Archiving the Ancient Cities

A day exploring the ruins of the ancient cities of Sri Lanka will surely not ruin your day. Okay, now I’ve got that out of my system, I’ll continue.

The history of Sri Lanka is long and winding. With each site we visit, we learn of a new king, a new invasion by South Indians, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the British, each meaning a new city, capital, temple or palace. The last few days have been a jungle of information, steep steps, breathtaking buildings and sweat.

Instead of attempting to explain the serpentine story of the two hundred and sixty-something kings and five ancient cities of Sri Lanka, as guide books tend to do a much better job at that than I ever could here, I’ve decided instead to archive some of the most bloggable* facts that lingered with me at the end of each day.

*I’ve also learned that bloggable is actually a word. And I’m lovin’ it.

Anuradhapura
The fortunate thing about having a car for this trip is that we’ve had the opportunity to visit places off the beaten track that many tourist don’t know about or can’t be bothered to journey out to.

Our first stop was to the ancient Buddhist library building in Padeniya Temple; a beautiful wooden temple encased in intricate carvings, from the lion heads guarding the walls to the swirling patterns scored into the doors of the temple. A small complex used by the King when he needed to escape the capital, it was definitely off the tourist-map. Processed with VSCO with f2 presetNext, we ventured on to Yapahuwa. All that remains now is a stairway so steep you have to crawl, that rises out above the clouds and is guarded by monkeys. While seemingly small, this rock fortress became the capital of Sri Lanka for eighteen years from 1272.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetFinally we reached the ancient city of Anuradhapura, the first capital of Sri Lanka and home to the oldest tree on record – the Sacred Bo Tree. Along with our guide, Channa, we bought the most beautiful lotus flowers from the stall surrounding the temple as offerings. Channa explained that the reason we offer flowers is reflective of Buddha’s teachings about life – as the flowers that we offer today will be dead tomorrow, reminding us that we should live in the present and not the past or future.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetNext we moved on to Jethawanarama, or the brown stupa, believed to be the largest brick monument in the world following the pyramids in Egypt. Channa explained that using the ninety-three millions bricks that make up the stupa, you could build eight thousand and four houses. The whopping structure took forty-five years to build, but only seconds to take your breath away.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetThroughout the day we visited the ruins of architecturally astounding ponds used for water meditation (some could remain under water for up to two hours meditating), hospitals, kitchens and toilets, all of which demonstrated an incredible level of irrigation for the fifth century. Even I was impressed. About drains. Yeah.

There were stupas everywhere, some still remained submerged in soil yet to be rediscovered, all with unique quirks and designs. We had king coconuts and roti for lunch, and found many the stray furry friend along the way. One of my highlights, however, was a special place Channa took us, where no tourists go. It was a functioning monastery that had a tree which had built a cathedral with its roots. Pictures cannot do it justice.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset
We ended the day at Mihintale – a hilltop complex heralded as the place where  Buddhism was first introduced into Sri Lanka, plopped atop one thousand, eight hundred and forty-three steps. At the very top you can pull yourself up a sun-drenched rock to an incredible view across the hills and valleys, even making out some of temples we’d seen previously. As the sun began to set, it all felt very Lion King-esque.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetPolonnaruwa
In the eleventh century, Polonnaruwa rose as the capital after many an invasion at Anuradhapura. Apparently, there were also less mosquitoes. Bonus.

After driving through leafy national parks, we met our guide, Rahul, who took us through our paces. The Royal Palace, where the King lived with his five wives…and five hundred concubines. The Quadrangle, where each King built a new temple to house the tooth of Buddha. The lake, which is surrounded by electric fences because on occasion  the water drops low enough for the elephants way across the bay to walk on over. And the Gal Vihara, the most impressive monument we’ve seen yet. Across one granite stone, standing seven metres high and over twenty metres long, four different sculptures of Buddha have been carved. Immense, inspiring, inconceivable. Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetSigiriya
Woah, you really don’t realise how much you can achieve in a day until you try to write it down.

That afternoon, we headed for Sigirya. The giant rock that someone once upon a time had the splendid idea of building a kingdom on top of. Surrounded by the ruins of what sounded like an opulent ‘pleasure’ garden with ponds, pools and fountains (‘like a nightclub’ our guide told us), Sigirya was once the epicentre of the kingdom of Kassapa. We climbed rickety staircases that gripped casually to the side of the rock, passed by frescos painted god only knows how, and finally reached the summit. And what a view.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset

My legs may be aching but my smile is wide.

E x

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Why I travel

Every time the thermostat even remotely reaches close to 40 degrees, and I find myself lying half-naked/half-conscious as close as possible to the nearest fan, I can’t help but find my mind racing back to the six weeks I spent running around South East Asia wearing horrendous happy pants, a ton of sweat and the biggest smile.

As those of you who know me well could vouch, I don’t care to dwell too much on all things emotional but that trip is somewhat of a trigger for me. Coming on two years later, I can still remember it vividly. The nerves, the smells, the heat, and even the things that were weighing on my mind back then. To me the trip has become a time capsule, and a landmark from which I base many of my present-day decisions. Would it have worried me then?

See, that trip changed my mindset immensely. It brought out a version of myself that I had never met before, and a version of myself I loved. Whether it was traveling that I fell in love with, or the person that I was when I traveled, is irrelevant. I wore the same outfit for days at a time and no make-up. I was constantly sweating and no doubt smelt. But for some god forsaken reason I was the most confident I had ever been. Things that normally worried me at home had no significance while traveling. I met people who completely changed my way of thinking, and whom to this day still bring a smile to my face when I think about them. I did things I would have never considered doing at home, which have left me with the most incredible stories to tell. And I love telling them.

So when people ask me how and why I travel as often as I do, the answer is simple. Travel has been the best investment I have ever made. It’s self-investment. And while I know that my first adventure will probably be impossible to beat for the very fact that it was my first, I will always endeavour to beat it. To find greater meaning and greater happiness. So far I have already been fortunate to have had so many amazing adventures, and have learnt something new and different from each of them. They have each shaped me into who I am today, and will no doubt continue to shape me as I journey further.

So while I sit under my fan, half-naked/half-conscious in the blistering Australian summer, thinking about travel and my conscientious decision not to do it this summer, I also think about the voucher to Flight Centre that my beautiful friends gave me for my birthday this year, and smile.

 

E.

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Chase me around Córdoba

Okay, okay, so I’ve been getting lazy. Or what I should really admit is that I’ve been having too much fun and haven’t had a chance to sit down and write my blog. Not really something worth apologising for is it. Soz not soz.

So remind me what I was up to. Ahhhh Córdoba. By far my favourite destination of the trip so far, Córdoba is an interesting mix of activities and downtime. Due to a lack of hostels in the area, we treated ourselves to a few nights in the Hotel Macia Alfaros – the main draw-card; the pool. Arriving by train at around the hottest part of the day, we dragged our bags through what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. A huge change of pace to the lively Madrid with its busy roads, crowded plazas and bustling backstreets. Whether it was just due to the fact that we had arrived mid-siesta time or that Córdoba is just a less populated area, we instantly began to relax. So much so that after we stuffed ourselves at the first restaurant we could find with Spanish omelette and calamari boccadillo went spent the rest of the afternoon, or should I say night considering it was 8pm before we left, sitting by the pool. At first I was concerned about how white my skin was, and how bloated I’d be after our huge lunch but any insecurities were soon washed away when we saw the group of very confident and very…bootilicious European ladies that joined us by the pool.

11048741_10153552601404497_7117023523192437727_nThe next morning we rose and feasted on what we thought at the time was a complimentary buffet breakfast. With a few minutes to spare we raced off to the Plaza de Tendillas, the lively center of Córdoba, to meet our guide for a free tour. While the city is not that big, it is packed full of history. We got to see Roman ruins and modern day design. By far the most interesting part of the city is its diversity of religious influence. Originally a Muslim community, the city is scattered with incredible mosques each intricately decorated with a distinct arabic style. Probably the most famous part of Córdoba is what was originally a mosque, constructed between the years of 785 and 985 and spanning 23.400 square meters, but was converted into a Christian Cathedral in 1236. While the layout and design of the Mosque still exists, a Catholic Cathedral was designed within the buildings. Absolutely incredible and a symbol of the religious harmony that existed in Córdoba for years between the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities. The world should take note.

11742818_10153552601674497_6987987621422190945_n11695958_10153552604454497_3487990268046706739_n11752048_10153552604619497_7039441486808001222_nCrawling through the backstreets that seem to have no order, we learned that this was actually done on purpose in order to create shadows and thus shade from the boiling hot sun. Which, might I add, was much appreciated. We learned that Córdoba is the only town in Spain that has two clock towers that chime a flamenco chord of a Spanish guitar to mark the hour, and that Plaza de la Corredera, a beautiful old square, used to host gruesome bullfights and that the men involved were considered by the community to be rockstars. Further on we visited the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos and learned all about the history of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, who resided in the Palace. Married, the couple had two children together, but Ferdinand obviously had other ideas as he had a mistress on the side with whom he had eleven children with. As a result, Isabella had the mistress and all the children killed. Very “Game-of-Thrones-esque” explained our tour guide.

11146189_10153552602099497_6098492859558624878_n11703110_10153552604284497_5891193698265780699_nOverall the tour was fantastic, free tours are an absolutely perfect way of orienting yourself in a new city and learning stories and secrets a guidebook could not show you. After tipping our guide, we raced back to a few monuments to have a look inside before they closed for siesta. (Free Tour: http://www.freetourcordoba.com/en/free-tour-m-cordoba/)

With a rumble in our stomachs, we sourced a side-street off Plaza de Tendillas to find the best Tapas – around €2.50 for a tapas and drink. If my memory does not escape me, I believe we went back at least three times. It was delicious and so #instagramable. Plus I discovered my new favourite summer drink called Tinto de Verano (part red wine, part lemonade). Don’t judge until you try it. I was skeptical at first but am always eager to try new things and this one definitely paid off.

11667431_10153552604084497_7940745941933552980_nAfter a late afternoon shopping spree my bag is now filled with beautiful mementos that I have no idea where I am going to fit in my room but I will make it work! Next, a quick train ride to Seville where we are meeting Sarah’s friend from England. This trip is starting to slip through my fingers, and my University email is starting to beep at me. Better start planning my next trip before I go insane.

Adios until then.

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The Real Madrid

A hop, skip and a jump and we found ourselves flung 2000km across Europe to Madrid, Spain (more like a 40min Terravision bus ride and a Ryanair flight that managed to leave late but arrive early?). We found Sarah amongst the crowds of yelling Spaniards and jetted off in a taxi (splurge, I know) to our hostel, TOC.

With a new city, new country AND new companion, we took the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets, adjusting to the new language, smells, sights and most importantly food! We meandered into an incredible looking deli that turned out to have three levels to it and pointed at the picture of a seafood platter, a grilled cheese and jamon salad and a bottle of moscato. The English is not as good in Spain as in Italy, so we just crossed our fingers and hoped. It sort of adds to the excitement though, not being 100% sure of what you are going to get. We almost ordered two bottles of moscato “accidentally”. With a quick look around the shops near our hostel we finished the night off with a €12 bottle of Sangria. Free pour, baby!

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Supposed to wake up for a 9am free walking tour the next morning, we were lucky to make it to the 10am. Meeting our tour guide Juliana from ‘Sandemans New Madrid’ in the famous Plaza Mayor, she sent us around the corner to a supermarket to grab something for breakfast before we met the rest of the group. Oh My God. She sent us to heaven. This place put the SUPER in market. What turned out to be the shell of a church which was turned into an open market and then enclosed with glass panes, the San Miguel markets are beyond words. Like a gourmet tapas market, it was filled with a range of stores selling everything you could imagine in tapas style, so you could run around and fill try something from each shop. Needless to say we went back from dinner and breakfast the next morning.

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Once we reunited with the tour we were taken to the Worlds Oldest Restaurant, where we got the chance to look into the kitchen and see them preparing the most amazing looking suckling pig, as well as into the cellar which boasted bottles of wine from 1702. Legend has it that a girl once broke a bottle while in the cellar and her ghost is still seen in the kitchen cleaning dishes to pay for the damage. Eek!

We were treated to beautiful plazas and gardens surrounding the Royal Palace, churches, cafes, and fountains. We were shown the spot where an attempt was made to assassinate King Alfonso XIII on his wedding day by throwing a bouquet of flowers covering a bomb onto his bridal carriage. Unfortunately, while the bomb missed the King, it did kill 28 people and injured over 100. There is now a monument on the street and a bouquet of flowers placed on the balcony in which he stood to commemorate those lost.

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One of my favourite sites was the street with all the big banks. They were all such grand and beautiful buildings. In the middle of a large intersection sat a gorgeous fountain which Juliana told us could be drained through an underground passageway that linked the the bank’s gold vault as to drown anyone attempting to steal the gold. How James Bond is that!

After bidding Juliana farewell and tipping her appropriately, we headed to a supermarket, made some sandwiches (saving money!), tried to fit the rest of our ingredients in the overflowing hostel fridge, went for a shop on Gran Via (the main shopping street), and headed back to our beloved San Miguel Market for some paella among many other delicious treats.

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Around 10.30pm, when one would expect to be calling it a night if you weren’t already out, we headed to Puetra del Sol to meet Idoya, a local and friend of Sarah’s that she met on a train to Vienna a few years ago. Idoya kindly took us for the real Madrid experience, starting at a proper Spanish bar that she explained was easily identifiable by the florescent lights and €3 gin & tonics. After that we headed to a much trendier establishment called 1862 Dry Bar where I enjoyed at Singapore Sling, a type of cocktail that happens to be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, made by a bartender called Jesus. We starred in a short film that happened to be being filmed there, before heading off to the final bar where we struggled to finish one of the biggest gin & tonics I have ever seen (for only €5 of course) where we met some lovely people who had been having a bet about where we were from for ten minutes before building up the courage to ask us. Sarah ended up adding one of them on Facebook as she is moving to Sydney later in the year – what a social butterfly.

Groggy morning but made it to the station and on to the train headed for Cordoba. More on that later, loving Spain so far.

Adios!

N.B. This is a link to the free tour we did, as there are lots of different groups that meet in Plaza Mayor: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g187514-d1913235-Reviews-SANDEMANs_NEW_Madrid_Tours-Madrid.html

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When in Rome

Our final two days in Rome and our final two days in Italy, we decided to do what you must when in Rome: the Vatican, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

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Though we started early, the day was already boiling hot by 9.30am when we reached the Vatican Museum entrance. By purchasing our tickets online we managed to skip the long queue that wraps around the walls of the Vatican, as well as the bunch of people trying to sell fake tickets or tell you you need to upgrade the tickets you already had (took me back to Cambodia for a minute). The Vatican Museums are littered with incredible things to look at from marble statues to ancient Egyptian relics. We walked down hallway after hallway of beautiful and intricately decorated ceilings and wall dressings in search of the Sistine Chapel. We were not alone in our search, however and with a lack of air conditioning for most of the walk, we got to know the people around us quite intimately… The Sistine Chapel was amazing once we got there and while we weren’t awed by the silence when we walked in (instead confronted by a guard yelling orders over a megaphone) it was beautiful and we spent a good few minutes staring up.

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Next up we were off to find St Peter’s Basilica and considering it was the hottest part of the day, we decided to treat ourselves to a lovely looking cafe on the way over. Dear god. €36 for two panini. The cafe was heaving though and reminded me of my cafe back at home. Is it sad to say I miss working?

Arriving at the Basilica was monumental and so was the line! Thankfully it moved relatively quickly because I don’t think I would have managed in the sun. I might even have given in to the people trying to sell me umbrellas and scarves had Catherine not been there brutally turning them away. As I got closer to the Basilica it became more and more impressive, but it was once I was inside that my jaw really dropped. We’ve seen a fair few churches in the time we’ve been traveling so far but this one by far takes the cake. It was MASSIVE and every last inch from the windows to the walls was elaborately decorated. As the light spilled in through beautiful stained glass windows, all you could see was a sea of selfie-sticks emerging from the groups of people gathering below. We finished the visit by popping down to the Crypt to see the tombs of hundreds of Popes and read about how they had contributed to the church and faith.

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The next day was an early rise and one of the squishiest metro rides I have ever experienced. We missed the first metro but the next was only four minutes away and though we were only two rows back from the train line, we barely managed to be squished on to the carriage. It was hot, it was sweaty and though we couldn’t reach anything to hold on to, we had no room to fall anyway.

We piled out onto the metro station and raced to meet our tour group with City Wonders that was taking us around the Colosseum and Roman Forum. It was a stinking hot day and our tour guide did such a great job trying to keep us all focused and hydrated throughout the tour. It was blistering hot and with no shade for majority of the tour, it was no surprise that we witnessed at least two people faint. At least we know what to do now if it happens to one of us. The Colosseum was fantastic as expected but unfortunately by the time we got to the Roman Forum I had sweated out most of my concentration and was struggling to stay conscious.
http://www.citywonders.com/en/italy/rome/rome-tours/colosseum-tour.

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After a big drink, an hour or so in the air-con and a €7 all-you-can-eat buffet, we headed off on our own adventure to find a hidden treasure in Rome called the Aventine Keyhole. If you manage to make your way up Aventine Hill, past a few parks, and all the way to the end of the road you make it to the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. This building was the Roman Headquarters for the Knights of Malta and today hosts the Embassy of Malta too. While it is closed to the public if you look through the keyhole of the front gate you see an incredible view of a tree-lined path to St Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately we took a very wiggled route to get there and in the blistering hot sun it was much to Catherine’s disappointment that the keyhole was just that, a keyhole. I found it thoroughly amusing though and the view absolutely beautiful. Definitely a hidden treasure, but probably worth getting a taxi to. Needless to say we can now call ourselves official adventurers. Find it here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-aventine-keyhole-rome.

Considering we had spent a bomb on lunch the previous day we had visited the local pizzeria just outside our hostel and had fallen in love with the smiley waiter who had served us, so of course we went back the next night. While he didn’t ask us for drinks this time, while we were standing on the street outside talking to a fellow traveler we had met (hey Zane!) he kept walking back and forth and waving at us, claiming he was just doing deliveries yet we never saw him deliver or collect anything…hmmmmm…we will forgive him for being charming. He even gave us a discount to come back the next night but alas we will be on our way to Spain by then!

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Roaming Rome

Okay, so either Romans were enormous or I have shrunk since I arrived in Rome. Everything is huge! The buildings, the doors, the gardens, the roads, the fountains. Everything. Oh apart from the cars, which I think they think that because they are so small they can park/leave them anywhere. They park on street corners, across pedestrian crossings (which I still don’t believe are actually pedestrian crossings), and over driveways. As long as you put your hazard lights on it’s all good to park in the middle of the street and run to the ATM. We did see a guy driving around today with his hazard lights flashing…and it was probably on purpose. Most drivers in Rome appear to be hazards. Needless to say the #fingerofshame made it to quite a few photos.

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After checking into our hostel Yellow, we wrote down everything we wanted to achieve during our time in Rome and it went a little something like this:
– Trevi Fountain
– Pantheon
– Piazza Navona
– Spanish Steps
– Vatican
– Colosseum
– Villa Borghese
– the Catacombs
– the keyhole at Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta
– Castel Sant’Angelo

We’ll see how we go.

While our hostel was close to the station, it was a little walk from the major sites…although we later worked out using the metro would have worked. Anyway, we got our walk in and felt a little less guilty about demolishing a whole pizza each, plus two gelatos that night. I also feel that the best way to see a city is by walking. Some people even go so far as to say you only really find a city once you get lost in it. Poetic, really. When scrolling back through my camera though, I have countless photos of the buildings and little corner stores that you don’t see in guidebooks. In fact, it was the big tourist attractions that sort of disappointed us on our first day.

The Trevi Fountain is under construction at the moment and while you can see a little glimpse of how incredible it would have looked normally, at the moment it is just a huge pile of scaffolding. Similarly the Spanish Steps had so much work happening all around them that it was hard to frame a shot that didn’t have some sort of construction in it. Sorry to disappoint Instafans.

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Around the corner though the Pantheon is incredible and a beautiful fountain in the foreground makes for a beautiful view. I can’t get over how in Rome you just have to turn the corner and you find some monumental church or building in the middle of a square. There is nothing in Australia that quite compares. I wish I could label all my photos but honestly for most of them I have no idea what it was, I just turned a corner and found something special, something amazing, something spectacular.

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One that I can name though is the Sant’Agnese in Agone located in the beautiful Piazza Navona. Not too busy, not too big but absolutely breathtaking. You can sit there for ages just taking in all the detail, and that’s really saying something because I’m known to be a bit of a pocket rocket when it comes to sightseeing. And even better the piazza has three beautiful fountains that help to splash away some sweat (and trust me there is lots of it).

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The next day we headed for the Catacombs, buying a 3 day pass transport card (works for buses, metro, etc) and making sure we calculated how many trips we had to make to make it worthwhile. We got a little lost and ended up in the middle of nowhere but eventually hoped on the right bus which took us out to Catacombe di San Callisto. €8 with a guided tour included, we were relieved to find that the Catacombs are at a natural 15° temperature. With 20km of tunnels, we were happy to walk the 400m tour route and managed to see the most interesting archeological discoveries, with over 500,000 people and 7 popes buried there. It was like a library of bodies!

On our way back we stumbled across the Terme di Caracalla, the remenants of Emperor Caracalla’s vast bath complex, and got our first taste of Roman ruins. They were huge and it was hot. I wish there were still baths there so I could have had a swim. But regardless we got free entry because it was a Monday? Is that a thing?

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After our siesta (arguably the most important part of the day) we headed out to Villa Borghese gardens for a bike ride. As stiff competition to New York’s Central Park, the gardens had lakes inundated with turtles that you could row in, police riding horses, beautiful flowers, lovely cafes, a carousel, an old man doing mad roller-skating tricks (you’ll have to wait to see the video), bikes, segways, go-karts and golf buggies. We got bikes for an hour and managed to see most of the park and some beautiful views of Rome. It’s so convenient having sunlight for so many hours a day as it was 7pm by the time we handed the bikes back and we didn’t even realise.

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With a grumble in our tummies we headed for home. Tomorrow is the Vatican and then the Colosseum. How fast this trip is flying…I guess we must be having fun.

N.B. A MUST do when you are in Rome. Giolitti’s gelato. Not easy to find but well worth it. The line was out the door but moved really quickly. I had three scoops for €3.50 – hazelnut, cinnamon and baileys. Oh. My. God.

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Sapporo to Otaru: the frozen cities

Well I wanted snow, and boy oh boy did I get it. One day and four trains later, we emerged on the top island, Hokkaido, to a white wash. The trees were all sprinkled with a bright white powder, the houses looked squashed under big puffy piles of white, and the large expansive lakes were frozen still.
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We were met at Sapporo Station by an icy cool wind, and streets piled high with snow. Caught up in the excitement of it all, and chasing to keep up with Hannah while also taking pictures and dragging my suitcase, I got my first real hands on taste of snow. Face first on the ground. After laughing it off as a very kind and concerned man helped me up, I decided to just focus on walking until we got to our accommodation. Had I not been laughing so much at my own misfortune, Hannah may not have even realised I’d fallen, as she was already colder than she’d planned to be and as a result on a mission to get inside. At least I gave her a reason to smile in what she believed to be the beginning of her idea of a nightmare!

Expecting the worst, we were very pleased with our APA Hotel experience, and passed the time until dark unpacking, defrosting and dancing around in the yukatas (a casual kimono) they’d provided us. Once the time had come to brace the cold again, we cracked open the heat packs Hiroko had told us about and shoved them in our pockets. As we walked down the street, me still slipping and sliding all over the place, we were surprised to find that the heat packs, which had cost us ¥100 (roughly AUD$1) for a pack of nine did in fact work as advertised! They heat to 40 degrees Celsius and stay hot for 16 hours. By the end of our time in Hokkaido I would have surely lost a finger had I not had them.
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The Sapporo Snow Festival was very close to our hotel, an easy walk apart from all the slippery ice on the footpath. Nonetheless we persevered and were rewarded with the stunning massive ice sculptures that were lit up with brightly coloured lights and music. Although a subzero temperature, the crowds flocked to see the incredible statues and huddled around the food stores that scattered the park (easy to spot from the steam bellowing out of their tents). My favourite of all the sculptures was the Star Wars installation, whereas Hannah’s architectural eye drew her more towards the castles.

Not lasting for long in the freezing cold we headed off to find some food. Being warned off the highly alluring Ramen Street by some of our new friends we made this trip, we instead opted for a little doorway that had heaps of locals lining up outside and a tripadvisor sticker in the window – two very good signs. And I think we hit the jackpot on this one. Once it was our turn, we were given a booth that we shared with three other couples, all sitting across a huge open fire pit. Unsure of whether it was designed for cooking or heating, we attempted to defrost our hands while perusing the menu, much to the entertainment of the couple sitting across from us. We ended up ordering a huge grilled salmon and miso salad and a few chicken skewers to share, and spent most of the night staring obviously at the couple across from us as they cooked their seafood banquet on the open grill. So much so that after a while the man offered us a piece of his grilled squid. Oops! IMG_0253
The next morning I slept in a bit while Hannah got up to do some uni work. I was only just beginning to feel my fall from the day before. Once we were sure the sun was out as much as it was going to be, we headed back to the Snow Festival and saw a whole heap of sculptures we had missed the night before, as well as slides, and a huge jump with professional skiers doing flips off to the sound of some pretty hardcore heavy metal. I love how the Japanese are so innocent to some western music; often we’ve come across supermarkets playing explicit hip hop or heavy metal songs and no one seems to flinch at some of the harsher content.

After doing the whole circuit of Odori Park, while having to run across the road and stand in a heated convenience store every five-seven minutes so that Hannah could defrost, we managed to see all the sculptures. I much preferred them during the day with the blue sky as a backdrop. But do not be fooled, the temperature was well into the negatives at this point. As an added bonus, we managed to spot some pretty interesting people as well as ice sculptures, including a pram with skies on its wheels and a mother dragging her kids around in a taboggine. Clearly the most efficient way of travel in the snow. Those kids have it sorted. The best thing we could do to keep going was to constantly drink coffee, and I tried something called an almond chocolate latte? When in Rome…? IMG_0236IMG_0247IMG_0248IMG_0251IMG_0249IMG_0250
For lunch we stumbled across a popular looking place that served what we think was soup curry or curry soup? A meal that we were told by our new friends Pat and Vince that we “MUST TRY” because it would “CHANGE OUR LIVES”. Not convinced but up for trying something new we ordered one to share. It came with a bowl of rice, some shredded cabbage, and a bowl that was cooked in front of us which included a meatball, pumpkin, broccoli, potato, bacon and curry sauce. While we pretty much finished it, we both couldn’t really get our heads around it and agreed it is not something we’d order again. Sorry boys. IMG_0237
With a new fire in our belly, we walked back to the hotel to grab our bags. By this stage I had just about mastered walking on ice. But not completely. Sliding to the station we hoped on a train bound for Otaru, a more remote town that which made Sapporo out to be a summer holiday. Wearing every layer we owned, and shoving twenty heat packs in every pocked we had, we trudged through ankle-deep snow to see the Otaru Snow Lights Festival. The lanterns, made of ice, that lined the streets and canal were magical though. Some were arranged around snowmen, or in the shape of owls and flowers. Even some stores along the main street had joined in the festivities. IMG_0246IMG_0245IMG_0240IMG_0239IMG_0244IMG_0243
While we were only able to manage the cold for a short time, we headed back to find some food but we kept getting distracted by every magical little installation we ofound around each corner. Finally though Hannah started displaying early symptoms of hyperthermia so we found a quiet little ramen shop and dug into a bowl about the size of my head. YUM. IMG_0241
The next morning was D-Day. We had planned to make it from Sapporo to Osaka in one day; essentially from one side of the country to the other. We had booked tickets for five trains to get us there, but managed to miss the second one due to a severe snow storm that delayed the trains. But I can now confirm we made it to Osaka in one piece and before midnight. Though throughout the day we both had serious doubts we would manage it. I think we deserve a medal though for our achievement. Needless to say a fair few high fives were shared that day.

Though we found very little comfort in Osaka. By the time we were in bed we had to get up again two hours later to race to the airport headed to Seoul, South Korea. A tight call, but I can now say from the safety of my bed that we made it to Seoul. In one piece. There is a great vibe here and I’m so excited for the next few days.

How’s the weather where you are? Remind me what the sun feels like.

Kyoto also spells Tokyo

It has hit that point, as it does in every trip, where you suddenly realise how fast the time has gone, and how little you have left. As the cold seems endless, the race through train stations never ending, and the new faces familiar, the days begin to blur into one and you lose track of how long you’ve been traveling for. But if you ask me, these are the greatest days. The days you don’t have internet connection, but don’t even realise. They days you forget about time-wasters like makeup and planned outfits. The days you just want to lose yourself in a city in order to truly find its treasures. The days that challenge you, change you, but stay with you forever.

This week started with an end. On our final morning in Kyoto, we vowed to find the large Buddha we had spotted on the edge of town while we were up the Kyoto Tower. A true test of how well we knew the streets, we managed to find it after going in a few circles (however that was most likely due to us getting lost in conversation). The monument, we learnt on arrival, was called Ryozen Kannon and is a tribute to all the unknown soldiers who bravely fought and died in World War II. The 24 metre high compassionate Buddha is a symbol of peace, both for the state of Japan, and for those who died fighting for it. Not mentioned anywhere in our guidebook, I was particularly pleased with our discovery. It was an interesting and un-touristed little complex with plenty of temples, memorials and shrines – some for luck, marriage, peace and even blessings for miscarried foetus.

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After our walk back to the hostel, the falling snow made it all the easier to jump on the toasty-warm Shinkansen train for three hours, headed to Tokyo! As we laid back in our spacious seats, we watched the world literally fly by – the dense city centres to the sparse rural villages, all looking as though someone had lightly dusted them with a fine icing sugar. All going too perfectly to plan, we were two stops out of Tokyo when the cabin crew realised we were on the wrong train (our JR pass did not cover super express Shinkansen, only the express) and asked us ever so politely to get off at the next stop and get on the next train. While ordinarily this sort of mistake could have been disastrous to a tight schedule, the next train came in a measly 5 minutes. Nice one, Japan!

Once arriving in Tokyo City, we found Hiroko, after a kind gentleman helped us decode a confusing pay phone, much to both ours and his amusement. Hiroko is a friend of my grandmother’s who hosted me when I first visited Japan, some 19 years ago. She had kindly offered to have us stay at her house for the first night we were in Tokyo so we could see her perform in a traditional drum concert to be held the next day. She was more than hospitable while we stayed with her, more than we could ever have asked for or expected. She treated us to the most amazing sushi train experience I have ever had (they filleted the fish before your eyes), the chance to cook our own okonomiyaki, a real crazy Japanese experience at a Ninja restaurant, cakes, cats, and most of all an insight into a side of Japanese culture we could not have got through guidebooks. She even introduced us to her friend Emi who, with her husband, kindly took us up the Tokyo SkyTree to 350metres above Tokyo and treated us to a lovely lunch while Hiroko practiced her drumming.

One of my favourite things I discovered while staying with Hiroko was the technology. Her toilet can be put through a range of strange motions such as spray, heat, dry, mist, etc (you can work out what for), her bath heats and fills itself up and tells you when it is ready, and her washing machine will weigh your load of washing and tell you how much soap to put in and how long it will take. What are we doing in Australia!?

All in all, we could not have thanked Hiroko enough for her immense generosity, and although all she would accept was a bunch of flowers and some chocolates, we are eternally grateful for all that she did for us and can’t wait for her to visit Australia to repay her for her hospitality.

On our second night in Tokyo, after a delicious dinner, Hiroko was kind enough to drop us to our hostel (quite literally to the door, any closer and her car would have been through the front window) where the second half of our Tokyo journey began. But more on that later…

Good night for now. I hope you are all smiling just as much as me.

IMG_0203 Our sushi plate stack – we tried Tuna, Sea Urchin, Salmon, Bloody Clam, Scallop, Red Fish and many more…

IMG_0207 Hiroko and I

IMG_0202 View from the Tokyo SkyTree

IMG_0204 Lunch with Emi and Hero

<a href=”https://emmabreislin.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/img_0205.jpg”>IMG_0205 Hiroko’s traditional drum performance

IMG_0206 Making our own okonomiyaki

Kyoto

It’s quarter past two in the afternoon and I’m lying on the couch in my hostel wearing my pyjamas. Before you judge me, Hannah is on the couch next to me passed out. So I’m doing okay. The last couple of days in Kyoto have been a whirlwind, and this trip shows no signs of slowing down. Apart from today. Today has been a very slow day. But a very deserved day.

We started the week by packing our bags, farewelling our host Mark, and hitting the subway for the next leg of our adventure. Settling into our seats on the Shinkansen, for what we expected to be a lengthy ride to the next city, ended up being a short 15 minute trip to Kyoto. Sydney should really invest in trains that travel at 220km/hr. And in trains that leave precisely when they are scheduled. It’s too easy.

Arriving in Kyoto we had no idea what to do. We had planned to read our Lonely Planet on the train ride but clearly had our reading time cut short. Nonetheless we went wandering and found the local Nishiki Markets full of fresh fruit, vegetables and meats. Freezing and hungry we found a bustling little corner and sat down for some delicious fresh ramen and soba noodles. My face was so cold I couldn’t feel that I was burning my tongue until afterwards. Worth it though. On our walk towards Kyoto Tower we walked by a Cat Cafe, and I thought of my crazy cat lady at home. For those unaware, a cat cafe is just a cafe with heaps of cats walking around. We poked our heads in the window and it looked hilarious. Oh Japan, you continue to entertain me. On we walked, past liquor stores where we checked what the damage would be for the nights that would undoubtedly be to come. $12 for a bottle of Vodka and $16 for Baileys. That was very doable.
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After following two good looking chaps from our hostel who had #swag we navigated our way to Kyoto Tower where, for what feels like the 100th time, we climbed to see an amazing 360 degree view of the city. We can’t help that we enjoy getting high! Apart from the amazing view watching the sun set and the lights come on all over the city, the tower was also great for organising the rest of our time in Kyoto, as we were able to spot the temples and districts we wanted to visit in the following days from the one convenient spot. After taking a photo with a group of random guys from Korea (the third group to ask for our photo so far!) we left and headed to the Gion district. We managed to find the district eventually but weren’t so lucky with finding any Geisha. We did however find some delicious gyozas for next to nothing, although I’m pretty sure Hannah enjoyed the condiments more than the meal – helping herself to pretty much all of what looked to me like rice bubbles. Clearly she was deprived of good old ‘Snap, Crackle and Pop’ as a child.
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Literally running home to avoid frostbite, we warmed up by sitting on the heated toilet seats and entertained ourselves by watching the Clown fish in the common room of our hostel. YES! I found Nemo! Definitely not at 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney.

The next day we woke to find tiny snowflakes falling from the sky outside our window. And after putting on two pairs of socks, three thermals tops, a jumper, a jacket, two scarves and a beanie, I was ready to step outside. After flashing our JR train passes at the station like celebrities, we hopped on a train bound for Nara – a town which is hard to say whether there are more tourists or deer. Like an obstacle course, we managed to dodge the cold, the camera lenses, and the crazy deer ramming at your legs for food, and arrived at the Todai-ji temple – the home of a 15 metre high Buddha. The temple itself was pretty incredible, and no photo could accurately depict the size of the room and Buddha. Regardless, it didn’t stop most tourists, and the continuous camera shutter sound was harsh against the peacefulness of the Buddha. After watching a group of tourists holding biscuits be attacked by a mob of deer we pop back on the train headed for Kobe. However, we didn’t last there long. Our frozen fingers and rumbling bellies won over and we headed home for dinner which we cooked ourselves! Anyone know how to use a rice cooker? Because I don’t.
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The next day was a big one, and also the cause of the state I am sitting in now, on the couch, with Hannah passed out next to me. It started with a challenge. We took our map to reception to ask the best way to get to where we wanted to that day. The girl looked at us and laughed, saying that it was a lot to achieve in a day. Challenge accepted.

First stop was the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, which happens to feature on the cover of our Lonely Planet guide. Hannah and I have had a growing obsession with bamboo ever since we started recording the various ways it was used through out South-East Asia, and it was great to see it in such abundance and so green. Big shoutout to the kind man at the station who was laughing at us trying to work out where we were for helping us, and for telling us all about tofu for some reason.
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Next stop was to the Kinkakuji Temple, or the Golden Pavilion. After a fairly solid walk we reached the pavilion – a beautiful gold temple sitting on a stunning serene pond. A truest Japanese looking setting. No filter required. After getting lost in conversation we managed to find the exit and set off back to the station, but not before being interviewed by a small group of Japanese students on an English excursion. KAWAII!!!!
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The last stop of the day was on the other side of the city and we were in a race against the sun. Making a vital mistake and not reading the guidebook properly we decided to walk instead of train to the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine. Not a particularly pretty walk, we found ourselves out if the tourist zone, and lost. Thankfully a very kind old man pointed us in the right direction before wishing us a happy day, and we with sore feet we made it to the shrine. Which is located a few metres from the station. Good one Emma. Walking through the food stalls we gave into temptation – Hannah got some okonomiyaki and I helped myself to a pork and shallot skewer dripping in teriyaki sauce. Gone in one bite, we then had to carry our rubbish for miles. Japan is immaculate and you never see any rubbish on the floor anywhere. But they have NO bins anywhere in the streets. How do they do it!?!?
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Getting the the shrine was amazing. 228 metres of bright orange torii dedicated to Inari, glowing in the fading light around them. A really really cool shrine. One of my favs to date. And we arrived at the right time because it wasn’t too crowded later in the evening.

Getting back to the hostel we treated ourselves to some Baileys at the bar…while wearing slippers. Classy. At this point the hostel had been taken over by some 50 odd American a College students who were on a Semester at Sea program which sounds incredible. Over 100 days, 12 countries, 4 continents. I was jealous to say the least. One Baileys turned into two, which turned into four, which turned into us dashing down the block in our slippers to the closest corner store to buy more drinks, which turned into two Aussies and a whole heap of Americans roaming the streets, which turned into a karaoke bar, which turned into joining random Japanese peoples karaoke rooms, which turned into a lot of Katy Perry, One Direction and random Japanese pop music. Waking up with a whole heap of new friend requests, a pretty sore head, and a rough throat, I farewelled our new friends, and got comfy on the couch. Which is where I still find myself….six hours later. Hannah eventually made it up to join me, but has been unconscious for most of the day. Our new room mates have just arrived though so I should probably go shower and make myself approachable.

I’m pretty hungover, but pretty goddamn happy right now. How about you?

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Osaka

They say the best way to see a city is to get lost. But when you’re such skilled explorers like Hannah and myself, it’s hard to get lost, so walking is our next best option. While both a means of staying warm, and saving money, walking takes you to secret parts of the city a guidebook never will. The real city.

We stayed in bed a bit longer than expected the second morning. In our defense, we had been taken to a comedy show (rorcomedy.com) and drinks by our airbnb host Mark the night before and were still blaming jetlag at this stage! Nonetheless we packed our day to the brim.

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Night out with Mark.

First stop we navigated the subways and made our way to Tempozan for a fun day of activities. This little seaside village was home to one of the biggest Ferris wheels in the world – at 112 metres high. Being the daredevils we are, we opted for a clear-bottomed pod to maximise our views over Osaka and beyond! And we were not disappointed. Although we managed to break almost every rule – Hannah seemed keen on proving the strength of the structure by shaking the pod while floating at 112m above the ground – we survived unscathed.

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View from the top of the Giant Ferris Wheel.

As we’d made the effort to get to Tempozan, we thought we thought a visit to the Aquarium would be worthwhile, as it is marketed as one of the best in the world. We got to pat stingrays, and get very very close to a whale shark. Hannah was smitten with the sloth, and I was impressed with the Great Barrier Reef exhibit which I’m pretty sure looks better than the real deal these days!

A quick train trip back into the centre of town, we revisited Dotombori, the area we’d been in the night before, and got to see a different side of it in the light. If the streams of people flowing out of each department store entrance wasn’t enough, I couldn’t believe the size of the Starbucks – which appear on every block (literally)! The one we went into was three stories and doubled as a library. It appeared to be where students went to study, as finding a seat was impossible! Move over libraries, Starbucks is taking over the world!

As we watched the sun go down and the lights come on, Dotombori emerged from behind the shadows, assaulting the eyes, ears and nose in true Japanese style. In the throngs of it all, however, we managed to tick off the first item on our food wish list: taco-yaki (grilled octopus dumplings).
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Doing Dotombori
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Taco-yaki (grilled octopus dumplings)

Escaping the hustle and bustle of the centre of town, we wandered to the outskirts to find the best ramen in Osaka (proved by a pretty solid line outside)! Without being able to speak Japanese, or the waiters English, we managed to navigate waiting for, ordering, and eating our desired ramen. Hannah was highly impressed by the assortment of condiments available and instantly thought back to Anna in South-East Asia. Meanwhile, after exposing where we were from, the waiter tried to explain that the store has a branch in Sydney, before giving us each a business card. So readers I’m Sydney, head to Shop 211 Dixon Street, Haymarket for some pretty serious ramen!

The next morning was particularly cold, making it quite a challenge to rip ourselves from bed. Mark had asked whether I wanted to join him for yoga but I was so cold I though my limbs might snap if I tried to bend them! Even more of a challenge though was trying to get ready around Mark who had then decided to start meditating right outside our room!

But today was our first ride on the Shinkansen (bullet trains) and once we worked out where we were allowed/supposed to sit we were under way! The world whizzed past us and before we knew it we were in Hiroshima. Remembering back to the books I’d studied in year 12, the city began to come alive. We managed to stumble upon a sightseeing loop bus that wad covered by our train passes, and from there ventured across the city – the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Peace Memorial Park, the Flame of Peace, Children’s Peace Monument, and Peace Memorial Museum. The museum was particularly evocative and brought to life the stories I’d read at school. The atrocities of war and the evils of mankind.
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The Atomic Bomb Dome

Hannah was keen to find some okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) for lunch and Mark had told us that Hiroshima had a distinctive style that we should try. We managed to locate a three-storey building that contained 25 stalls all selling the pancakes, and had ours cooked on a hot plate right in front of us! It was one pimped out pancake! And another tick on our food list.

With the sun quickly descending we decided to make a quick dash out to Miyajima – a small island off Hiroshisma, home of the vermillion torii (shrine gate) of Itsukushima-jinja. Racing the sun and clock, we stopped to ask some local deer for directions before reaching the torii for sunset. The deer were everywhere and watching them stick their heads into prams and wheelchairs reminded me of the monkeys in Bali. We found one very resourceful deer, however, who had decided eating his own poop was the most economical approach. Anyway! After gawking at all the girls walking around in heels and mini skirts, we trudged our way out to the torii. The tide was out so it didn’t appear to be floating like often photographed but it meant we were able to go and touch it! Even cooler!
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Oh deer! I’m lost!
2015/01/img_0153.jpg Vermillion Torii of Itsukushima-jinja

Back to the train, we used our JR pass to its maximum advantage, going in and out of the station to ensure we found the shop with the cheapest chocolate. Dragging our tired eyes and feet, we both collapsed in bed and drifted into a solid sleep.

Our last day in Osaka was bittersweet! It had started to rain and to make matters worse, it was Australia Day back home. While keeping our portable wifi close on hand and our phones tuned to the Triple J Top 100, we explored Amerika-Mura – a hip and happening district full of trendily-dressed youths in cafés. With street art covering the walls and street lamps brightly painted, we explored secondhand clothing stores and cheap dumpling restaurants ($2 for 6! That’s Cambodian prices!) in the afternoon we explored Kuromon Ichiba, the local fresh food market, where we gawked at live crabs and lobsters, fresh fruits, and pufferfish! Although we were too scared to try. Next time though! I swear!

For dinner we visited our little Pork man around the corner from us to say good bye and have one last meal. I was a piggy and asked for a big serve and then couldn’t finish, but Mr Pork just laughed at me and put it in a takeaway container. You’re the best, Mr Pork! There’s breakfast sorted.

Off to Kyoto tomorrow morning! More adventure to come!

Check out @emmabreislin on Instagram for more pictures.

E x

P.s. Congrats Chet Faker on beating Tay Tay in the top 100!