a bit of a hectic arrival at 2am when the taxi driver couldn’t find the apartment we were staying at.  We ended up getting a different taxi who tried to rip us off at the end, which I was having none of.  The first taxi cost us 350 baht from the airport, despite dropping us off in the completely wrong location, and the second didn’t put the taxi meter on so he decided to charge us 500 baht instead of the 80 or so it should have cost us.  Luckily I’d done my research and knew about this habit of theirs, so after suggesting we give him 100 baht and being consequently laughed at, I gave him 200 and an angry rant about how we were tired, annoyed and not in the mood for his shit.  Whether he understood my English or not, he got the message.  Lauren said she was going to just cough up the 500 and leave, but decided from then on she would definitely leave the haggling to me!  You don’t mess with a Fraser.

I feel like I’m going to write too much so I’ll aim for a quick summary of each day!  EDIT: Oh well I tried.

Day 1: Tried to find a cafe from Tripadvisor – failed.  Tried to find the place where you get a massage from a blind person – failed.  Someone yelled “ELLEEEEEN!” from the middle of the road, it was Mina (another Aomori JET friend) who was standing next to a car with its hazards on, parked dubiously in the middle of a roundabout.  We ended up driving over an hour north of Bangkok with her Thai friend to Ayutthaya to see an awesome temple.  It rained and the roads were flooded, which was scary, but we got to see a floating market and some weird stunt show depicting the battle between Myanmar and Thailand.  We finished the evening with a Thai massage, where my body was pulled and stretched in ways I never knew possible, then tried to find some street food for dinner.  We stumbled into a bit of local territory and couldn’t read any of the signs or menus, but luckily we came across Mina’s Thai friend who had just bought some dinner for his parents.  He ordered us all Pad See Ew for 40 baht each (about 80p), which was cooked at the front of what looked like someone’s garage and served on plastic plates from Tesco, and it probably remains the best thing I ate all week.

(The first four photos are from our day in Tokyo.)

Day 2: Sam and Alex arrived in the early hours, didn’t get off to a great start when Sam realised she left her phone in the taxi and we had to sort that out.  We got it eventually though!  Spent the day at Chatuchak market, which sells EVERYTHING, but we probably spent the most money on food and fruit smoothies.  I am in love with Thai food.  There is such a variety of dishes, everything is so sweet and spicy and fragrant, which is a wonderful change from the same dishes that get repeated over and over in Japan.  For our first lunch of the day, I ordered a spicy crab and green mango salad and shared a coconut ice cream in its shell with Lauren.

Day 3: Had a lazy morning while we packed up to go to Chiang Mai.  Decided to hit up Wat Pho to see the reclining Buddha, which was too long to get a decent photograph of!  He was sort of lying behind all these pillars, so you got to see different sections of him as you walked down the side.  It was ridiculously hot, and we took shade under the trees in the temple courtyard. Caught the plane that evening and had a nice dinner at our hotel, the Rainforest Boutique.  It really felt like a holiday when we started drinking coconut rum out of a coconut with a cocktail cherry on a stick.

Day 4: Lauren suggested we go to the Royal Gardens in the morning.  We were probably the first ones there, so it felt a bit eerie walking around with the loudspeakers playing instrumental versions of Kiss From A Rose and November Rain.  We got a taxi back, which was more like a red truck with no door on the back that you just hopped in through and sat on the bench inside.  We soon realised these were the norm in Chiang Mai, and to hail one you have to ask the driver if they are going in the same direction as you.  If not, try a different one!  For lunch we all tried the Chiang Mai speciality, Khao Soi Gai, which is noodle curry soup with crispy fried noodles sprinkled on top.  Back at the hotel I got an aromatherapy massage, but wasn’t feeling great and thought I was coming down with something.  My fears were confirmed when the masseuse looked at me worriedly and said she thought I had a fever…

Day 5: I woke up feeling like crap on the day we were due to see the Elephant sanctuary, the day I’d been looking forward to most.  I almost didn’t go, even put my pyjamas back on and resigned myself to bed feeling a bit sad about my predicament.  Then I thought “fuck it” and got up and went.  Who knows if I’d be able to get this opportunity again?!  I could just sweat the fever out!!  It must have worked because when we were outside my back felt like a waterfall and I didn’t feel as bad later.  (Also probably due to it being 38 degrees.)

The Elephant Nature Park was for elephants who had been rescued from a lifetime of pain in the circus, at tourist attractions where they were forced to “paint” pictures, carry people on their backs for treks and carry logs through the forest.  We were shown a very disturbing video on the way there in the minibus of the elephants’ previous lives – I was a complete emotional wreck and couldn’t watch!  I suppose I hadn’t really considered how badly they were treated in order to become submissive enough to let tourists ride on their backs or do stunts in a show, so to know the whole truth was very overwhelming.  It made me glad I chose to see them enjoying their lives in peace, with endless supplies of watermelon and pumpkin to keep them happy.  Some were blind, some had missing ears, some had broken legs that had healed badly so they had to limp.  One poor thing had stepped on a landmine and had her foot blown apart.  There were many dogs at the park too, most of which had been rescued during the floods after the earthquake five years ago.  We were allowed to feed and touch some of the friendlier elephants, which was amazing.  We held out halves of watermelon at the beginning of the day for the elephants to take from us with their trunks – they were so rough; it was the strangest feeling!  I loved the sound their trunks made as they curled the food away into their mouths, like a huge sheet of sandpaper being swept over a smooth rock.  I loved watching the other elephants eating huge stalks of grass, lifting it up with their trunks and absent-mindedly stuffing it in their mouths at all sorts of awkward angles, then just letting it fall to the ground if it didn’t fit in properly.  We got to see a three week old baby elephant and its mum too, which was gorgeous.  At feeding time, another young elephant ran over and trampled all through the watermelon, closely followed by one of the dogs who had come to investigate.  We had an amazing vegetarian buffet lunch, then finished the day giving the elephants a bath in the river and relaxing on the viewing platform to see them play in the mud.

Day 6: Sam and Alex had plans to go to Tiger Kingdom to see the tigers, but Lauren and I didn’t fancy it (paying to see tigers in cages had us suspicious for a number of reasons) so we enrolled in a Thai cooking class (it was called Thai Orchid cooking school) for the day instead.  Our teacher was lovely and let us choose from a number of dishes.  I made fresh spring rolls, Tom Yum Kung, Penang curry, Pad Thai and a steamed banana cake with cocount.  During the break the teacher took us down to the market, where she told us about traditional Thai herbs and spices, let us try unusual fruits and have a wander around.  We tried durian, which tastes better than it smells… The texture was creamy like an avocado and it tasted like a ripe papaya with a strong hint of garlic.  Not the worst thing I’ve ever eaten!  My favourite was the mangosteen, which tasted like lychee.  That evening we explored the night market and stocked up on more elephant trousers and souvenirs.

Day 7: We had no plans for our final day in Thailand. so we found a nice cafe on Trip Advisor to go to for lunch.  It was too early to eat when we found it, but we happened upon a beauty salon and decided to get our nails done while Alex went for a wander.  Our sleeper train to Bangkok left at 5, so we said our goodbyes at the hotel and headed to the station.  At about 7:30, the train guard came to make our beds, pulling out seats and compartments to make bunk beds on either side of the carriage.  It was surprisingly comfortable!  I would’ve slept better if the train guard hadn’t been in the next bunk over, making the weirdest snoring sounds I’ve ever heard in my life, like hundreds of farting butterflies were being expelled from his mouth.  12 hours of travelling down and 24 to go, we hung around at the airport until our flight back to Tokyo was ready, then when we had safely landed it was straight to Shinjuku to catch the night bus back to Aomori.  I was dreading it, but I thankfully I slept like a baby and felt only a bit gross when I finally got home.

I’m really keen to explore the southern parts of Thailand, definitely need to visit a few beaches, so I’m sure I’ll be back.  Wouldn’t mind if I missed Bangkok though – it was fun, but a typical touristy city.  I just want more mango and sticky rice.


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Golden Week in Beijing

Arriving in China felt very strange.  It was the first time I’d left Japan and hadn’t been to another country in Asia until then.  For some reason I expected China and Japan to be quite similar, mainly because a lot of Japanese culture has its origins in China, but apart from that I was very wrong! I got into a taxi from the airport and showed the driver my hostel’s address.  He took one look at it, then turned to me with a bewildered look on his face and let out a loud “HUH?!” in my direction.  He chewed his gum loudly while I pointed at the hostel’s address at the top of the page. I was a bit taken aback and suddenly missed the Japanese taxi drivers with their white gloves and smart caps, who smile politely and apologise gently when they’re not entirely sure where it is I want them to take me.  But on the other hand I found the people in Beijing refreshing as I spent more time there.  They aren’t afraid to speak their minds, and everywhere I went people were having lively conversations in the streets or playing checkers outside their front door, flying kites or riding bikes with speakers that blared out Chinese music as they sailed past me in the road.

One major cultural difference I did not get on with was the amount of gobbing on the streets.  I heard that unappealing sound of phlegm being hawked up and its abrupt encounter with the pavement too many times during my week there.  But at least some people had the decency to do it into a bin. What struck me most was how interesting Beijing smells; I could not put my finger on it the whole time I was there, but there was always this warm, sweet, spicy aroma floating throughout the streets and hutongs.  Occasionally it was met by the not so pleasant stench of sewage, but apart from that, if you walked through China Town in London I think it would be a similar experience; it would just lack the dusty paths, yoghurt stands and ramshackle houses that characterised Beijing’s alleyways. My hostel was located down a narrow hutong in the city, with an inviting lounge and a pretty outside courtyard where the dorms were.  The girl in the bunk opposite to me was also on JET and spending the same amount of time in Beijing as me, and we ended up hanging out a few times during our stay which was fun.  I met some other friendly travellers too, a group of English teachers based in Seoul and Hong Kong, and we all went on the same tour to the Great Wall together.

I spent every day walking and sightseeing.  A lot of major tourist spots consisted of temples, so by the end of my trip I was a bit templed-out.  They were very beautiful though, and usually the sights had other things to offer and a fascinating history to boot. On my first day I went on a bike tour led by a guy called Jerry.  His English was tinged with a British accent, he was very enthusiastic about the UK and generally a really nice guide so we got along well!  I was the only one on the tour so it was great to have a personal tour of Beijing.  We cycled through all the backstreets and hutongs, had steamed dumplings and noodles at his favourite childhood restaurant, and he gave me a very detailed explanation of the history of China, which was interesting but I found myself struggling after about 15 minutes.  I realised afterwards I hardly took any photos of the hutongs because cycling made it a bit difficult but oh well.  Later I went to an acrobatics show, then walked around Tiananmen Square at dusk.  The sheer vastness of it all, with the slightly kitsch-looking portraits of Chairman Mao and Sun Yat-sen at either end was weird.  One lady came up to me with her camera and said something in Chinese so I assumed she wanted me to take a picture, but then she stood next to me and put her arm round my waist so her boyfriend could take a photo of her with me.  So I got one with her on my camera!  Then four or five other people saw and also asked to have their picture taken with me… I felt special.  There were loads of people gathering in front of the Forbidden City (the bit with Mao’s portrait on it) but I didn’t know why so I wandered off to the night market.  I later realised they were waiting for some sort of military parade/changing of the guards type thing that happens every day at dawn and dusk.

The next day I went to Lama Temple and the Temple of Confucius.  I loved the earthy reds, greens and yellows of the Lama Temple and seeing so many people and a few monks come to pray.  The way they prayed was different to how they do in Japan, as they held a bunch of burning incense between their palms lifted above their heads, and turned to bow in each direction.  I actually find watching people pray more interesting than going in the temples! Confucius’ temple was cool as well.  There were rows and rows of stone blocks with the engravings of his succesful pupils’ names.  Afterwards I tried to find the hutongs again but got lost and went to the next restaurant I came across in desparation.  I ordered “marinated pork” and was presented with a huge plate of fat and bones, no exaggeration.  There was maybe one tiny strand of meat.  The waitress saw me scrounging for meat with my chopsticks and gave me a pair of disposable gloves, but it was all in vain.  Luckily I’d ordered a tofu dish as well so that kept me going.

I booked a tour with the hostel to the Great Wall for the next day.  We went to the Jinshanling to Simatai section, which is one of the least climbed and less reconstructed parts of the wall.  I really wanted to climb the more rugged and less touristy parts, so this 6km hike sounded perfect.  Even driving the three hours (although it took us five due to traffic) out of the city had some incredible views of the wall’s remains twisting along the mountains.  I totally underestimated the intensity of the wall; I knew it was long, but until I was standing on it I hadn’t realised the true extent of its scale.  Over 2,000 years to build, 13,170 miles long and millions of lives lost to its construction… it was kinda creepy.  I also forgot that it was built on the mountain tops, so it took us a good 25 minutes of climbing up steps before we could start the actual hike, and we were sweatin’ like.

It was worth it though; seeing the wall stretching out and fading into the distance was really surreal.  It looked like someone had piped a neat line of white icing all along the highest points of the mountains, adding a decorative peak for each watch tower.  I imagined the wall to be relatively flat, but I was wrong… the path swooped up and down with the mountains’ rise and fall, which made the climb quite challenging.  The steps up and down to each watch tower (the section we climbed had 22) were so steep we might as well’ve been scaling a wall (ha ha).  It was such an amazing experience though, and very rewarding towards the end of our hike when our surroundings were cast in the warm glow of the early evening sun.

A group of us were desperate to try the famous Peking duck at the restaurant ‘Dadong’, and seeing as the rest of them had to go home the next day we headed straight into town when we got off the bus at 9pm.  Dusty, sweaty and tired, we walked into a fancy-looking place on the top floor of a building, still in our hiking gear but too hungry to care!  The duck was super tender and served in slices, unlike the shredded kind I’ve had in the UK.  Our waitress showed us the proper way to fill the pancake, and to dip the duck skin in sugar before eating it!  It was quite nice but I’m all about the plum sauce and cucumber.

The next day I went to the Temple of Heaven, located in a pretty park which seemed a popular place for locals to come down with their mates and play board games, badminton, hackey sack or just sit on a bench and work on their embroidery together.  I think I’ll move to Beijing when I’m old!  The main building was where the emperor would personally pray to heaven for good harvests, and I got some creepy vibes when I read about the sacrificial ceremonies that they used to have.

I spent the last few days strolling around the hutongs, going to Beihai Park and having lunch at a nice courtyard restaurant with no menus, so the chef decided what to give you based what ingredients were available that day.  I got some dried mushrooms in a spicy sauce, spicy chicken, a salad, more mushrooms and a huge piece of fish which I had to take in a doggy bag!  I got a surprise when I wanted to use the toilet and they said it was broken so I should use the public toilet around the corner, only to be met with four squat holes in a row with no dividers… I knew Chinese toilets were horrible but this was just unnecessary.

I went out with the my new JET friend a couple of times, exploring the night market full of stalls selling delicious dumplings, gyoza and fruit skewers, and some not-so-appetising delicacies such as scorpions, ox tripe and whole baby birds.  We went to Mao’s Mausoleum on our last day early in the morning as it was only open until noon, and joined the masses of Chinese people dressed in their Sunday best to pay their respects.  I find it strange how many people still love him even after what he did.  It was a very surreal experience; we had to store our belongings in a special locker and went through various security checks, before entering the mausoleum building.  There was a huge white statue of Mao in front of which people were laying yellow flowers they’d just bought from the stall by the entrance.  We walked to the room where he lay all waxy-looking in his big glass box, surrounded by a beautiful arrangement of flowers.  We were shuffled past in silence by security, no stopping to gawk was allowed, and we walked out into the sunlight in a slight daze as to what we’d just seen.  He looked so weird.  Couldn’t really tell if it was real or not but with the amount of security I had to assume that it was actually him.  Still not sure how I felt about it.  You can see our reaction faces in the gallery below somewhere.

Finished up the day with a lovely meal at a vegetarian restaurant, which served many dishes stylised as meat but were actually made from tofu.  The “cumin lamb” was my favourite, along with a dish of fried tofu, peanuts and mushrooms.  I had a few hits and misses cuisine-wise in Beijing, but this was definitely the biggest hit.

Beijing was such an interesting, lively city to explore, and made a welcome break from my quiet Japanese town.  I’m not sure I could live in Beijing though, mainly because I’ve been spoilt by Japan’s pristine public toilets and don’t think I can live in a world without soap and toilet paper.  Leaving Japan for the first time gave me a new perspective on where I live now, and I actually felt glad to be “home” when I got in my car at the airport and began my drive through the mountains back to Fukaura.