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Japanese Cuisine – Exotic, Different, Amazing!

I don’t even know where to start… so many new flavours! Here’s just an excerpt of all the new things I got to try!

Yuzu

My new favourite fruit. Yuzu is an Asian citrus fruit, sometimes also known as Japanese lemon. A kind of bitter lemon, it is very famous in Japan and there are lots of sweets with yuzu flavour. Yuzu, I swear to God, Japan has made me fall in love once again.

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Mochi

Mochi are sticky rice cakes with a filling, most famously red bean filling, called anka. Sticky, sweet and very flavoursome, it is hard to eat more than one but equally hard to stop eating them.

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Tako-yaki

Little balls made of dough, octopus and a few veg in a waffle-iron-like baking device, quite similar to a donut maker. Delicious!

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Imagawayaki

Made in a very similar device as tako-yaki, just with bigger openings and coin shaped rather than like balls, imagawayaki are sweet cakes with anka (red bean) filling. Even though Japanese cuisine is not known for sweet dishes, the few that they have seem to be very sweet!

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Miso Soup

Probably one of Japan’s most famous cuisines it is eaten by many Japanese people as an appetizer to their main meal of the day. It is a rather salty soup, consisting of stock and miso paste as well as a variety of local or seasonal vegetables, tofu and other processed bean products.

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Tsukemono

Tsukemono or pickles, vegetables or fruits made to last by preserving them in vinegar and lots of salt, are well known in many cultures. Yet the sour pickles I tried in Japan were far from what I had tasted indifferent European and Northern Asian countries. Tsukemono are an important part of a Japanese meal, without the sour side dish it wouldn’t be complete. They are also often served as snacks.

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Shiso

An often-used Japanese herb, my hosts in Okayama grew shiso and used the leaves in salads, stir-fry and even as an ingredient for their homemade sweets.

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Myoga

Myoga are flower buds used to add flavour to a variety of Japanese dishes with a distinct, pleasant taste not comparable to anything I have ever tried before. Upon enquiry my hosts simply explained they were a kind of herb. I found out later that that Myoga is known as Japanese Ginger in English, however it is rarely used outside Japan and judging from the taste I wouldn’t have made a connection with the ginger root familiar to us in Europe.

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Goya

Goya, also called Bitter Melon in English, looks more like a cucumber variety than a melon. Widely used in South and East Asian cuisine, it turns very bitter when it ripens.

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Momiji Manju

A Hiroshima speciality, these are little cakes filled with anka (red bean paste), cream, chocolate or green tea filling.

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Kibi Dango

A speciality of the Okayama province, these are sweet dumplings originally made from millet but these days glutinous rice is more common. Very similar to mochi.

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Soba Cha

A slightly bitter tea made from buckwheat is prepared in advance, left to steep over night and drunk cold. Some people swear on it as a natural weight loss agent.

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Pione Budo

A dark grape variety, pione are large, sweet and almost seedless. My hosts in Okayama grow them on their farm and I was lucky enough to stay with them during pione season, so that we had them as treats every day.

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Kare Pan

I bought my first kare pan in a convenience store thinking it was a sweet pastry like I was used to from Europe. Boy, was I in for a surprise! Kare pan are deep fried buns with a curry filling.

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Meron Pan

Also known as melon bun, these are sweet buns with a sugar crust and apparently melon flavour – I couldn’t detect it though.

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Matcha

Probably one of the most famous items of Japanese cuisine, matcha is powdered green tea.

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An-pan

Another baked good, this delicacy is filled with sweet anka, adzuki bean paste.

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Kuro-goma

Black sesame seeds. So much more aroma than their white counterpart! They are slightly nuttier and smokier and less sweet in taste. The best processed version I have eaten was black sesame ice cream. Best ice cream flavour ever.

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Natto

One of the weirder foods I came across, Japanese swear on its health benefits and many eat it daily. Natto is soy beans fermented with a bacterial culture which builds lots of slimy strings. It has a very strong smell and flavour, certainly not for everyone’s tastebuds.

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Umeboshi Plums

Traditional Japanese cuisine uses a lot of tsukemono, pickling food, as explained above. One kind that we had a lot of in my host family is plums, pickled in lots of salt and vinegar. Another surprise for my European palette which would have expected plums to be sweet!

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Konnyaku

This is a kind of potato jelly made from Konjac, a potato native to Indonesia but only cultivated for food in Japan. The jelly doesn’t have much taste of its own but a very interesting texture.

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This is just a selection of all the new food I got to try in Japan. Even after visiting Korea, it was like diving into a completely different world with so, so many new flavours! Every day a new surprise, an unknown explosion of flavour in my mouth! This is Japan.

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Kyoto, Japan (week 12) – The City Of The Thousand Temples

After sleeping through my alarm and rushing out the house in the early morning in Kibichuo and a couple of hours on the local train I was greeted by Kyoto with perfect weather: dry, sunny, not too hot. I arranged to meet my host Zizo in the evening and went off to explore what felt like the most touristy place in Japan (or so I thought judging by the sheer amount of tourist, I was corrected later): Fushimi Inari, the shrine with the thousand gates.

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Fushimi Inari

Fushimi Inari is an important Shinto shrine, famous for its thousants of torii gates, a picture of which is sure to make it into any Japan travel guide. The shrine is dedicated to the Shinto god Inari, the god of rice, and dates back to way before Kyoto became Japan’s capital in 794 AD. It’s the most important shrine dedicated to Inari in Japan. Every single one of the torii gates is donated by Japanese businesses or individuals, since Inari is also seen as the patron of businesses.

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The ‘Real’ Kyoto

When I met Zizo in the evening, he took me for a bicycle tour around the city. His knowledge of the city, culture and history of Kyoto is very detailed and he freely shared all his knowledge with me while taking me around some of the inner-city’s shrines. On my request we went to Gion and waited for a Geisha (they are actually called maiko (trainee) and geiko (master)) to leave one of the establishments so that I could leave the city saying I had seen a real Geisha! After a tour of the ‘real’ Kyoto downtown (not the new one they are building around the train station) Zizo took me to meet some of his friends at their usual hang out spot at the river. I immediately felt at home with the diverse group of foreigners not only because they just took me into their group as if I had always been part of it but also because it reminded me so much of how my friends and I used to hang out in my teens. Ah, the good old times! We went on to a tiny bar with a DJ frequented by the foreign community of Kyoto with one or the other Japanese person, of course with excellent English skills. Zizo and his friend then took me to another little bar which looked like a cave, run by a Nepalese guy and with a Karaoke machine because I had to try Karaoke before leaving Japan even though I am a crap singer and my voice was destroyed at the end of that evening.

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Kibichuo Town, Okayama Prefecture, Japan (weeks 10-11) – Traditional Japan

Upon leaving Hiroshima I made my way to Kibichuo – a small, provincial town in the middle of the Okayama prefecture’s jungle, a place famous for its amazing grapes and peaches. I was a little late for peach season but just in time for the grape season when I arrived at my second workaway destination, the small grape farm of the Ota family.

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The Challenges

I arrived in Kibichuo looking for a traditional Japanese experience, and boy, did I get what I was looking for! Coming from a modern Western background with impeccable indoor hygiene standards and a very clear divide between indoor and outdoor I certainly had some things to get accustomed to. Even though I grew on the countryside and spent many years living on a farm with cows and sheep sticking their heads into my bedroom window (yes, literally!), I had to learn that living close to nature was defined slightly differently in Asia. Good thing though I was exposed to this before arriving in South East Asia, otherwise I may have had a more difficult time there, where, due to the high temperatures all year round, living spaces are designed in a much more open way than in Europe.

The very traditional house the Ota family lives in has some areas where the floor is compact soil, others, like the kitchen, are bare concrete. Only the sleeping and living room area, elevated from the rest of the house, has wooden flooring covered with tatami mats and paper sliding doors and walls. The rest of the house had wooden sliding doors that can’t close as tightly as modern Western doors thus allowing mosquitoes and other small creatures to enter the house. The fact that I am not familiar with many of those small creatures and don’t know anything about their potential made me feel a bit uneasy about them at first – but after all, if they were at all poisonous, the family would have done something about them. I and the other workawayers lived in a guesthouse, about 200m walk through the garden from the main house. I encountered many more unknown bugs, spiders and even snakes on these walks! The one thing to look out for though are the giant hornets – yes, they are real and not an invention of the anime industry. Even though they are rarely deadly, their poison has been known to kill people. Trouble was, they seemed to like our grapes very much – we all managed to stay away from them though!

Other challenges of traditional Japanese living I had to get used to were the in-house privy and the smell that came with it (only a problem on hot days though) and cold showers when autumn was nearing and the nights got pretty cold already. Japanese traditional houses are designed to be cool in the summer and are thus freezing cold in the winter, there are no radiators – these would not only be very dangerous but also impossible to install on paper walls.

The Work

Since I arrived in Kibichuo during Pione season (the name of the grapes the Ota family grows), most of the work evolved around the grapes: sorting, washing, cutting, drying and more sorting. We also sorted beans, made Italian sweets called Salamino and sold those as well as other grape products on the local market. This wasn’t easy at first due to my very limited knowledge of the Japanese language and the fact that people in the countryside hardly speak any English, but I learnt a few sentences, such as: ‘Irishaimasee! Tabete mide kudasai pione!’ which means as much as: ‘Welcome! Please try the pione!’ – please don’t ask me how to write this in Kanji though.

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We, that is me and the other workawayers – Louisa from Germany, Marie from Poland, Simona from Slowakia and Sarah from Belgium.

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More Japanese Customs

Working at the local market I also learnt a lot about Japanese sales customs and more about Japanese customs in general, which are quite different from the ones in Europe, but similar to other parts of Asia. For example, it is very important to call out and invite potential customers to try your goods, as otherwise they wouldn’t think to look twice at what you have to offer. Don’t forget to bow, as always! This soon comes as a second nature and it took me a while after leaving Japan to stop bowing when talking to other people. Bowing is so enshrined in Japanese culture that people do it unconsciously, all the time. It is a lot of fun to watch Japanese people on the phone bowing to the person at the other end of the line!

I also learnt that Japanese will always tell you that your language skills are very good even if they are utter crap and when they taste something, they will always say it is ‘oshi’ (very good), even if they dislike the taste. Politeness is extremely important in any human interaction within the Japanese culture.

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The Ota Family

The Ota family are dad Katsutaka, mum Yoshimi, grandma Kyoko and little whirlwind Amika. Yoshimi took part in a homestay in Europe when she was younger which was a life-changing experience for her and she wanted to offer the same kind of experience to young foreigners, which is why the Otas decided to host workawayers. They are very kind, accommodating and generous people with a clear idea of the kind of help they need and clear instructions, which the German in me really appreciated.

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Onsen Visit

Apart from offering a traditional Japanese experience they also were open to showing us other parts of their culture. One night, Katsutaka took us tattooed Europeans to an Onsen, almost 2 hours drive from their home. Onsens, which are Japanese hot springs with very strict rules, usually don’t allow anyone with tattoos as this is the trademark of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Since they can’t implement a rule banning Yakuza, this is a way around, but it also prohibits many foreigners. Knowning this, Katsutaka took us to a natural onsen that was not staffed, so there was nobody to enforce these rules which allowed us to experience the hot springs as well. The visit was followed by some red bean ice cream, a very Japanese treat. I was introduced to so many other new flavours, dishes and ingredients while staying with the Otas, they deserve a post of their own!

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Workshop For People With Special Needs

Since all three of us workawayers (Simona, Sarah and I) have been working with people with special needs back home Yoshimi took us to visit a workshop in Kibichuo, called Kibinosato. The people there were really excited to get visitors from so far away and couldn’t wait to take pictures with us! We were told that we would even receive a spot on their website.

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The centre offers different workshop and a small residential area for those that don’t go home every day. One of the workshops is making Japanese wooden key hangers and purses and other small items from leather. They have a general stock of a variety of symbols but often receive large orders. Another workshop is making parts, some kind of pipes, for a major Japanese motor company. These pipes are essential in any car and thus the fact that they were chosen for the production fills the workers with a lot of pride. A third workshop is cleaning head phones for an airline.

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Hiroshima, Japan (week 9) – Famous For All The Wrong Reasons

I arrived in Japan at Fukuoka and made my way straight to Hiroshima. Japan greeted me with rain and cool temperatures but that didn’t stop me exploring!

Fukuoka Pier:

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Japan is full of these little cars that look like boxes – I guess when space is an issue you get inventive!

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The City

While most of you probably know Hiroshima only because of this one split-second in 1945 that brought a horrific, painful fame to the city, there is so much more to it than this one moment in history. True, the attack has shaped the city forever, but today it is a bustling metropolis with lots to explore, eat and drink.

I found a cute little Japanese café where I got a traditional meal combo followed by a not-so-traditional slice of chocolate cake:

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The Peace Museum and Memorial Park

According to a plaque, the Peace Memorial Park ‘was established to comfort the souls of the victims of the atomic bombing and to pray for everlasting world peace’. The park and its statues were designed in a way that attempts to connect the ‘act of seeing with the praying for the A-bomb victims’. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the spatial design of the structures or just the fact that one is aware of the tragedy that has unfolded here, but I was overcome by the sense of grief for all those lives unfinished. This sense that you get at any place of great human tragedy, like Auschwitz, Ground Zero and even Pompeji. The one that makes you lower your voice and speak with pain and compassion about all those people you neither knew nor were related to but still feel sorry for. This feeling overcomes you as soon as you are at the place of remembrance and even though a lingering feeling might stay for a little while after you have left it is gone quickly enough. I suppose this can be described as ‘connecting the act of seeing with that of praying for the victims’ I dare to think though that this effect may have also been achieved looking at the A-Dome alone, without any complicated park design. Maybe not as grant, but nevertheless. Still, I believe the act of designing and building the memorial park was a very important for the Japanese people to come to terms with what had happened to them. After all, the national and international importance of the park lies in its symbolisms and the universal message of peace.

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Whereas the park is a place of remembrance and contemplation, the museum is  not for the faint-hearted. Besides the science behind the atomic bomb and the disastrous effects on people’s health that are known so far there are graphic images and descriptions of the fates of individual victims, both those that died within a few days of the disaster and many years later of the after-effects.

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This shoe, for example, belonged to 12-year-old Kazuhiko Sasaki, one of the many students who were assigned to work in the close proximity of where the bomb hit. His mother, searching the city desperately for him, found his body two days later and cremated him. The family found the shoe later in the rubble nearby and kept it as a keepsake before donating it to the museum.

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This is the Children’s Peace Monument dedicated to all the children that died from the effects of the A-Bomb. It was inspired by the story of Sadako Sasaki, who was exposed to the bomb at the age of 2 but grew into a healthy girl. 10 years later, however, she developed leukemia. A Japanese legend says that whoever folds a thousand paper cranes will be granted any wish, so, while in hospital, she folded paper cranes continuously in the hope that they would help her recover. Unfortunately she died eventually. To this day, thousands of paper cranes are sent to the monument every year.

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My Host

Kana and her mother live in a small one bedroom apartment in the city. They were incredibly hospitable, offering the bedroom to me while they slept in the main room on the couch/a mattress on the floor. Kana’s mother runs a little pet dog shop/groomer and I got to play with some of the little cuties🙂 Unfortunately we didn’t manage to spend much time together during my short stay but hopefully we will at some stage in the future!

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Miyajima

Itsukushima island with its famous floating torii gate is often referred to as Miyajima. The torii gate is part of a Shinto shrine, which was destroyed and re-erected several times. The current shrine dates back to the 16th century, although the design is believed to be from the 12th century. It was already dark when I made it to the island so I didn’t get to visit the shrine, however, the torii gate is beautifully lit at night and thus probably even more impressive than during daylight hours. Today, the shrine is one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations and one of the ‘Three Views of Japan’.

The ferry to Itsukushima:

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While being awfully crowded during the day with tourists, the traditionally kept streets of Itsukushima are quiet and serene at night.

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Kansai Region, Japan (weeks 9/12) – A Quick Trip Through Himeji, Osaka, Nara and Wakayama Beach

Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is one of very few Japanese castles that still feature original architecture and are not full replicas of their former glory. It is also the only one that still towers above the modern city and skyscrapers surrounding it providing  majestic view. Due to its white walls and traditional look the castle has been featured in many movies (i.e. The Last Samurai) and is well-visited destination. The national treasure and UNESCO World Heritage Site receives millions of visitors every year with many hours of waiting time at peak visiting times throughout the year.

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Osaka Capsule Hotel

Of course I couldn’t leave Japan without visiting one of its famous capsule hotels. I chose to stay in Osaka in between visiting Himeji and Nara in one of the very few capsule hotels that have dorms for women and I was not disappointed! From little capsules for sleeping, over basic toiletries and a Japanese-style pyjama – all you need if you have to stay over night unexpectedly because you work such long hours (Japanese style), onsen-style bathrooms and a common room with all kind of entertainment, it was all I expected it to be.

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Nara Park

Another one of the Kansai region’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites and one of Japan’s many former capitals, it features an abundance of historical buildings that are designated national treasures. Most of these are concentrated at Nara Park, which is also home to a great number of tame deers. Many visitors purchase deer cakes to feed the deer which are so used to being fed that they get very cheeky and won’t let those off easily who either have or had some deer cakes! The deer enjoy protected status since according to a legend, the god of the Kasuga Taisha came riding on a white deer.

For the first time since my accident, I rented a bike in Nara to travel around the park with ease. Still got it!

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Wakayama Beach (My First Surf Lesson)

(Couch) surfer Renato took me to Wakayama beach for my first ever surf lesson! Even though I am not very talented I had a lot of fun! Unfortunately I paid not only with aching muscles but also pretty much the worst sunburn in a very long time😦

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Japan (weeks 9-12) – First Impressions of an Exotic Destination with Vibrant Polarities

Walking the streets of Hiroshima my first impressions of Japan were of a curious and interesting nature, a destination more exotic than I had ever seen before.

1.. The Weather and Quirky Inventions

Japanese generally always carry an umbrella (because you never know). Just in case you forget your umbrella, literally every shop (no matter what kind) sells umbrellas. You might think it rains every day! They also ride their bikes a lot. Thus they have invented an umbrella holder for their bicycles so that they could continue riding through town even if it starts raining. Genius! (I am aware that these are widely available and used in other parts of the world but in Japan every bike seemed to have one)

2. Young Forever

Japanese look 20 forever. It is literally impossible for me to tell their age, even more so than for any other Asians. They look really young and have perfect skin until sometime in their late 50s or 60s when they suddenly age rapidly.

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3. Slim And Slender

Asians are known to be slimmer and more slender than people of other ethnic backgrounds. Japanese are especially thin due to their healthy traditional diet. However, whereas people in the countryside have normal, varied body shapes, but in the cities, the majority of people seem to be ridiculously thin!

4. ‘Strange’ Customs and Social Norms

The social norms, customs and strict etiquette, so different to what I was exposed to so far, are something to get used to. Japanese can’t say ‘no’ (not sure if there is even a word for it that is not considered a swear word) and generally talk in a very indirect manner, which makes it difficult at times to grasp what they are actually saying. In fact, swear words are used very rarely, an equivalent to the f-word doesn’t even exist. Other ‘strange’ customs that take some getting used to include constant bowing, the fact that blowing your nose in public is considered extremely rude and disgusting but sniffling is widely accepted or the fact that slurping your meal means that you are enjoying it!

5. Trains and Punctuality

There is an extensive rail network across Japan and transit times between trains are calculated very tightly. I had several train changes with only one minute transit time, but it worked every single time. I did not miss one of my many connections. Incredible!

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6. Convenience Stores

They sell tinned, additive-free black hot filter coffee off the shelf in convenience stores. Just next to the cooled drinks. Only in Japan!

7. Vending Machines

In Japan, you can find vending machines everywhere, selling anything your heart may desire. Well, at least anything you can store in a vending machine. Let your imagination wander, I bet whatever you think about that you will find a vending machine in Japan selling it!

8. Public Toilets

They are either traditional Asian squat toilets or multifunctional technological wonders, that can wash and dry your behind, heat the seat, play music to cover the natural sounds of your body and possibly further features I haven’t yet discovered. I wouldn’t be surprised if they can connect to your social media!

9. Cleanliness

You won’t be able to find any trash on Japan’s public roads. This is not because littering is heavily fined or anything like that, no, it is because Japanese people feel a strong personal responsibility to collect their trash, take it home and dispose of it correctly. Japanese are so honest, this actually works without fail. Oh, and the public toilets are cleaner than anywhere else in the world I’ve been!

In general, Japan is a country with very strong traditional customs but at the same time it is an affluent, modern place, with some of the world’s most advanced technologies and genius inventions. It is a country of opposites and polarities, with a culture not to be found anywhere else in the world. Due to its isolated geographical location Japan was able to develop its own traditions and customs with just as much outside influence as it chose to have – over the centuries this was sometimes more, sometimes less.

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Busan, South Korea (week 8) – A Beach Vacation Destination

After four weeks of hardcore travelling, no longer than a few days in one spot and as much sight-seeing and activities as humanly possible every day, I arrived in the coastal city rather exhausted. Since I hadn’t been for a swim since leaving Ireland this is what I was looking forward to the most! Turns out that I didn’t make it out of Haeundae, the beach area and tourist district during my 1 1/2 days in Busan, therefore this post will be comparably short!

Busan has a lot more to offer than just Haeundae’s beach with plenty of temples, museums and a great art scene, however, since I haven’t actually made it to any of its other sights, you will have to find out for yourself!

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Apart from being full of hotels, hostels, bars, restaurants and clubs and home to Busan’s most famous beach, Haeundae has also a traditional fishing harbour area.

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On the other side end of the beach, Busan’s most expensive and tallest apartment buildings can be found.

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During the day, the beach is frequented by tourists from all parts of the world. Most are Korean, Japanese, American or South East Asian. During the night, plenty of street performers can be found along the beach, like this guy. He was real entertaining!

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I met Jay in Busan and after a lovely meal got a brief guided tour of Haeudae!

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Haeundae beach is also a well-liked location for TV shows!

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Street food is just as vast and amazing as it is in Seoul. I am just going to leave these here. If they don’t make you crave Korean food, I don’t know what will!

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Busan is only 150km away from Japan. I left on the ferry from its main port on a hazy day.

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