The Phrase Book
How to do EXIT - part 2

There are music festivals, and then there’s EXIT. Founded in Novi Sad, Serbia in 2000 by three students of nearby Novi Sad University, EXIT’s playground pulses within the walls of Petrovaradin Fortress, looming over the Danube.

This blog details a great way to do the festival whilst taking full advantage of its Balkan surroundings.

15 nights, four countries; £1000. And a barrel of rakija.

Part 2: Sarajevo, Mostar and Dubrovnik

You’ve done EXIT - you’re finished, you’re spent. Your body won’t stand for it. Whilst it recovers, head for the Adriatic via Bosnia-Hercegovina and enjoy a week you couldn’t experience anywhere else on the continent.

«< Click here for Part 1: Sofia, Belgrade and Novi Sad

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina - 2 nights

Welcome to Sarajevo, capital of Europe’s most astonishing country. Split into Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian halves, it is a beacon of modern multi-culturalism filled with relics of a recent time when it was anything but. Focal point of the Balkan war in the 1990s and first-hand witness to the start of WWI, it is alive with poignant recent history. Emotional, beautiful – two nights here will stick with you.

Try out:

  • Trek to the outstanding Tunnel Museum, dedicated to the secret underground pathway out of the besieged city; pock-marked with bullet holes
  • Head to the hills to find the Olympic bobsled track; elite sporting venue in the 80s, home to Serb mortars in the 90s and now an eerie ruin
  • Seek out the History Museum for a brief but affecting snapshot of Sarajevo under fire
  • Find the iconic Holiday Inn and other bullet-marked buildings on the road back into town, ending up on the infamous sniper alley (near Obala Kulina Bana)
  • See where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by Austrijski Trg, and snigger at the naff exhibition nearby
  • Chill out completely at Termalna Rivijera water park
  • Eat chvapi, non-stop, and drink at the fantastic Pivnica HS beer hall

Stay in:

HCC Sarajevo – slap bang in the middle of Sarajevo; turn left for Europe; turn right for Ottoman beauty. Modern decor, brilliant staff and lots of free extras like the rowdy wine and cheese night.

Leave from:

Regular buses to Mostar (c. €18) offer a more reliable alternative to the spectacular daily train (c. €6). Avoid evening services.

Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina – 2 nights

A stunning drive through evergreen, remote Hercegovina brings you to Mostar, one of the Ottomans’ westernmost strongholds. A historic jewel tucked into a Neretva river valley, Mostar was reduced to rubble in the 1990s war before being restored to one of Europe’s very finest UNESCO World Heritage sites. A unique wonder, held in uneasy peace.

Try out:

  • Marvel at Stari Most, a 27 metre high white stone bridge. An evocative sight, and the gateway between the European and Ottoman quarters. Dare you jump?
  • Clamber the old town’s tightly winding streets – stop in at any of its tiny cafes or restaurants and watch the world pass by
  • Chew your arm off to take Bata’s Tour, only available to guests of Hostel Majdas (see below). A true eccentric and self-proclaimed SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy), Bata drags you for twelve hours along a hectic itinerary: post-war tension; the unnerving Medugorje; Kravice waterfalls; Pocitelj medieval town; a customised party bus; ‘cement’ to drink
  • Walk the former front line to Ljubljanska Banka tower, a nine-story bank building gutted and used as a sniper nest – it is as it was left; complete with bullet casings and discarded documents. Unbelievable

Stay in:

Hostel Majdas – a cosy backpacker cabin with free fresh-cooked breakfast laid on by Majda herself, all raised eyebrow and wry smile. Her brother Bata’s tour is essential. Book ahead for both.

Leave from:

Mostar’s local bus station runs 3 daily buses to Dubrovnik (c. €15), taking around four hours.

Dubrovnik, Croatia – 2 nights

A short bus ride thrusts you from Bosnia’s western scrubland to the cliffs, plunging from winding roads into the twinkling Adriatic. Croatia boasts Europe’s best value coastline, and Dubrovnik is its cultural capital. Relentless beauty, UNESCO endorsement and heavy tourism. Not a backpacker haven, but a haven all the same – a perfect way to wind down to the end of your trip.

Try out:

  • Take a stroll along the old town walls for a succession of great viewpoints and a chance to have a nose at the locals’ squashed-in townhouses
  • Get lost in the winding old town streets; stumble upon beautiful churches like St Blaise’s, exhibitions, aquariums and restaurants
  • Island hopping – romantic Mljet, densely forested; scenic Korcula, with a Sicilian feel; both achievable within a day
  • Sit on the quayside at sunset, a beer in hand. Watch the cliffside slowly illuminated at dusk, or spectate on the water-polo
  • Eat at Lokanda Peskarija – fabulous seafood restaurant overlooking the harbour. Tureen of baby octopuses? Allow it

Stay in:

Dubrovnik isn’t set out for backpackers – there are a few bog-standard hostels (here’s one I stayed in) – between which there’s little to choose. Book ahead to avoid a hotel price.

What next? My route ends here – but buses northwards will get you to Split in a few hours, from where you can island-hop to Hvar, or grab a ferry to Italy. Or perhaps head further north to Plitvice national park and onto Slovenia. Or perhaps head east towards Montenegro and the rest of southern Europe? Up to you.

Book your ride to the State of EXIT 2013 here.

«< Click here for Part 1: Sofia, Belgrade and Novi Sad

How to do EXIT - part 1

Part 1: Sofia, Belgrade, Novi Sad

There are music festivals, and then there’s EXIT. Founded in Novi Sad, Serbia in 2000 by three students of nearby Novi Sad University, EXIT’s playground pulses within the walls of Petrovaradin Fortress, looming over the Danube.

2012’s acts? Start with New Order. AVICII. Erykah Badu. Then eat up eight stages of drum ‘n’ bass, hardcore, metal, reggae, house, cabaret and more.

A little corporate sponsorship hasn’t dimmed EXIT’s irreverence or hiked up its prices. A four day ticket costs you €100, and you’ll drink for what seems like nothing if you’re used to Glastonbury, Benicassim, Ibiza or SXSW.

This blog details a great way to do the festival whilst taking full advantage of its Balkan surroundings.

15 nights, four countries; £1000. And a barrel of rakija.

Sofia, Bulgaria – 2 nights

Sofia’s dilapidated highways and functional architecture hint heavily at its Communist past, but scratch hard enough and you’ll find keyholes into Bulgaria’s traditional and proud culture. Low prices and wonderful hospitality let you roam far over two nights. Discover rakija and remember; you shake your head for ‘yes’.

Try out:

  • Ostentatious Alexander Nevski Church, plus nearby crypts and other oddities
  • Nip into the Ethnographical museum and Sofia City Art Gallery to discover how Bulgarians define themselves through tradition and expression
  • Grimace at the spectre of the former Communist headquarters
  • Duck into the shady Ladies Market and grab a banitsa (pastry with cheese)
  • Follow the yellow brick road to Sofia City Garden for relaxation and ceremonial buildings
  • Hike up sultry Mt Vitosha and peer back down at the city
  • Spread your wings further to reach stunning Rila Monastery for the day, cradled in the Rila mountains
  • Forego the clubs but enjoy the friendly bars – the functionally-named Ale House a highlight

Stay in:

Hostel Mostel – cheap and busy with great facilities, friendly staff, a tonne of free perks and ideal location. As good as it gets.

Leave from:

The central bus station runs two 8 hour buses daily to Belgrade for c. €30. Make time to book!

Belgrade, Serbia – 3 nights

A pallid and impersonal first impression melts away to reveal the edgy cultural variety and vitality of the former Yugoslav capital. If it seems too big at first, it’ll be under your skin after three nights.

Try out:

  • Discover Serbia’s military history at Kalemegdan Citadel with 18th century ramparts and military museum – a great city viewpoint over the Sava lies here
  • An hour is well spent at the spellbinding Nikola Tesla museum, the best in Belgrade, to discover his extraordinary feats of engineering
  • Head south to Tito’s grave and nearby museum to unpick the breakup of Yugoslavia from a Serbian point of view
  • Walk between the imposing Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade football stadiums; get down on matchday for a truly intense atmosphere
  • Clubbing – the Sava’s floating club district is brilliant even in the week
  • Eating – Little Bay – a delicious and eclectic menu, low prices and a ludicrously over-the-top opera house setting

Stay in:

Hostel Madness – hidden in an unassuming tower block, proprietor Srdjan bends over backwards to give you a truly Serbian stay, and terrific banter.

Leave from:

Regular 2 hour buses to Novi Sad go from Belgrade’s adjacent bus stations, for c. €7. Just turn up.

EXIT, Novi Sad, Serbia – 4 nights

You’ve arrived.

Once you’ve jumped the standard festival fences – wristband exchange, a place to sleep – revel in the buzz of Novi Sad in the State of EXIT. It is busy.

Get your bearings, a reliable taxi number and stock up on glowsticks.

The music runs from 8pm til 8am onwards, so set yourself up with breakfast in the late afternoon and a few swigs of rakija for lunch. Bring on the music!

On your hangover:

  • Take walks around the breezy town centre with attractive architecture and street performance
  • Not much doing for fine cuisine around EXIT weekend – but amble the side streets for a great range of atmospheric restaurants and slow-paced bars
  • No sudden movements
  • Wear sunscreen

Stay in:

If you’re camping, this is irrelevant. But if you fancy a bed then Hostel Podbara is a gorgeous modern family-run hostel with homebrewed rakija (>80%) and a shaggy dog. Ideal.

Moving on:

Beat the human traffic - book ahead on arrival for Monday morning’s 8 hour bus to Sarajevo (c. €30). Budapest, Bratislava and other international destinations are also easily reached.

Coming soon, Part 2: Sarajevo, Mostar and Dubrovnik

Kamyanets-Podilski, Ukraine

A back of a beermat guide

In Ukraine for the Euros? Seeking a quick getaway from tourist-choked cities and beer showers? Try Kamyanets-Podilski – a stunning slice of Ukrainian charm.

Vibe: Dramatic vistas and mythical architecture meet rough and ready suburban living.

Things to do: Obvious highlight – the old town. Medieval, renaissance and Ukrainian Orthodox architecture flank cobbled streets with a sleepy, timeless atmosphere. The town sits on a rock island, nestled in the curve of a lush canyon teeming with rural life; the river sidles by dilapidated villages, lush greens part to reveal rickety rope bridges.

Head to the west bridge to find Kamyanets-Podilski’s crown jewel; the old fortress, perching on the lip of the canyon. Glorious views inspire at sunset, and inside is a bounty of intrigue, activities and exhibitions for a half-day out, even with kids.

Visit the bazaar and surrounding streets in the former Soviet new town to get a taste of modern rural living. Ukraine’s farming heritage buzzes around the new town centre, plus you’ll eat and drink for less here.

Finally K-P’s parks and forest promenades sit close to the old town’s east side – perfect for relaxing hikes and watching the world go by.

Eating: forgive Kafe Pid Bramoyu’s hackneyed rustic theme and instead enjoy its stunning canyon views with hearty Ukrainian, Armenian and Georgian cuisine. The covered outdoor restaurant is draped along the cliff top, guaranteeing an idyllic setting even in the rain. Very affordable, and very close to the old fortress.

Sleeping: There are a handful of hotels near the old town, and a few hostels further out. Palmira Hostel is a pleasing option, in the heart of K-P’s residential district. Staffed by absurdly hospitable local lads Jack and Viktor, the hostel is a 15-minute bus ride from the old town and is well connected with the bus station. Good food and great beer come very cheap too.

Dorm room – c. €14 pppn | check them on Hostelworld.com

Getting around: Public buses are easily navigable, all tracing their way through the town centre. The number 1 terminates in the heart of the old town. Taxis are affordable, but you may need some help from a Ukrainian speaker to get you on your way. Fares max out at €3.

Getting there and away: K-P’s bus station in the centre of town offers daily services to Lviv, Kiev and Donetsk. A little further out, the train station has limited services but does let you book tickets from nearby Khmelnytskyi (a 2 hour bus ride away), which is better connected to major cities including Odessa.

And another thing: Kamyanets-Podilski’s annual hot air balloon festival runs in mid-late May. A sure spectacle in itself and a chance for you to see the canyon from an astonishing bird’s-eye view. A balloon ride costs around €100.

My best day of travel

Hohhot, China - August 2008, I took my first step onto Chinese soil as we rolled into the sixth stop on our trans-Siberian express tour from Moscow to Beijing…

A song

We sidled into a rammed blues bar. Our low-key entrance was in vain, as the local boozers whipped their heads as one, stared, grinned and dragged us to the nearest seats. They practised English, piled us up with fags and drinks, and guffawed at our attempted Mandarin.

A wicked whisper flew around that I sang in a band back home, and before I could say “ni hao” I was wrenched onstage by my protesting hands as the house band’s singer stepped aside. Helpless now, I pointed to the third fret on my new guitarist’s E-string, and crooned a downbeat ‘Wonderwall’. The band crashed in, in G, two bars later – it went off.

Returning to my seat, with free drink flying in from all directions, I heard the ousted singer stride towards our table and introduce herself. Sofieya, rockette and fashionista, invited me and compadre Guy on a mystery day out. Would we walk with her tomorrow?

A class

The next day, Sofieya giggled as Guy and I wrestled with dumplings and black boiled eggs in a nearby breakfast bar.

Hohhot swaggered and scurried with industry – busy, busy – and washed around us almost without pause. Almost, but for a cyclist crashing through a newsstand after gazing a second too long at our ginger hair.

We were late. Sofieya pulled us into one of Hohhot’s high-rises and we were in an laminate-floor auditorium with one mirrored wall, hi-NRG soundtrack and a towering matriarch barking at three dozen girls as they shuffled in a circle.

We had walked into Sofieya’s catwalk modelling class. She sashayed straight to her teacher and pointed at us. Moments later, the drill-sergeant was ordering her charges into two lines behind us. Each took a walk with me and Guy to the mirror – strut, pose, teeth, turn on our heel and strut again.

The girls played table-tennis as they waited their turn, and I eventually turned bright pink.

We gathered ourselves after class and Sofieya revealed her afternoon plans. It was her uncle’s second wedding at 1.30, and did we want to come?

 

A marriage

Minutes later we were clambering from a cab as our hosts assessed our wedding outfits – both in shorts and t-shirts, we were ushered straight in.

The marriage hall bellowed with the voices of 400 guests who were dressed to the nines and ready for a junketing. The room buzzed as we passed through, with Sofieya pointing us out to every extended family member on our way to our front row table.

We were sat with five burly lads. Drinks were already stacked in front of them and as we introduced ourselves they poured out our first round – neat whiskey, vodka, rice wine, beer (and water).

The marriage ceremony played out apace; a slickly choreographed medley of Chinese love ballads, a bow from the bride and the groom, linking of arms and finally wedding party photos. Within 15 minutes the happy couple were wed and attention turned to the feast.

In China, it doesn’t do to challenge your hosts’ hospitality by clearing your plate. So they’d kindly avoided any chance of that faux pas.

Food arrived at an alarming rate. Impossible amounts; ducks, pigs, chickens, sheep, cows, fish, crabs, eels, squid, dimsum, spring rolls, black eggs, fried rice, boiled rice, vermicelli, chow mein, rice pudding, cake, relentless.

A mess

Now at this point we were dealing with a solid amount of drinking. Between mouthfuls each of our tablemates raised a glass to me and Guy, shouted “gan bei” and we’d have to drain it. They did this one at a time; for each drink they took, I had six, and had a prawn or cigarette shoved in my mouth. Again. And again.

The cabaret act, dressed in military uniform yelling triumphal march songs whilst gesturing wildly (sometimes standing on his head), took Guy for an onstage drink-off. Then the newlyweds insisted we did the same with them. We were whipping boys.

Finally Sofieya hoisted me up for one more song – she translated my slurred thanks into Mandarin, before I serenaded the room with a version of depression-era blues classic ‘Summertime’ to a bemused smattering of applause. As I staggered offstage, I noticed Guy had missed my performance – he was in the toilet enjoying his dinner again.

The chaos ended. We calmed down with some wobbly games of pool before saying goodbye to Sofieya and rejoining the VodkaTrain tour - rolling onto Beijing, and the Olympic Games.

I did all this on STA’s Trans Siberian tour - The Vodkatrain - £2500 for 23 nights. Check it out.

So that’s my best day of travel - what’s yours?

10 ways hostels beat hotels hands down
Planning a trip to a far-flung location and not sure you can swing the budget for a roof over your head? Here are 10 reasons why you should take the plunge on a hostel; more bang for your buck than any 5-star room.
1. Boundless hospitality 
Your hosts&#8217; business is based on the atmosphere and community you find inside. They don&#8217;t want you to join them harassed or in a pissy mood, and most will go the extra mile to avoid it. Email ahead to specify your room, arrange pickups from your airport or bus station, or ask about any extras. If they can&#8217;t oblige you, they&#8217;ll usually tell you the best way to get what you want.
Like here: Hantang, Xi&#8217;an 
2. Solid recommendations
Online, the community feel of hostels extends beyond the time you’re there. Hostel sites are crammed with recommendations from real, unbiased travellers that give an honest view of the qualities of each. Because so much hostel booking goes through the web, your hosts can&#8217;t afford to ignore what&#8217;s being said; you&#8217;re so much more unlikely to go wrong.

3. Joining in
You&#8217;ll find yourself in a lounge of like-minded, enthusiastic travellers who are aching to see the place you&#8217;re in. Learn to say &#8220;can we join you?&#8221; or &#8220;want to join us?&#8221; before day trips and nights out. You&#8217;ll make great friends for your entire stay.
Like here: Hostel City Center, Sarajevo
4. From hostel to hostel
If you&#8217;re travelling from town to town, you&#8217;ll often find a wide array of hostels in each ready to book at a day&#8217;s notice. Invite people from your hostel to join you in a new place. If they&#8217;re as flexible as you, they were probably looking for someone to move with anyway; you just buddied up for the trip!
Like here: Hostel Madness, Belgrade
5. Ask staff about shopping
Your staff will almost always be long-standing residents of your holiday spot, and passionate about the experience you leave with. Ask them for their best tips for off-beat shops and markets, authentic restaurants, activities and getting around - you&#8217;ll get a uniquely local view of the landscape.
Like here: K&#8217;s House, Kyoto
6. Ask staff to go drinking
"What time do you get off?" What a line - but it&#8217;s your surest gateway to a nightlife you could never see from tourist strips and boulevardes. Drinking with your hosts is one of the best ways to experience a new culture; even if they can&#8217;t come out that night, they&#8217;ll know the place for you and be there for next time.
Like here: Hostel Blues, Bratislava
7. Free stuff
Most hostels keep a stash of all the things you&#8217;ll find useful - books, maps, travel guides, loose currency, or gear like adapters and waterproofs. Plus there&#8217;s often free meals too if you&#8217;re at the limits of your budget.
Like here: Hostel Mostel, Sofia
8. Meals for 12
No free meals? No bother - take advantage of a shared kitchen and brew up a vat of pasta for whoever&#8217;s around. The amount of goodwill you&#8217;ll earn for this is value in itself; you&#8217;ll more than earn back your jar of stir-in sauce.
Like here: Grand Hostel, Budapest
9. Something unique
A busy market means there&#8217;s always an effort made on the &#8216;hook&#8217; that gets you through the door. Hostels go out of their way to appeal to your sense of taste, humour, or romance - your hostel will often be a story in itself.
 
An obscure art-deco isometric 70s hillside hideaway in Tsuruoka, Japan
10. So, so cheap
So obvious I almost forgot it. The cheapest hostel I ever booked was in Siem Reap, Cambodia for $0.50 pppn. The dearest - €30 in Amsterdam. If that&#8217;s your range, how sore could you ever really feel?
Here&#8217;s the next one I&#8217;ll be in&#8230; Soviet Home Hostel, Lviv
Start looking here:
www.hostelworld.com
www.hostelbookers.com
www.hostels.com
Or just rock up on the day.

10 ways hostels beat hotels hands down

Planning a trip to a far-flung location and not sure you can swing the budget for a roof over your head? Here are 10 reasons why you should take the plunge on a hostel; more bang for your buck than any 5-star room.

1. Boundless hospitality 

Your hosts’ business is based on the atmosphere and community you find inside. They don’t want you to join them harassed or in a pissy mood, and most will go the extra mile to avoid it. Email ahead to specify your room, arrange pickups from your airport or bus station, or ask about any extras. If they can’t oblige you, they’ll usually tell you the best way to get what you want.

Like here: Hantang, Xi’an 

2. Solid recommendations

Online, the community feel of hostels extends beyond the time you’re there. Hostel sites are crammed with recommendations from real, unbiased travellers that give an honest view of the qualities of each. Because so much hostel booking goes through the web, your hosts can’t afford to ignore what’s being said; you’re so much more unlikely to go wrong.

3. Joining in

You’ll find yourself in a lounge of like-minded, enthusiastic travellers who are aching to see the place you’re in. Learn to say “can we join you?” or “want to join us?” before day trips and nights out. You’ll make great friends for your entire stay.

Like here: Hostel City Center, Sarajevo

4. From hostel to hostel

If you’re travelling from town to town, you’ll often find a wide array of hostels in each ready to book at a day’s notice. Invite people from your hostel to join you in a new place. If they’re as flexible as you, they were probably looking for someone to move with anyway; you just buddied up for the trip!

Like here: Hostel Madness, Belgrade

5. Ask staff about shopping

Your staff will almost always be long-standing residents of your holiday spot, and passionate about the experience you leave with. Ask them for their best tips for off-beat shops and markets, authentic restaurants, activities and getting around - you’ll get a uniquely local view of the landscape.

Like here: K’s House, Kyoto

6. Ask staff to go drinking

"What time do you get off?" What a line - but it’s your surest gateway to a nightlife you could never see from tourist strips and boulevardes. Drinking with your hosts is one of the best ways to experience a new culture; even if they can’t come out that night, they’ll know the place for you and be there for next time.

Like here: Hostel Blues, Bratislava

7. Free stuff

Most hostels keep a stash of all the things you’ll find useful - books, maps, travel guides, loose currency, or gear like adapters and waterproofs. Plus there’s often free meals too if you’re at the limits of your budget.

Like here: Hostel Mostel, Sofia

8. Meals for 12

No free meals? No bother - take advantage of a shared kitchen and brew up a vat of pasta for whoever’s around. The amount of goodwill you’ll earn for this is value in itself; you’ll more than earn back your jar of stir-in sauce.

Like here: Grand Hostel, Budapest

9. Something unique

A busy market means there’s always an effort made on the ‘hook’ that gets you through the door. Hostels go out of their way to appeal to your sense of taste, humour, or romance - your hostel will often be a story in itself.

 

An obscure art-deco isometric 70s hillside hideaway in Tsuruoka, Japan

10. So, so cheap

So obvious I almost forgot it. The cheapest hostel I ever booked was in Siem Reap, Cambodia for $0.50 pppn. The dearest - 30 in Amsterdam. If that’s your range, how sore could you ever really feel?

Here’s the next one I’ll be in… Soviet Home Hostel, Lviv

Start looking here:

www.hostelworld.com

www.hostelbookers.com

www.hostels.com

Or just rock up on the day.

5 amazing Japanese day trips - for next to nothing

So, here’s an actual travel guide. Five Japanese trips which will take the best part of the day or two, and which don’t have to cost you more than a few quid.

The first thing to do is to set your platform for greatness - buy the Japan Rail Pass.

  • The pass lasts 7, 14 or 21 days
  • It gives you more-or-less unlimited rail travel all over the country
  • You must buy it outside of Japan, and activate it before your first train journey

And that’s about it really. Sadly this bit’s not that cheap, but it is still extraordinary value. Buy the Japan Rail Pass here - www.jrpass.com - alongside a bunch of other information.

1. Scrooge up Mt Fuji

Where? Kawaguchiko | How long? 17-20 hours | How much? A few hundred yen

Obviously. The world’s most climbed mountain is easily scalable for most, but you can spice it up by setting yourself a budget of almost nought.

  • Find a friend, wrap up warm, wear your sturdy shoes, get lots of water and high-energy snacks and aim to climb in the high season - June-August.
  • DON’T start your climb, as most do, from the 5th station (halfway up) of a trail. Instead, look into where a 1st station is and go from there. That’ll cost you less and make your climb much more varied.
  • Your ascent will take about 13 hours. Spread out your food, perhaps take advantage of a restaurant on the way up, and top up your water whenever you can. And aim to reach the top for about 4:30am - just in time for sunrise
  • Avoid spending £40-60 on sitting for a few hours in one of the mountainside hotels by simply, not. There are plenty of opportunities to rough it fairly comfortably, and you’ll enjoy the cameraderie of sitting on Japan’s uppermost soggy benches with your buddies

Although obviously don’t climb without the means to pay up in case there’s a blizzard or something.

No. It isn’t that comfortable. But you’ll get all the beauty of Fuji, plus something of a challenge.

2. Cycle Tokyo

Where? Asakusa, Tokyo | How long? Up to 24 hours | How much? From 200 yen

Start from Asakusa. There are a few bicycle rental lots in the subways around the river and Azumabashi bridge. Your prize: 24 hours of bike rental for 200 yen.

By cycling, you will see so much more of Tokyo’s vibrancy than if you take the pricey subway. You’ll rely on your skills as a navigator, and you’ll often take the average city resident completely by surprise. Five of many optional highlights:

  • Ginza - Tokyo’s flashiest designer shopping district, and your destination for the world-famous Sony showroom
  • Akihabara - 'The Realm of the Geek'. Look out for niche comic book figurines, fanboy conventions and eye-popping gaming arcades
  • Shibuya - notoriously manic pedestrian crossing lives here, plus a great line in alternative shopping, street cabaret, and nutty high-rise bars and clubs
  • Tokyo Tower - viewpoint junkie? Climb the Eiffel-inspired Tokyo Tower at sunset for your best photos of the city
  • Imperial Palace & Hibya Park - the palace’s east gardens are worth a sit. And nearby Hibya Park nestles sleepily amongst the hubbub. Recharge here.

See them all and plenty more besides in one day on your bike. With some electro or J-pop in your headphones, you’ll love Tokyo’s safe roads and the thrill of traversing a city of tens of millions.

3. Glimpse the Geishas - walk eastern Kyoto

Where? Kyoto | How long? Half a day | How much? < 1000 yen

Kyoto is bursting with culture. Over 1,600 temples, shrines, mausoleums and rock gardens for a city of a million, and many of those sit neatly together in little pockets dotted around the bus network.

My favourite is in the east. Here’s what’s on offer:

  • Kiyomizudera Temple - One of Japan’s greatest, a UNESCO world heritage site set in the mountains and with a fountain that improves your lovelife
  • Kadoaiji Temple - naughty medieval leader Hideyoshi Toyotomi built this in tribute to his wife and installed some unbelievable landscape gardens
  • Ginkakuji - modelled on northern Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion, this shogun retirement home turned Zen temple boasts no gold, but plenty of beauty
  • Higashiyama and the Gion - iconic traditional streets, green tea ice cream and plenty of geishas await you here. Just ask before you take their photo
  • Maruyama Park - the best place in Kyoto to see cherry blossoms in spring. Also pretty gorgeous in summer, autumn and winter, I’m told.

The other parts of Kyoto, particularly the centre and the north, hold other cheap itinerarys allowing just as much time to get lost, sit, and people watch.

4. Explore Shugendo in the Dewa Sanzan mountains

Where? Tsuruoka (ish) | How long? 1 - 2 days | How much? Free

Reaching this popular pilgrimage site will get you maximum value from your JR pass. But no matter, because what you’ll find is a cluster of mountains packed with Shugendo ritual - a rare orthodox mix of Bhuddism, Shinto, animism and mountain worship - plus stunning views and national treasures.

The three mountains have a combined height roughly that of Mt. Fuji. But basing yourself somewhere close by, joining in with the hundreds of other pilgrims and scaling them in the order intended…

  • Haguro-san (for birth) - with five-storey pagoda and ancient stepway
  • Gassan (for death) - the tallest and most picturesque in the region
  • Yudono-san (for rebirth) - the most sacred of the shrines lies at the top

…will give you a uniquely spiritual, and Japanese, experience.

5. Meet Elvis in Yoyogi Park

Where? Harajuku, Tokyo | How long? All day | How much? from FREE

Travel to Harajuku on a Sunday and head toward Yoyogi Park.

What you’ll find, will blow your mind. Yoyogi’s notorious ‘greasers’ are here, chiefly dressed as teddy boys or just Elvis Presley. They kit up on soundstages up and down the street, they blast out rockabilly blues, have dance-offs, practise martial arts and generally make you wonder why you aren’t them. Take a beer.

Also nearby:

  • Takeshita Road - Tokyo’s chucklesomely-named answer to Camden. Buy your double necked guitars and vinyl, and look out for the street parades
  • Meiji shrine complex - the impressive torii and surrounding forest are a feast for all good shrine lovers
  • Head to Omotesando - quirky designer stores; stop in at Kiddy Land (sillier than Hamley’s) and then Condomania (Pikachu-shaped latex) on your way. Be wary of visiting these two shops in the wrong order.

Or just stick in the park, and join the party. You’ve seen something very special.

So there you go; five recommendations from another Nippon-ophile. Travel your own list - just don’t forget your JR pass.

1 year on - help with, and marvel at the shinkansen of Japan’s recovery

07:46 GMT; 11 March 2011 - The Great East earthquake and tsunami struck the north-east coast of Japan. It cut short the lives of 20,000 people, and devastated those of countless more. The Fukushima aftermath and the rehousing of every evacuee will haunt the country for years to come. Nuclear has been debated across the world, coupled with images which stopped the hearts of a usually apathetic, media-saturated Western world.

A global cause

Sendai, a buzzing city rebuilt since WWII, was one of my favourite places when I travelled to Japan. I have happy, silly memories of its hostels, onsens, supermarkets and sights. I have written about and photographed them. So seeing this place destroyed without mercy broke my heart, almost 6,000 miles away.

Of course my pain registers barely a 0.01 on the spectrum of tragic personal stories borne of this true disaster. This story - of a retired undertaker bringing comfort to the grieving people of Kamaishi - was a particularly poignant one. You’ll have already read many others; the scale is unfathomable.

2012 - a year for optimism

However, the point of this blog is to show the incredible resolve and speed with which Japan’s recovery has progressed over just one year. So please click these links and be amazed:

  1. Blogger Danny Choo documents his personal account of the day, and goes behind the scenes of the impressive relief effort
  2. More amazing still, The Boston Globe’s before-and-after shots of Japan from one year ago, and now

Ambitious plans for rebuilding north-east Japan three metres higher than before are underway. National projects in rehousing, agricultural recovery, industrial safeguarding and clean energy are scheduled to finish in 2015. I expect these targets will be met.

How can we help?

Charitable donations (through sites like this one) are one way. But the really great news in my eyes is that tourism in Japan is predicted to fully recover in 2012. Quite right too. 

Me enjoying Matsushima - 2008In researching this blog I’ve finally done what I couldn’t bear to before, and looked up Matsushima. This archipelago near Sendai is one of my favourite spots which I was convinced had been gutted by the tsunami. Thanks to the protection of the land around it, it was spared major damage and I understand that tourism here is back to normal. I’m so happy about this news.

One thing we can give as outsiders is a smidgen of the bravery shown by the Japanese, to overcome our worries about their country and travel there; witness Japan’s beauty, meet and help those affected, bring back amazing stories and contribute to its economy. Everyone wins.

Check out the Japan Big Welcome Campaign site for deals and incentives to get you over there.

The Japanese National Tourism Organisation will thank you :-)

Learn to share, you little Brit

I read this article - The illegal immigrants desperate to escape the squalor of Britain - this week and it made me feel ashamed, for three main reasons:

  1. This is happening now, 2012, in Southall which I pass through several times a week
  2. Imagining the dissenting voices saying “Let them go then” with a shrug
  3. Suddenly being mindful of the posterboys for anti-immigration made rich by their notoriety, and the right-wing reporters made rich by our country’s prejudice

Then the fabulous Channel 4 documentary Make Bradford British was on when I got home, so I knew I’d write this blog.

The spectrum of fact

When the UK Coalition Government commissioned their ‘Migrants on work-related benefits’ study (the very first - progressive!), they attempted to smash two emotive issues together into one compost bag. They failed - there’s no link between immigration and benefit claims; in fact immigrants were less likely to claim benefits than the British.

Or did they? Or did they? Or were they?

In the UK think tanks, maverick politicians and furious columnists thrash like tin toy boxers to tell us “But It’s Not As Simple As That”, and tease a neat fact out into a scratchy grey gauze for the eyes; neatly illustrated here in this famous clip of Johann Hari and Richard Littlejohn.

But who is right?

Dunno, really. But what I do know is that at one logical extreme of the debate over immigration is idealism, compassion, a desire to trust others, and a fire inside to help those worse off than ourselves. And at the other is a lot of paranoia, clinging to arbitrarily drawn lines of division, and gnashing of teeth like THIS.

So if that’s all I can really know, then the former is all I’d really choose.

WLMT: M, 25 - 40, GSOH, must be foreign

But it’s the idea of ‘foreignness’ rather than attitude, ambition or skill as a differentiator that I find so rank.

If the pervasion of the English language across the world had been coupled with respect for the people forced to adopt it, then the negative aspects of immigration would be neither as difficult, or as sexy for Fleet Street editors.

Where is the real, policy-passing evidence that immigrants are a drain to British resources more than the Brits themselves? In the main they’re either well-integrated, or perhaps doing something ‘a bit weird’ in Littlejohn’s eyes. Or in the case of those in the BBC’s article, they’re barely registering at all.

So a country that could now let go of its negative obsession with border control is always bound to succeed. Diversity = more efficient workforce, fewer barriers for trade, more useful options for education, broader horizons. ‘They’ are here; you survived, now get on with it.

It’s too late to improve things for those now heading back to their home countries; but a change in attitudes will make it easier to look after the ones that stay.

Make Bradford British

is on 4OD, right now.

The key to the travel bug = Perspective.

I can pinpoint the moment I caught the travel bug.

On the second night of a ferry trip from Shanghai to Osaka, I was giddy from miles of flying fish, hot sake and ping pong on a tumbling sea.

Further from land than I’d ever been, the night sky was dazzling. I lay under it in silence with my three mates, staring at the infinite.

Here, I realised nothing I did could ever really matter - the bug had struck. And it’s these bouts of perspective that will keep me packing my bags until I get squashed by a tuk-tuk.

Travel lets you shed the received wisdom of idiots

Flying home to the British is difficult.

  • No, the failure to deal with five inches of snow doesn’t make us ‘like a third world country’
  • No, health and safety legislation is not ‘akin to the SS’
  • No, it isn’t acceptable to hack and publish murder victims’ answerphones in the name of ‘public interest’
  • And no, anarchy is not a good idea.

Meeting people who have survived and dealt with true oppression and suffering will improve you. Don’t waste your energy taking umbrage against things that, in reality, will barely if ever affect anything. If you’re British, you are incredibly lucky.

Travel bursts society’s bubbles

But it’s human to think the grass is always greener. I am guilty of the ‘first-world problem’ too.

Whenever I visit foreign countries I ask what’s on the daily news, and it’s often familiar - politicians tearing strips off one another over a distant issue, or perhaps outrage over a popstar’s outfit.

The domestic issues that grind our gears are universal, but so are the things we enjoy. Travel brings out the best in hosts and guests, letting them forget what irks them in the excitement of exploring a new place, or impressing a new face.

Scaling the language barrier 

Share a sudden connection with someone who’s never seen your country or spoken a word of your language - it never gets old.

Travel is as real as your day job

This is not escapism; it’s the opposite. A footprint outside your comfort zone is a story for decades, a myth busted, a skill gained.

Anyone who tells you backpacking is for light heads and itchy feet is wrong. Because you can only have a worldview by, like, viewing the world.

Welcome to The Phrase Book

My name’s Ed. I think that travel is important, that it improves lives and that if you have the means, you’re mad not to.

This blog is mostly about making time for travel in busy lives. I hope it resonates with you, and please send in your thoughts and tips on any country you’ve been to. Perhaps we can complete the set!