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South Korea Day 3 – DMZ

Tuesday 31 January 2023

DMZ Tour

Today we are going on a trip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ); a 4 km wide buffer zone, 2 km either either side of the border between South and North Korea. It’s an early start, we have to be at City Hall by 7 am. We’ve already timed the walk to the meeting point – it takes 7 minutes. The old man wants to leave at 6.30 am. That’s 23 minutes contingency. I’m not sure what he thinks can go wrong in 7 minutes? Maybe all 4 of the hotel lifts are out of order? Or the pedestrian crossing gets stuck on red forever? Outside it’s minus five degrees. There appears to be no contingency for arriving 23 minutes early and catching hypothermia while we wait for the bus!

Thankfully, the bus is punctual and we set off with our very informative guide who tells us lots about the area we are visiting, which is the the most fortified border in the world, and the history of the conflict.

Imjingak Pavilion

We reach Imjingak Pavilion around 8 am. Here we must leave our bus and continue on a government shuttle bus, allocated upon arrival. These run at intervals throughout the day, starting at 9.20 am. There are already several tour buses in the car park, but our guide leaps into action, sprints to the tour desk and scores us a 9.20 slot.

DMZ

We have a short tour guided tour followed by some free time to obtain breakfast in one of the snack bars. Imjingak Pavilion is kind of weird mix between a motorway service station, a third rate theme park and a government propaganda tool. Inside is a row of cafes, while outside are a range of, for want of a better word, attractions.

Imjingak Pavilion

Peace Bell

A bell made “with hopes of peace for humankind and national reunification”.

Peace Bell

Steam Locomotive

A train bombed during the Korean War, sitting on the remains of a railway which used to go north.

Steam Locomotive

Freedom Bridge

Built in 1953, the bridge was used by over 12,000 South Koreans returning home from the North during an exchange of POWs. No mention is made of any North Koreans heading in the opposite direction . In fact, over 70,000 North Koreans were returned during the swap, but via a different bridge; dubbed The Bridge of no Return because each prisoner was given the choice to remain in the south over returning to their families in the north.

Freedom Bridge

Mangbaedan Altar

Built as a place where refugees from North Korea can be as close to their homeland as possible when they miss their families.

Mangbaedan Altar

Imjingak Peace Gondola

A cable car ride across the river across an area too dangerous to cross as the Americans dropped two million land mines across the DMZ.

Imjingak Peace Gondola

Pyeonghwa Land

A mini fairground in a car park for no discernible reason.

Pyeonghwa Land

Statue of Peace

A statue symbolising the abduction and rape of Korean women during the Japanese occupation. Nothing to do with the border, but when you’ve got a captive audience for your propaganda…

Statue of Peace

DMZ Theatre

From here, we drive to Third Infiltration Tunnel, a tunnel allegedly dug under the DMZ by the North Koreans, who planned to continue digging for a further 51 kilometres to launch a surprise attack on Seoul from below.

DMZ

First we must watch a short propaganda video at the DMZ Theatre. The video provides a South Korean perspective on the Korean War, how the DMZ came about, and today’s current situation. It also gives some background to the infiltration tunnels that North Korea dug.

DMZ

The Third Infiltration Tunnel

The tunnel was discovered in 1978. The South Koreans then built a tunnel to reach the tunnel in order to make the secret tunnel accessible to tourists.

Third Infiltration Tunnel

Before entering, you must deposit all your belongings including phones/cameras in a locker and don a hard hat.

DMZ

The main tunnel, which is 73 metres underground, is reached by a steep access tunnel. I fall behind with an American woman who after walking around 400 metres down the access tunnel promptly has an asthma/panin attack and announces she left her inhaler in her bag.

Third Infiltration Tunnel

So I stay with her and we resurface without reaching the actual tunnel. Instead, one of the guards takes a photo of me with hard hat posing with some fake soldiers and I buy some fridge magnets in the gift shop.

DMZ

Above ground are more photo ops, which we rush round to reach the bus before the predetermined rendezvous time.

DMZ

Dora Observatory

Our next stop is Dora Observatory. Sitting at the top of Dorasan, the Observatory provides an excellent point to look across the border. We take a lift to the third floor, where there is an observation platform lined with binoculars.

Dora Observatory

There are fewer binoculars than people and our time here is quite short, so I only get a brief turn on the binoculars before we have to depart.

Kijong-dong

We are told what to look for across the border, but weather conditions aren’t ideal. We can see the North Korean flag flying – at 160 metre high, the 5th largest flagpole in the world. It is situated in the village of Kijong-dong; known as Peace Village to the North Koreans or Propaganda Village in the south, who claim it to be a sham.

Road to Gaseong Industrial Complex

There’s also the abandoned Gaseong Industrial Complex, built for South Korean companies to take advantage of cheap labour, paying the 40,000 North Koreans who worked there $75 a month until relations deteriorated and the complex shut.

Checking out North Korea

Pass by the Unification Village

Our final stop is described as a Pass by the Unification Village, which pretty much sums it up. We have 15 minutes at the small shop, just enough time to purchase a post card.

Unification Village

Then we are returned to the parking lot to join our original bus for our return to Seoul. The tour took 6 hours and cost W80,000. I’m not usually a fan of organised tours as I like to do things at my own pace. But there is currently no alternative if you want to visit the DMZ. The pace is frenetic, with only a short time in each place and most of that is spent listening to propaganda. Listening to propaganda gives me a headache, as I make mental notes of all the things I want to Google when I get home. However, on the whole, I enjoyed my day. It was a unique experience with plenty of cheesy photo ops. What’s not to love?

DMZ toilet report; randomly FIFA themed.

FIFA Toilets

Lunch in Namdaemun Market

Once we are dropped off, we go in search of dinner, using the scientifically proved method of choosing somewhere that looks pretty busy.

Lunch in Namdaemun Market

We randomly pick one of the many cafes lining the streets in Namdaemun Market. I order kimchi fried rice – price W8000. The old man’s sausage stew is W20,000. We wonder briefly about the price difference and decide that meat must be expensive in South Korea. The real answer becomes clear when the food arrives.

Kimchi Fried Rice

My dish is the perfect amount for one person, while the old man has enough food to feed the 5000.

Sausage Stew

After lunch, we retire to our hotel with some beers. It’s been a long day and tomorrow will be even longer as we head, via a rather circuitous route, for home.

South Korea Day 2

Monday 30 January 2023

There’s a special offer on the hotel breakfast buffet if you join their club. It’s not easy – it involves filling in a three page questionnaire. In Korean. But I am determined. The old man holds his phone over mine to translate and we get there in the end. At reception, we produce our newly acquired membership and get breakfast for W13,200 each (£8.67). I feel extra smug as a young American couple behind us announce they have given up and pay full price. I think you can say we got our money’s worth!

Hotel Gracery Breakfast Buffet

Well fuelled for a day’s sightseeing we set off to see what Seoul has to offer on a Monday (most tourist attractions open Tuesday to Sunday).

Seoul City Hall

First stop, Seoul City Hall. The glass and steel wave of City Hall crests over the original 1920s building (which is now a library).

Seoul City Hall

Inside, the Green Wall, a vertical garden scales the inside of the building right up to the seventh floor. Looming down from the roof is ‘Metaseosa Seobeol’, an art installation of white balloons which, and I quote, because I couldn’t come up with this stuff, ‘interprets the capital’s 2000-year turbulent history through a play of light and form to symbolise hope and myth.’ OK, so not a phallic balloon sculpture then…

Inside Seoul City Hall

Cheong-gye-cheon

Just up the road from City Hall is Cheong-gye-cheon, a stream lined with walkways. It boasts 22 bridges and 12 fountains. I can vouch for the bridges, but all the fountains are empty. Presumably to prevent water features becoming ice features.

Cheong-gye-cheon Bridge

The stream culminates at ‘Spring’, a giant pink and blue shell sculpture.

Cheong-gye-cheon Spring

Gyeongbokgung

Just past City Hall is Gyeongbokgung, ‘The Palace of Shining Happiness’. This large palace complex has several buildings, courtyards and gardens. Plus a changing of the guard with some impressive guard costumes on display.

Guards at Gyeongbokgung

In fact, costumes are extremely popular at Gyongbokgung. Many visitors have come dressed up in traditional costume to take selfies of themselves draped around parts of the palace. I feel distinctly underdressed in my trackie bottoms.

Gyeongbokgung Selfie

Gwanghwamun

You enter through Gwanghwamun, the main gate, which is flanked by mythical creatures and scary looking men with moustaches.

Gwanghwamun

Heungnyemun

Once you have paid your W3000 entrance fee, you can proceed through the second, equally imposing gate, Heungnyemun.

Heungnyemun

Geunjeongjeon

A walk through a courtyard brings you to the main palace building, Geunjeongjeon. The entrance is cordoned off, but you can peer inside to get an idea of the opulence of the interior.

Geunjeongjeon

Gyeonghoeru

Past this is Gyeonghoeru, a building on 48 pillars in the middle of a lake/ice rink.

Gyeonghoeru

Gangyeongjeon and Gyotaejeon

The King’s living quarters of Gangyeoungjeon and the Queen’s chambers of Gyotaejeon can only be admired from the outside.

Gyotaejeon

Hyangwonjeong

Towards the rear of the palace is Hyangwonjeong, a pavilion on an island.

Hyangwonjeong
Hyangwonjeong

National Folk Museum of Korea

Adjoining Gyeongbokgung is the National Folk Museum of Korea. Theoretically, entry to this is included with your entry to the palace. However, most of it was closed when we visited.

National Folk Museum of Korea

The exhibition covers the history of the Korean people. The grounds are also full of interesting exhibits.

National Folk Museum of Korea

There is also a Children’s Museum flanked by the Korean Equivalent of Tellytubbies.

National Folk Museum of Korea

After a morning of historic buildings, the afternoon is for more modern structures. We take the Subway from the nearby station of Gwanghwamun to the Olympic Park.

Seoul Olympic Park

Seoul Olympic Park is a large park on the south eastern edge of Seoul built for the 1988 Olympics. There are several stadiums situated in a park, surrounded by over 200 sculptures. There’s also an art gallery, two museums and the remains of the 3rd Century Mongchon Fortress.

Seoul Olympic Park

As it’s Monday, the museums are closed, so we take a wander through the park (there’s a subway station at both ends) to enjoy the park and its plethora of sculptures. Created by sculptors from around the world, some are better than others. Each piece has an illuminating/baffling interpretation of their work by the artist in question. I’m no art expert, but it sounds like a lot of b****** to me.

Under ‘The Thumb‘
View to Ayacucho
Dialogue

Depending on which subway station you use, you either start or finish at the Plaza of Peace, where the flags of the Olympic Nations all flutter away in the breeze.

Plaza of Peace

Beyond this is the Peace Gate, a winged arch adorned with a mural and the Olympic Rings.

Seoul Olympic Park Peace Gate

There’s even an opportunity to mount an Olympic medal rostrum (gold, of course).

Seoul Olympic Park

K Star Road

Our final destination of the day is a few miles to the west of the Olympic Park. Alight from the subjway at Apgujeong Rodeo and you find yourself on ‘K Star Road’. For a few hundred metres of Soellung-ro, the pavement is lined with fibreglass bears.

K Star Road

The first is a very large bear sporting Gangnam shades. There are a dozen smaller bears dedicated to various K-Pop artists I’ve never heard of.

K Star Road

And that concludes our first full day in Seoul. Fitting for a visit to an Olympic Stadium, we have walked a half marathon and are shattered, so it’s back to the hotel for an early night before tomorrow’s trip to the DMZ.

South Korea Day 1

Sunday 29 January 2023

Flight to Seoul

Our time in Japan is over. We seem to have been here forever and no time at all. We drive the final few miles to the airport and drop the hire car. Then begins the convoluted journey to the terminal. The care hire shuttle only goes to the domestic terminal, which drops us further away from airport entrance than where we’d started. But at last we don’t have to cross the motorway with our luggage (again). Then another shuttle takes us to the international terminal.

We arrive in plenty of time- the check in desk isn’t even open yet – because the old man was stressing about finding petrol/find the car hire office/finding the airport/checking in/being over our luggage allowance/the fact that my passport expires next week.

We check in without any of the above being an issue. In fact our only issue is that we’re at the gate 2 hours before our flight is due to depart. And it’s delayed.

I determine to spend our few remaining yen. The queues in the shops are enormous, so by the time I’ve purchased a fridge magnet, some waving cats, sandwiches and beer that’s an hour taken care of.

Bye Bye Japan

An hour behind schedule we board the 90 minute flight to Seoul, which is just enough time to complete the copious amount of paperwork the air hostess presents us with. And drink my airport beer. The old man is not impressed with my illicit drinking and makes me hide the can under the tray table, which doesn’t look suspicious at all!

Arriving at Incheon Airport

Once we have gone the usual airport necessities we catch a bus into the city which is a further 37 miles away.

Arriving at Incheon Airport

The train is quicker, cheaper and more regular, but the bus stops right outside our hotel – a bonus bearing in mind the recent weather in Seoul, which has been bitterly cold. So we opt for the bus, only it’s not the bus we’d intended to take – that doesn’t appear to exist any more.

The bus drives into Seoul along the Han River, which has frozen over. It’s supposed to drop to minus ten degrees tonight, so we’re glad to reach our destination before dark. We alight at Namdaemun Market and walk the final 10 minutes to our hotel.

Namdaemun Market

Namdaemun Market is the largest market in Korea, with 10,000 stalls grouped by alley. There are a vast variety of goods on offer from food to clothes to household goods and souvenirs.

Namdaemun Market

Sungnyemun

We pass the historic Sungnyemun, one of the capital’s original fortress gates. Once a grand entrance to the city, it now sits on a traffic island looking grand yet rather out of place.

Sungnyemun

Hotel Gracery Seoul

Our home for the next 3 nights is the Hotel Gracery Seoul, which is situated on floors 11-20 of a tower block just north of the market. It’s a fairly new Japanese hotel, so is clean and modern and very pleasant.

Hotel Gracery

Our room is on the 13th floor, so has a view, but we can hear the wind howling around us like a gang of banshees on the rampage.

View from Hotel Gracery

Hotel Gracery toilet report; remote controlled!

Toilet Remote Control

Dinner at Kalguska Alley

After we are checked in, we return to Namdaemun Market to buy dinner. There is a selection of street food available from stalls selling kebabs, pancakes and all sorts of things as – pig’s trotters anyone? And there’s an alley (Hairtail Alley) dedicated to fish stew. But we opt for Kalguska Alley.

Dinner at Kalguska Alley

You walk through a plastic curtained door into an alleyway of stalls selling Kalguska, a popular Korean noodle dish. It comes as a set meal with a range of other things. My favourite was the Bibimbap; a spicy mix of rice and vegetables. This veritable feast set us back 8,000 won (£5.25) each. The old man is less impressed, he keeps wondering when she’s going to add the meat?

Dinner at Kalguska Alley

Japan Day 23 – Dazaifu

Saturday 28 January

Our time in Japan is nearly over, today we head back towards Fukuoka ready for our departing flight. Just time for my final morning rooftop dip watching the sun rise over the petrochemical plants of Beppu.

Sunrise over Beppu

Drive to Dazaifu

Today are driving to Dazaifu, a shrine town on the outskirts of Fukuoka. We had planned to stop in the mountain village of Yufuin en route, but with sub zero temperatures after a day of snow, we decide not to risk getting stuck in ice/because the expressways are closed and head straight for Dazaifu.

Beppu Global Tower

It was definitely the right decision. Before we’ve even reached the outskirts of town it’s snowing again and even on the expressway the snow is starting to settle on the outside lane.

Drive to Dazaifu

It’s a scenic if somewhat nerve wracking drive through the mountains of Kyushu.

Drive to Dazaifu

Dazaifu

We reach Dazaifu without incident, despite the snow. This former Capital of Kyushu is known for its shrine. When we arrive it’s heaving. Luckily our apartment has its own parking spot so we head there first.

Dazaifu

Sonic Apartment Hotel

The Sonic Apartment Hotel is quite close to the centre of Daifuzu, just round the corner from the pedestrian area which leads to the shrine.

Sonic Apartment Hotel

Our apartment has two double beds, a kitchenette and a bathroom crammed into it and is surrounded by an abundance of plastic foliage. It’s above a restaurant so smells of fried chicken and it’s very cold.

Bedroom/living/dining area at Sonic Apartment Hotel

We turn on the heaters in the hope that the apartment will be habitable on our return and set off for a wander.

Kitchen/Bathroom at Sonic Apartment Hotel

Pancakes at Kasanoya

We walk along the busy pedestrian shopping street towards the shrine. Dazaifu is famed for its pickled plum pancakes (umegae-mochi) sold at various shops along the street. In many you can observe the pancakes being made either by hand or by machine.

Making umegae-mochi

We opt for the shop with the biggest queue, Kasanoya and buy a bag of the highly coveted pancakes (5 for Y650). They’re like dough balls into which a mixture of beans and plum have been stuffed. It’s very claggy and the beans keep repeating on me. Not great when you’re wearing a surgical mask…

Eating umegae-mochi

Kyushu National Museum

As the shrine is so crowded, we decide to visit Kyushu National Museum first. This enormous building looks like someone dumped a spaceship on the hillside.

Journey to Kyushu National Museum

It is reached by a series of escalators and moving walkways, which bring you up the hill to the very impressive glass and steel building.

Kyushu National Museum

Entry to the permanent exhibition costs Y700. This is situated on the 4th floor, accessed by yet more escalators.

Ancient Sumo Statue

After such an impressive arrival, the exhibition has a lot to live up to, which it can’t quite manage. The ‘Cultural Exchange Exhibition Hall’ contains a range of exhibits from ancient artefacts to satellites from both Kyushu and across Asia.

Early Dalek Prototype

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine

We descend back down the hill to Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine. This large shrine with a pond and legendary plum tree is thought to bring good luck, particularly to students taking exams. Students come/are brought here from far and wide to wish for examination luck.

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine – Lucky Bull

After you’ve rubbed the lucky bull’s nose to bring you good fortune, you pass over Tai Ko Bridge towards the main shrine.

Tai Ko Bridge

Behind the shrine is a museum, but we decide to walk back down the hill in search of somewhere to eat. Everywhere is either very busy or about to close. Dazaifu is a popular day trip from Fukuoka. Not many people stay overnight, hence not much stays open late.

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine

So it’s another gourmet microwave meal from the convenience store for us. Then an early night ready for our flight to Seoul in the morning.

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine

Japan Day 22 – Beppu

Friday 27 January 2023

Awake at 8.22 am. In the rooftop bath by 8.30. I still haven’t got the hang of Japanese public bath etiquette and I’m not sure how to improve without observing others, which might look a bit weird and Perry between two naked strangers. But I have lovely bath, even if I am lying on my back like a giant starfish with tits, while the Japanese ladies are sitting demurely in huddled balls around the edges.

Also I don’t think I’m doing dressing/undressing right. The Japanese ladies get completely naked before removing their masks, while I’m more a mask first, knickers last kind of girl.

Morning Bath

Jigoku Meguri (Hell Circuit)

After breakfast, we set off to visit the Hell Circuit, aka the 7 Hells of Beppu.

The hells) are seven hot springs for viewing rather than bathing, where you can see steaming pools in red, white and blue, bubbling mud pools and other hydrothermal activity. Each of them has adopted a theme.

Five of the seven hells are located in the Kannawa district (around 3 miles north of the town centre and two are the Shibaseki district (2 miles further north).

Entry costs Y400 per attraction or you can visit all 7 hells for Y2000. There is an 8th hell Yama Jigoku) isn’t included which we didn’t go to because it consists of a ‘compact petting zoo’.

Kannawa District

Umi Jigoku

Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell) is probably the biggest and the best, which is kind of unfortunate, because it sets expectations several of the other attractions can’t live up to.

Umi Jigoku

Here, steam rises from a blue pool. As we arrive, the wind picks up, which sends the plumes in every direction. One minute, you can see the pool, the next you can’t see anything as the sulphurous steam swirls around you. Then it starts to snow, so we have ice and steam at the same time.

Umi Jigoku

It’s set in a garden where there are a few smaller, orange coloured hells and a large pond.

Umi Jigoku

There is also a steam heated greenhouse with a lily pond and banana plants.

Umi Jigoku

Oni-ishibozu Jigoku

Oni-ishibozu Jigoku (Demon Monk Hell) is so named because the bubbling pools of mud are said to resemble a monk’s shaved head.

Oni-ishibozu Jigoku

Kamado Jigoku

Kamado Jigoku (Oven Hell) sells food cooked in the steam, as demonstrated by a demon cook statue at the entrance.

Kamado Jigoku

Visitors can drink the hot spring water, enjoy hand and foot baths, inhale the hot spring steam and try various snacks cooked in the hot spring.

Kamado Jigoku

There is also a man demonstrating I don’t know what with a blow torch.

Kamado Jigoku

Oniyama Jigoku

Oniyama Jigoku (Devil’s Mountain Hell) has dozens of forlorn crocodiles crammed together in a tiny, concrete enclosure. Grim.

Oniyama Jigoku

Shiraike Jigoku

Shira-ike Jigoku (White Pond Hell) has a vaguely white pond surrounded by a garden. Inside are enormous fish in tiny tanks they can hardly move in. Also grim.

Shiraike Jigoku

Shibaseki District

We drive up the road to the last two hells.

Chinoike Jigoku

Chinoike Jigoku (Blood Pool Hell); when the steam subsides it reveals a pond of deep ochre.

Chinoike Jigoku
Chinoike Jigoku

This is one of my favourite hells and it provides plenty of props for that all important photo op.

Chinoike Jigoku

Tatsumaki Jigoku

Tamatsuki Jigoku (Tornado Hell) has a geyser which erupts roughly every half an hour. A stone arch has been erected to prevent the geyser from reaching too high, but it’s still interesting to watch the controlled mini geyser, while a recorded message boasts that the geyser erupts more regularly than Old Faithful or any geyser in Iceland.

Tatsumaki Jigoku

Yukemuri Observatory

On the way back into town, we stop at Yukemiri Observatory, which I read about on the Drive Japan website. They said it was hard to locate and they weren’t kidding. Especially with our Google Map screenshot to Japanese GPS navigation method.

Yukemuri Observatory

A small concrete tower on the hillside provides views of the town below with steam belching forth.

Yukemuri Observatory

As it’s our last day before a prolonged journey home (unless the expressways close again, then who knows where we’ll be?) we spend a fun afternoon in the laundrette, which has a useful reminder not to put pets in the washing machine.

No Pets Allowed in Washing Machines

Once we have walked back to the hotel through the bitterly cold Kitahama Park.

Kitahama Park

Then time for a final dip in the rooftop hot bath. After 3 weeks in Japan, today I finally convince the old man to take a public bath. He’s a bit concerned about getting naked on the roof in sub zero temperatures. I tell him he needs to be more concerned about ridiculous he looks in his yukata!

Off to the Public Bath

Japan Day 21 – Kumamoto to Beppu

Thursday 26 January 2023

On yesterday’s schedule was Kumamoto, ETA 2 pm; castle and gardens, then today a drive to Beppu via a volcano lookout and a gorge where you can hire a boat and row through the gorge.

In reality, we arrived in Kumamoto long after everything was shut and aren’t prepared to veer off course today after yesterday’s struggles with Japanese road closures.

Kumamoto

So, most of our plans are shelved, but we get up and take a walk up the hill to Kumamoto Castle, which has recently reopened to the public after being destroyed by an earthquake in 2016.

Kumamoto Castle

A lot of the grounds are cordoned off and it takes us a while to work our way round to the entrance which is on the opposite side to the city. At one point, we see a ladder and wonder if this is the entrance?!

Kumamoto Castle

Entry costs Y800. We don’t really have time to go in and get back to our hotel in time for check out, so the plan is just to visit the castle grounds and take some photos. But the toll booth is cunningly placed so you have to purchase a ticket before getting close to the castle.

Kumamoto Castle

We purchase our tickets and enter the ultra modern castle, which is laid out over 6 floors with a observation deck at the top.

Kumamoto Castle

We start climbing the stairs floor by floor. There is plenty of information, presumably about the castle. Who knows? I can’t read Japanese.

Interior of Kumamoto Castle

The old man is worrying about getting back in time and says we don’t have time to climb to the top. I point out there’s a lift. He says the lift is only for the elderly and infirm. I tell him to shut up and get in the lift.

View from Kumamoto Castle

We have a quick look at the view from the top, then descend back into Kumamoto and set off for our final destination in Japan; Beppu.

Goodbye Kumamoto

Drive to Beppu

We think we have perfected the art of driving on Kyushu as a foreigner; we program Google Maps, which doesn’t work, then hold the image next to the Japanese GPS, which we can’t read. Then line up the maps on both, put a red cross on the car GPS and then follow the green arrows to roughly our destination, depending on how accurate we were with the cross.

Drive to Beppu

In theory, Beppu is just 81 miles away, but we are being taken the long way round to stay on the expressway, bringing the journey to 130 miles. ETA; 2 pm. Let’s hope the expressways are actually open today and we’re in Beppu before 7!

Drive to Beppu

Today we actually make good time and are indeed in Beppu around 2 pm, despite stopping at a service station for a quick pee and mountain photo op.

Service Station Snow Clearance

Beppu

Beppu is a seaside spa town, famous for its hot springs and the plumes of steam which randomly spew forth around town.

Beppu

Hotel Aile

Our hotel for the next two nights is Hotel Aile which has its own Onsen (hot spring baths). We paid extra for a sea view, and have ended up in a triple room. The decor is a bit 80s, but its cosy and it’s nice to have some extra space.

Room at Hotel Aile

We take a walk along the sea front, which is sandwiched between the port and a petrochemical plant, through Matogahama Park.

Matogahama Park

Then we walk into town, where even the station has its own hot spring.

Beppu Station

Dinner at Bungo Chaya

Beppu’s cuisine includes toriten (chicken tempura) and dangojiru (miso soup with thick noodles). We find a little restaurant which serves a set meal including both dishes for Y1150 (£7.15). Add a pint of draft beer and the price comes to about £10.

Dinner at Bungo Chaya

Then we return to our hotel, where the old man crushes his candy, while I don my Japanese dressing gown and check out the hot spring baths. There’s an indoor bath on the top floor and open air bath on the roof.

Onsen ready

It may be freezing outside but the water is around 40 degrees, so it’s lovely lying on the hotel roof naked watching day turn to night above me.

Hotel Aile Rooftop Bath

At night, Beppu Tower, which has the dubious honour of being Japan’s shortest tower, is lit up, which adds to the rooftop atmosphere. I say atmosphere, there’s actually only me up there…

Beppu Tower at Night

Japan Day 20 – Kumamoto

Wednesday 25 January 2023

Today all my preconceptions about Japanese efficiency were shattered when a little bit of snow took down the entire transport infrastructure.

Hotel Concerto in the snow

Nagasaki Peace Park

But first we start the day with a a walk/slide along the icy pavements to Nagasaki Peace Park, which we thought we’d visited yesterday, but apparently we went to the wrong park.

Nagasaki Peace Park

The Peace Park is a little further along the road from the Hypocentre Park, which is opposite the Atomic Bomb Museum. It is on the hillside, but there are escalators to the top. From here, you walk along a pathway to the Peace Fountain.

Peace Fountain

At the far end is a 10 tonne statue.

Peace Statue

Lining the path are statues gifted by other countries as gestures of peace.

Peace Statue

Drive to Kumamoto

Today we plan to drive to to Kumamoto. There are three choices of route; by expressway (126 miles), by road and ferry (65 miles) or by local roads (113 miles). The dilemma is that it’s been snowing and we’re not sure about driving conditions.

I program Google Maps, which recommends the expressway and we set off just before 11 am. ETA 2 pm. It’s a sunny day and the snow that fell overnight has pretty much gone. However, when we reach the expressway it is shut.

Undeterred, Google attempts to take us to a different expressway. Also closed. At this point, Google decides not to play any more and freezes.

We are near some water; option three was to skirt around Ariake Bay, so the old man decides to drive around the water. Unfortunately, it’s not Ariake Bay, but Omura Bay we’ve skirted. 90 minutes after checking out of our hotel in Nagasaki, we drive past it again.

I want to give up and remain in Nagasaki until the expressways reopen. The old man is determined to soldier on. We decide to have a bash with the car GPS, even though it’s in Japanese, so we can’t understand the instructions or read the place names, which makes it impossible to program. But at least it has the closed expressway junctions indicated.

And so we set off once more on a road which takes us round the correct bay. An hour later, the GPS decides the expressway isn’t closed any more and directs us onto the next junction, where a man asks us where we’re going, mmthen tells us it is, in fact, still closed.

So we set off around the bay once more, for another 90 minutes, before the Japanese GPS decides that this road, too is closed and turns us back towards Nagasaki to catch the ferry instead. I’m not convinced – I don’t think we will reach there in time for the last ferry.

Just as we reach the outskirts of Nagasaki (again), the GPS decides that the road it said was open, then closed, is in fact now open and turns us around (again).

We re-retrace our route along the bay. We’re getting quite familiar with it by now. After a quick stop at a 7-11 for a wee and some chicken teriyaki and egg mayo sandwiches, we set off once more.

After we have been driving for 6 hours, the GPS decides once more that the expressway is open and diverts us to the nearest junction. This time a man asks us where we’re going and allows us onto the expressway and the remainder of our journey is relatively straightforward.

We reach Kumamoto shortly before 7 pm, after an epic 8 hour drive.

Kumamoto

Kumamoto is a lot a bigger than I’d realised with a population of 740,000. Its most popular attractions are Kumamoto Castle and Suizenji Garden reproduces the 53 post stations of the Tokaido, the road, which connected Edo with Kyoto during the Edo Period, in miniature, complete with mini Mount Fuji. Obviously, they shut long before we arrived.

We fight our way through the evening rush hour traffic to find our hotel. Then we have to locate the car park, which is elsewhere, and walk back to the hotel.

Kumamoto at Night

Hotel Wing Kumamoto

Today’s accommodation is another Hotel Wing. It’s a very small twin room. With 4 chairs. I don’t understand why, with such limited space, you would decide to add so many chairs. We could have a game of musical chairs. Except there’s only two of us. And there isn’t room to walk around the chairs.

Hotel Wing Kumamoto with 3 of its 4 chairs

Hotel toilet report; has a vent in the ceiling which blows in cigarette smoke from a neighbouring room.

Dinner at Coco Ichiabanya

It’s been a long day, so we go in search of dinner. In the arcade behind the hotel there is a Coco Ichibanya. We’ve eaten at this chain before and thought it was OK. I order a vegetable curry with rice. You can choose the size of your rice portion. I opt for small. Last time, this got me a small portion of rice. This time, it just gets me a small portion. My dinner comes on a tiny plate and my vegetable curry consists of 5 chunks of potsto, 4 chunks of carrot and 2 slices of bean. Also, last time I went for spice level 1 which was mild. So this time I select level 2 of a possible 5. By the time I have finished my tiny curry, I can no longer feel my tongue. Or my lips.

Tiny Curry at Coco Ichibanya

Kumamoto Castle

17th Century Kumamoto Castle has recently partially reopened having been badly damaged by an earthquake. According to Google, it’s a 9 minute walk from our hotel. In reality, the castle is situated on a hill overlooking the city with a moat running round the base of the hill. It’s a 9 minute walk to the moat, from where you can see the castle in the distance. It is illuminated at night.

Kumamoto Castle at night

Japan Day 19 – Nagasaki

Tuesday 24 January 2023

Today we pick up a hire car to drive round the top half of Kyushu. But first, breakfast. Hotel Wing offers a complimentary breakfast. There are four choice, three of which are fish, including the porridge with a dollop of pollock roe. I can think of plenty of nice things to add to porridge. Fish eggs isn’t one of them. The only fish free option is pancakes with fruit and whipped cream. So, dessert for breakfast it is then.

Hotel Wing Breakfast

After breakfast, we check out and take the metro to the airport to pick up our car. Distance walked round the airport trying to locate the car hire desks/shuttle buses; two miles. That’s not strictly true. After we’d walked a mile, we found an information desk and were told to cross the motorway and walk to the car hire office, while was a second mile.

Drive to Nagasaki

It’s our first time driving in Japan, so we’re not really sure what to expect, except that it’s going to be expensive. Today’s 93 mile drive to Nagasaki will cost Y4290 (£26.54) in tolls while the hotel wants Y1540 (£9.52) per day to park the car.

We set off on the expressway to Nagasaki. all is going well until my GPS freezes with 69 miles to go. We decide to drive to the next services and try to pick up Wi-Fi. In the interim, the wind picks up so the car is being blown all over the road. And it starts to snow.

Stopped at the Rest Area

At the rest area I reset my GPS and we set off once more, only for it to freeze again. We head on to Nagasaki not really knowing where we’re going or how to rectify the matter. After a couple of circuits of the city, we locate the Peace Park and finally find our hotel. It’s down a tiny road that we’d driven past several times.

Hotel Concerto Nagasaki

Tonight we are staying at the Hotel Concerto, Nagasaki. It’s somewhat more up market than our past few hotels and conveniently located for the Peace Park.

Hotel Concerto Nagasaki

My favourite thing is the jacuzzi bathtub with TV. I’m not sure why I’m so excited about this – it’s not like I can watch Japanese TV…

TV Jacuzzi Bath

I thought a soak in the jacuzzi would be the ideal antidote to a stressful day, but forget the rule no 1 of jacuzzi baths. I throw in the bath gel provided by the hotel and have soon created a foam mountain range in the bathroom.

Foam Bath Jacuzzi

Hotel toilet report; it has a clock. So you can do a time and motion study on your motions?

Toilet Clock

Nagasaki

Now we are settled into our hotel, we can go and explore Nagasaki, although the combination of the weather and the fact we arrived much later than anticipated mean we have to curtail our plans.

The port city of Nagasaki has played a prominent role in foreign trade for many centuries. On 9 August 1945, it became the second city to be destroyed by an American atomic bomb.

Nagasaki

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

We head first to The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum which tells the story of the bomb attack and its aftermath.

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

It’s not as easy to locate as you might imagine, as it’s in a large multipurpose building which houses the town hall and the library. When you eventually find it, entry costs Y200.

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

The museum is divided into four sections; Section A, entitled August 9 1945 shows the city prior to the bombing, images of the bomb drop and a graphic of the immediate damage it caused. At the entrance is a clock discovered 800 metres from the hypocentre which stopped at 11.02, the time of the blast.

Clock stopped at 11.02

Section B, Damage caused by the Atomic Bomb, displays artefacts destroyed by the blast, for example rosary beads which melted and fused and the warped water tower and destroyed buildings of a school.

Melted Rosary Beads

August 9th was a Thursday, so the school would have been full of children.

School Remains

My favourite items were these sculptures made by a Dutch Prisoner-of-War who was working 1500 metres from the hypocentre when the bomb hit.

Sculptures of the victims

Section C, Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons documents the world’s current nuclear arsenal and what has been done to encourage countries to disarm.

Countries with Nuclear Weapons

Section D consists of Video Rooms where you can watch videos related to the bombing. Although the museum makes for sombre viewing, it is more educational and less macabre than its counterpart in Hiroshima. There are photos of corpses and horrifically mutilated people, but in the main, they’re on TV screens as part of montages, so you aren’t confronted by the same image for long. I came out feeling more educated than nauseated. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing…

Nuclear Bomb Replica

National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims

Adjacent to the Atomic Bomb Museum is the Memorial Hall where a water basin symbolises people crying for water as they died. Twelve Pillars of Light hold the names of the victims. You can listen to survivors’ messages and leave your own message for peace. We don’t stay long as an enormous school group descends.

Atomic Bomb Hypocentre Park

We cross the road to a park. This small, paved park contains some statues and a stone column that marks the hypocentre above which the bomb exploded.

Hypocentre Memorial

Nearby is a section of the wall of the Urakami Cathedral which was destroyed in the attack.

Ruins of Urakami Cathedral

Peace Park

We think that the park we are in is the Peace Park and that it’s a bit naff compared to Hiroshima. It isn’t until we get back to the hotel that we realise we haven’t actually been to the Peace Park – oops!

Nagasaki Sculpture

By the time we leave not the Peace Park, it’s 4 pm and we haven’t eaten since breakfast. None of the nearby restaurants are open so we head for a mall. In a fitting ending to what has been a trying day, we seem to manage to find the only mall in Japan with no food court. So we buy some bits from the supermarket and return to our room for an indoor picnic whilst watching the snow fall outside.

Living the Dream

Japan Day 18 – Fukuoka

Monday 23 January 2023

Not the best night’s sleep. I thought the Dormy Inn toilet was noisy until I tried to sleep through my neighbour’s showers, which happened at 10.35 pm and 6.25 am. Who showers twice in less than 8 hours FFS? Never mind, this morning we check out and head for Fukuoka.

Bullet Train to Fukuoka

It’s the final day of our JR Rail Passes, so we are taking our final bullet train 170 miles south west to Hakata Station in Fukuoka. We catch the shuttle bus to the station. The Dormy Inn has a free station shuttle – who knew? Obviously not us when we paid for a taxi from the station. They’re taking covid very seriously. You have to wear a mask, disinfect your hands, keep the windows open and the driver dons gloves before touching the luggage. The seatbelt is broken, but at least if we crash, I will fly headfirst through the windscreen knowing that I’m virus free.

We reach the station and board our last Japanese train. The bullet train can travel at 200 MPH. That means that we’ve covered approximately 20 miles before I’ve got the internet working. The entire 170 mile journey to Fukuoka takes just over an hour.

Hiroshima Station

Kyushu

Fukuoka is the largest city on Kyushu, Japan’s third biggest island and the closest to mainland Asia. It is joined to the main island of Honshu by tunnel and bridge.

Fukuoka

Fukuoka is made up of two former towns: the castle town of Fukuoka and the merchant town of Hakata. The two towns merged in 1889 as Fukuoka, although the name Hakata is still widely used (for example, if you come by train you arrive at Hakata Station).

Hakata Station

Hotel Wing International Select Hakata Ekimae

Tonight’s hotel is the Hotel Wing International Select Hakata Ekimae. A bit of aa mouthful – wouldn’t want to work on the switchboard. Do they have switchboards these days?

Hotel Wing Foyer

This is one of the cheapest hotels we’ve booked. It’s definitely budget but I actually quite like it. Like most budget Japanese hotels, if you want any toiletries etc, you can collect them from an amenities bar in the foyer. Here, the amenities bar let you choose between a whole range of different shampoo options which keeps me amused while we’re waiting to check in.

Hotel Wing Shampoo Bar

The room is small but clean and bright and makes good use of the available space. I particularly like the shiny chair.

Room at Hotel Wing

Hotel toilet report; an illuminated bowl. Interesting but ultimately pointless.

Illuminated toilet bowl

We have one night in Fukuoka before picking up a hire car and driving round the top half of Kyushu. Having been told that my schedule of gardens and castles was ‘twee’, today we’re going to a shopping mall and an art gallery.

Kushida Shrine

We make a brief stop at Kushida Shrine. To enter you walk through the mouth of an Otafuku Mask. This mask of a smiling lady is supposed to bring good fortune. Unless you forget to duck when you walk through her, of course, then you just get a headache.

Entry to Kushida Shrine

Kawabata Shopping Arcade

We continue through the Kawataba Shopping Arcade. The 400 metre long arcade boasts 130 stores selling everything from souvenirs to kimonos.

Kawataba Shopping Arcade

There are also plenty of food stalls selling local delicacies such as noodles, seafood and white strawberries.

White Strawberries

Fukuoka Asian Art Museum

We reach our destination, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, a museum with renowned Asia Gallery which shows work from artists across Asia.

Fukuoka Asian Art Museum

The gallery is on top of a shopping mall/hotel. In the foyer is a large mural by Chinese digital artist Bu Hua, the remainder of the exhibits are on the 7th and 8th Floors.

Bu Hua Mural

The focal point of the museum is the Asia Gallery, which costs Y200 to enter. The gallery focuses on Asian modern contemporary art, but the pieces on display are diverse. For example, this sculpture entitled ‘Woman Holding her Breasts’ by Indians artist Ravinder Reddy. According to the accompanying description, the viewer’s gaze is held by the lady’s big, shiny eyes!

Woman Holding her Breasts – Ravinder Reddy

One of my favourites is Series 2 No 3 by Chinese artist Fang Lijun. This group of men with identical faces and expressions demonstrate that they have been deprived of individuality and freedom of expression.

Series 2 No 3 – Fang Lijun

And finally this picture by Mongolian artist Tugsoyun Sodnom who manages to convey so much with such a narrow colour palette.

Tugsoyun Sodnom

There are extra fees for special exhibitions. These fees vary; when we visited the special exhibition was ‘Who is Banksy’ and cost Y1800.

Who is Banksy?

Canal City

We return to the hotel via Canal City, a labrynthin shopping and entertainment complex. Its 250 shops, cafes, restaurants (including Ramen Stadium), a theatre, cinemas and hotels are situated either side of a a canal.

Canal City

On the canal there is a fountain based water shows every 30 minutes.

Canal City Fountain Show

Ramen Stadium

On the Fifth Floor is Ramen Stadium. Obviously, this isn’t an actual stadium, but eight ramen shops with noodle dishes from across Japan, all watched over by a stuffed bear.

Ramen Stadium

Lunch at Sanmi 333

We choose Sanmi 333, which is apparently famous for its tomato ramen. I’m afraid I don’t really get ramen. It’s like you take a nice meal and drown it in salty water – a bit like eating noodles at sea. So I’m hoping Sanmi will win me over.

Sanmi 333

To order, you must put money in a machine and choose an option, then a ticket pops out. If you want more than one thing, you repeat and obtain another ticket. Once you’ve finished, you hand your pile of tickets to the waitress and your order is delivered. I choose ramen with cheese, while the old man opts for ramen with pork. It’s OK – but a bit like eating spaghetti bolognaise at sea.

Tomato Ramen at Sanmi 333

Canal City at Night

In the evening, the old man goes for a walk while I stay in and wash my hair. To be honest, my hair doesn’t need washing but I got carried away at the Shampoo Bar – me get carried away at a bar? Perish the thought!

He walks back through Canal City. After dark, the fountain display is illuminated. In addition, action pictures are projected onto the glass building behind and you can watch transformers fight.

Nakasu Island Yatai Stalls

The River Naka splits to form the River Hakata and converges again, forming Nakasu Island. Alongside the river are rows of food stalls called Yatai where you can buy food such as yakitori (chicken skewers) and ramen to eat by the waterside. Or if you had ramen for lunch, just enjoy the view.

Nakusa Island Yatai Stall

Japan Day 17 – Miyajima

Sunday 22 Janaury 2023

It’s the penultimate day of of our very expensive JR passes. There are two things you can do in Hiroshima on a JR pass; take the tourist loop bus and take a ferry to the island of Miyajima. So that’s our day planned.

Ferry to Miyajima

You can get a ferry direct to Miyajima from Hiroshima Peace Park for Y4000. We have to take a more circuitous route with a bus to the station and a train to the port to reach our JR ferry.

We start by getting on the wrong bus and board the Loop Bus instead of the Tourist Loop Bus, but it gets us to the station and the driver even accepts our JR passes, which is an unexpected bonus. Then we catch the train to Miyajimaguchi. From here, it’s a 10 minute walk to the ferry terminal and a 10 minute ferry ride to the island of Miyajima, renowned for its floating torii gate which is one of the most photographed attractions in Japan.

Ferry ride to Miyajima

Miyajima Island

This small island is home to Itskushima Shrine. Inland is Mount Misen, which can be reached by ropeway or by various trails.

Miyajima

As we haven’t has breakfast, we buy some sandwiches and think sitting on a bench by the seaside to eat them will be pleasant. A dear also likes the look of our sandwiches…

Breakfast competition

It’s around a 10 minute walk from the ferry terminal either along the seafront or along one of a couple of shopping streets. We’re not sure exactly where we’re going as the deer ate our map (again)!

Walk to Itsukushima Shrine

Itsukushima Shrine

Itsukushima Shrine and its torii gate are unique for being built over water. The shrine complex consists of multiple buildings which are connected by boardwalks on stilts with the torii around 200 metres out to sea.

Itsukushima Shrine

Entrance to the shrine complex, which also offers the best views of the torii, costs Y300.

Warding off evil at Itsukushima Shrine

Otorii

At 16 metres tall and with a pillar circumference of 10 metres. this is one of the biggest torii gates in Japan. At high tide, it appears to float on the water.

Otorii

Ometesando Shopping Street

We walk back to the ferry via Ometesando Shopping Street. The street is a hive of activity, interspersed with souvenir shops and food outlets. Oysters and eels are popular, plus waffles shaped like maple leaves which you can observe being made in machines along the street.

Waffle making on Miyajima

Lunch at Okonomimura

Back in Hiroshima, we are keen to try the local speciality, okonomiyaki; pancakes layered with noodles and a variety of other ingredients. At Okonomimura there are multiple stalls selling this local dish.

Welcome to Okonomimura

Customers sit on stools surrounding a griddle where the chef prepares your meal. When it’s ready, she pushes it towards you and you hack off slices, leaving the rest gently sizzling away.

Stages of Okonomiyaki making

It’s a fun experience. The cons; if you don’t eat really quickly your food burns, it’s really hot eating next to a griddle plus it’s not the ideal meal to attempt to eat with two sticks.

Okonomiyaki

Atomic Bomb Dome

Yesterday we ran out of time and weren’t able to cross the river to see the Atomic Bomb Dome close up. So we walk off our very carb heavy lunch with a walk to the Dome. Basically it’s just a derelict building, but it is also a symbol of hope.

Atomic Bomb Dome

Dormy Inn Public Baths

In the evening, while the old man crushes candy, I do some laundry. The washing machine is in the changing room for the public baths so while I’m waiting, I figure I might as well whip my kit off and have a soak. The Dormy Inn is growing on me. The baths include a big sit-down bath plus two smaller lie-down baths which are so relaxing. In addition there’s a jet steam sauna where steam is sprayed through holes in the ceiling. As the Japanese like to bathe with their bits on display, obviously photography is prohibited, so here’s a photo from the hotel website.

Dormy Inn Public Baths

Public Baths toilet report; one of my favourites so far – you wash your hands in a tap which comes out of the top of the cistern which even has its own little water feature.

Water feature toilet-sink