2018 TRAVELLING: The year in review

This was another year full of adventures!

  • We kicked off the year with a weekend with friends in Edinburgh.
  • Then we headed to amazing South Africa for a wedding – we hung out with elephants and enjoyed the breathtaking views.
  • In March we braved the cold to discover fun Riga.
  • In April we travelled around Sicily, eating all sorts of treats along the way.
  • In May we relaxed in sunny Paphos, Cyprus.
  • Then we headed to Berlin for a weekend full of amazing vegan treats.
  • I went to Paris for a beautiful weekend of chilling in the sun.
  • In September we had an adventure in the Balkans: we visited Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania – a great trip!

Another year full of amazing adventures!

And I have big plans for 2019: I may actually finish visiting every single European country!

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BUS HOPPING AROUND KOSOVO, ALBANIA AND MACEDONIA: How to do it

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ITINERARY PLANNING:

We visited Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania over eight days, meaning that we only had one or two days in each place. This was enough to see the highlights, but it also meant lots of travelling around.

TRANSPORT:

It’s tricky to find information about buses online, but TripAdvisor forums had the best information.

Bus tickets can’t be booked in advance online, but we had no problem getting them on the day. Distances are short, but trips often take longer than expected because of the hilly terrain. Drivers can be mavericks – overtaking dangerously on a turn is commonplace.

Taxis are also available and not super expensive, although we didn’t use them.

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MONEY:

Everything was significantly cheaper than in the UK – even in popular places you never pay more than 10€ for a meal including drinks.

Kosovo uses the Euro, Macedonia has the Denar and Albania uses the Lek. Lek and Denars can only be exchanged in the country, but we had no issues with that.

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FOOD:

We did some research in advance, but it was easy enough to find veggie options and ask for vegan versions by removing some ingredients. Most people speak English enough to understand simple instructions like ‘no cheese’.

Yummy salads are available everywhere, as are pizzas. Portions are always generous. Fruit and veg are usually very fresh and delicious – as is the local wine.

Drinks aren’t always listed on the menu, but most places will serve the usual drinks (including plenty of coffee options).

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EATING, SHOPPING, GETTING AROUND: How to plan a trip to Japan (part 2)

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TRANSPORTATION

Japan is famous for its reliable public transport network, and it really works very well.

Metro: In cities the metro and urban rail systems are the easiest way to get around. There are plenty of trains and signage is good. Rush hour (which seems to be from 6pm until forever) is insanely busy, but you can always get on a train as people push themselves in.

Bus: Buses are very good and easy to use when you are on board. You pay with your metro card and there are usually digital displays showing upcoming stops. The tricky thing is to find the right bus to take, as there are sometimes many stops next to each other with only Japanese signs.

Google Maps: I did pretty much all of my journeys with Google Maps, and it worked really well. You get options of different lines and cost of the trip, as well as train times (which is very useful when more than one line stops at the same platform). The only difficulty was with some buses as Google Maps wasn’t very good at showing bus stops. But overall I’d have spent a lot more time thinking of how to get to places if it weren’t for Google Maps.

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The best way to pay for your trips is to use a metro card (Pasmo or Suica) which you can get at ticket machines. Journey prices vary depending on the distance, but with a card you just top up a few thousand yen and recharge when you run out (they even have machines inside the barriers in case you run out of credit during a trip).

TOKYO TRANSPORTATION

Tokyo has an intricate metro and train system, but it’s not too difficult to navigate. The stations are often huge (Shinjuku receives 3 million commuters every day, making it the busiest station in the world), with lots of shops and restaurants both in and outside the barriers.

Most popular areas will have a few metro stations, and the JR Yamanote line is a circular line that goes around many of the main areas of Tokyo. The city is very flat so you can also cover a lot on foot, which is a great way of discovering little streets off the beaten track.

There is no weekly or monthly pass covering all types of transportation, so topping up a metro card is the easiest option.

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JR PASS

Buying a JR Pass is the best option for those travelling around Japan. It is a train pass that covers all Japan Rail (JR) trains, some Shinkansen (bullet trains) and some urban trains. There are options for 7, 14 or 21 days. I bought the 21-day option at £387 because I was doing two long Shinkansen trips and that in itself already covered the cost of the pass.

I also used it in shorter trips and lots around Tokyo (it covers the Yamanote line which is very useful). It is definitely a good thing to buy if you’re doing any Shinkansen trips.

You need to buy it before you get to Japan (although at the moment they’re trialling selling it in some places there), and you exchange it once you get there. It’s very easy to use an you can find all the info here.

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GETTING ONLINE

Having a data plan on my phone from the moment I arrived in Japan made a huge difference for my trip. You can buy different plans on arrival at Narita Airport.

I bought the Docomo SIM for Y6500 for 30 days including 5GB, and for me that was a good option. There are many kiosks with different offers so I kind of chose randomly, but there’s a good guide here.

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Some hotels and Airbnbs give you portable WiFi devices which are also an alternative, but from my experience these aren’t always reliable so I was happy to have my own data plan as a backup.

Tokyo stations, large shops and convenience stores often have WiFi spots.

Because Japanese addresses are tricky to understand, if you’re looking for specific places such as restaurants you definitely need reliable access to the internet, so I wouldn’t risk going without to save money.

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MAKING LIFE EASY: CONVENIENCE STORES, VENDING MACHINES, COIN LOCKERS

Given how different Japan is from Europe, they really make it easy for you to do things.

Vending machines are everywhere (most selling soft drinks), as are convenience stores – locally known as combini – which are great places to find unusual snacks and drinks. They are open 24h and sell everything you may need. After a while you start to prefer specific snacks from specific shops (Lawson, 7 Eleven and Family Mart are the most common).

Coin lockers are another great Japanese ubiquity. Available in most stations, it is the simplest way to store your luggage (or shopping) while you explore the city.

All of the above can often be paid with your metro card, which is a nice and easy thing to do.

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MONEY

Japan is famously expensive, but you actually don’t need to spend that much to do things once you’re there.

My main expenses were plane tickets (cheap at around £450), my rail pass (21 days for almost £400) and accommodation (between £20-£35 per night, which is not a lot but I did stay there just over one month). So I spent most before I actually got there.

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On the day to day I found things pretty cheap: a metro ride will cost less than £1.50, entrance to temples and museums is usually around Y500 and food is cheap at combini or restaurant chains. Things to buy are also usually cheaper than in the UK.

Tokyo Cheapo is a great website with lots of tips on how to save money and free things to do.

I spent a lot of my time in Tokyo just walking around and taking it all in, which doesn’t really cost anything. So I found that Japan wasn’t a particularly expensive country and you can definitely save money – but of course there are plenty of options to splurge if you want to.

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SHOPPING

Japan is a shopping paradise, and even though I’m not one for shopping, I still visited tons of shops, bought some things (mostly pens and bath salts) and was fascinated by the insane amount of things to buy. You often walk into a shop only to discover it actually covers many floors.

There are countless articles and videos about where to buy stuff, but my favourite shops were:

  • Tokyu Hands and Loft: both had tons of all sorts of products and particularly great stationery supplies;
  • Muji and Uniqlo: even though you get these in the UK, they have different products in Japan (Muji has lots of yummy snacks) and are worth a visit.

Discount shops such as Daiso and Don Quijote are good for the prices, but they are often very busy and chaotic – not the best shopping experience.

Things are overall reasonably priced and good quality, and you can find lots of interesting things to buy.

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FOOD

I knew that Japanese food wasn’t going to be veggie-friendly, so I did a lot of research in advance. The fact that Japan is also full of amazing restaurants, street food and cafes makes it harder – it’s just not a place that lets you forget about food.

Restaurants in Japan often specialise in one thing, so a sushi restaurant may really only serve sushi – which means it’s best to look for places that specialise in something which usually has veggie options.

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Self-catering was a huge help, as were Happy Cow’s recommendations. We did find quite a few great options for veggie places all over Tokyo and Kyoto, and although they weren’t particularly expensive as compared to the UK, these were not everyday options.

Some cheap restaurants do have a few veggie options: Coco Ichibanya, a popular Japanese curry house have a full vegan menu (curries for about Y700); Saizeriya, an Italian-ish family restaurant has veggie pizza and pasta for as little as Y299 and a small glass of wine for Y100; Tenya Tendon has veggie tempura (a bit greasy) for around Y500.

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Combini have plenty of veggie snacks (but not many meals), including onigiri (rice balls) which are often labelled in English and a good selection of baked goods. I also found that Muji had a great selection of yummy snacks – a bit more expensive than at combini, but also better quality.

One thing about buying snacks is that in Japan you’re not supposed to eat in public transportation or while walking – so you need to find a place where to sit and eat your food too.

Also useful was Google Translate, which gives you the option to look up images and translate them, which allowed me to check ingredient lists with a good success rate.

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But despite Japanese food not being particularly veggie-friendly, I did find they had an enormous amount of options for coffee and pastry places – from cheap cafe chains to fancy bakeries. These are great for a break and were reliably good, so I preferred to look out for dessert places.

A great find was Milk, that has a stall at Shinjuku station serving the creamiest soft-serve (for Y500). I also tried itayaki (a fish-shaped sweet pancake filled with custard or bean paste) and mochi (a sweet made of rice flour filled with different flavours – the traditional ones like red bean paste are vegan). And Harajuku is full of sweets and snack places.

So although veggies and vegans do miss out on some of the impressive array of Japanese food, doing some research makes it easier, and you definitely get to try a good range of different things.

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SOLO TRAVEL AND A CAPSULE HOTEL: How to plan a trip to Japan (part 1)

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Despite travelling a lot, I felt I needed to do lots of research before going to Japan, and I definitely think that helped. I bought an old Lonely Planet guide, and also used Japan Guide and Tokyo Cheapo a lot, as well as watching LOTS of youtube videos (I really like Abroad in Japan).

I really think the research I did helped, particularly with logistics around transportation, money and understanding how some things work. It was also good to get some inspiration, and the Monocle guide book for Tokyo has the best recommendations, many of them off the beaten track.

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GETTING THERE:

Booking flights in advance is essential for getting a good deal on a trip to Japan. BA sales offer direct flights from £620 but tickets are limited and you need to be flexible with dates.

I flew with Turkish Airlines (which is often the cheapest company for long haul), and got a great price around £450 from Gatwick airport. With a stop in Istanbul, the total time of my journey was around 16h.

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ITINERARY PLANNING:

There’s a lot to see in Japan but I really wanted to experience Tokyo life, so I decided not to do much travelling. I spent 23 days in Tokyo, 6 days in Kyoto and 3 days in Nara. I also did a day trip to Kamakura and Yokohama.

To me this was the right balance as I got to see lots of Tokyo – although I still feel I could spend months there and not see it all! I also had plenty of time in Nara and Kyoto, which was good as I didn’t want to rush anything.

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I’d love to go back to Japan and travel some more – Osaka, Hiroshima and Nikko would be at the top of my list – but I would also come back just to stay in Tokyo again.

Travelling around Japan is easy so if you’re planning a trip across the country you can cover a lot of ground by train.

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WHEN TO GO:

I spent the whole of October in Japan and that was a good time to go. Summers are supposed to be really hot and spring can get very busy because of cherry blossom season. Autumn temperatures are perfect for exploring at around 15-20 degrees, although I did get over 27 degrees in Kyoto! You also get to see the autumn tints, and particularly in Kyoto that is really nice.

Tokyo is very rainy, which is evident by the amount of umbrellas on sale everywhere and stands where to leave your umbrella when you go into a shop. I did get a particularly bad week when it rained a lot (it was typhoon season), but in general the weather was good. I’d definitely visit in October again.

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TRAVELLING ALONE:

I spent one month in Japan, and most of that time I was by myself – my husband joined me for one week. I have no problem with travelling alone in general (only exceptions would be places considered unsafe for women), but Japan is actually a great place for solo travel.

Firstly, Japan is very safe, so I never needed to worry about walking alone at night or anything like that. But the best thing about Japan is there people there seem to do a lot of things alone, so it feels very normal to do things by yourself. This is most evident in restaurants and cafes which always have individual tables and no one thinks it’s weird to get a table for one.

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And everywhere you go, from shops to museums to gardens, there are lots and lots of people by themselves – so even though I’m happy to do things alone it made me really aware that doing things solo is a much bigger part of Japanese rather than European culture.

This made me more at ease, as I knew that I could go anywhere by myself and would be just one more in the crowd of people doing things by themselves.

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STAYING IN TOKYO:

For the first few nights on my stay in Tokyo, I decided to book a capsule hotel. I spent four nights at Oak Cabin (£18 per night), which was cheap and centrally located.

The capsule itself was nice and cozy, and the facilities were great: there was a big lounge and kitchen area, spotless and well-equipped showers and bathroom. The downside was the noise during the night – many people arrive late or are jet-lagged, so there’s always some noise (earplugs are essential).

All in all I enjoyed the experience – it’s not very different from staying in a hostel, and it’s a good option if you’re alone in Tokyo.

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After I got back from my Kyoto trip I spent 20 nights at an Airbnb. Accommodation in Tokyo can be expensive if you’re travelling alone, but you can find good options on Airbnb.

The key thing is to decide at which area you want to stay – I wanted somewhere close to Shinjuku and the place I chose was only a short metro ride away. I found that facilities in Japan are generally of a high standard, and every place I stayed at was very well-equipped.

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ZEN IN THE CITY: My experience meditating in Japan

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Before I went to Japan I knew I wanted to do zen meditation, so I did some research to find some alternatives. There weren’t that many options for tourists, but I did find some, mostly in Kyoto.

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The three experiences I had were all different and each of them were good in their own way: I learnt a lot about zazen and how to incorporate some of the practices in my routine.

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SHOURINJI:

The first zazen session I attended was at Shourinji. Bizarrely, I got bitten by a scary mukade centipede not long before I was due to get there, but I thought the meditation could help calm me down (it did). The session was all in Japanese but you get a handout in English explaining everything.

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It was a good session and the place was packed (there were maybe 50 people there). As is usual in these sessions, you meditate 15 minutes twice, and that is followed by a dharma talk and some green tea.

This temple is located close to some other sights, so it’s a good one to go to. You just need to email them in advance to check their availability and pay Y1000 on arrival (a cheaper fee than the other sessions I attended).

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SHUNKOIN

I’d been following Shunkoin’s website for months before going to Japan, and it was the top place I wanted to visit for zazen. They run sessions for 1h30 almost daily, including a tour of the temple grounds and tea afterwards (you pay Y2500).

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The best thing about it is that Rev. Takafumi Kawakami not only gives a dharma talk in English, but also he translates the concepts and the practice of zazen into Western concepts, making it really relevant to the audience.

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When I visited he spoke at length about the concept of homoeostasis and how it prevents people from breaking their preconceptions (for instance, even after he said you don’t need to be cross-legged for zazen, most people still chose to sit like that, because it complies with the image they have of meditation).

He also talked about the difficulties everyone has in concentrating and related that to big data – I might well have found my guru!

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NANYOJI

My last zazen session was at Nanyoji, which I found through this website. The zen master Rev. Keiho Nishigaki agreed to pick me up at Hyoruji station (close to Nara) and drove me to his temple. There were four other people there, all of them locals who come for the zazen most Saturday evenings.

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He explained all the formalities to me in English before we started. After the session, we had tea and biscuits and he drove me back to the station (with some more biscuits to take with me).

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This was the most authentic experience I had with zazen, as it was clearly a temple for locals, most of them rice farmers. It was great to learn more about the formal aspects of zazen (such as the greetings and how to get on and off the tatami). It was also great to be welcomed in a temple that is not there just for tourists.

To book, you need to email in advance. The suggested donation is Y3000 and that also includes some Soto Zen books.

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When I spend a good amount of time in a place I like to experience something local, and zazen is definitely something to try in Japan, as you get to see temples in a completely different way.

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CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE BY TRAIN: How to plan your itinerary

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It’s very easy and convenient to travel around Central and Eastern Europe by train. The distances are generally not very big and the trains are good and run on time.

Itinerary planning:

We visited Munich, Prague, Brno, Vienna and Budapest. All of them were easy to reach and had good connections.

Another alternative would be to head towards Poland instead, or start out in Romania.

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Booking tickets:

As ever, Seat 61 had all the best tips for booking everything online. The booking process in the various sites was easy and tickets very cheap – the key thing for international trips from Germany is to buy the ticket from the website of the other country you’re visiting: for instance, tickets for the same train from Munich to Prague were much more expensive on Bahn.de than via the Czech website.

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Roadworks:

A few weeks before our trip, I got an email informing of changes to train times and taking a bus replacement for one of the legs of our trip. The email was in Czech, but other than that things went as planned and we didn’t have any issues.

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On the trains:

All the trains we took were punctual, well-equipped and generally very good. Express trains usually had a good cafe on board and served a good range of snacks and drinks.

HILLTOP VILLAGES AND FIG TREES: Exploring Provence by public transportation

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When I decided to go to Provence, one of the key things I had to think about was transport. Most people drive around Provence, but I had to make do with public transportation.

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Where to stay:

I decided to base myself in two places: I spent the first half of my trip in Aix-en-Provence and from there I moved to Arles.

Aix was one of the places I definitely wanted to see. It is close to the coast, so you can visit Cassis and other beaches. Arles, on the other hand, is an ideal place if you want to travel around, as it is well-connected to other towns by train and bus.

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Itinerary planning:

There are loads and loads of places to visit around Provence, so it’s difficult to choose. After some research, I found this itinerary the most useful (although it covers more than what I saw).

Aside from Aix and Arles, my favourite places were Les Baux de Provence and Nimes (all my Provence posts are saved here), but I’m sure there were many great places which I didn’t get to.

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Travelling by train:

Travelling by train in France is weirdly not as easy as in other countries. As ever, Seat 61 was very helpful. The main thing to do is to use this website to search for and book tickets, as it’s definitely better than the local alternatives.

There is an useful rail map of Provence here, and this is a good website to find more information and discounts (in the summer there are discounted day passes on offer).

The trains themselves were all good, and mostly on time.

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Travelling by bus:

In hindsight I would have probably taken the bus more often than I did, as you can often get a direct bus and I got lots of connections on trains.

You can find information on routes and timetables here and tourist information places can also help. There are usually buses going to most (if not all) tourist sites, particularly in the summer.

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All in all, it is definitely possible to explore Provence by public transportation – I did all I wanted to do and really didn’t feel like it was particularly difficult. I’m sure it would be easier by car, but with a little bit of planning I had no problems and saw a lot!

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