Travel Diary: On Sweat and Cambodian Fever

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As it’s Travel Tuesday today and because I haven’t posted one for a while, here’s a short and sweet nugget from the Travel Diary on, rather appropriately as the sun is out (or inappropriately if your mind is politely inclined), sweat and the relentless heat we encountered wandering around Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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“I think I will always have mixed feelings about Cambodia. I am vaguely relieved to leave it, yet can’t help but feel that there is so much more I should be seeing.

I feel drained, hollow, almost as if I had been ill while I was here. Like a fever has emptied me drop by arterial drop. That’s what it’s like here, a fever.

331_528088397192_2364_nThe unrelenting heat, a cacophony of sound, a wall of smells. Fever-pitched eyes lingering on a tear of sweat that falls, languidly, elegantly caressing  pale neck on the way down while it drops, hidden in the modest clothing. Dreams of what is underneath.

Lying so still, a corpse on a damp bed with shallow, racked breathing. The soporific whir of the fan mixing with the inky blackness, soft, like incense. Like a drug-induced slumber. Embalmed
darkness. Food so longed for sits heavy in your stomach, too heavy to swallow. It sticks and lingers. The heat eats your hunger.”

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Travel Diary: Into the Eye of the Sun in Ko Tao, Thailand

I was recently asked if I would take a trip to Dubai and the first thing that popped into my head (besides bloody hell, aren’t I lucky) was ‘yes!’ An escape from the relentless grey skies and thundering, sopping, drenching British rain.

Dubai has never been too far up on my travel wishlist but, at this time of year, it means red deserts and golden sunshine. It means a legitimate excuse to wear sunglasses in February, a chance to break out summer clothes early and to just sit, face up in the white light, letting the warmth coat my skin, saturating it in a glowing halo. It also means suncream, and lots of it for me. Being fair-skinned I only ever manage a light dusting of gold when I try to sunbathe and, after spending too much time in the sun travelling and watching my freckles breed and multiply at an alarming rate, I doubt I’ll ever be a sun worshipper.

I did try to be once though, years ago on a bleached-white beach in Ko Tao, Thailand…although it didn’t go quite as planned.

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“The sea, the sand, the air. It is all so slow, so soft. Like a drug. It makes you slow and soft as well. Damp sponges soaked in salt water and salty sweat.

I feel serene here. Completely and perfectly lazy like a coddled child. Your daily routine is all picked and chartered for you: wake, up, eat, dress, walk and lie down and pass the day in a haze, revelling in your lack of an agenda.

Your flesh is slick with heat here, you feel every tiny breeze like a gift. A whisper over your gleaming skin and you are grateful. The water is warm. Green by the sandbanks and turquoise where the sun touches it.”

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“Your day boils down to sensations. The sting of salt water, the scratch of sand in the suncream, the cool wind on your arched back and the burn of the sun, white-hot and blinding.

I think I looked like a skinned rabbit. Laid out flat, pink and raw and exposed. The hairs on my arms shine white. Albino…”

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“The water tricked us. So cool, so green, so inviting. So we swam in its crocodile jaws, shedding our white armour in the waves. It was as if I had flown into the sun itself. I am roasted, boiled, as if I had been slapped by a giant burning hand. I feel damaged, tender, like a snake about to shed, revealing baby pink flesh underneath.”

I seem to remember I then had mild sunstroke followed by a cold…always follow the golden rule: don’t be that burnt Brit abroad, re-apply suncream after swimming!

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Japan Part Two: A Japanese Cooking Masterclass with Jun Tanaka

After a few days of taste-testing tempura batter and trying to recreate Jun Tanaka’s delicate, spice-laden flavours, I finally managed to write the second part to my Japan post.

Following on from Part One: Japan in Pictures, here’s a blog that I wrote for The Huffington Post on my memories of the Tsujiki fish market combined with some exceptionally good, easy and quick recipes from master chef Jun Tanaka.

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“The average home cook is frightened of Japanese food.

Eating it, yes. Pulling up a stool in front of a slow moving whirlpool of conveyor belt sushi or perching next to the open inferno of a Teppanyaki joint while the chef expertly flicks rice towards the ceiling and makes a squid ring volcano explode, yes, of course. But actually cooking the stuff? That’s where most people leave it to the chefs wielding the meat cleavers, bamboo rolling mats and chopsticks.

It isn’t too difficult to see how Japanese food got its complicated label and it seems to go deeper than just the feng shui balancing act of flavours in the cuisine. Every tourist in Japan will notice that the traditional restaurants aren’t particularly big on variety. In fact, you’re far more likely to find Michelin-starred restaurants that specialise in one singular dish – like udon noodles or tempura vegetables – where the chefs work to elevate that dish to ultimate levels of exquisite faultlessness that you simply wouldn’t get in a multi-focus establishment. There are London equivalents, like Tramshed with chicken or Hawksmoor and steak, but never to the same degree of narrow, immaculate focus.

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This lack of single focus restaurants puzzles Jun Tanaka, an American-born, British Japanese chef who has featured on just about every cooking television programme going and who, despite starting his career as an apprentice under the incomparable Roux Brothers at Le Gavroche, has stayed firmly anchored to his Japanese food roots.

At a Sainsbury’s master class last week, in between dropping shitake mushrooms into sizzling oil and chopping scarlet chillies in a blur of Japanese steel, Tanaka half confirmed the opening of his latest venture, a French, Mediterranean restaurant in London this year.

230429_634677137502_2108583_nAs the acrid smell of fish sauce slowly filled the room like a rotten mushroom cloud, I was transported back to Tokyo and the cavernous warehouse of the Tsukiji Fish Market. I could practically feel the wet, icy slosh of fishy water as it soaked through my impractical ballet pumps, hear the greasy roar of the chainsaws as they sliced through the silvery, Moby Dick-sized torsos of giant tuna and feel the frigid air against my skin. Everywhere you looked in the market there was a crate of something familiar next to something unrecognisably bizarre: mussels as big as my forearm, burnished octopus tentacles knotted around fat white scallops, spikey urchins, pots of what can only be described as gloop and tiny brown shells filled with something unidentifiable.

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A limited number of tourists are admitted in the early morning to the hallowed inner hall of fish auctions – where you can gape at fish heads the size of dogs and watch giant haunches of tuna go for eye-watering amounts of Yen – before being turfed back into the melee of hagglers and fisherman and left ducking and diving amid the flying ice, speeding trucks and dungaree-clad, machete-waving workers.

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Outside the warehouse there’s the jōgai-shijō outer marker, a mix of shops and eateries selling kitchen tools, restaurant supplies and, of course, the world’s freshest, simplest and most delicious sushi and seafood, and that was exactly what came to mind when I sampled Tanaka’s bowls of spicy, sour sea bass soup, umami lamb and buttery fleshed salmon with delicately pickled cucumber.

Alongside his obvious French flavours, Tanaka grew up on a diet of simple Japanese cooking and firmly believes that, with the right ingredients and some very fresh fish, anyone can cook up a Japanese feast in minutes.

Tanaka’s Top Tips

  • Don’t use a whisk when making tempura batter as the overworking makes the flour become glutinous, resulting in a heavy batter. Use chopsticks instead and remember that lumps are ok.
  • Try using lager like Japanese Asahi in your batter instead of sparkling water for a fuller flavour and super crispy crust.
  • Add umami, the fifth flavour, to dishes like beef stew with a few slices of anchovy.
  • The next time you make mayonnaise, substitute the Dijon mustard for a blob of wasabi paste for a peppery, spicy flavour.
  • Swap mustard for tamarind paste in your salad dressings for a sharp, sour and fruity note or use it to marinade meats as it’s a natural tenderiser.

Tanaka shared some quick, easy, healthy recipes that took him about ten minutes to knock up, making them perfect for speedy suppers or to pull out at a last minute dinner party. All recipes serve four people comfortably.

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Tom Yum Pla (Hot and Sour Seabass Soup)

Ingredients
800ml fresh Chicken Stock
1 tbsp Sainsbury’s Galangal
20g Sainsbury’s Dried Shitake, Oyster and Portobello Mushrooms
1 tbsp Sainsbury’s Tamarind Paste
15g Sainsbury’s Palm sugar
25g Fish Sauce
2 Limes
2 cloves garlic sliced
3 Shallots (Peeled and sliced into quarters)
2 Thai Chilies (cut into pieces)
2 Stalks of Lemon Grass (cut into pieces)
4 Sea Bass Fillets (Each piece cut into 4)
½ bunch Thai Basil
½ bunch Coriander

  1. Soak the dried mushrooms in hot water for 30mins
  2. Pour a little vegetable oil into a saucepan and fry the shallots for 2 mins until golden. Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a simmer.
  3. Add the galangal, mushrooms, palm sugar, Tamarind, fish sauce, chilies, garlic and lemon grass. Simmer for 10mins
  4. Add the juice from 2 limes and the sea bass. Cook for 4 mins then add the basil and coriander
  5. Serve immediately in soup bowls

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Tempura of Sea Bream, Shitake and Broccoli with Seaweed Mayonnaise

Ingredients
4 Sea Bream Fillets (Skinned and each fillet cut into 3)
25g Sainsbury’s Dried Shitake Mushroom
½ Broccoli (Broken into florets)
128g by Sainsbury’s Tempura Batter
200ml Lager
2 Woodland Egg yolks
1tsp Wasabi Paste
25ml by Sainsbury’s Rice Vinegar
200ml Vegetable Oil
6g Nori (Dried seaweed)
25ml Mushroom water

  1. Soak the shitake mushrooms in hot water for 30mins
  2. To make the mayonnaise, place the wasabi paste, egg yolks in a bowl and slowly whisk in the vegetable oil. When it starts to thicken, add the rice vinegar and season with salt
  3. Blitz the Nori until it becomes a powder and add to the mayonnaise. Add 25ml of water from the shitake mushrooms
  4. Pre heat a fryer to 180C. Place the tempura mix in a bowl and add the beer and whisk until smooth
  5. Drain the shitake mushroom and dry with kitchen paper. Dip the broccoli, sea bream and mushroom in the batter and deep fry until crisp. Drain on kitchen paper
  6. Serve immediately with the seaweed mayonnaise

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Miso Marinated Salmon with Pickled Cucumber

Ingredients
4 x 100g Salmon Fillets
100g Sainsbury’s Miso Paste
50ml Sainsbury’s Mirin
2 tbsp Sainsbury’s Light Soya Sauce
1 tsp Granulated Sugar
½ Cucumber (peeled, deseeded and cut into half moon pieces)
150ml Sainsbury’s Rice Vinegar
1 Red Chili (Chopped)
I small piece Ginger (Chopped)
1 tbsp Dill (Chopped)

  1. Mix the miso paste, sugar, Mirin and soya sauce in a small bowl.
  2. Place the salmon fillets on a plate and coat in the marinade. Cover with cling film and leave for 1 hour or overnight
  3. To pickle the cucumber, place the vinegar, sugar, chili and ginger in a pan and bring to the boil. Take off the heat and add the sliced cucumber. Cover and leave in the fridge overnight
  4. Pre heat the oven to 200C, place the salmon on a baking tray and cook for 5-7 mins. Take the cucumber out of the pickle, and mix with the chopped dill
  5. Serve the salmon with the pickled cucumber and steamed rice

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Marinated Rack of Lamb, Red Peppers, Chickpea Pancakes and Thai Basil Pesto

Ingredients
800g Lamb Rack (Trimmed and cut into single bone portions)
100g Natural Greek Yoghurt
1 x Sainsbury’s Umami Paste
4 Red Peppers (Cut in half and deseeded)
1 clove Garlic sliced
Sprig Thyme
Taste the Difference Aged Balsamic vinegar
Olive Oil

Pancake Ingredients
100g Sainsbury’s Gram flour
25ml Olive Oil
1 tsp chopped Rosemary
150ml warm water

Thai Basil Pesto Ingredients
1 x Sainsbury’s Thai Basil Paste
1 bunch Basil
1 clove Garlic
20g Parmesan (grated)
10g Toasted Pine Nuts
100ml Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  1. Mix all the Umami paste and Greek yoghurt in a small bowl and season. Coat the lamb in the marinade and leave overnight in the fridge
  2. Place the peppers in a baking tray skin side down, add the sliced garlic, thyme, season and drizzle with olive oil. Cook in the oven at 225C for 10 mins.
  3. Flip over the peppers and cook for a further 10 mins. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar, then add the peppers into a clean bowl and cling film
  4. To make the pesto, place all the ingredients into a blender and blitz
  5. To make the chickpea pancakes, place the gram flour in a bowl with the chopped rosemary. Pour in the water, olive oil and whisk until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
  6. To cook, pour a drizzle of olive oil into a non-stick frying pan, add a ladle of the mix or just enough to cover the base of the pan. Cook for 2 mins, flip over and cook for a further 2 mins. Take out and keep warm
  7. Remove the skin of the peppers using a small knife
  8. Wipe the marinade off the lamb with kitchen paper and season.
  9. Pour a little olive oil into a frying pan, add the lamb and cook on a high heat for 2 mins or until golden brown, flip over and place in the oven for 3-4 mins. Take out of the oven, remove the lamb from the pan and leave to rest for 2 mins
  10. To serve, cut the pancakes in quarters, place on a plate with the roast peppers, lamb rack and a spoon of pesto on top”

The original post for the Huffington Post Food section can be found here. All recipes are by Jun Tanaka.

Have you been persuaded to give these recipes a go in your kitchen? I have, and I’ve invited some friends who are well versed in the arts of gastronomic gorging around tomorrow to try them, so there’s no backing out now (gulp).

Save Asa the Leopard Cub

Asa means ‘Hope’ in Nepali, although there doesn’t seem to be much hope for her at the moment.

She’s injured, although the circumstances remain unclear as to when and how. It was possible poaching, possibly a conflict incident somewhere in unpoliced Nepal, and there are no facilities in Pokhara where she can be properly cared for.

Jack, the wildlife conservationist and all round animal super hero that I talked about in a previous post (Faces not Places: The Peace Eye-ers) rushed to help Asa when he heard she has been brought to Pokhara, but without a medical centre or staff he’s almost powerless to  do anything to help her apart from patch her up and hope she survives.

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He released this update on WildTiger Conservation and Research website, wildtiger.org, this morning:

Jack Kinross here for WildTiger Conservation Research and Development.

This is an interim WildTiger Journal.  Less than two hours ago as I 
write this I was rushed to this little leopard cub in Pokhara.  My friend Himalayan Times journalist Krishna Baral was alerted to this leopard’s plight and I climbed aboard the back of Krishna’s motorbike not knowing what to expect.

So this is Asa.  The name means “Hope” and this is a situation where I 
have hope.  There is also another even smaller leopard cub there and 
I am realistic about its chances of survival, to be honest, not great.  I’ll 
be back in the morning to apply antiseptic to a flesh wound on the little one.

We don’t know the full story.  All we know is that we have two tiny 
leopard cubs on our hands.  Whether it was a conflict situation or a 
poaching incident, we can’t think about that right now, we just have to do the best possible,

There are no facilities here in Pokhara, Nepal, for these situations.  
Krishna and I are hell bent on changing that.  We initially need funds 
for treatment for the cubs and then hopefully a transfer to Kathmandu zoo.  The cubs are in a little shed at one of the Forest Service locations and it is far from ideal.

This situation occurs too often.  We need a facility here in Pokhara.  If 
you can help please do.  Even $1 is better than nothing.

I’ll update this page tomorrow… 

Thanks,

Jack.”

I know it’s incredibly cheeky to ask people to donate their hard-earned and fiercely-protected cash, but, if you have a spare couple of quid or could forgo your morning coffee and donate to help Jack and all the incredible work he does preserving Nepal’s wildlife, I know he would be hugely grateful.

If you’d like to donate, or just follow Asa’s progress, scroll to the bottom of Jack’s webpage, here.

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5/2/14 Update links at bottom of page
to help save Asa, a symbol of the future…
5/2/14 Update links as the battle to save Asa continues

Travel Diary: Backpackers and Rucksack Fatigue

This weekend I took a trip back home to my parents’ house in Hampshire and, while I am still working on transcribing the intricacies and transient deliciousness of Japanese food, I’m also contemplating lugging a suitcase back to London this afternoon on the train.

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I always seem to leave my childhood house with more than I came down with. There’s always a photograph, a forgotten box of clothes or stack of scribblings hidden in an old drawer that I can’t seem to part with. My room is like a Tardis, it’s a trick of the eye or a paranormal vortex, because no matter how much ‘stuff’ I cart backwards and forwards to my teeny box room in London – to be later wedged like a complicated Russian doll set in something else that’s stacked on top of another pile in turn…like award-winning Tetris, if they gave medals for packing – my old room is still heaving with possessions.

Later I’ve got the slow muscle burn to look forward to in that moment that you realise you can’t actually lift your case but, incapable of admitting weakness or defeat, you create a kind of back stretching pendulum movement to swing it on board a train, praying that it doesn’t throw your body forwards into those unapprovingly commuters. Those very same commuters, in fact, who clocked you and your case and frowned at your space-hogging, luggage-toting audacity before you shuffled into their carriage. But then again, I would do the same if I was on the other side, superior in my unencumbered, luggage-less state.

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Actually, it put me in the mind of a diary entry on travellers with luggage where I had a similar moment of ‘rather them than me.’ That quiet moment of relief when you realise your bags are safe and locked in a room that you’ve claimed as yours and you can stop and breathe for the next few days before you repeat the tired trauma of pack, travel, search, stay again.

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“Travellers. Freshly arrived. They are like tortoises.

Sort of pale. Blinking in the sun or squinting in the dark. Huge packs like shells drag them down, necks craning forwards under the pressure. The Rucksack, the traveller’s portable home. Your life is in your pack: your medicine, your toiletries, your clothes and your protective gear. Without it we’d like to think we would survive, but we would feel stranded. Lost. Disconnected from ourselves and what we were and are. So we cling on for dear life, lugging our possessions like a burden, like a treasure.”

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“You feel pity. Empathy. I feel their fatigue, that slow, hungry panic eating through when night falls. Where will we stay? How much will it be? We have to find somewhere. And the dogged tiredness, the heavy-eyed, heavy-footed trudge. The people around you so sure, so aware of where they are and what they are doing. They arrived years ago and have been there aeons.

I feel this because I have lived it and will continue to do so for the next four months of constant, bone-aching moving.

Yet a sneaky voice bubbles up, whispering illicitly through my saintly sympathy. ‘Thank god’ it creeps, ‘thank god it’s them and not us tonight.’”

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Luoyang, Henan, China

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We seemed to be the only westerners in Luoyang when we visited. It was the middle of a bitter, Chinese winter and the further north we travelled the deeper the ice-laden wind cut.
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When we arrived at our hostel we realised it was a flat shared with the owner and his son in the centre of residential Luoyang. We found that we could only communicate through Google Translate, and, after a few false attempts he managed to tell us we should do three things here: eat steamed dumplings, see the Longmen Grottoes and take the local bus to the Luoyang Musuem – a mausoleum of Chinese antiquities and treasures.
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After two hours staring at jade, ivory and precious statues behind glass, we wandered back into the pale sunlight and straight into this gentleman. He sits, with his barrel of hot, roasted sweet potatoes, by the museum gates everyday, through summer and winter.

The smell of singed potato skin enticed us closer and, when he flashed us that smile we were powerless to resist. We left with handfuls of hot potato, warming our hands though our gloves for the bus home.
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If anyone is heading to Luoyang I would love to know if he is still there…

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Extreme Japan: Mental Bento

I was trawling down my Facebook feed yesterday when a post from Tokyo Otaku Mode popped up. I always view their posts with a degree of trepidation – will it be an inappropriately dressed lolita gazing at the camera in an alarming cosplay get up, or will it be a sneak peak at covert Jap-anime culture, a window into geek’s district Akihabara or some intricately-crafted coffee art?

I was in luck, instead of a doe-eyed teenager with impossible breasts staring wistfully in a tutu and a blue wig, I found a round up of the cutest and most creative ‘charaben’ – a more creative form of character bento that would put most people’s packed lunch attempts over here to shame.

These lunch boxes are works of art, with faces and cartoon characters painstakingly recreated using seaweed, coloured rice, wafer-thin omelettes, carved hot dogs and sculpted radishes.

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All images from Tokyo Otaku Mode’s Pinterest.

Back in 2011, the BBC ran an insider report on Japan’s impressive lunch boxes, which you can still watch online here, but lunches seem to have gone beyond industrious mothers preparing them at home to big business, and there’s no way all of these are made ‘just for the kids.’

In fact there are even websites, like justbento.com, that are dedicated to teaching visitors how to make these elaborate bentos, from beginner’s rice balls to expert character masterpieces.

This dedication, control, extreme level of creativity and sheer, wonderful madness typifies Japan to me, or at least the Japan that I experienced when I visited in 2011.

227093_634454977712_2600907_nFor me, Japan was my rabbit hole and I fell helplessly down it. I travelled all over Tokyo, losing Street Fighter battles in the smoke-filled arcades with Japanese teenagers and wandering around the vast, multi-story manga complexes ogling figurines, comics and costumes before leaving for Osaka, the neon-wonderland, the heart-wrenching concrete jungle of Hiroshima and beyond, to Nara and Kyoto.

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The following is an extract from an article I wrote expressing my bafflement and enchantment with Japan, the confusion I felt for its paradoxical mixture of rigid structure and customs and recesses of deviancy and its blurred social margins. The original piece can be found here.

227024_634454453762_4983178_n“Travelling around Japan I was in turn amused and shocked by the strangeness on show in every day life, from the sexuality to the food and even the conduct of its people.

I was bowed to by airport staff who nearly scraped their foreheads on the ground in deference, then forcibly rammed onto a train by a ‘pusher’ – a white-gloved gentleman who has the dubious job of ramming as many people as possible onto rush hour trains. I saw a woman harshly reprimand her five-year-old for staring at me on a bus, then was subsequently hunted down by hundreds of Lilliputian school children in pikachu hats toting surveys in Nara Park while their teacher pointed me out, saying something along the lines of: “Quick, get the foreigner!”

You’re greeted by a deafening chorus of: “Youkoso, ohayouuuu gozaimasuuuu” when you enter any shop, a cry that follows you around as every different employee – who genuinely seems in love with their job – walks within a metre of you (and just you wait for the complicated thank you and goodbye song and dance if you buy anything). Then there are the times where human contact is severed completely, like the restaurants where you order your food from a vending machine, which spits out a ticket for you to hand to the chef, cutting out the middle man entirely.

Japan in Five Oddities

1. The Ghibli Museum
227515_634455636392_7618330_nPart exhibition house, part shrine to the legendary animator, artist and director Hayao Miyazaki, who co-founded and created Studio Ghibli and all the wonder it produced from My Neighbor Totoro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind to the blockbuster hit Spirited Away.

This crazy museum feels like stepping through the looking glass. There are magical mobiles and murals, tiny doors, strange passages, floor to ceiling sketches and a life-size version of the cat bus from Totoro, complete with dust bunnies (although, as I discovered, you can only go in it if you’re a child).

2. Maid Cafes

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6624442057_d51e83f8fc_bThese are scattered throughout Japan but mostly found in concentration around the geeky Akihabara district in Tokyo. In these cafés, waitresses dressed in cosplay maid costumes act as servants and treat customers as masters (and mistresses) in a private home. A young lady dressed as a cartoon character simpering, serving tea and calling you master? Sound weird? That’s because it is.

3. Manga Kissa

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Can’t afford the sky high accommodation costs at the local hostel? Why not spend the night at a Manga Kissa instead. These glorified libraries come with booths separated by curtains and sometimes walls. You pay by the hour or overnight, get a comfy chair, a computer and unlimited access to the library of comics, films and books to while the night away. Drinks and showers are usually included as well. I tried it and after the sixth neon fizzy drink and hours spent watching poor quality versions of Black Swan and Star Trek I left dazed, confused and quivering from a sugar high at the first light of dawn.

4. The Penis Festival
Every April the festival of Kanamara Matsuri, or ‘The Steel Phallus,’ gets under way in Kawasaki. The object of celebration is recreated in sweet form, in carved vegetables, decorations and a parade.

The Kanamara Matsuri apparently came from local legend surrounding a penis-venerating shrine that was once popular among prostitutes praying for protection from sexually transmitted diseases. There’s also the slightly more disturbing legend of a sharp-toothed demon that hid inside a young woman’s vagina and castrated two men on their wedding nights. The young woman sought help from a blacksmith who made her an iron phallus to break the demon’s teeth, leading to the enshrinement of the item. What? Exactly.

231129_634455017632_7663044_n5. Japan is Weird.com

For more examples of the truly, inexplicably bizarre you should have a look at this website: japanisweird.com, which features – you have been warned – among other things: a japanese KFC Colonel, an intimate relations practice room for teenagers and more adult-sized costumes clearly intended for children than you can shake a Pocky biscuit stick at.”

Travel Diary: Indian Trains and Restaurant Menus

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Illegible scribblings, doodles and snatches from the dirty, scuffed travel diary I kept while travelling around South East Asia in 2008.

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On Ordering from the Menu in India

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“A menu is essentially useless here. They will either not have or not have the inclination to cook half the dishes from it. Ordering merely one local dish will be met with suspicion and ignored and instead you’ll be brought two of everything.

Your choice of plain fizzy water will be considered insultingly plain and will obligingly be pepped up with spices, sugar and copious amounts of salt.

Food orders will be repeated, tirelessly for around ten minutes until both diner and waiter are beyond a level of confusion to the extent that the appearance of food – not what you ordered but presented with such a flourish you don’t care – is a miracle in itself.”

168926_594343122192_1338368_n“Do you have coke?”

“……Coke?”

“Coca Cola? Or Pepsi?”

“Ah yes, Pepsi. I know Pepsi. Yes we have Pepsi.”

Two minutes later he returns with a can of Coke. “Pepsi sir, very good sir.”

On the Train from Goa to The Pink City, Jaipur

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“It’s just gone seven and I am uncomfortably awake. The Nun sits in profile to the window below me, her figure is half-lit by pale, lemon sunshine. She looks as though she should belong in some ancient triptych, a stained-glass window or carved of blonde and chestnut wood.”

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“She looks martyred, blessed by divine illumination, quiet, infinitely composed. She is ‘Nun’ personified. A girl sits opposite. All I can see are her feet. The edge of a sari so red it burns in the half light. She has dancer’s feet: high arched and oddly supple. She stretches them, languidly. Everything seems beautifully serene at this moment. India is a bubble dream contained at this point.”

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Beijing’s Smog Five Years On

Apparently you can still see the sunrise in Beijing, but only a televised version.

Yesterday The Huffington Post reported that the Beijing sunrise is being screened on a huge television in Tienanmen Square amid the choking grey smog that shrouds the capital.

According to reports, the smog is the worst it has been since this time last year and hit over 20 times the recommended exposure levels set out in guidelines by the World Health Organization.  City officials are warning residents to wear protective masks and the US embassy suggested that “everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.”

It was around this time in 2013 when I wrote my first article for AOL Travel, a news piece about how Beijing residents were trying the beat the fog by buying ‘fresh air in a can’…and it wasn’t a wind up.

The product’s millionaire creator, Chen Guangbiao, was convinced that even though the cans had no discernible health benefits, they might help raise awareness of China’s growing environmental problems, which is exactly what officials hope the screen in Tienanmen Square will do now.

I visited  Beijing back in late 2009 and was shocked at the pollution that residents live with everyday. I landed in a thick, milky soup that I assumed was seasonal mist, until I ventured into the capital and saw everyone walking around in mouth covers, heads down, trying to avoid breathing in the viscous air.

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The winter sun would shine weakly in this endless smog, sometimes burning through to reveal the cold blue sky but, on bad days, it would hide monuments and landmarks from me as I flicked through endless photographs of me standing in front of a wall of greyish white.

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Unsurprisingly, it was worse in central Beijing and, when I left the city, I could feel the air thinning and becoming fresher and cleaner the further out I went. Standing on The Wall I felt as though I was gulping lungfulls of the purest air imaginable, trying to get my breathing out of the way for the day before I had to get back to the city.

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But this was five years ago and it only seems to have got worse. City officials, government, residents, health advisers, international corporations and health organisation are all aware of it but you have to wonder, what will it look like in another five years and, more importantly, will you even be able to see it?

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The World’s Scariest Walkway

How far would you go for a cup of tea?

Would you climb the world’s most terrifying staircase to a tiny tea house perched on a precipice to get there? The tourists who climb Mount Hushan in China would.

If you thought that it couldn’t get more vertigo-inducing than the Preikestolen peak climb in Norway:

4951226696_05ac6ddb29_b (1)Image: Leo-setä

Then take a look at the stomach-churningly vertiginous route to the Taoist teashouse via the Heavenly Stairs.

huashanbaseImage: http://www.uqpu.net

It all starts sedately enough with some steep steps cut into the mountain side, much like the ones you have to tackle at the Moon Mountain in Yangshuo or that you’d find elsewhere in China.

Then it swiftly starts to get more hair-raising as the path meanders past temples and villages before the terrain becomes steadily more vertical and the ground either side of the steeps sheers away, dropping sharply down the scrubby mountainside.

Then walkers have to take a gondola across to the base of the southern peak.

1Image: http://www.uqpu.net

Before steeling their nerves for this: a walkway made of bits of plank and some chains and carabiners, padlocked and hammered into the rock face for you to cling to as you shuffle along, inches from the yawning vastness of the open air.

2Image: http://www.uqpu.net

There are larger landing places to shuffle to if you happen to meet another walker coming the opposite way.

5Image: http://www.uqpu.net

And just when you thought it couldn’t get steeper…it does.

7Image: http://www.uqpu.net

If you can gird your loins for the final climb then this is what greets you at the top, which must surely be one of the best cafe views on earth.9Image: http://www.uqpu.net

Would you put your sense of balance to the test on this trail or would all the tea in China not be enough to persuade you to try it?