This weekend’s ski trip went pretty damn similar to the last time I went skiing in Naeba. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

The (unexpectedly) clear and sunny skies on our first day there made me wish I had not left my phone in the car. But since I did, you’ll have to take my word for it: the views from up there were breathtaking (and the skiing equally awesome).

Just like last time, weather went from great on Saturday, to increasingly windy and snowy on Sunday. Of course, frequent snow weather is a bit of a requirement for a successful ski resort. Unfortunately, in Naeba, it also means that all gondolas and a varying number of lifts stay closed: a lot fewer reachable pistes, a lot more queueing to get up there.

Nonetheless, both days of skiing were still absolutely brilliant: reasonably low amount of queuing at the lifts, overall decent snow and a few blissfully empty pistes (alongside some very crowded ones).

Judging by the pitiful state of my calves by day 2 (not to mention day 3, aka ouch-today), my body clearly does not think one ski trip every other year makes for a proper amount of preparation. That or I need to skip leg day less often.

Completely by chance, this year’s trip fell on yet another installment of Fuji Rock-affiliated “WeSky a GoGo” Winter music event. Their “event” package, including a weekend lift pass, sold for less than the pass itself, making it a no-brainer purchase, with everything else (DJ party entrance, onsen and a couple other things) as a free bonus.

When I first stopped there, during my last Asian trip, Ko Lanta immediately became my favourite spot in Thailand.

Not having the best beaches, the best luxury resorts or the best party life, the island has so far escaped most of the tourism-driven uglification of other Thai islands, while at the same time remaining an easy destination for a low-maintenance stay in the sun.

The island economy is still 90% tourism, but its relatively small size and chill vibe do not sell well to party-oriented teenage euro crowds, and its relatively stringent zoning laws due to its status as a national park put a limit to the number of obnoxious walled-in resorts that can blight the landscape. Which might be why it reminded me so much of the first times I travelled through Thailand, some 15 years ago, before the whole of Russian middle-bourgeoisie started spending its Winter vacations lying on deck chairs along the beaches of northern Phuket.

Bamboo Housing

Owing to aforementioned lower rate of development and zoning laws, a good deal of the housing on offer in Ko Lanta is at the more basic end of the spectrum1, which can be a great or not-so-great thing, depending on your tolerance for six-legged creatures, cold showers and bamboo as a major building material.

Actually, any particular item of housing comfort can generally be obtained for a little extra cost, but even when budget is not an issue, there is much to be said for the simple comfort of a basic bamboo bungalow next to the beach. Even at peak season, it takes only a bit of looking around to find the right place, with the right amount of compromise on comfort, cleanliness and simplicity.

  1. Not to say there aren’t a few of these huge concrete-y resorts, just like anywhere else in Asia where water meets sand. And yes, these are just as terminally boring as anywhere else. If resort life is what you are after, take my word: Ko Lanta is not where you want to go. []

As there was a full moon, it seemed appropriate to explore a completely deserted Angkor Wat. We had a bottle of champagne, half a bottle of Grand Marnier, and some of that Cambodian ganja so freely and more-or-less legally available

When visiting Siem Reap, the question is not so much where to go for sightseeing, but how to do it in such a way as not to be permanently surrounded by throngs of tourists. Over 4 million tourists find their way to Siem Reap every year, and they do not come for the riverside view or to go hiking by the lake, they all want to see the sun rising over Angkor Wat, or that one temple where Angelina Jolie played a videogame character endowed with a huge, err, knowledge of ancient artefacts.

So did we.

But just like visiting Ryoan-ji’s famous zen garden on a regular day is a frustrating exercise in futility1, being surrounded by a noisy sea of selfie-stick-carrying tourists did not seem like the best way to stand in awe and admiration at millenium-old stone palaces.

Sunrise

Fortunately, most tourists do not like to get up at ungodly early hours, which is incidentally the time when sunrises happen. And sunrises are awesome. Not so much for the big ball of orange that magically makes its way up the horizon every single day without fail (although that can be cool too), but because the few hours that follow are bathed in the most sumptuous light of the day: warm hues of pink and orange that draw long shadows on the tiniest stone detail and make an already impressive place take a surreal cinematic appearance. And even when the best camera you own came free with your annual phone plan, you can’t have too much photography-worthy lighting in your life.

Of course, the perspective of a 4am wake-up is only a mild deterrent to the more decided tourist hordes, and our pre-dawn tuk tuk ride ended in the company of a worryingly large number of other sunrise-seekers. By the time we arrived at the entrance to Angkor Wat, large crowds of tired people in neon-clothing were queueing for coffee and waving tiny flashlights around. Despite strong flashbacks of 90s raves in rural Yorkshire, no acid house music could be heard in the background.

Making our way toward the inner temple amidst a compact stream of visitors, within earshot of at least a dozen different guides’ loud blather, I was starting to question the effectiveness of killing a perfectly good night of sleep as a way to escape the crowds, and then something awesome happened. About 100 metres before the temple itself, every single person took a turn left and appeared to congregate by some body of muddy water.

 

 

As it turns out, people do not want to be inside Angkor Wat for sunrise, they want the perennial sun-rising-above-temple-with-pond-reflection photo, which admittedly must look a lot cooler in one’s Facebook feed.

Not seeing a single person venturing further, I briefly wondered if the rest of the temple might be closed at this hour, but sure enough, no gates, barriers or any officials whatsoever, stood in the way of our exploration of the entire deserted site.

I will trade a million postcard sunrises any day for a walk through massive stone corridors, glimpsing at bas-relief and carvings in the pre-dawn light, sitting on the east-facing edge of the inner wall, in perfect silence save for the noises of the surrounding forest2.

  1. Last time I was there, loudspeakers had been mounted on the platform facing the garden, blaring multi-lingual explanations on the true meaning of zen to groups of bored high-schoolers and disinterested foreigners too busy trying to frame as many rocks as possible into their selfie. []
  2. … and those bats inhabiting the corner tower ceilings, whose little screeching calls Irina wasn’t very fond of, especially from up close []

This year, it was decided that our decennial International Family Gathering would take place in Japan: a beautiful small country located at near-equal distance from most family members.

It also has some delightful onsen ryokan, out in the mountains1, where you can spend your time dipping in hot water under the falling snow, warm yourself to the traditional Japanese-style fireplace in your room and eat yourself to death twice a day on an endless stream of local delicacies.

  1. not too far from our last incursion in Shinshu province []

In about ten years, Halloween in Japan has gone from a small foreigner-oriented Roppongi event, to a massive country-wide phenomenon. As far as Western holidays go, there are worse ones to import: any chance to dress up in silly outfits and go party it up with friendly strangers is good to take (the whole kids&candy part hasn’t really made it with the rest).

This year’s 31st being a Friday, helped reach unseen level of costumed street craziness in Tokyo.

Taking the title over skeevy Roppongi, Shibuya has now become a much bigger epicentre for Halloween revelry: I had never seen that many people in the streets there. Not during the World Cup, not during New Year’s Eve1, not ever.

Crowd was mainly Japanese, costumes were the usual declinations of sex, blood and cute cartoon characters. Usually all at the same time: from zombie sexy snow-white, to blood-drenched sexy teddy-bear. If originality was not always at its peak, the amount of effort (/money) put into it was undeniable. The bar-counter sociologists would have also noted a huge preponderance of group costumes.

Clockwork Orange in TokyoFor once, yours truly did put some efforts into that costume thing. The end result surpassed our expectations, mainly thanks to the magic of Internet shopping and Japan’s mind-blowingly fast delivery services.

We were expecting little recognition from the average Japanese Halloween partier (hell, even from the average mid-twenties Westerner), but figured the outfits would look weird enough as a group to make for a good costume anyway…

In fact, not only does Clockwork Orange has its fans amongst young hip Tokyoites, but the ones that are into it are really into it. Which lead to an uninterrupted stream of young Japanese devotchkas in various goth-y outfits stopping us, proffering their love for 時計じかけのオレンジ with much shrieking and asking for group pictures. You know you’ve been in Japan too long when you don’t bat a (long) eyelash at repeated mentions that Alex is sooo kawaii. Because nothing says cute, like cod-piece-wearing sociopathic rapist-murderers.

I expect there are now hundreds of pictures floating out there, featuring smily blood-drenched Japanese girls surrounded by creepily-dressed foreigners in vaguely threatening (and increasingly lewd as the night went on) poses. Which I realise sounds like the exact description of a Roppongi club on a Saturday night, but was actually a lot more wholesome (and fun) than that.

After spending most of the evening in the streets (and street-side cafés) of Shibuya, the late-night clubbing at Trump Room nearly felt dull by comparison: dark confined spaces probably aren’t the best place for watching cool costumes. But what wouldn’t a true droog do to dance on some Ludvig van, or whatever closest musical approximation they can find.

A jolly night all around and an unmitigated success. Except for the abuse of Milk Plus that lead to a rather tough morning the next day.

  1. To be fair, only very clueless foreigners still regularly show up there, clinging to the hope that there will be a countdown party. []

  • Delicious BBQ places everywhere, most of them with outdoor sitting (living in Tokyo really makes you miss outdoors eating). The moment you sit at a table, they’ll bring a dozen dishes of miscellaneous sauces, appetisers and kimchi before you even get around to order.
  • Hongdae (Seoul’s hip student-oriented neighbourhood) is really awesome to walk around, day or night. Cozy coffeeshops everywhere, open way into the night.
  • Gangnam and its more upscale locales is also an interesting neighbourhood to get a feel of what young startup-oriented Koreans are up to.
  • Hangul is so nice and easy to learn (compared to the common sense blackhole that is kana/kanji) that I found myself able to decipher restaurant menus by the end of the weekend. And yes: Korea has its equivalent to Katakana English, and it is occasionally just as hard to guess. Still is nice to be nearly-literate without spending years sweating over kanji lists.
  • In contrast to Japanese women, Korean female fashion is refreshingly more adult: lot less reliance on girly pink frills and other accessories intent on making one look like a prepubescent doll.
  • On the other hand, Korean male twenty-somethings seem a lot more into the asexual boyish boys-band look than their Japanese counterparts. At least for those that eschew the cookie-cutter preppy hipster look (guys: there’s more to life than round glasses, bowl cuts and capri pants).
  • I loved trying to figure the original hanja beneath random hangul words and often realising how close they were to the equivalent Japanese word. Once you realise that  (‘university’) is spelt , just like in Japanese, the name “Hongdae” makes a lot more sense (as do a lot of other words with ‘dae’ in them).
  • Even though very little planning went into the dates for this trip, it turns out that late-September Autumn was the absolute perfect time, weather-wise, to enjoy Seoul and its plentiful outdoor drinking&eating (never spent any serious time there in the Winter, but I am told, and can easily believe, that it is no fun at all).
  • Definitely going back! (but not in Winter)