Apr 10, 2016

Japan’s cherry blossoms


Streets lined by blooming trees, walkways covered in white and pink flower petals, cherry blossoms everywhere you look – these are just a few of the images in my head when thinking about spring in Japan.
The colorful cherry blossoms in Japan are not only an incredibly stunning sight, but also a symbol of Japanese culture, standing for the beauty yet at the same time transience and impermanence of life, reminding us of our own mortality.

The cherry blossom, called sakura () in Japanese, is blooming from about late March to even early May, depending on whereabouts in Japan you are. Cherry blossom season is a very popular time to visit Japan and tourists as well as Japanese people travel to the best spots to see the sakura trees.
Seeing the trees at full bloom really is a breathtaking sight – and there are so many different varieties of blossoms, differing in colors and shapes.


A few years ago (actually it’s already been freaking 7 years), I had been staying in Kyoto (京都) during cherry blossom season. Kyoto, with all its ancient temples and shrines, really has some great spots to see the blooming trees.

One of Kyoto’s most popular (and incredibly beautiful) places to see the sakura trees is the so called Philosopher's Walk. The Tetsugaku no Michi (哲学の道), which is the Japanese name of it, is an approximately 2 kilometers long pedestrian walkway alongside a canal that is lined by tons of sakura trees on both sides. Along the Philosopher’s Walk, there are numerous small shrines and temples as well as cafes and shops. It gets really busy there in spring.


A lovely place for hanami (花見, "flower viewing"; the Japanese tradition of meeting up under the blooming sakura trees for a picnic) in Kyoto is the Kyoto gyoen (京都御苑), a huge park in which the Kyoto Imperial Palace (京都御所, Kyoto gosho) is situated. 
The park is located very close to the University I had been studying at, so we even made a class trip there once.

My 7 years younger self posing in front of a blooming sakura tree at Kyoto gyoen

One of the greatest experiences I had in Japan was visiting one of the night light ups that are taking place at some of the temples and shrines in Kyoto during spring. For these events, the temples and shrines are open late into the evening and being illuminated beautifully in the dark. Like, they are not open until THAT late, but in regards to when they usually close and how early it is actually getting dark in Japan even in summer (it will be dark at 7 p.m., which I always though is rather crazy), 9 p.m. IS rather late in the evening.

I chose to go to the Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), which I believe is one of the most beautiful temples in Kyoto (also a pretty famous one even outside of Japan). And what I got to see there was simply stunning and so magical! Everything was lit up so beautifully, it looked really amazing. Also, from the Kiyomizu-dera you have a pretty good view all over Kyoto, which is even better at night than during daytime.
I really kind of lack the words to describe this magical experience. It was just breathtaking and – despite of the fact that I was there by myself – one of the most romantic spots I had been to. 
In the background you can see a bit of the view over Kyoto with the Kyoto Tower standing out

For more (and better quality) photos and information on this, visit: http://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en/visit/special_night_viewing/
There are also listed the dates for upcoming events – and oh my god, they are also doing this night light up thing in autumn, which I imagine to be even more beautiful than in spring (just look at those photos on the website!). I SO need to see this!

I’ll just leave some more photos here for you to enjoy and get all excited about spring :)

Sakura at the Heian Jingu (平安神宮) shrine
Unfortunately I don't remember which temple this photo was taken at
These are the pink blossoms of the beautiful plum tree (, ume), taken at Kyoto gyoen
Which kind of sakura tree is your favorite? (I really love the ones with the branches hanging down)

Feb 22, 2016

AOTEAROA – CITIES (Part 2): Wellington



Windy Wellington is the country’s capital and second largest city, located at the south of the North Island. It’s a rather artsy and alternative city and got a pretty different vibe than Auckland. Plus it got the sea and beaches right in the heart of the city. Which is amazing and adds a really lovely flair.

There’s plenty to see in and around Welly, one of its most famous tourist attractions being the cable car. Honestly, there’s really nothing special about it though. I just did it so that I can say I have done it: went up with the cable car, made some photos and walked down again through the botanical garden.

Another famous sight is the national museum Te Papa – a really interesting place. Hard to describe it in a few words, as there is plenty of different stuff showcased in there. The description in the Lonely Planet summarizes its wide variety pretty well: “The riches inside include an amazing collection of Maori artefacts and the museum’s own colourful marae [traditional meeting place in Maori culture]; natural history and environment exhibitions; Pacific and NZ history galleries; national art collection, and themed hands-on ‘discovery centres’ for children.” There is even an earthquake simulator where you just stand inside a shaking house.


Admission is free btw – which is good, so you can take your time and come back as often as you want, as I wouldn’t recommend doing all the levels at once. Just pop in from time to time, go through one level and let the impressions sink in.

On the following photo you can see a portrayal of two extinct species - the giant bird on the left, called moa, is being attacked by another giant bird, the Haast's eagle. Doesn’t the moa remind you somehow of a Chocobo? I think they kinda look alike, at least a tiny bit.

My personal highlight in NZ’s capital definitely was the Weta Cave, a small museum of the Weta Workshop (weta is the name of an insect whose biggest species can be up to 10 cm). The Weta Workshop is a studio that makes props and special effects for movies and television, best known for movies like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

The cave is surprisingly tiny, I actually expected it to be bigger. Still, there is a lot of stuff showcased, starting with the huge trolls outside the building. Everyone visiting Weta Cave is taking photos together with them. And so did I, of course :)

Inside, there is a life-sized statue of Gandalf and Gollum as well as lots of weapons and other props, Hobbit merchandise and much more. They also show a short movie about their work, which is really interesting and informative. You would be surprised to know in how many movies they actually participated in some way! Apart from the The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogy, other famous movies they were involved with are for example The Last Samurai, Hellboy, King Kong, Braindead, Godzilla and Avatar.

Check out this short video to see more (unfortunately I couldn’t find the film which is being showed at Weta Cave online though):

What I really love about NZ: as soon as it comes to NZ film production, right after Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, they will mention Xena: Warrior Princess as well. I experienced this multiple times while being in NZ and it always put a smile on my face, as I have to admit I have always been and still am a fan of that series :D

If you want to see more (and have the money), you can even take a Workshop tour and have a look behind the scenes of the Weta Workshop.

For The Lord of the Rings fans out there, there is another must-see in Wellington: the giant sculpture of Gollum as well as Smaug the Dragon at the Wellington Airport. Even though I did go to the airport to pick up a friend, I didn’t get the chance to go inside unfortunately. So here's a photo I found on instagram:

As I had been staying a rather long time in Wellington while not working, I also had the chance to discover the surrounding area a bit. There are quite some places you can go for a day trip. One of the most memorable ones is the Stonehendge AotearoaNew Zealands own Stonehendge.

There’s a lot more to see and do in NZ’s capital, which is also sometimes referred to as Wellywood, being the home of the country’s film industry.

Some other nice spots are Mt. Victoria, the beautiful waterfront, the train station and the Parliament Buildings. You can also take a guided tour through the latter for free – I did it and it is very interesting and informative indeed.

View over the city from Mt. Victoria
Wellington's train station
NZ Parliament - the round part on the left is called the Beehive (obviously because of its form)

Also, there are lots of different markets, for example the Harbourside Market, which is taking place on Sunday morning. You can buy really cheap fruits and veggies there! Another market is the Night Market.

Furthermore Wellington is a great place for party animals. I had been staying over New Year and thus been exploring the nightlife with a friend and some Kiwis on New Year’s Eve. We’ve been visiting different clubs and bars and had interesting drinks like the Absinthe cocktail served in a lovely tea set. Doesn’t it look adorable?

Would you like to visit Wellington, or have you even been there? What's your favourite part about it?

Jan 31, 2016

Aotearoa – Cities (Part 1)


Finally starting with my New Zealand blog series, trying to post regularily from now on

As New Zealand is known rather for its outstanding natural features than for its cities, you probably haven’t heard much about the latter. 
There are not that many big cities in NZ, the four biggest cities being Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Hamilton. Another city worth mentioning is the student city Dunedin (notice its unusual pronounciation "dun-EE-din"), which is the second-largest city on the South Island. 

 If you ask me, when it comes to bigger cities, the must-see ones are Wellington and Dunedin only. There are a bunch of small cities and towns that are well worth a visit though. 

As it would be a veeeery long post if I wrote about all of the cities mentioned in one post, I thought it would be better to split it up. Today we will have a look at Auckland and Hamilton, both located on top of the North Island


NZ consists of two islands, in total about twice the size of England. The total population is only about 4 million people, of which a third lives in Auckland

When you arrive in NZ at Auckland International Airport, you will most probably not really get the feeling like you’re actually in NZ. Auckland kinda leaves the impression of a huge Asia town; there are countless Asian grocery stores as well as Asian restaurants and even Asian bakeries. There’s not much of that laid-back-feeling you will get in the more remote areas of the country. 

There’s usually a lot going on in NZ’s biggest city and downtown is flooded with people. There are various events, a lot of possibilities for shopping and countless cafes and restaurants. 

Auckland’s landmark is the Sky Tower. On top of it there’s a restaurant, furthermore you can do bungee jumping or walk on top of the tower (like secured with straps of course). 

One of my favorite things about Auckland is the city’s skyline, which is really stunning, especially at night.  

You can see the Sky Tower sticking out from all the other buildings.
Another nice spot in NZ’s busiest city is the harbor site. You can take a ferry to Waiheke Island from here or just enjoy a coffee in one of the cafes next to the sea. 

My favorite part of Auckland is Mount Eden, on top of which you have a really lovely view all over the city. And the best thing about it – it is free :) In contrast to going up the Sky Tower. 

 You can walk up Mount Eden or just go by car. I have been up there during day time as well as at dawn. It is said to be amazing to see a nice sunset from up there. I haven’t been so lucky to see one unfortunately, though. 

 There is a lot more to see and do in and around NZ’s biggest city, like various museums, art galleries, parks, markets and also beaches, so it’s easy to spend your time there. 

And if you ever happen to get bored there, you can always just go shopping for souvenirs and relax in one of the many lovely cafes afterwards. 

You can even see the Sky Tower in the background
 Furthermore, my friend and me had really delicious sushi there in an authentic restaurant! 

There's also a variety of vegetarian and vegan restaurants and cafes


Hamilton is just a short hop from Auckland. Honestly, I don’t think Hamilton has that much to offer. Except for free WIFI in the city center, which is something every backpacker appreciates. 

What I really loved about it though was the Hamilton Gardens
This huge botanical garden is split into lots of different little gardens, each of them having their own theme. 

Each of the gates led to a differently themed garden.
 My favorite gardens are the Indian Char Bagh Garden, the Italian Renaissance Garden and the Chinese Scholar’s Garden, all of them belonging to the so-called Paradise Garden Collection

Indian Char Bagh Garden. I'm so loving its colorfulness!
Italian Renaissance Garden
Chinese Scholar’s Garden
Other themes were for example: American Modernist Garden, Japanese Garden of Contemplation, Surrealist Garden, Tropical Garden, Victorian Flower Garden, Te Parapara Maori Garden, Tudor Garden, The Sustainable Backyard, Herb Garden and many many more.  

Te Parapara Maori Garden

What I enjoyed as well during my stay in Hamilton was taking a stroll at the riverside of NZ’s longest river, the 425 kilometers long Waikato River.  

What are your thoughts on big cities - are you rather the type who likes being amidst the hustle and bustle of city life or do you prefer it a bit more quiet and laid back?