#34 Rome, Hacked

First, see the Sistine Chapel.
Visit Colosseum.
Eat more than one gelato.

Rome, as a travel destination, is haplessly done to death. Yes, it’s gorgeous, spellbinding, romantic. It is. You have to go to Rome, at least twice. You will come home gushing about your Roman adventures. But before that happens, you want answers to your burning questions, to make that first time so smooth you’d head back for seconds.

So, here I will tell you what I know, based on my experience.

The Roma Pass – do I need it?

Simple answer, no. Unless you are the sort to visit at least five museums in a 72-hour period (meaning crazy) on top of seeing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, you don’t need the Roma Pass. Granted, this pass covers public transportation (buses and trains), you are not likely to take enough rides to justify the cost. Seeing that a one-way ticket sets you back €1.50 and allows only one metro segment within a 100-minute period, you’re better off grabbing a map and walking before you finish figuring out how to connect.

Also, it doesn’t cover to the trip to the airport – so yeah, the Roma Pass is real useless, if you ask me. AND if you are an architecture student, a student in general or a senior citizen, please check for extra discounts not related to the Roma Pass.

Can I walk around Rome? How walkable is the city?

We walked from the Vatican City to Termini after a whole day of traipsing around the Old City. It takes 45 minutes, good shoes and an uncomplaining companion. So, the answer is yes. That said, on a bloody hot summer day, it will also cost you a few gelatos.

I don’t want to walk. Give me a public transport solution that’s simple to remember.

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#4 My fingers are bluer than the Blue Mountains – Sydney, Australia

Never doubt the weather report. Even if most of the time it isn’t too accurate. Because the time when you decide not to listen to it, as much as you don’t like or want to believe (for fear of disappointment or overconfidence in own abilities to predict weather), it is going to turn out pretty damn accurate. Arriving at Katoomba after a gruelling (ok, it wasn’t so bad…just really excruciating slow) 3-4 hour train ride from Sydney’s Central railway station, we hopped off the train, ready to stretch our legs but were instead greeted rather rudely by the startling chill. How cold can it get? We scoffed, but now we swallowed hard and braced ourselves for the 4°C cold at an altitude of more than 1,000m.


Sunset view of the Three Sisters!
(managed to take a picture before the battery died from the cold)

Confident that there would still be hostel vacancies (since it’s off peak season and all), we marched up to the YHA in the dwindling sunlight, a half an hour trek around the town area of Katoomba which felt like 3 lifetimes, and managed to secure some beds for the night. The YHA hostel in Katoomba is a cosy wooden two-storey building with the likes of a ski lodge, complete with a rec room, a dining hall, a spacious kitchen, and all the things you’d find in a comfy hostel. (Wished I remembered flipflops though, because I ended up walking around in socks.)

The town was awfully eerie after sundown, for good reason, with the teeth-chattering wind chill that seeped through to the bones. Occasional, strong gusts of freezing air rushed up to us whenever we passed a street junction, where the straight and squat rows of cinnamon-red cinderblock buildings gave way to a little road for cars to pass through. Popped right into a toasty and busy little pizza parlour where business was brisk and people wove in and out endlessly. It was as though the whole town felt like pizza that night — rowdy families, cosy couples and raucous college kids formed a varied backdrop whilst the stifling aroma of ham and cheese sizzling in hot oil filled the boxy little space. You wouldn’t have expected this from the silence of the streets outside. Post-pizza, time for a little drink to warm us up a bit…!

The Old City Bank Bar & Brasserie looked rather inviting with warm orange lights illuminating the interiors of the stately-looking brick house. In here, it was like a completely different world from the pizza place, sophisticated twenty to thirtysomethings gossiped and flirted with one another in little pockets, nursing one fancy cocktail after another, while the older crowd looked like they were having one of those “philosophical chats” over a gin and tonic or two. It was virtually impossible to talk over the cacophony of 2,000 simultaneous (non-)conversations in the cavernous high-ceiling room, but somehow messages were conveyed through an overly vehement nod or merely a seductive gaze in one’s direction. The atmosphere was a little sultry with a live band blaring right in our faces, the music had a vintagey, folky feel… a symphony of sounds from a classical guitar, harmonica and drums, and the singer’s hauntingly high warbling notes. For a moment, everything seemed to blur into the background, into the orange light, into the many beautiful alien faces…and you could almost, just almost, forget about the world.

The cold has this amazing ability to sap one out of energy in a short period of time. To escape from the bristling winds on our walk back from the bar to the hostel, we popped into one of the bric-à-brac stores that lined the main streets. I was pretty surprised that it was still open at nearly 10pm in such a small town, but was more than glad for the respite. There were many interesting trinkles and second-hand items on sale, and one that caught my eye was a huge oil painting of Frida Kahlo. Plenty of antique vases, ceramics, old sewing machines, military uniforms, handmade furniture and ornaments, silverware, designer purses, carpets, huge ugly fur coats and lots of curios… a good place to spend half an hour poking around things that piqued our curiosity. But enough was enough, we needed rest for our hike in the Blue Mountains.

Just so you know, the Blue Mountains aren’t exactly as blue as you’d imagined them to be. Earned its name from the blue haze that is generated from the vaporizing moisture from the eucalyptus forests, the Blue Mountains is also recently listed as a World Heritage area. Truly breathtaking, and lauded as one of the must-have day trips when visiting Sydney (besides Hunter Valley)…

“The rugged beauty of the mountains captivated my heart as well as my soul the moment I laid my eyes upon the scenery.”

The skies were turquoise and clear, not a cloud in sight. The sun blazed but my skin just felt a tinge of coolness. We were about to go bushwalking! Since there was the case of a 19-year-old British tourist who went missing for 12 days (he survived) after going off into the mountains a few weeks before this, we needed to record our names down at the front desk in the hostel before heading out. Well, better safe than sorry, I guess.

We didn’t head straight to Echo Point, but instead took a scenic walk from our hostel and went into the hiking trail from a side entrance of the Blue Mountains National Park. Wise choice, because we could enjoy the fresh air, the birds chirping and the calming silence of the forest…well if I ignored the quiet crunching of gravel and dry leaves under my boots. By the time we reached Echo Point, there were busloads of Japanese and Chinese tourists there marring the landscape with their gaudy inappropriate-for-hiking attires and camera flashes doing their touristy thing. We avoided the mob by popping over to the Information Centre to grab a couple of maps at and went on our way back into the mountains again.

Look, you can’t even see the end of the stairway…and this is only part of it.

One of the main attractions called The Giant Stairway was no joke, with nearly 900 steps of it all! Good thing we planned our route in advance (lazy hikers as we are, heh) and descended the stairs instead of going up. By the look of the blue-faced hikers who decided to challenge the Giant Stairway climbing up, we knew we made a good decision.

The highlight of the morning was the Scenic Railway. We could see The Three Sisters as we rode upwards and the adrenaline rush combined with the view just took my breath away. For just A$10 per person, this would be your best bet if you want to save time and money, instead of having to do the Scenic Skyway or Cableway, which of course would allow you more time to take pictures and enjoy the view at your time. And as if the view and the experience weren’t enough, the Scenic Railway is also the steepest incline railway in the world; so you can add this to your list of Firsts that you have been proudly expanding.


The weather so good, everyone wants a piece of it…even if it meant having lunch on the road divider!
(Did I mention my BF has the best camera ever? The blue in the sky…perfectly captured)

Wanting to fit more into the itinerary, we headed out to Leura Village on the Blue Mountains bus (because it was waay too far to walk), and had a little jaunt around the beautiful quaint little town of Leura before conquering the rest of the hiking trail back to Echo Point. Leura is a very sweet and beautiful town. But the trail was waiting for us. Had a fabulous mouthwatering mindshatteringly yummy meat pie before the trek began. The calories were very much appreciated.

We went past many many viewing points, some of them with picturesque panoramic views worthy of more than a Panasonic Lumix advertising campaign. I was out of breath and frankly out of fuel. The sun was setting and I was freaking out because we were barely 40% of our journey back. My BF was very supportive, both physically and metaphorically, kept my spirits alive by telling me stories and carrying my pack to keep my mind off the fact that my legs were as heavy as lead and that I have already walked a hell lot of a distance. You would be surprised that I was the one who suggested doing this, and he came out unfazed, and amazingly not as bombed out as I was. Not only was the hike filled with words-cannot-describe-how-beautiful-they-are views, it was also a refreshing workout and a great bonding time for us. After the exertion, we also visited the Jenolan Caves the next day to wrap up our trip to the Blue Mountains.

#2 Run Tokyo Run! – Tokyo, Japan

Travel Dates: 19 – 25 May 2009

TOKYO, JAPAN

Tokyo is famed for all that’s quaint, exotic, unique, otherworldly… the city centre and its gleaming glass-and-steel skyscrapers speak only of a future brighter than the glowing red-hot Tokyo Tower in the night, yet the ancient castles and shrines that dot the city in surprising nooks and crannies whisper tales of the glorious, tumultuous past. This is a long overdue post, but I wanted to sit down and let everything sink in before I write a piece about Tokyo, by far the most fascinating city I’ve seen. It did help that one of my all-time favourite movies was Lost in Translation, but watching it hardly prepared me for the awe and intrigue that was about to hit me in the face the moment the Tokyo Metro rumbled into the city centre…

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At the Narita Airport JR station…first Japanese encounter!

We landed in Narita Airport just after nightfall, taking the Narita Express into the city centre, to catch our connecting bus to Kyoto (see previous blog entry). Twinkling, coloured lights peeked at us through the darkness, faceless strangers passing us by as we walked through the underground streets that link to the metro station.

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Crowded but quiet – on a JR subway train

We hit the ground running, with our coach from Kyoto dropping us somewhere in the central business district. First thing first, locate the metro station. Inside, it was a sea of business suit-clad men and women, their faces stern, eyes constantly fixated on their watches, legs striding forward as though they are in a powerwalking competition, except they are not, they are poised for corporate battle…but before that happens, the crushing morning rush hour crowd looked ready to squeeze half the life of them…literally! Everyone filed into the trains orderly (think: George Orwell’s 1984). And as the train chugged its way, trembling as it went along, I couldn’t help but notice how eerily quiet the train was. It was JAM PACKED, yet it was as though there was something truly sacred about the silence for the Japanese people. They read newspapers, kept their music on their Sony mp3 players low enough so their neighbours couldn’t hear, nobody yakked on the mobile phone, some dozed off…and hardly anyone spoke. It was this scene that struck me about how civic-minded and gracious Japanese society is, as compared to many much less desirable scenes I have witnessed. It might be a facade, but it was enough to win me over, for now at least.

jrline
Wow! …And this is only the JR subway system (not including the Tokyo Metro and Toei systems!)

The subway system is easily THE most complicated of its kind in the world over, its lines crawling all over the city centre like furiously knitted spider webs, and spilling over the suburban areas as well, covering practically the entire metropolitan area of Greater Tokyo. With the taxis’ initial meter fare starting at nearly ¥700 (around US$7.70), it is no wonder most of the people in Tokyo rely on the efficient and frequent metro services for travelling around. Getting used to which line to take on which metro service, the Tokyo Metro, the Toei or the JR, would be your first challenge, after of course deciphering how much it costs to travel from point A to point B on a hard-to-find but available at most stations map in English. The lines are denoted by colour, and noting the destination stations would be the easiest way to locate which line you need to get to your station. More often than not, there are many permutations and ways to get to a station by changing at various different interchanges, and that’s up to you to decide. As a person who’s a great fan of railway and subway trains, I found great joy in “getting lost” in the stations and figuring out how to get to, say, Ueno, Roppongi Hills or Marunouchi. If you are the kind of traveller (or should I say tourist) who wants information served to you on a china platter, good luck navigating in Tokyo. ;)

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A shiny golden spermazoid greets us every morning! (That, my friend, is the Asahi headquarters in Asakusa.)

We stayed at the Tokyo Khaosan Annex House, a backpacker hostel in Asakusa, and it was quite a pleasant stay (just telling the truth, no I’m not getting any commission for this). It took around 8-10 minutes for us to get to the nearest metro station on foot, and it’s quite cool because we had to cross a bridge to get to the hostel, and every morning I got to see a little piece of the city, including this GLEAMING golden spermazoid in the sky! If you are a beer aficionado, you would know the Japanese brand of beer Asahi, and yes, that building is the Asahi headquarters. We see it everyday when we leave the hostel to go to the metro station and again when we return.

Accommodation in Tokyo is not cheap, as anyone would have figured out by now, and what we got was close to the lowest rate, around ¥2800/night per person for a bed. No breakfast included, shared bathroom, kitchen and dining area, complete with cable TV and free internet access in the common area. It costs around ¥190-230 to get to the city centre on the Tokyo Metro for a single-trip ticket, which CAN be a little pricey if you take into consideration that the cheapest bowl of ramen we found was around ¥390.

gossipgirl
Something random…Found Gossip Girl in Japanese in a bookstore! :)

Expected expenditure based on our experience:
Conversion rate: SGD1 to ¥66 (approximate value as of May 2009)

ACCOMMODATION
– More expensive towards the central parts of the city

Backpacker hostel – Tokyo Khaosan Annex House                                     ¥2,800/person
Capsule hotel (where you sleep in those coffin-like beds)                        ¥3,000/person (upwards)

TRANSPORT
Airport to Downtown Tokyo – approx. 65 mins
JR Narita Express                                                                                                      ¥3,100 (Adult)
Follow the subway map once you reach Tokyo station to switch to other trains to get to your hotel/hostel.
Other types of trains are available but this is the only one we used.

Around Tokyo
Tokyo Metro One-Day Open Ticket                                                                     ¥710 (Adult) / ¥360 (Child)
Get this one! It is definitely worthwhile as long as you take more than 3 trips in one day. Which you will.

Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway One-Day Common Ticket                          ¥1,000 (Adult) / ¥500 (Child)

JR subway – Tokyo Station to Narita Airport Station                                  ¥1,280 (Adult)
Couldn’t find any student price tickets… either it doesn’t exist or something was lost in translation.

Taxi – Flagoff Fare                                                                                                       ¥660
Never tried… seems really exorbitant!

Bus
We hardly took the bus…the metro is extremely convenient and brought us to every touristy place we went.

FOOD
Bowl of ramen                                                                                                              ¥390 – 1200
Can of beer from a supermarket                                                                           ¥250-400
Packet of milk/ fruit juice (250ml)                                                                      ¥130-210
Groceries to make a simple meal for two                                                          ¥500-1000
A set meal with ramen/udon + soup                                                                  ¥1,100-2,000
A fancy meal in a restaurant  for two                                                                  ¥7,000-10,000

#1 Shrine City – Kyoto, Japan

KYOTO, JAPAN
Travel dates: 17 – 18 May 2009

kyoto_1
Kinkakuji

Kyoto is well-known for its sheer amount of beautiful and magnificent ancient shrines and temples, boasting of spectacular Japanese architecture and remnants of olden-day opulence. I was in Kyoto for 2 days with my friend, which was perfect for purchasing the Kyoto City Tour 2-Day pass for the bus. We travelled nearly 7 hours by bus from Tokyo since we disembarked at Narita Airport. The bus ride cost us 2800 yen (one way) each and it was not comfortable at all, though it is much cheaper than taking the renowned Shinkansen (bullet train). Most of the booking sites are written ENTIRELY in Japanese (with no or very poor English translation), so unless you have a Japanese friend to translate and help you, this option is not feasible.

Transport within Kyoto is relatively convenient, just like most modern cities, it is well-equipped with an efficient public transport system, with public bus and subway. (Check out this website for more on Kyoto’s public transport.)

Tip: They have two kinds of subway just like in Tokyo, but don’t be tempted to purchase the day pass that includes subway rides! Because the pass usually only covers the lines from only one or the other subway company, and makes it extremely inconvenient if you ended up at a subway station that you cannot gain entry to with the pass you already bought. I highly recommend just getting the pass for the city tour bus, since they have pre-planned tourist routes that travel to all the popular tourist destinations, like the Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion Shrine) and Gion.

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Kyoto International Manga Museum

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Nijo Castle

A few must-go places in Kyoto are of course the Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion Shrine), Fushimi Inari (possibly one of the most impressive and biggest Inari shrines — with a beautiful and huuuuge torii gate — in Japan!), Nijo Castle and perhaps a day trip to Arayashima! There are really so many shrines and temples in Kyoto that it was impossible for me to finish seeing even half of them after the two days! Some require admission fee and some don’t, so pick and choose the ones you want to go wisely. For the budget-conscious, the shrines with free entry do not necessaily pale in comparison to the ones you need to pay to visit.

If you are a fan of Japanese shrine architecture, do consider spending more than 3 days in Kyoto to slowly enjoy (and not gorge on) the lovely structures and peaceful atmosphere surrounding the splendid and well-maintained shrines.

When you’re sick of the shrines (and yes, trust me, you will!), head over to Kyoto’s International Museum of Manga…which is really an interesting place to explore, and a true haven for manga fans! Although their collection of manga books are not entirely exhaustive and especially extensive since it is meant to be more of a display museum than a repository, the books they have there are enough to wow your socks off. There are also permanent and special manga exhibitions for visitors to enjoy. You can also sit there to read some of them if you have time to spare. I was more fascinated with the insanely vast volume and variety of manga books they own, than interested in actually perusing the books. It costs ¥500 to enter, but I think it is pretty worth it. :)

Extra tip: Drop by the Kyoto Tourist Office (opens at 8.30am) located within Kyoto Main Station (follow the map directions), to grab some free (!) Kyoto maps and find out what activities and places are worth seeing.

ACCOMMODATION
Backpacker hostel – K’s House Kyoto                                                                  ¥2,300 (dormitory); ¥3,500 (single)
15-minute bus ride and 25-minute walk to Kyoto station
– 3-minute walk to Shichi jo Subway; 5-minute walk to various bus stops

TRANSPORT
Kyoto Travel Two-Day Pass                                                                                    ¥2,000 (Adult); ¥600 (Child) 
(For : City Bus, Municipal Subway Line or Kyoto Bus)    

RAKU City Bus                                                                                                              ¥220 (flat rate)
Goes to most of the popular tourist sites around Kyoto
– If I’m not wrong you can use the two-day pass on the RAKU Bus as well
– This bus is the fool-proof way if you don’t want to struggle with public transport. :)
– For more information, visit the
official Kyoto Transport website

FOOD
– In general, everything is cheaper than in Tokyo.
A simple restaurant meal for two                                                                           ¥1,200-1,500