Saturday, 17 November 2012

Five unexpected things to pack for your trip to Japan

You don't need me to tell you to bring a phrasebook, yen and appetite for sushi when you travel to Japan. And the classic piece of travel advice about bringing half as many clothes and twice the money was never more relevant than in this pricey destination. But if you tuck these five surprise items in your luggage, I guarantee your trip will be just that little bit easier and more comfortable.

'Toilet in Helly Kitty Love
Hotel Room' by Rick Hall.
CC Attribution

1. Prunes

There's no delicate way around this. Going from Europe, where fruit and veg are abundant, to Japan where the green stuff was expensive and harder to come by, was a shock to the system. I'm used to walking around and being able to grab a banana for a few pence, but in Japan it seemed a much smaller part of the daily diet (and a wallet-busting one at that). I don't need to get colourful about what going from five-a-day in roughage and vitamins to a diet of fish and white rice can do to your body. Save yourself some money (and time on the toilet) by bringing a bag of dried fruit with you.

'My happy socks' by jm3. CC Attribution-ShareAlike

2. Slip-on shoes

Whether it's temples, restaurants or ryokan, your shoes will be going on and off throughout your entire trip. Tying and untying your shoelaces a dozen times a day is a chore (and stressful if you're visiting some of the more crowded temples like Fushimi-Inari in Kyoto or Senso-ji in Tokyo). Spare the gnarled fingers and double-bows by bringing some comfortable loafers or other slip-ons instead. While we're at it, bring socks you aren't ashamed of, as they'll be on display for a large proportion of your sightseeing.

My travel companion Normal Matt shows
off his Pocari Sweat. Photo by Anita Isalska

3. Reusable water bottle

Whether you are travelling during a sweltering summer or simply dehydrating from the effort of navigating Osaka's cavernous train stations, you'll be guzzling a lot of water. And the ubiquitous vending machines will tempt you with their succulent pineapple drinks, energy boosters and (my favourite) Pocari Sweat. But Y150-200 (US$1.80-$2.50) for a bottle adds up over a thirsty day of touring. This is an easily avoidable money drain, so either pack yourself a sturdy travel bottle or try Pocari Sweat once, rinse and refill (tap water is safe to drink in Japan).

Japan is a land of irresistible, but fragile, souvenirs. Gorgeous ceramics near the Tsukiji Fish Market, all-too-snappable souvenir chopsticks, and exquisite Kyoto candy that turns to dust in your suitcase. The lure of smashable novelty food like green tea KitKats is also a temptation for travellers, and I couldn't resist grabbing some cheap sake (in worryingly pliant plastic jars) to take home. Make sure you get the goods back in one piece by bringing some bubble wrap, tupperware boxes or at least some serious packing skills.

'Notebook collection' by Dvortygirl. 
CC Attribution-ShareAlike

5. Notebook

Maybe you're already a travel diarist with a notepad and pen glued to your hands, but if not, then make sure you have something to scribble on during this trip. Many Japanese people we met were much more confident with written English than spoken English, so when our Japanese language skills failed, we had better results showing a notepad with a simple English questions written on it, rather than asking a question verbally in English. Having a receptionist write the hostel address in Japanese onto your pad is a great way to ensure you have no problems finding your way back (assuming your own Japanese skills are as scant as mine). If your memory is sieve-like (join the club), write a few Japanese phrases onto the pad so you have some of the language at hand - locals were eager to teach us some of the seamier phrases, so it was perfect to have somewhere for them to write these. As a bonus, a huge number of museums have souvenir ink stamps; it's fun to have somewhere to document your trip with these eccentric outlines.

Is there something you wish you had packed on your trip to Japan? Or something amazing that you brought back? Let me know in the comments!

Read more about my adventures in Japan in my article for Lonely Planet, 48 hours in Hiroshima.

Friday, 31 August 2012

My road trip shame

The freedom of the open road, heading out on the highway, flooring the gas...  none of this has a scrap of meaning to me, as I've never taken a proper road trip.

Apparently some people use these funny boxes
for transporting themselves around. Odd.
Pic by Amanda Slater, CC Attribution-ShareAlike
How can this be? A travel addict without a single road trip to her name? But it's true, I'm rarely the one behind the wheel, and I've certainly never powered through a full-blown road trip.

I came to the driving party a little late, not learning until I was comfortably in my 20s. Then I based myself in London, a notoriously pricey capital city where car ownership involves burning vast amounts of money just so you can be wheedled into being the designated driver for all your pub-going, car-free friends. Driving is a mug's game here, where the rickety but ever-reliable Tube meets everyone's transport needs (and you can ride on it drunk). And my shoestring tendencies extinguished any possibility of driving on my travels: should I hack away at my budget by hiring a car, or hop onto a bus for a couple of zloty? Complete no-brainer, for a tight-wad like me.

'Amalfi Coast' by Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup,
CC Attribution-ShareAlike

American and Aussie friends sigh in amazement at my road trip virginity. To them, I'm a motor-skill-free-zone, a slave to bus timetables, with all the autonomy of a school kid ('Mom, can I get a ride?') I'm losing out on roaming the world under my own steam (hey, do my bike-riding skills mean nothing?), they mutter.

European friends, on the other hand, whisper back about their own driving shame: mates who learned at 17 but haven't touched a steering wheel since, and the surprisingly large pool of those who don't drive at all. It's the long-term Londoner's dirty secret.

Tackling my road trip shame is way overdue, as there are some destinations that ache to be driven: exploring the Amalfi Coast or spinning around Iceland's Ring Road. Certain landscapes come alive at high speed and lose their magic if you have to change buses in middle-of-nowhere towns or wait for hours at a train station whose only amenities are a locked toilet and a broken vending machine that steals your last bit of loose change.

But I can't just launch myself out there with rusty driving skills and with experience of only ever driving on the left. So I'm in driving boot camp, whenever I can get my hands on a car: begging, borrowing and, well, it hasn't come to stealing yet.

Iceland's Ring Road - see you soon...
Pic by Mei Burgin, CC Attribution
Long-suffering travel buddy Normal Matt has been whimpering quietly in the passenger seat as I reverse awkwardly up country roads, ask him if I'm in the correct lane, and occasionally sing out 'I'm driving, I'm driving!' He nods patiently when I exclaim how incredibly fast it is to be going at 50 mph, and occasionally loses his rag with my parking technique (slow and steady wins the race, I always say).

So can I hit the highway without hitting anything else? The time draws ever closer, so look out for me on the road. I'm coming up behind you - that is, if you're going less than 50 mph.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Heavy metal and the McDonald's Project

If you're not a fan of jangly guitars and mind-meltingly fast drumming, turn away now: I'm a huge heavy metal fan. And when I travel, I try to muscle in on as many metal clubs, gigs and bars as I can. A subterranean bar with sweat running down the walls, packed with bearded punters in Krakow? Loved it. A Gothenburg rock club with fittings plush enough to please even the campest of vampires? I didn't want to leave.

The very rock n' roll Fallen Angel Statue in Madrid
Photo by Anita
Performing my usual internet trawl to find out Madrid's best venues for eardrum-thumping music (answer: they're everywhere), I wondered whether I'd turned into the kind of traveller who makes a beeline for home comforts as soon as they hit the road. I might not be obsessing about the lack of Kellogg's cereal or a nice cuppa tea, but I'm still hunting for familiar ground.

An old travel buddy of mine let me in on her own travel weakness: the McDonald's Project. Every new country she visits, she heads straight for the nearest McDonald's to sate those junk food demons and check out the quirky cultural differences. Even in the monocultural world of McDonald's, where pressed frozen burger patties are shipped uniformly from miles around, little tweaks to that familiar menu exist: gluten-free burger buns in health-conscious Sweden, rice buns in Singapore, the Israeli McFalafel, a glass of wine to accompany those fries in Italy... Turns out my friend isn't the only one fascinated.

And sometimes in the middle of cultural overload, the most intriguing insights can be found in the little differences, whether that's a Japanese shrimp McMuffin or the particular brand of death growls echoing around the local rock bar. The smaller differences help you to find a steer in unfamiliar ground and also make a connection.

So it is a cop-out to hunt familiar favourites, or is it a great way of going local? Either way, you'll find me in the loudest bar.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The food poisoning line-up: whodunnit?

Trying new cuisines isn't without its perils, as my long-suffering travel companion Normal Matt discovered on our journeys around Malaysia. Plenty of people joke that you can't travel around southeast Asia without one bout of food poisoning, but Normal Matt was unlucky enough to suffer twice in the space of two weeks. And nasty, body-ravaging food poisoning it was, too: shivering, whimpering and getting close and personal with the toilet bowl. Ouch.

So whodunnit? Was it Hainanese baked fish, hastily prepared crab, or that delicious-tasting (but dubious looking) icy drink that landed him in difficulty? Let's line up the main suspects from our taste tour of Malaysia...

Suspect 1: self-poisoning through beef rendang

Say it isn't so, I didn't poison Normal Matt with my own cooking? A fantastic day of learning how to cook Malay cuisine, at the excellent LaZat cookery school in Kuala Lumpur, produced a mighty fine beef rendang, spicy sesame salad and more coconut sweets than we could eat. Pride prevents me from considering this a genuine contender in the vomit stakes.

Suspect 2: foul fusion

Is there even a fish under there? This delicious Asian-Portuguese fusion seemed like a great idea that the time, and it was even worth the mouth-searing effect of the spices. Tomato, chilli, limes and an unknown kind of fish were the perfect energy boost after touring around Melaka all day. So what if the cafe had no lighting, a strong musty smell and a chef whose delight at seeing us suggested he hadn't had a customer in days..?

Suspect 3: failure to avoid the ice

Even if this beauty was to blame, I'd risk it again. Avoid the ice, warn the guidebooks, but is that really possible when it's blended so deliciously with cream, beans and frothy milk, into the amazing Red Bean Freeze? If I could import a cafe chain back home, it would be Old Town White Coffee, the Ipoh-based home of great coffee, speedy Asian fast food and the beany delight pictured.

Suspect 4: beans and pasta aren't a dessert

This is looking a little more likely. Cendol, the gorgeously refreshing combination of pea-flour pasta, kidney beans, shaved ice, palm sugar and coconut, is an acquired taste but an unmissable flavour of Malaysia. But did we really have to try it from that greasy-looking stall?

Suspect 5: hastily prepared crab

Even the intrepid Normal Matt doesn't look sure about this one. This insane Penang fish restaurant scooped critters right out of their tanks, hurled them onto griddles and served them up in a flash. Unless you're Normal Matt, in which case they forget your order, leave you hanging for 45 minutes, and then whisk your chilli crab up at even quicker speed. Someone clearly forgot to wash their hands along the way. Gag.

Suspect 6: Delhi Malaysia?

I adore Indian food (plus it's perfect for gluten-free eaters like me), so I insisted on marching to every Little India we found in Malaysia. Deep-fried paneer cheese, hot rogan josh, and carrot halwa to finish - I was in food heaven. I thought frequenting restaurants that were busy, lively and full of locals would keep us free from festering food bacteria, but now I'm not so sure.

I guess we'll never know

It's hard not to speculate when one of you falls ill - was it the fish? was it that drink? - but too much self-flagellation won't get you anywhere. Different food poisoning bacteria take differing amounts of time to make you sick, so tracking down the culprit is tough (unless you get a medic involved).

The amount of time NormalMatt spent at the porcelain altar didn't ruin his holiday. He even reminisces on the experience with the thoughtful wisdom of a battle-scarred survivor. We certainly won't be avoiding local food on our future travels, but with a few paranoid extra items on our packing lists (how big do they make those bottles of alcohol hand gel?) I suspect our rucksacks are going to be a little bit heavier.