Happy New Year! I hope everyone reading this had a peaceful and enjoyable festive period. If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know mine included a three day trip to Berlin which, although very enjoyable, was not exactly peaceful (according to the pedometer on my phone we walked 40 miles in the three days we were there ?).
Our Berlin trip came at the end of what was another fantastic year of travel. We visited Hamburg in April, went to the Primavera Festival in Barcelona in May, had a quick jaunt down to Cambridge in August, and spent two weeks in Seoul and Tokyo in September before heading off to Berlin at Christmas. It was such an action packed year of travel it is very difficult to narrow down the highlights but after much consideration here’s my top 10 favourite travel moments of 2017 (in chronological order not in order of preference because that would be way too hard).
I’m always charmed by German people’s ability to turn even the most unlikely outdoor locations into a really enjoyable place to hang out. I’ve sat on the grass in Berlin’s Mauerpark on a Sunday afternoon watching locals drink beers, strum guitars and dance to an impromptu band, I’ve joined a nightly crowd outside a convenience store in Hamburg to stand on the street and drink beers bought from the store (in a safe and friendly environment), I’ve sat on a bench in Brüsseler Platz in Cologne sipping one of the city’s famed Kölsch beers watching locals play table tennis and children scoot around on their bicycles, and lastly, the experience I’m including on this list, I’ve relaxed on possibly the world’s ugliest beach. Strandperle, on the band of the River Elbe in Hamburg, has a view of construction cranes and huge container ships regularly chugging past. When I visited in April last year I laughed at the industrial ambiance while the Hamburg residents simply put their jackets on the sand, opened a beer, gave their kids a bucket and spade to play with, and, as the Germans do so well, created a good time. I loved it.
Kate Tempest at Primavera, Barcelona
Kate Tempest is unlike any other popular musician out there right now. She’s a kind of a poet, performance artist, rapper hybrid with hard hitting lyrics about poverty in the UK, capitalism, alienation, and the Tory Government. I absolutely love her music and when I heard she was playing one of the pre festival gigs in the centre of Barcelona the night before Primavera I knew it would be good, I just didn’t realise how good. She had the entire audience of the Apolo venue watching her spellbound; her performance was so powerful, every lyric, and off lyric rant, delivered with precision and passion. I attended the three day Primavera festival afterwards, all of which was great, but Kate Tempest’s performance the evening before was the best part. I went to see her again at the Adidas stage within the festival a few days later and as I knew what to expect during the show I occasionally looked around to see the faces of the audience watching her: they were all gazing at the stage with goofy awestruck grins. I highly urge you to see her if you get the chance.
Sitting Outside GS25, Seoul
It is very difficult to explain to someone who has not lived in Korea that one of the most enjoyable ways to spend a night is to sit outside a convenience store drinking (and that it’s also safe and socially acceptable). All convenience stores in Korea have plastic chairs and tables outside, a bottle opener behind the counter and a hot water tap and microwave in case you fancy cooking a snack like ramen or microwavable rice. Basically all you need for a good night. Obviously sitting outside a convenience store is a very cheap social activity but it’s also very enjoyable; during the summer months when we lived in Korea we would often take a look in nearby bars before deciding it was just as much fun sitting outside a Family Mart or 7-11 with a few bottles of beer. When Paul and I visited our previous home of South Korea in September last year I couldn’t wait to experience it once again, so on the Saturday night we went along with some friends to a GS25 in Noksapyeong in Seoul, bought a few beers and ramen in the shop, took them outside and talked rubbish until two in the morning.
If you’d said to us before we moved to Korea that we would willingly spend our evenings singing karaoke in a private room I would never have believed you (if you’d told me Paul would willingly sing karaoke in a private room I’d have believed you even less). But singing in a Noraebang (Korean for singing room) was how we spent many a fun night during our two years living in Korea. When we visited Seoul in September we couldn’t wait to experience it again and we finally got a chance on the last night of our trip. The Noraebang we ended up in was exactly the type I loved the most – not one of the swish, glamorous ones, but down a set of stairs, dark and grotty, with the woman who worked there sleeping behind the counter. There was no alcoholic beer in the fridge as they clearly weren’t supposed to sell it but when we enquired some magically appeared, no questions asked. As we were flying out early the next morning we only intended to stay for an hour but we should have known there was no chance of that; we spent three hours belting out classics like Africa by Toto, Common People by Pulp and Zombie by The Cranberries. You can read more about my love for noraebangs here.
Standing Bar, Tokyo
My top ten travel highlights are very Tokyo heavy; I could have mixed it up a bit more and included a wider range of the different places we visited throughout the year but I wanted it to be a completely honest reflection of my favourite 2017 memories. My first one from Tokyo is when Paul and I had just arrived in the city and our friend Brian took us to a standing bar close to our airbnb. It was our first experience of Tokyo life and we absolutely loved it: it was a tiny space crammed with as many people as physically possible, every inch of the walls covered in fluttering pieces of paper displaying scribbled Japanese. Standing bars are unique to Japan, unremarkable and everyday to Tokyo dwellers, but so intriguing to us visitors.
One of the sights Brian had continuously said he was most looking forward to showing us was Yurakucho, an area around and underneath the elevated railway tracks packed with countless standing bars, yakitori joints and dark narrow alleyways lined with red paper lanterns. It didn’t disappoint; as we sat elbow to elbow in a crammed smoky yakitori restaurant as trains rattled overhead it felt like we had been directly exported from Blade Runner (the first one). There are a few areas like this in Tokyo which are more touristy (the Golden Gai in Shinjuku is very touristy, Piss Alley is quite touristy too) but Yurakucho felt like anauthentic Tokyo experience.
Roggongi View, Tokyo
The panoramic view of Tokyo from Mori Tower in Roppongi is possibly the most impressive city view I’ve ever seen. We arrived before sunset to see Tokyo’s sprawl during the daytime against the bright October sky and stayed afterwards to see the city sparkling with lights at night. During the sunset, as the sun began to dip towards the horizon, its glare highlighted the outline of Mount Fuji which could be seen overlooking the city in the distance.
Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo
The “Shibuya scramble” is perhaps Tokyo’s most iconic image so standing amongst it felt like standing in a postcard. We spent hours crossing the world’s most famous intersection, taking photos from every angle, gazing up at the towering billboards, and people watching excitable school kids, harassed businessmen, awestruck tourists, and other assorted Tokyo dwellers who dashed across the crossing. Shibuya also looks incredible at night as every inch packed with neon lights. It looks like the futuristic cityscape that formed my dreams of Tokyo before I visited.
Harmonica Alley, Tokyo
Harmonica-yokocho, or Harmonica Alley, was a black market after WWII and is now a covered market with low ceilings and narrow alleyways filled with tiny little bars and restaurants. When Paul and I visited we stopped at the tiniest standing bar we had encountered; it was only just big enough to hold me, Paul, the barman and another lady who stopped by. The barman was a cheerful man who kept disappearing up the stairs to the loft above the bar to get more drinks. He tried to ask us some questions but after ascertaining he spoke no English and we spoke no Japanese, we got Google Translate out on our phone and began communicating via that. He told us he was in a band and was also an artist and the pictures that decorated the walls of the bar were painted by him. After only planning to stop by for one drink, we spent the next few hours conversing over Google Translate, the lady customer joining in. When we finally left to go, the barman took two of his pictures of the walls and gave them to us. Such a generous gesture to finish an unexpectedly great afternoon.
Christmas Markets, Berlin
My last travel highlight of 2017 is a very recent one from our December trip to Berlin. Germany does Christmas very well so when we booked our trip I couldn’t wait to drink hot Gluhwein, sit around an open fire and visit the Christmas markets. Berlin has several Christmas markets which have all the loveliness you would expect: fairy lights, bands singing Christmas songs, stalls selling gingerbread and hand crafted Christmas toys, but my favourite was the Lucia Christmas market in Prenzlauer Berg. Set among the red brick buildings of a brewery, it has a Scandinavian influence and had stalls selling traditional Scandinavian handicrafts and serving Finnish smoked fish. We came across a little yurt with a Gluhwein bar in the centre; huddled inside drinking piping hot mugs of it was a wonderful way to end our travelling of 2017.