We’ve just got back from our second trip to Japan. We spent 9 nights in Tokyo before going to Fuji Rock Festival (in Niigata Prefecture) and finishing up with a few days in Osaka/Kyoto.
A few people said to me they’re thinking of going to Japan soon so I thought I’d put together a few tips we’ve picked up along the way (mostly about Tokyo). If you’re going to Japan, I hope they help; if you’re thinking about going, DO IT!
I’ve split this post up into two parts: the important (boring) stuff like weather, trains and money; and fun stuff such as where you can drive go karts on the streets of Tokyo, buy vinyl records, or find an all you can eat KFC.
The Important stuff
Summer in Japan can be sweltering
Being a Queenslander I wasn’t worried about going to Japan during Summer. How hot could it be? Answer: VERY HOT. It was humid with temps in the high thirties for most of our trip. Admittedly this was during a record-breaking heatwave that hospitalised 70,000 people, but still, if you don’t like humidity, avoid southern Japan in July or August (which is also typhoon season).
Take cash everywhere
Last time we were in Japan (2013), hardly anywhere accepted credit cards, and finding an ATM that took Australian cards was like a real life game of Where’s Wally. Weirdly, many of the ATMs were only open during business hours. Things have improved a lot now, but there are still lots of places that only take cash, so it’s a good idea to always have at least ¥10,000 ($125 AUD) on you.
The trains are excellent (but confusing)
Japan’s railways are fast, efficient and ultra-punctual (make sure to experience the shinkansen or bullet train). They can also be confusing. The Tokyo route map looks like someone threw a bowl of Spaghetti at a map, while major stations can be disorientating labyrinths of train lines, platforms and exits.
To get around Tokyo, get yourself a Suica card (and a JR Rail Pass if you’re doing lots of long-distance travel), map your journeys out in advance with the Google Maps app, and allow double the time you think you’ll need to change trains. Be careful which train you get on—we once got on a ‘Rapid’ instead of a ‘Commuter Rapid’ and ended up missing our stop by 40 kilometres…
English isn’t as widely spoken as you might expect
Surprisingly, English is not as widely spoken or understood in Japan compared to many other popular international destinations where English isn’t the primary language. People in Tokyo and other major cities will usually know some English, and English signage is generally good in tourist areas, but it’s good to have the Google Translate App installed on your phone.
Convenience stores are your friend
While you wouldn’t buy a sandwich from a convenience store in Australia unless you’re trying to test your body’s resistance to salmonella, Japanese convenience stores sell cheap and tasty pre-packaged meals including bento boxes, noodle bowls and rice balls. They usually have microwaves too, making it a convenient way to get a cheap meal.
Airbnb and Uber in Japan
Uber is only in Tokyo, but there’s no need to use it. Trains cover most places you’ll need to go, and if you do need to get a taxi it’s actually not a horrible experience like it is everywhere else on earth. The taxis are clean, and the drivers are polite and won’t rip you off. Install the JapanTaxi app (iOS, Android), and try to have the address of where you’re going written down in Japanese.
As for Airbnb, there are lots of good places to stay (our Airbnb in Osaka was the best place we stayed in), but a recent new law saw the removal of about 50,000 listings, so before you book check with the Airbnb that they have permission to operate.
Hot canned coffee (weird, right?) and drip coffee are popular in Japan, but there’s an increasingly good speciality coffee scene too. Kannon Coffee based in Nagoya is excellent, and the coffee at Kamon Hostel in Osaka was really good too. You will find good coffee if you look hard enough for it, otherwise, Japanese Starbucks is at least better than Starbucks in most countries and will serve up a passable cup of coffee with a smile (and free Wi-Fi).
God’s nectar: Pocari Sweat
Thirsty? Drink Pocari Sweat. Feeling hot? Drink Pocari Sweat. Hungover? Drink Pocari Sweat. What is it you ask? Well it’s an “ion supply drink” according to the bottle, but I’d describe as being a slightly salty, slightly sweet sports drink with a hint of lemon/grapefruit flavour to it. It’s refreshing and addictive. It has a blue and white label and you can buy it anywhere.
Tokyo is a paradise for record collectors
Tokyo’s record stores are amazing, offering huge varieties of second-hand records impeccably packaged and graded at much cheaper prices than in Australia. If you’re into vinyl, it’s definitely worth paying for extra baggage and spending a day crate-digging. The best place to start is the cluster of Disk Unions in Shinjuku (each catering to a specific genre). If you have more time, check out this exhaustive guide here.
If you like sport, go to a J-League game
Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any Sumo, but we did see the Yakult Swallows (baseball) and FC Tokyo (J-League soccer) play. Definitely recommend the soccer—the fans never stop singing, the football is good quality, and you can get a cold beer without having to leave your seat. Plus with the likes of Iniesta and Torres plying their trade in Japan you might even get to see a footballing superstar play. Find out how to get to a game here.
Duty free shopping is everywhere
Take your passport everywhere, because more and more stores are offering duty free shopping to tourists (which means you don’t have to pay Japan’s 8% consumption tax on purchases over ¥5000). Just look for the tax-free shopping sign and present your passport at the register. Speaking of duty free, the range of alcohol at Tokyo’s Narita Airport was pretty ordinary, so if you’re looking to buy Japanese whiskey or anything else, do it before you get to the airport.
For the fourth year running, Skytrax, the airline ratings website, has awarded North Korea’s Air Koryo the ignominious label of world’s worst airline. The hermit kingdom’s national carrier was the only airline to receive a one star rating, with Skytrax citing the airline’s questionable safety record and fleet of ageing Soviet aircraft.
Not that anyone in North Korea would know about the ‘world’s worst’ title. The Orwellian North Korean media would never acknowledge such a blatant western swipe at their glorious airline! They prefer to concentrate on celerabrating questionable North Korean triumphs – like the alleged invention by North Korean scientists of a vaccine that can prevent AIDS and Ebola. Seems completely legit.
But anyhow, after learning this week that Air Koryo had successfully defended the airline rankings wooden spoon, it brought back memories of my own flight with them a few years back.
It was November 2012. Barack Obama had just been re-elected and Kim Jong-un had been leader of North Korea for less than a year when I boarded Air Koryo Flight JS152 from Beijing to Pyongyang as part of a group tour. The tour company organised the flights and visas for me, and all I had to do was turn up at Beijing airport with my passport.
The check in was unbelievably lethargic – easily the slowest I have ever seen. Life in the Chinse capital moves at breakneck speed, but snail’s pace is the only speed at the Air Koryo check in counter. Each passenger was laboriously checked in, as the counter staff stared intently at their screens in between tapping away at their keyboards and disappearing for five or ten minutes at a time.
The tardiness gave me lots of time to observe the legions of North Korean passengers (easy to pinpoint with red Dear Leader pins over their hearts) as they checked in what seemed like the contents of every department store in Beijing. Cartons of cigarettes, crates of booze, flat screen televisions, even a 27” screen Apple iMac.
Johnny Walker and the Marlboro Man might seem like strange bedfellows with Kim Jong-un, but remember that any North Korean travelling abroad is not a typical North Korean. No, they are amongst the most elite, and the North Korean elite have a history of this sort of thing. At one time Kim Jong-il was the world’s largest buyer of Hennessy Paradis cognac.
After checking in, I boarded the Tupolev Tu-204 and sat down as the cabin crew around me worked to wedge in bag after bag of duty free into every available square centimetre of space.
Passengers flying from Beijing to Pyongyang used to have to put their lives in the hands of fifty year old Soviet Illuyshins, but the Tu-204 is a relatively modern aircraft (there are two of them in the Air Koryo fleet) which on the inside does not look hugely different to any similar Boeing or Airbus.
The big difference came from the in-flight entertainment options. The overhead LCD screens displayed Korean language movies (all celebrating the glorious leader of course), while an English language edition of the Pyongyang Times had to make do for reading material. The copy I flicked through included such thrilling articles as “Wide-ranging research on vegetable production” and “Welfare and sporting facilities bring smile to Pyongyang People”. Gripping stuff.
Like all flights should be, the time in the air was uneventful. It was a perfect day for flying, and the flight was smooth, punctuated only by the serving of lunch, which consisted of fairly typical airline food: some chicken, a few slices of ham, some fruit and a little piece of sponge cake. It wasn’t great, but I would criticize it for being bland or processed tasting before I would call it bad or inedible.
With lunch out of the way, I relaxed back in my seat and looked out the window down towards the grey and brown palette of the barren North Korean landscape. As we touched down with an almighty thud onto the pot-holed Pyongyang runway I saw soldiers stationed around the perimeter of the airport.
I filed out of the plane with the North Koreans and my fellow tourists, walked down the air stairs and stepped out onto the apron, where the crisp winter Pyongyang air contrasted with the thick Beijing smog that I had left behind just a couple of hours earlier.
Last month Kim Jong-un opened a slick new terminal building, but in 2012 they were still making use of a temporary terminal with bare concrete floors and no running water. Clearing customs and immigration was much quicker than checking in had been (the only delay coming when the customs official took an interest in my iPad), and the rest of the group and I met the tour bus to begin our tour.
So, is Air Koryo the world’s worst airline?
Well look, my experience was skewed by two things. The novelty of flying into North Korea, and the fact the Beijing-Pyongyang route is serviced by a relatively modern Tupolev and not some decades old Cold War era-relic.
Take that out of the equation, and yes, Air Koryo is an ordinary airline. The service is basic, the cabin crew are polite but aloof, the food is edible and not much more, and the facilities at each end are poor. Put it this way, if Air Koryo flew Sydney-Melbourne I would still brave Tigerair and the hell of Tullamarine’s Terminal 4 every single time.
But having said all that, there was nothing that screamed ‘world’s worst’ about it all. I never felt unsafe (although that might be a false sense of security?) and I have flown on older and wearier looking planes than the Tu-204.
There was nothing about it that was overwhelmingly bad. And for all the criticisms of Air Koryo’s safety record, no one has died on one of their planes in over twenty years, something which cannot be said for a lot of other airlines (interestingly, the Airline Ratings review website has awards Air Koryo a safety rating of 5.5 out of 7 – which puts them ahead of a lot of African and East Asian airlines).
So no, I don’t think that Air Koryo is the worst airline in the world. Might be worth giving the Supreme Leader some credit, eh Skytrax?
It is not often that you see genuine world class footballers down under, although the likes of David Villa at Melbourne City and Alessandro del Piero at Sydney FC have raised the bar considerably. Nonetheless, if you’re football mad like me you embrace any chance you can to see the world’s best.
After an enjoyable trip to Sydney for last year’s A-League All Stars game against Manchester United, some mates and I decided that the West Ham vs Sydney FC and Newcastle United vs Wellington Phoenix double-header in Wellington (as part of the ‘Football United NZ’ tour) was worth the short flight across the Tasman. The Magpies and the Hammers may not quite be EPL royalty, but with two West Ham fans in our group (myself included), the decision was made and we would be jetting to the land of the long white cloud.
An early finish to the working week on Thursday and a short flight later and I was in Wellington – my first trip to New Zealand since 2010 and my first time in the windy city (thankfully not too windy for our visit!). Staying at the excellent and affordable Boulcott Suites, the three of us awoke on Saturday morning for a delicious breakfast at Cafe Neo before the short trek along the harbour to Westpac Stadium for the match.
As we walked into the ground, we were met with legions of fans clad in claret, blue, black and white, in amongst the bright yellow jerseys of Phoenix fans (Sydney FC fans were less numerous). The 35,000 seat venue is home to both the Phoenix and the Hurricanes (Super Rugby), and we were impressed with the new mezzanine lounge bar and food and drink options available. The only disappointment was the total lack of ANY West Ham merchandise for sale. Opportunity lost. Nonetheless, that minor disappointment aside we took our seats under beautiful blue skies.
The ‘near sell out’ claims seemed a bit optimistic, but nonetheless there was a healthy crowd packed, particularly around our seats in the West Ham supporters bay. The Hammers fans were in full flight as bubbles took to the air and ‘London Calling’ by the Clash rung out over the P.A. And then, for the first time since a trip to Upton Park at the end of 2012, I found myself yelling out ‘Forever Blowing Bubbles’ with hundreds of other fans. Brilliant.
From there things took a bit of a turn for the worse for the West Ham faithful. Any West Ham fans will know the disappointment of supporting the Irons, and that continued all the way to NZ. Fresh from a defeat at the hands of the Phoenix in Dunedin, the Hammers put in a dismal performance, losing 3-1 to a Sydney FC that themselves barely got out of third gear.
Goals by Corey Gameiro and Alex Brosque in the opening stanza where just too easy and gave Sydney a 2-0 lead by the 26th minute. Sydney FC held their advantage until half time, before a deflected Matt Jarvis cross pegged one back for West Ham. That fortuitous moment aside, West Ham hardly looked like scoring, and the game was put beyond doubt with another Gameiro goal, this time courtesy of a Terry Antonis hand ball.
And with that, Sydney consigned West Ham to their second consecutive defeat of the Football United tour. The Hammers players were incredulous that the third goal was allowed to stand, but in reality they never once looked like entering the contest. Thankfully though the West Ham army made up for the sloppy performance on the pitch – they were in full flight all afternoon and evening, bringing a touch of Upton Park to New Zealand.
Next up was the Newcastle vs Phoenix game. There was a poignant moment before the game with a minute of since before the game for the two Newcastle fans who died in the MH17 airline tragedy on their flight over for the game. The images of their empty seats draped in Newcastle scarves brought the tragedy of that disaster all the way to Wellington.
The game itself was a step up from the previous match. It still had the ‘friendly’ tempo that you would expect, but the intensity was that little bit higher. Newcastle looked much better than West Ham on their way to a 1-0 win over Wellington (courtesy of a Yoan Gouffran strike). For their part, the Phoenix were competitive, creating a number of chances. They were unlikely not to equalize, with the best chance coming from Jeremy Brockie in the 59th minute.
It was definitely the more enjoyable of the two games, although it has to be said the Wellington ‘active support’ was oddly quiet. This was their chance to sing loud and proud in front of a Premier League football club, but they failed to seize the moment, leaving the Newcastle and even West Ham fans (by now many, many beers in…) to keep the atmosphere pumping.
All in all, Football United double-header in Wellington was tremendous. West Ham’s performance might have been disappointingly ordinary, but even that couldn’t take away from the enjoyment of the day. Two Premier League teams playing in front of a passionate crowd, rounded out by the excellent Kiwi hospitality and the harbourside ‘big town’ feel of Wellington.
The next day – our last in Wellington – was a chance to explore the town. We chose a ride on the cable car up the hills behind the town. What we expected to be fairly pedestrian and ‘touristy’ was trip actually a surprising (but odd) highlight, as we learned about the cable cars that adorn private residences in the hills around Wellington. From there it was down to the harbour for a ferry trip to Days Bay and the short walk to Eastborne. A couple of beers later and some delicious wedges and we took the ferry back to Wellington underneath a beautiful winter’s sunset.
And with that, the Wellington experience drew to a close. An amazing footballing weekend and proof that ‘weekend overseas trips’ are not beyond the realms of Australians. The only question now is … where to next?
Part of the allure of travelling around Japan comes from the weirdness that you see while you are there. A good example of this ‘only in Japan’ strangeness are the capsule hotels (orkapuseru hoteru as the locals call them) which are dotted around the major cities.
These hotels began to spring up in the late seventies as a cheap and convenient place for ‘salarymen’ (Japanese businessmen) to spend the night if they had missed the last train home after an evening spent boozing with colleagues. Somewhat sadly though, in recent times they’ve also become last-ditch, low-cost temporary housing for those ruined by the Global Financial Crisis.
Staying in a capsule hotel has been on my bucket list ever since a friend stayed in one last year, and last week I was able to make it happen during a holiday to Tokyo. There are at least fifty or so capsule hotels in Japan, and so it was hard to decide which one to stay in. In the end though the obvious choice was the Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside – one of the few that caters for both men and women, and therefore provided both myself and my partner and travelling companion the opportunity to sample this unusual slice of contemporary Japan.
After catching the subway to Asusaka station, we walked a couple of hundred metres to find the hotel, something which was easier said than done. There is actually no signage for the capsule hotel whatsoever, and you instead enter via a building adorned with signage for the Hotel New Gyominso which shares the same building and reception.
We stepped inside, a little unsure what to expect, and were met with a faded 1970s decor and the smell of stale cigarette smoke.The bloke behind the reception desk checked us in, and handed us our keys with a glint in his eyes that seemed to convey the uniqueness of the accommodation that we were about to experience. “I hope you enjoy it”, he said, half-grinning.
Shoes and socks safely secured in the ground floor lockers, and glorious plastic hotel provided slippers on our feet, we went our separate ways (men and women stay on different floors for safety reasons). I took the lift to Level 4, got out, and walked through the door that read ‘Capsule Hotel Entrance’.
Through a small common area with toilets and lockers was the capsule room itself, featuring two banks of half-a-dozen or so green, plastic capsules stacked two rows high. Most of them seemed vacant and aside from a couple of curious westerners the place seemed pretty empty.
Eager to try my modular plastic capsule out, I hopped inside and found it surprisingly roomy. I could comfortably sit up, however it was not very long and even my short 5 ft 8″ frame only fit with a couple of inches to spare. The capsule was furnished with a thin mattress, pillow, an ancient radio unit and a small television which offered up nothing but static, something which added to the eeriness of it all. There was no Wi-Fi, no power outlet, and no actual door – just a thin curtain that could be pulled down to give some privacy.
Elsewhere in the hotel there was not much to get excited about. There is a common room on Level 2 with nothing much of note in it save for a couple of gaming machines obscured by clouds of cigarette smoke. Up on Level 9 was a beer vending machine, a balcony with views of the Sumida River (you can see the Tokyo Skytree poking up behind a building), and the bathing facilities.
There are no western-style showering facilities at the hotel – just a Japanese-style onsen (communal hot bath) and sauna which I made use of after a long and weary day traipsing through Tokyo. In true onsen tradition, you have to leave your clothes at the door and the communal bathing all takes place in the raw. It is a bit weird but when in Rome …
After finishing up I dried myself down and put on the hideous green pyjamas that are supplied by the hotel before returning to my capsule for some reading before bed. With the light-bulb blazing and the cover down at the end it soon started to get quite warm inside and I had to switch the light off and open up the cover to let some air in before hitting the hay for the night.
What followed next was a fairly difficult night of sleep. The mattress cannot have been more than a couple of centimetres thick and sat directly on top of the hard plastic of the capsule. It took me a few hours to get to sleep and I woke up uncomfortably a couple of times during the night.
As poor as the quality of sleep may be, and as daggy as the hotel itself is, I cannot recommend a night at the Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside enough. It is a truly, truly unique experience and one that I would encourage any curious travellers to Japan to experience.
There are approximately eight hundred million cafés in Brisbane. It seems that you can’t walk a block in an any trendy inner city suburb without encountering one. There are cafés in bookshops, cafés hidden down lane-ways, cafés in disused garages, vegan cafés and crappy major chain cafés (hello Coffee Club). But one thing that you absolutely will not find in Brisbane is a café populated by 53 living, breathing, purring felines.
For that you will need to take a trip to Japan – as I did recently – and head to one of the many ‘cat cafés’ where you can pay-by-the-hour to pat cats while enjoying a bite to eat or something to drink. It seems strange to Australians accustomed to the wide expanses of suburbia, but it is a concept which has thrived in cuteness-obsessed Japan where pet ownership is often prohibited in the tiny apartments that many Japanese live in.
Wikipedia’s article on cat cafés makes an unattributed claim that there are 39 of them in Tokyo alone (interestingly, one Tokyo café recently introduced a goat). They are an increasingly popular curiosity for western tourists, particularly since well-documented visits by Katy Perry and Karl Pilkington to the Hapineko Cat Café. One of the most well-known cat cafés in Tokyo though is the Calico Cat Café (猫カフェ きゃりこ) in Shinjuku, and it was this café that I visited last week.
Finding the place was not easy, but it was made harder by some confusing directions online. The best and easiest way to find the cafe is to take a JR train to Shinjuku, exit through the East Exit, and walk down the street to the left of the Studio Alta department store. Walk two blocks until you get to the very busy and wide Yasukuni Dori street. Cross the street and turn right – you’ll find the café on the 5th and 6th levels of the third building down from the corner.
Once you find the café and walk in you are greeted by the staff and presented with a card in English that outlines the rules and how it all works. The main rules are that there is no picking up the cats, no holding them in your arms and no annoying them as they sleep. You pay ¥1200 (about $AUD14) for the first hour and then ¥150 (about $2) per ten minutes after that, plus any snacks that you buy for either yourself or the cats.
After placing your shoes in the provided lockers, washing and sanitizing your hands (a process you repeat on your way out – it’s all very, very clean) and putting on the provided slippers, you enter the cat café and are met with the bizarre sight of literally dozens of cats. They are all over the place – inside cat boxes, playing on cat trees, sitting on specially made shelves, and lounging around on cat furniture.
The café itself occupies two stories, with the lower floor catering for both human and feline appetites with a selection of food and beverages available for humans and small containers of chicken meat for the cats. For humans there are books and videos and an Xbox, but obviously the big attraction is the cats and most of the customers (mostly young Japanese couples – there are only a couple of western tourists who are leaving as we arrive) can be seen playing with or feeding the cats.
It’s surprisingly peaceful in the café and the cats seem to live in harmony. Only the Singapura offers up any aggro. The Singapura is one of the world’s smallest breeds and has an exceedingly friendly temperament, but they can be aggressive little bastards. My parents have one and it too engages in Mike Tyson levels of aggression whenever another cat comes within a twenty metre radius.
As you might expect from an animal which sleeps anywhere up to 20 hours per day, many of the felines are asleep. For the most part they don’t show a lot of interest in the customers – that is until you buy them a small container of chicken meat upon which point you’re suddenly their best friend!
As mentioned earlier there is food and drink available for human consumption too but we passed up on that to spend more time with the cats. In total we and hour at the café, playing with the cats, feeding them, putting hats on them, and talking to the friendly staff who are versed enough in English to passionately talk about the cats.
It’s a bizarre but wonderful hour spent in the company of Calico Cat Café’s 53 cats – after all, how can you not be happy when you’re putting a miniature fedora on a Burmese?
It was Winston Churchill who famously described Cold War Russia as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. While Communist Moscow is a fading memory, today Churchill’s words could be used to describe another country – the strange ‘Hermit Kingdom’ that is North Korea.
Although it shares borders with Russia, China and South Korea – three of the world’s largest economies which together account for one-fifth of the Earth’s population – North Korea is desperately isolated. So much so, that even in this ultra-connected, ultra-globalised world there is still so much that is completely unknown about Kim Jong-un’s ‘Socialist Paradise’.
Looking across Pyongyang’s Taedong River
I have long been fascinated by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – the official name of North Korea) and the near-biblical reverence reserved for its leaders, the Eternal President Kim il-Sung, the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un, the current leader.
With the country shrouded in so much mystery and secrecy, curiosity dictated that I just had to go and see it for myself. And so, in November 2012 I found myself on a plane to Pyongyang. Bucket list item ‘visit North Korea’ – done.
I travelled to the DPRK on a group tour organised through Koryo Tours, a British-based tour company which has been working with North Korea’s state-owned tourism operator (the Korea International Travel Company) to take westerners into the country since 1993.
Independent, unrestricted travel to the secret Stalinist state is prohibited, and the only way to visit is on a guided tour sanctioned and operated by the Korea International Travel Company. Despite this, the process of registering for the tour and obtaining visas was no more difficult than it would be for any other travel abroad (unless you are a South Korean national, in which case, forget it..).
November’s ‘Winter Tour’ was Koryo’s last group tour of 2013, with almost 50 curious westerners making their way to Beijing to board the flight to Pyongyang. With such a large number, we were split into three groups of 15. My group contained the usual contingent of Australians that you find everywhere these days (thank you strong Australian dollar!), as well as people from Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and even the US.
The five day tour was planned with meticulous detail, leaving us with barely a second of spare time. We travelled around on a spacious, modern bus (thankfully heated to protect us from the icy conditions outside) and took in dozens of sites – not only in the capital city of Pyongyang, but also scenic Mt Myohyang two hours North of the capital, the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) that straddles the North-South Korean border, and the large border-city of Kaesong.
Enormous statues of two Kims – note the size of the people at the base
Showing respect to our hosts and guides by bowing to the statues
As you would expect from a tour operated by a company owned by the North Korean Government, the itinerary was dominated by visits to statues, museums and monuments, most of them paying homage to the country’s leaders, military victories or the dream of reunification with the South.
While each of these were interesting, the highlight was undoubtedly the rare insight into ‘normal’ North Korean life. From glimpses of rural villages through the bus window, to riding the Pyongyang metro and enjoying a round of ten-pin bowling, it was fascinating to step beyond the living museum and into ‘real’ North Korea.
Of course, here I should mention that much of this ‘real’ life was in Pyongyang, a city reserved only for the most elite. For starters, movement between cities in the country is heavily restricted, leaving just 3 million of the nation’s 23 million able to enjoy the relative wealth afforded by Pyongyang. It was in Pyongyang where most of the tour took place and this article should be taken in that context.
While the life we witnessed may have been a life that is only afforded to the most privileged, it was nonetheless surreal to rub shoulders and interact with North Korean people. Never did I expect to sit on a packed Pyongyang subway train and hear a friendly “Welcome to Pyongyang” from a commuter sitting adjacent to me (complete with bright red Kim il-Sung badge pinned to his jacket lapel).
All in all, it was an unforgettable few days that could not be tempered by a violent bout of food poisoning on the rickety old overnight train back to Beijing. My time in the DPRK shattered some pre-conceived notions, taught me not to believe everything I read in the west, and opened my eyes to the friendliness of the Korean people.
Under clear blue skies on the tarmac in Pyongyang
It did not take long for my first surprise. It happened at Beijing airport during the painfully slow check-in process for the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang. Queuing up alongside us were dozens of North Korean nationals (easy to identify with their red Kim-il Sung pins!), checking in all manner of western luxuries – Marlboro cigarettes, expensive scotch, flat-screen televisions, laptops and computers. I can tell you that at least one bloke in North Korea has a 27″ Apple iMac.
Now I had heard before of western luxuries trickling into the DPRK (Kim Jong-il was said to be the largest private buy of Hennessy cognac), and I knew some extremely privileged citizens were allowed to travel abroad for work, but I certainly did not expect the flight to be packed full of workers and loaded up with the contents of Beijing Airport’s Duty Free shops.
I have had a few people ask me about the flight. Having heard about Air Koryo’s ban on flying into the European Union due to “latent systemic safety deficiencies”, I had been nervous before take-off. But as it turned out the flight into Pyongyang was like any other flight, and certainly not reminiscent of the “World’s Worst Airline” reviews I had read back home.
The aircraft was a modern Russian-built Tupolev Tu-204 – virtually indistinguishable to the untrained eye from the more familiar Boeing or Airbus airliners. Having previously been served by aging Ilyushin jets, the Tu-204 now operates most flights on the Beijing-Pyongyang route.
While the flight was gentle and comfortable, touchdown in Pyongyang was rough as we thumped down onto the uneven, pot-holed runway. In the distance, soldiers could be seen manning isolated posts around the airport perimeter.
Inside the small terminal (no Starbucks or free Wi-Fi here.. just bare concrete floors and no running water) we collected our luggage and cleared customs and immigration. It was surprisingly quick, despite a moments delay when the customs official decided to look through my iPad. GPS devices are not allowed in the DPRK and I was a little worried as he had a clumsy look through and stumbled upon the ‘maps’ application. He loaded it up as I thought “uh-oh”. Fortunately he was greeted by a satellite image of the Sydney Harbour Bridge which I must have been looking at last time I had used the iPad. I re-assured him that the maps would not work in North Korea. He seemed happy enough with that, and through I went into the great unknown.
Miss Kim, Mr Kim and… Miss Kim
Next up we boarded the tour bus bound for Pyongyang. Here we were introduced to our tour guides from the Korea International Travel Company – Miss Kim, Miss Kim, and Mr Kim. They were joined by the bus driver Mr Kim, and camera man, Mr Kim. Do you see a pattern?
The guides would follow us every step of the way, never leaving our sides until we were safely back in our hotels. That may sound a bit overbearing, but the guides were exceedingly polite and the restrictions on us were far fewer than I had imagined. We were never allowed to walk off on our own, but there was nothing to stop us from talking to locals, nor was there ever any real pressure to hurry up or move on. Even photography was pretty free and there was very little we were told not to photograph, with military and photos outside the window on the train out of the country the notable exceptions.
But back to the drive into Pyongyang, where the surprises continued. The roads were vacant until we got close to the capital city, where I was shocked to see many brand new European cars. Over the subsequent days we must have seen dozens and dozens of slick looking Mercedes Benz, BMWs Audis and Volkswagen badged cars. The procession of European cars was broken up by Chinese and Korean made vehicles (both South Korean and domestic) and the occasional old Volvo or Lada.
Of course, many of these cars had plates indicating they were driven by the military or diplomats, and the cars almost completed thinned out once you left the capital, but I was still completely surprised by the number of expensive motors on the streets.
The streets of Pyongyang – November 27, 2012
Also quickly apparent upon arriving in the country was the sheer scale and size of every monument. It seems as if the North Koreans build anything it simply must be the biggest in the world, and it became quite a regular occurrence to hear our guides proudly telling us how such and such is the world’s largest. The world’s tallest flag pole (well, not anymore), the world’s largest stadium, or the world’s biggest Arc de Triomphe to name a few examples.
Bizarrely though, the largest and most obvious thing in the Pyongyang skyline was also largely ignored by the tour guides. The Ryugyong Hotel is a 105-story pyramid-shaped skyscraper that dominates the Pyongyang skyline and is visible from almost anywhere. Yet, we never really went anywhere near it, and it was not mentioned unless we specifically asked about it. Maybe they are a little embarrassed by the history of the building?
Construction began in the late-eighties before stalling after the money ran out, with rumours that construction had used up 2% of the entire North Korean GDP. The hotel remained an incomplete concrete shell for years before an Egyptian company recently completed cladding the outside. Now, Kempinski AG, a German luxury-hotel management company, are due to run the Ryugyong when it finally opens some time next year. While it must have looked awful as a bare concrete shell, it now looks genuinely impressive watching over the capital city.
Another pre-conceived notion that soon dissipated was the idea that North Korea is a lunatic country full of brain-washed nutcases. Truth be told, on the ground, it is not particularly weird. Sure, the reverence for the leaders is absolute, and there were some strange sights – the old lady sweeping the side of the highway on her own, miles from anywhere, for one – but for the most part it was all fairly normal.
Impressive chandelier inside the Grand People’s Study House (Library)
One of the infamous traffic ladies of Pyongyang
Infact, within a couple of days of being in the country I was starting to realise that western media and ‘blogosphere’ had pulled a bit of a fast one on me and sold me a caricature of the DPRK. It did not take long at all for me to realise that portrayals of completely empty streets, the “world’s worst airline” and a fake metro system were either exaggerated or fictional.
Part of me feels a little silly for previously perpetuating some of the outlandish claims about North Korea. Such hyperbole is neither accurate nor helpful for relations with Pyongyang. If it took me five days and not much more than $1500 to see the place and shatter some myths, why can’t the media of the world wise up? As part of my call for the media to report more fairly and balanced views on the DPRK, that also includes greater acknowledgement and reporting of human rights issues and restrictions on freedom. It is 2013, and it is time to engage with North Korea and talk about it like a real country, and not some ridiculous country full of outrageous nutcases.
I think the best example is the Pyongyang metro. Articles and blog posts have long speculated on the authenticity of the metro and how many stations exist. Well, I can confirm it is definitely real and it is used by locals. Not only did we travel through six stations on two different trains (also seeing other trains go the other direction), we saw literally hundreds of locals coming in an out of the station. Furthermore, I spotted a number of carriages parked on the line on the outskirts of town. There is no way it is fake – the scale of what we saw shatters that myth.
Occassional billboards for Pyonghwa Motors stand out in a country largely devoid of advertising
Of course, so far I have been glowing in my comments about the DPRK. But it would be unfair for me to ignore some of the harsh truths and realities and life north of the 38th Parallel. Even on our five-day tour which took in only those things the regime wanted us to see it was quite apparent this is a country with serious, crippling problems.
Electricity shortages are chronic, and the lights went off at least once a day. The electricity shortages means buildings are often not heated and it was sometimes necessary to wear beanies and scarves inside to escape the frozen Pyongyang winter. On the first night in Pyongyang I looked out of my hotel window and glanced across at what I thought was an empty horizon. The next morning the sun came up to reveal dozens of apartment blocks that had been cloaked in darkness overnight.
As privileged tourists, food quantity was not a problem and we were relatively well-fed. The quality of the food was less satisfying, with fairly bland tastes and limited options, even in the hotels we stayed in. In five days we saw only a couple of apples, sliced up and served to the group for desert. Dairy products were rare (although we did try some ice-cream at the health club we visited – the locals were lapping it up despite the freezing temperatures both inside and out), and the bread was virtually inedible with the texture of a rough old sponge.
For western tourists, food abundance and quality is mostly decent
On the plus-side, we always had lots of kimchi (cabbage) and rice with our meals and the meat was usually of reasonable quality. Meat on offer included beef, chicken and pork. Oh, and dog, which was made available for those who wished to try it at a restaurant in Kaesong. I put my hand up to try it (I do not see the logic in selectively choosing which animals to eat and do not see how a farmed dog is any different from lamb or chicken) and was served up a bowl of what seemed like stringy, over-cooked beef in a watery, frothy broth. It was not particularly good, but it was certainly edible.
All in all, the food was generally adequate for us, but if we are staying in Western hotels with access to the best food available, than I fear for those less fortunate and outside of the capital. Driving out in the country revealed endless miles of brown, frosty rice fields with very few animals or livestock save for the occasional herd of geese or goats. Given the tight sanctions on the country and the concept of juche (self-reliance), it is quite clear there must be serious problems feeding the population.
I have to admit though, sneak peaks into shops from the bus window and as we walked along the streets revealed the shop shelves in Pyongyang were reasonably well stocked, and not like the images out of the USSR during the Cold War. Also on the plus side, I can report that the local Taedong beer is rather excellent and dozens of cheap, half-Euro bottles were consumed.
Shops of Pyongyang appeared relatively well-stocked
Potable, running water appeared to be scarce, and we were instructed to drink bottled water (as is the case in most of the Eastern world). By the end of the trip I came to expect there would be no running water out of the taps. On one occasion the tour bus stopped at a highway rest-stop for coffee and a bathroom break. As we pulled up I saw a number of Koreans in the adjacent field drawing water from a well. Inside the rest-stop there was no running water and we had to wait ten minutes “for the water to boil for the coffee” (instant coffee, Nescafe, for the record). I am sure they took the water from the well outside, as there was definitely no running water (or any electricity..), inside.
Something similar happened at one of the stations on the Pyongyang metro. After using the amenities (the squalid, filthy amenities, I might add), I saw a poor bloke whose job it seemed was to look after the toilets – which included going in to the cubicle after each person with a bucket of water to ‘flush’. World’s worst job?
If water, food and electricity shortages are concerning, most worrying of all has to be the utter never-ending saturation of all things Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. Each day you are subjected to literally hundreds of images of the Kims. It is truly inescapable, although at this stage there are very few images of the country’s new leader.
Every citizen wears a bright red badge adorned by the smiling face of either Kim Jong-il or Kim il-Sung. There are giant statues and billboards of the Kims everywhere, and it seems everything is named after them (Kim il-Sung Square, Kim il-Sung University… Kim il-Sung this, Kim Jong-il that). Any time you see a television screen it is inevitably showing footage of the Kims, and in the city of Kaesong we even heard vans driving around with loudspeakers on the top playing ‘motivational’ messages and music to the people.
It’s all very 1984. The reverence for the leaders is absolutely fanatical – Kim il-Sung is all that matters. In Kaesong we witnessed a newly married couple posing for wedding photographs – the groom proudly smiling with his red Kim il-Sung badge pinned pride of place on his chest for the camera to see.
I was curious to ask the guides about their views on Kim il-Sung and his successors, hoping perhaps I could see a chink between the curtains and scripted speech. I was most interested to ask the youngest of the tour guides, who we learned had spent time living in Singapore and Indonesia (we assume her father was a diplomat or businessman – either way, she is very fortunate to have had this access).
The happiest day of their lives?
Surely someone who has spent time in the democratic west must be wise to the realities of her country? While leaving the giant Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il statues that stand outside Kim il-Sung University, I asked Miss Kim if she had voted at the last election (back in 2009). Yes, she told me. I asked her who she voted for and she told me Kim Jong-il, and I asked if there were any other options. “You mean like Obama or Romney?”, she said. “No! No one in Korea would ever think of anyone else!!”. It was like I had asked a ridiculous question.
While we had free reign to ask or talk about whatever we liked, but not wanting to offend our friendly hosts, we avoided these touchy subjects as it clearly made them feel uncomfortable and we were never going to hear their true feelings. We certainly avoided controversial topics such as nuclear weapons or human rights. All broaching those topics would have done is upset our guides and make our vacation a worse experience.
One topic that did come up quite a lot was that of reunification. It is clearly something that the DPRK badly wants. Any map of the Korean peninsula I saw identified only one Korea, and we heard many mentions of Korea as a whole and much talk of the desire for one Korea. How and when it will happen is a topic for another article. Suffice to say, I believe it will happen one day.
For the most part though, we focused on lighter topics, such as asking our guides if they had heard of South Korean mega-hit, “Gangnam Style”. Despite the song having racked up almost one billion views on YouTube at the time, they had not heard of it. At the DMZ we had stood just metres from South Korea. North and South Korea may be geographic neighbours, but they could not be further apart.
An empty boulevard punctuates the border-city of Kaesong
They may not have heard of Gangnam Style, but we were treated to a very surreal moment at the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang (incidentally it was there the ‘hunters became the hunted’ as half a dozen or so locals produced pocket sized digital cameras and began photographing us!). We were shown around by this zany-looking eccentric librarian who took us to the AV room and told us we going to play us his favourite song. It wasn’t long before we all recognised the familiar tune..
“In the town where I was born Lived a man who sailed to sea And he told us of his life In the land of submarines”
Yes, “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles. I will never listen to that song again without recalling that strange day in Pyongyang. Weather you live in Australia or North Korea, the Beatles are king.
While I have been able to comment on food, water and electricity, another staple of North Korean life – military – was far harder to assess. It is hard to comment on the state of things as we did not see much up close nor where we allowed to photograph anything military-related (except at the DMZ).
My gut feeling though is that the North Korean army – however big it is, and it is said to be one of the world’s largest – must be quite a ramshackled collection of run-down equipment and under-nourished soldiers. While we did see numerous soldiers around the city, many appeared unarmed and not very well presented. It has been reported that North Koreans are on average much shorter than their Southern counterparts and this was plainly obvious at the DMZ where the South Korean soldiers on patrol towered over those on the North.
Out of the train window on the way back to Beijing I did see half a dozen tanks being transported on the back of a freight train. While I am not military expert I have absolutely no doubt that they dated back to the days of the Korean War, such was the poor condition of them. They certainly contrasted with impeccably neat soldiers with their silver-plated Kalashnikovs outside the Korean International Friendship Exhibition!
I can really only imagine what state the rest of the military must be in. There were a number of reminders that this is a country on a war-footing. The visit to the DMZ was the most obvious reminder, with the vast ‘kill-zones’ (flat, cleared land with vantage points to defend against invading forces from the South) and giant concrete tank traps waiting to be pushed onto the roads.
The trip to the DMZ revealed another sad reality. If you live outside Pyongyang, you will never be able to move. We went through at least two check-points guarded by armed soldiers as we drove South from the capital, and there was very little traffic on the road. There were always people out in the fields though, performing hard manual work, often miles from the nearest building. Life outside the capital looked very grim.
While there are some impressively modern looking apartments in Pyongyang …
… the overwhelming palette of the DPRK is grey
Mr Kim tried to put a positive spin on things, enthusiastically saying how it is possible to move from the countryside to the capital city. How? He gave us the hypothetical example of a young, talented football player who is selected to play football for his country and must move to Pyongyang to ply his trade. There you go. You can move to Pyongyang and live a privileged life. If you’re one of the 11 best football players in the country, for example..
The problems of all North Korea have been well documented, by myself here and by others, but I am hopeful change and improved conditions will come.
There are signs living standards are improving, and signs that capitalism is starting to encroach. The emergence of capitalism helped drastically raise living standards in China, even under authoritarian leadership, and I am confident the same can happen in North Korea.
Already there are some very early signs. Mobile phones (albeit SIM-locked and unable to call overseas) are widespread. I spotted a western style department store out of the bus window, and even a few billboards advertising Pyonghwa Motors, a joint venture between North and South Korea. There are also said to be a number of private enterprise markets springing up across Pyongyang, and it has recently been reported that farmers will be allowed to keep higher percentages of their produce as an incentive to work harder. While these are only small signs, it seems the slow walk of capitalism towards Pyongyang has begun.
There was so much to take in over my five days in the DPRK. Looking back, I am both happy and sad. Both optimistic and pessimistic. I am not optimistic about an immediate, significant improvement in the plight of North Koreans, I believe it will come as western capitalism and influence creep in. I also believe reunification will come in time. There is a great will north of the border for it to happen. My feeling is that as more of the west bleeds into the DPRK, the harder it will be to keep up the charade.
For now though, I look back on five of the most memorable days of my life. A tremendous and eye-opening experience. Before registering for the tour, I faced a moral dilemma over handingover money to such a notorious regime. Now, looking back on my travels as I write this, I am as passionate and enthusiastic as ever about the DPRK. I am happy to have done my small part to engage with the North Korean people, and I believe that if I have made even one person think about North Korea for the first time than I have validated my trip there.
Note from the author: Under no circumstances is this article (including photographs) to be reproduced, quoted or referenced anywhere in mainstream media. Journalists are prohibited from travelling to the DPRK on tourist visas, and even the publishing of information by tourists in the mainstream media would be considered a serious breach of travel conditions. In the past journalists posing as tourists have severely damaged relations with the DPRK and resulted in lengthy travel suspensions.
In late November I am going to board a dilapidated old Soviet jetliner, cross my fingers that it is somehow still airworthy, and embark on a short flight out of Beijing. After landing I will have my mobile phone and passport taken from me. I will be placed under close supervision, barred from going anywhere on my own, and unable to contact family or friends back home.
You may think I am describing my upcoming extradition on criminal charges to some far-flung Asian country, but I’m actually telling you about the start of my holiday next month. My holiday to North Korea.
Pyongyang – the capital city of North Korea
Yes, that Korea. Not the Gangnam Style one that builds Samsung televisions and Hyundai cars. The other one. The nuclear-armed, sabre-rattling, authoritarian one. The one that The Economist describes as the least democratic nation on Earth, and the one that George W. Bush included in a group of countries he called the ‘Axis of Evil’.
In many ways the tone of modern day North Korea (offically called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) was set in the early fifties when the Korean peninsula was gripped by a bloody war. Half a million people died in fighting between the Soviet-backed North and the American-backed South. While major hostilities ceased in 1953, no peace treaty was ever signed, and the countries remain technically at war. Sixty years later the relationship between the North and South is characterised by deep suspicion, brinkmanship, and the occasional border-skirmish, with the North occasionally lobbing a missile over Japan just to keep everyone on their toes.
Right after the war finished, North Korea was actually the more prosperous of the two Koreas. The story could not be more different today, though. South Korea is now an economic powerhouse with a GPD of about $35,000 per capita and annual exports in excess of $550 billion. By comparison, North Korea exported just $2 billion worth of good last year, and GPD per capita is 20 times less. Much of the nation’s 25 million people live in abject poverty, with a reliance on foreign aid to feed a starving population.
The most militarised country in the world will be my home for four nights in November
North Korea’s collective heart beats to a political ideology called Juche. This concept rests on three pillars –political independence, economic self-sustenance, and military self-reliance. The last point manifests in the policy of Songun – military first, a policy which effectively installs the military to the primary position within the Government and dictates the direction of the country.
In practice, this means North Korea is the most isolated and militarised country on the planet, with no political freedom or opposition to the ruling party. All but the most privileged citizens are banned from leaving, and contact with the outside world is forbidden. Around a quarter of GPD is spent on the military which boasts the world’s fourth largest army despite the relatively small population.
Under the iron-grip rule of the regime, the population is subject to constant, inescapable messaging about North Korean greatness and Western aggression and inferiority. There is near-biblical reverence for the country’s leaders. Kim il-Sung remains the official head of state, despite his death almost twenty years ago. When his son and successor Kim Jong-il died in December last year, the streets were clogged with grown men and women wailing at the passing of the ‘dear leader’. Those who challenge authority face unthinkable consequences. Just a few days ago the Telegraph carried a story about a North Korean minister who was ‘obliterated’ by mortar round for drinking and carousing during the official mourning period for Kim Jong-il.
Thousands braved the snow to mourn the passing of Kim Jong-il – the Dear Leader
With new leader Kim Jong-un installed in December, the reverence for leadership and celebration of North Korean greatness continues unabated, permeating every facet of life. Lady Ga Ga or Justin Bieber do not exist in North Korea (wait a second, maybe these guys are on to something…?) with the airwaves instead filled by pop songs such as ‘Excellent Horse-Like Lady’ and ‘We are Troops of the Party’. North Korean television includes such wonderful entertainment as Let’s trim our hair in accordance with the socialist lifestyle.
I will be spending four nights in the ‘Hermit Kingdom’, taking in the capital city of Pyongyang, the border-city of Kaesong, and the scenic Mt Myohyang. I will be treated to tourist attractions including a captured US warship, the embalmed body of the eternal president Kim il-Sung, and the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) along the border with South Korea – which, despite its name, is the most heavily militarized border in the world.
When I tell people I’m heading over to North Korea for a holiday people normally ask one of three questions. One – I didn’t know you were allowed to go there? Two – Why are you going there? And finally – is it dangerous?
I will also be visiting Kaesong near the South Korean border
The first one is easy. It might be the most closed off country in the world, and you certainly will not find North Korean travel brochures at Flight Centre, but you can visit – quite easily, actually. Fill out some forms, hand over some Euros (the North Korean regime’s hard currency of choice), and you have yourself a ticket to the weirdest place on Earth.
The only way to travel to North Korea is on a group tour sanctioned by the regime’s Korea International Travel Company (KITC). I have organised my trip through Koryo Tours, a British tour company that has been taking westerners to the DPRK since 1993. The application process was no harder than any other tour – probably easier if anything given the quick responses to any questions and wealth of information on the website.
The application process might be completely normal – the holiday itself won’t be though. Leisurely wandering the streets of Pyongyang or deciding where to go for dinner will be completely out of the question. Every second of the tour has been carefully scripted to show North Korea in the absolute best light possible. Photography will be limited to official tourist sights, and any ‘unsuitable’ photos will be deleted.
A North Korea police officer stands infront of state propaganda
To answer the second question, it is not really that dangerous to visit the DPRK. True, on face value it seems unwise to visit a nuclear-armed country that is technically still at war. But the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade merely urges Australians traveling to North Korea to “exercise a high degree of caution” – the exact same advice it offers to holiday-makers jetting off to Indonesia, Brazil, India or Dubai.
Really, there is not much for me to be worried about. After all, on how many holidays are accompanied by Government-sponsored minders every step of the way? The only thing I am nervous about is the aging Air Koryo jet that I will be flying into Pyongyang. For the most part the North Korean national carrier is banned from flying into the European Union due to “serious safety deficiencies”. Hmm.
An ancient Air Koryo Ilyushin will take me to Pyongyang
Nonetheless, I could not be more exciting about arriving in Pyongyang on November 24. I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit during my life so far, and I have enjoyed it all. But sometimes it is the culture shock of going somewhere completely different that is the most rewarding.
And that is exactly what North Korea is. Completely different. No iPhones. No Coca-Cola. No McDonald’s. A country where no one has heard of the moon landings, Lance Armstrong, or Mitt Romney. A place where it is entirely believable that the president can finish a round of golf 38 under par on his first attempt. A country where everyone wears a flag pin on their shirt every single day of their life.
It’s 1984. In 2012.
My fascination with North Korea began six years ago while I was studying my International Relations degree. In the days after the country’s first nuclear test I wrote an essay on this strange country and the international community’s reaction. Up until then I had been amused by the occasional odd story that would pop up in the news, but it was only then that I started to realise just how bizarre North Korea is.
Peak hour in Pyongyang
Since then I’ve read numerous books, watched numerous documentaries and spent hours scouring the net for North Korean news, just absolutely fascinated. Caution around the safety of going delayed my decision until recently. Finally though, in just a few weeks I will visit the weirdest place on earth and tick the bucket list box that says “visit North Korea”.