“There has been a dramatic change in how we define the concept of luxury travel over the past few years, largely due to the current economic climate," Engi Bally, Public Relations and Marketing Manager of SilverDoor, told A Luxury Travel Blog. "It has pushed consumers away from conspicuous consumption towards more authentic, simple and genuine experiences that incorporate elements of environmental awareness and social responsibility."
For the past two years, I've been planning a trip to Russia and Mongolia with a friend. Our original plan was to take the Trans-Siberian Railway in the summer of 2015, but that was quickly scrapped for a trek up Kilimanjaro. Last summer, we again changed our minds when she decided she wasn't willing to quit her awesome job as a flight attendant quite yet.
We've been talking about it all year, but yesterday she confirmed that she, once again, wasn't ready to quit her job. What now?
We sat on foam surfboards under a tree on the beach, waiting for our surf instructor to start our afternoon lesson. My board was yellow; Joel, my British, pre-teen surfing companion, had a blue one. While we waited, I asked him about his surfing know-how. He and I both had limited experience (I downplayed my surfing trip to Hawaii and ignored my surfing lesson in Tofino), so I would feel more comfortable. I really am not that good. There was a chalkboard nearby with the name Nikolas written on it, along with a few surfing diagrams, so I figured that was our instructor and his handiwork. (It wasn't.)
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After my peaceful time at Meiji Jingu Shrine, I headed back into the forest to get back to the city. On the subway again, I headed towards the anime museum, the Ghibli Museum, in Mitaka, just outside of Tokyo.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I got there, but I was expectiing good things. After all, anime is a big part of Japanese culture, and I had to purchase tickets to the museum beforehand, something I don't think I've ever had to do before. Was this place really so popular that people needed to arrive at an appointed time? With all the annoying transfers and stops, it took an hour to get there from Meiji Jingu.
Even though I had given myself a lot of extra time to get there, I arrived at the museum just on time. The museum itself was like a big stucco mansion. It had multicoloured pastel paint on the outside, and vines and overgrown plants crawling all over the walls; it had the appearance of a child's imaginary house.
Inside, the rooms were no different. They were haphazardly organized with a messy collection of watercolour paintings and piles of objects, from books to toys to old-fashioned machinery. It felt less like a museum and more like an old house, where the loner owner had recently died and now people came to visit the crazy old man's place and see what he had been up to all those years. Most things were interactive; we weren't kept a safe distance from the paintings or books. I flipped through some of the old books of anime ideas, wishing I could read Japanese so I could understand the notes that accompanied the pictures.
The museum also had a short anime film. Having never watched anime before (with the exception of Sailor Moon--does that even count?), I was quite excited to see the show.
A little girl in a pink dress and pig-tails takes a walk. It's windy outside. She opens a caramel candy, but before she can take a bite, the wind picks up. It blows the candy into the air and disappears. A wind tunnel chases her into her house. The wind tunnel turns into a 6-legged cat. She gives the cat another caramel and she eats one, too. They laugh together. A bigger cat comes, this one with eight or ten legs, and both cats leave.
At night, the little girl is sleeping when the cat comes to her window. The cat's back opens up and she crawls inside. The cat is like a flying car: its eyes light up like headlights and the little girl sits inside like the driver. They go for a ride.
They're passed by bigger and longer flying cat cars, some the size of trains, until they get to a forest. The other cats have purple-grey, egg-like alien animals inside. In the forest, the cats bodies disappear as they drop the aliens to the ground. The little girl seems to be confused as she watches all these creatures walk by her, until she sees a big, bear-like animal carrying an umbrella walk by. She runs up to it and gives it a big hug.
A huge, multi-storey flying cat car appears. It is so big it can carry all the alien creatures together, and they're all loaded up inside. The little girl gives it a caramel candy. It eats it, then licks the little girl's entire body with its giant tongue. She just laughs. She licks its nose and then they both laugh together.
The 6-legged cat returns and the little girl gets inside. It takes her home, with her laughing all the way.
I sat still at the end, with one big question in my head: What the heck was that about?
Sufficiently weirded out, I decided to get back on the subway and head for another Tokyo neighbourhood: Akihabara, the geek neighbourhood of this geeky country. Japan as a whole is like Akihabara: everything "geek" is cool here. A short walk around the area revealed a large number of video game shops and even more manga (Japanese comics) stores.
I walked around a few of these manga stores, even heading down into the 18+ sections. I was curious: could there really be cartoon for adults' eyes only? Yes, and it's called hentai, and it's creepy. I felt awkward being in the porno rooms with the businessmen, flipping though comic books with not-so-innocent Sailor Moons. The worst part though, was coming across the live-action porn, with a large number of children. When I saw pre-tween little girls dressed in bikinis and posing seductively to the camera. I knew it was time for me to get out of there; I wasn't so curious anymore.
Besides video games and manga, Akihabara is also known for its "maid cafes." After my awkward encounter with hentai and little girls in bikinis, I was a little weary of entering a maid cafe, where the servers are dressed in maid costumes. Was it a "boys only" kind of thing? Would it be a little more sexually charged than I can handle right now? I finally decided that I was, again, too curious to pass it up and, worst-case senario, would just bolt out of there it got weird.
I passed by a few cafes before taking a deep breath and heading back to the first one I saw, where cute, costumed girls were standing out front to attract customers. I quickly sat down and order a Coke and slice of chocolate cake.
The cafe was decorated like a dollhouse: cute, not sexy at all. The place was simple, with long, unadorned tables and chairs. The focus, it seemed, was on the girls. The girls, as advertised, were all dressed as French maids, though each had her own style. Most outfits were the traditional black and white, though some were pink or blue. They each had crowns in their hair and high white socks. Looking around, there were only men around me. I wondered if it was unusual for a single girl like me to be there.
After watching the action around me as I ate, I was left with a lot of questions. Mostly, "Why?" I wondered why the girls knelt down to talk with the boys they served. I wondered why they did this "heart dance" (for lack of a better name) after they served the food, where they made a heart with their fingers and"danced" it around the plate of food. And I wondered why they didn't do the dance with me. I wondered why, when they had some downtime, the girls knelt down and scrubbed the floor with a cloth. I wondered why there was a white girl working there. I wondered why someone would pay 1500 yen for a 3-minute video of themselves talking with one of the French maid waitresses. I wondered how these maid cafes came about in the first place.
One of the waitresses spoke English and, when I was feeling brave again, asked her a lot of my questions. "This started out as a geek thing," she said when I asked her if they ever had girls come in alone, "but now it's like a sightseeing thing. Don't feel weird. I girl came in by herself just before you." Whether she was lying or not, I felt better. About the mysterious heart dance, she said, "It's to put magic in the food. It's like we're putting our love in your food." So geeky.
One stop later I was at Meiji-Jingumae, the subway station nearest the Meiji Jingu Shrine. The shrine was built after Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken, who passed away in 1914 and 1916 respectively. Emperor Meiji, having promoted the combination of foreign influence and Japanese culture, is said to have laid the foundation for modern Japan and well respected by the Japanese people, even today. Empress Shoken is called the "model of the modern Japanese woman" for not only supporting the Emperor but also dedicating herself to the promotion of national welfare and women's education. Dedicated in their honour in 1920, the shrine sits in a forest with over 100 000 planted trees; it's a cozy natural retreat in the middle of the city.
Despite the holiday weekend crowds, my stroll through forest was a peaceful one. I passed under the grand shrine gate, Ōtorii, which I read is the biggest wooden Myōjin-style "torii" in Japan. The shrine itself, a little further into the forest, was another beautiful wooden structure. It was, like Sensoji, unlike another I've seen in Korea. There was very little colour at all; instead, the structure was mostly a dark wood with a few white and gold accents, all topped with a pale green roof. It look quite beautiful all nestled cozily in the trees.
My pamphlet outlined the ways to pay respect at the shrine, by properly drinking from the fountain and offering coins. I first walked to Temizuya, the fountain, to get a drink. No one was around---the perfect time to teach myself how to use the font. Step one was to use the dipper to rinse your hands: first your left, then your right. After that, I took another scoop of water and poured it into my left palm. I took a drink---or as the pamphlet put it, rinsed my mouth. It didn't mention anything against it in the pamphlet, so I scooped again and took a second drink. Ready for the third and final step, I rinsed my left hand with another scoop of water. And then, without refering to the pamphlet, I did it all again.
I moved over to the main shrine building to pay my respects. I threw some coins into the offertory box and enjoyed the satisfying clangs that accompanied it. According to my pamhlet, I should have bowed twice, clapped my hands, and bowed once again, but I was overcome with shyness and couldn't. Instead, I stood still and paid my respects with silence.
To my left, I saw a huge collection of prayer cards. The collection was displayed in a circle; there were maybe five or six sides, each a couple metres tall with several rows of these overlapping wooden cards, and each of these sides came together to form a circle. The prayers (some funny, some serious) were written in many different languages and came from visitors all over the world. I knew I wanted to write one for my friend who has been fighting cancer for a few years now, but had trouble figuring out how to get an empty card. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to realize that I needed to by a card from the gift shop.
I wrote my prayer on one of the tables surrounding the display. As I finished writing, a man started beating this big drum at the shrine, and big, commanding booms echoed all around me. It was a powerful moment; I felt tears well up in my throat and had to fight them down, back inside.
I arrived in the land of the rising sun after the sun had set, so I had to wait until morning before I could take a look at the city sights.
My first stop was Sensoji, a famous temple that happened to be a short walk from my hostel. Right away I could see that Japanese temples are much different from those in Korea. The main gate was mostly a red colour, unlike the colourful mix of reds, yellows, greens, blues, yellows and pinks in Korea. Through the gate, the main temple seemed to have been replaced with an arena; it was covered in big, white sheets, making it look like a new hockey rink instead of an ancient place of worship. I went inside anyways, just to make sure that there was, in fact, a temple underneath it all.
Inside was a slow-moving crowd of people, some were peering into a kind of prayer room behind a sheet of glass. I wondered if always looked like that, or if the Buddha statue and prayer area was being protected from construction. After bowing towards the Buddha, visitors tossed coins into a grate placed in front of the screen. I had never seen a grate system quite like this one before. Was it there to prevent theft, or just because the sound of clinging coins falling through the grate and into the waiting treasure box below was just so exciting and fun?
To the left was a stack of thin wooden drawers. I watched as a few people opened a drawer, took out a sheet of paper, and walked away reading it. Overhearing a family say something about a "fortune," I realized that the papers must, in fact, be fortunes.
Even though I had never been interested in fortune-telling, I decided to give it a try anyways. I watched some more visitors. Put a coin in the slot and shake the silver cylindrical container. And then, okay, so a stick comes out of the container after you shake it. Open a drawer and take a paper. Money, shake, stick, fortune. Got it.But wait---what drawer? I decided I'd better ask someone.
I approached a family who I overheard speaking English.
"Excuse me, can you help me? How do I---"
"Put one hundred yen in here," the woman said, "shake, and a stick will come out. Choose a drawer."
"No, the one that matches the stick."
I went to pay my hundred yen, but the woman stopped me. "No, pray first," she said. "Pray first."
So I prayed. "Dear God," I said. "I am very curious to get a fortune. I don't really like praying with my hands together or anything because this is a Buddhist place and it would feel wrong. I just want you to know that I'm curious about this. Please let me get a fortune."
Then I shook and got my stick. I saw there wasn't a number, but a Japanese character. Matching the characters on the stick and drawer was easier than I thought and soon I found my drawer. As I opened it, the woman came over again to inspect my work.
"Nineteen," she said. Oh, so they are numbers, I thought.
I showed her the drawer and she said it was right, then turned and left me alone with my fortune.
No. 19 GOOD FORTUNE IN FUTURE--
Good start, I thought.
So many troubles and problems invade your family business, everything does not go so smoothly. A tiger demonstrates his spirit too much, then you should be more modest defending its dashing, then you will be safe.
Do believe in gods earnestly, do your best, then everything will be fine in the end.
Getting wealth and happiness, you may remain with them.
*Your hopes and desire turn our to be real by half. *Take long time to recover from sickness, but life will be safe. *Most of your lost articles will not be found. *Take long time to show around the man you wait for. *Building and moving your home will be good by half. *There is no problem of travelling. *Marriage will be good by half. *There is no worry about employment.
There were some concerns---my marriage, home, and hopes and desires will be real and good "by half"? What does that mean?---but I decided to focus on the positive predictions. Steady employment is always good. Remaining in wealth and happiness sounds excellent. And problem-less travelling is a plus for a wanderer like myself. I was especially pleased to see my travel/life motto was even represented with a solid "everything will be fine in the end."
With my fortune safe in my pocket, I left the scaffolding-clad temple and hopped on the subway to explore more of the city.
I ended my vacation with a relaxing couple days on the beaches of the Perhentian Islands. I went to the smaller island, Pulau Perhentian Kecil, where I stayed in a dorm room with a group of other backpackers. It was the first time I my trip that I got hang out with people my own age. We snorkelled in the tourquoise water, drank on the beach, and soaked up the sun.
Sunburned after my day on the beach in Cherating, I decided a retreat to the forest was in order. Taman Negara, a national park, is one of the oldest rainforests in the world and one of Malaysia's biggest attractions. So, after a taxi ride from Cherating to Kuantan, a bus ride to from Kuantan to Temerloh, a bus ride from Temerloh to Jerantut, a speedy cab ride from town to the dock, an angry cab ride back to town because there was no accommodation available near the dock, a few phone calls to book a tour, and an overnight at a hotel in Jerantut, I was finally en route.
I booked a tour through the hotel I stayed at in Jerantut, and the man who booked the tour for me, Addy, also turned out to be my guide. He and his friend drove me to the park in their card, speeding the whole way. Despite the sharp corners, wild passes, near-miss with a bus, and interesting maneuver where the driver lit a cigarette as he steered with his knees, we made it to the boat in one piece. We met up with the others members of our group: a French family with two children, aged 5 and 8, and an older German man who was also travelling alone.
The tour started with a boat ride down the river, and the view was fantastic. I, unfortunately, didn't learn my lesson in Cherating and added some more colour to my legs. The forest, at the start of our hike, was similar to those in Canada, with ferns, big trunks, and open skies. Four kilometres in, we stopped at a small cave for a meal break. My backpack, although emptied (I left most of my clothes in storage at the hotel), was heavy due to the three litres of water I was carrying, and my shoulders craved a rest. After the break, we continued on our way to the big cave, where we would spend the night.
The landscaped quickly changed; it began to look more like a rainforest. The undergrowth became thicker, the canopy above closed up, and the sun disappeared. I saw "Tarzan vines" that, for me, identify a true rainforest. The hike was difficult. There were lots of downed trees on the path that we had to pass over and under, and our footwork was further complicated by the mud.
The day was supposed to be long but easy, but having two young children in our group made the day even longer, and I certainly didn't find it easy. "This area has many tigers," Addy said when the sun started going down. "We must arrive before dark or..." He didn't finish his sentence. He didn't need to.
We got out our flashlights and soon they became a necessity. It wasn't until 7.30 that we finally arrived the big cave—and, boy, was it big! There were several groups already there, but there was plenty of room for all of us. Addy made dinner for us while we relaxed on the mats and talked. After dinner, we went outside to a nearby stream to brush our teeth and "shower"—the whole time I was checking for animals with my flashlight. Soon, all the flashlights were turned off and we all settled in for a night of camping in a cave.
I woke up to sunlight streaming through the cave opening. It was one of those scenes that make you think, Wow. This is why I travel. With the sunlight, I got a good look at the cave. It was one big "room" that was about 40 metres tall and could handle about 300 people at a time. There were two openings: the bigger, higher one (near where we slept), which was almost at the ceiling, and a smaller one to the left that served as the main "door." A big rock sat in the middle and divided the room; people used to rock for privacy when it came to changing clothes and using the "toilet" facilities. Someone, somehow, managed to put a Malay flag high up on the cave wall. It smelled of dampness, fire ashes, and moss inside the cave. I loved every minute of it.
During breakfast—bread with Malay jam: coconut with egg—Addy told me he couldn't sleep because he thought he heard animals. "I thought I heard animals during the night, too," I said. "It sounded like bats to me."
"Not bats," Addy said. "I think tigers."
After talking with the other guides, Addy seemed convinced tigers were out last night. I doubted it, but the idea certainly added some excitement to our upcoming hike through the woods. Since it rained during the night, mud would be more of a problem, plus leeches would be out, and maybe tigers, too.
The day was supposed to be shorter but more difficult than the day before, and the difficulty part was certainly true. The hike was a challenge. The mud was a mess, twigs scratching my legs burned my rosy legs, and there was always something to crawl over or squeeze under. We crossed rivers on fallen logs, and trailblazed our way through thick underbrush. Biting pain on my ankles or spots of blood on my shorts alerted me to that fact that leeches had decided to join me on the hike. It was so much fun. But, with two small children, the day was not short. The little girl, aged 5, had a lot of problems, so her dad carried her as much as he could. We took a lot longer—maybe twice as long—as we could have without the kids. I didn't mind, though; I liked being in the woods.