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We had always wanted to vist Japan, of all the cultures in the world, the Far East has offered the world many insights into "the self". We constantly admire from afar the architecture, the attitude to life and wanted to know if these were tangible experiences we could have for ourselves.

So, armed with some more research, the Rough Guide to Japan and a phrasebook we planned a brief trip (just 2 weeks in Japan) aiming to see the mix of old and new cultures together and to get a healthy taste of this fascinating country. We were both impressed, especially with Kyoto, which in some guides is labelled as "preserved tourism" much perhaps like you would label York or Oxford in England. Unlike what the guidebooks tell you, Japan is not expensive. Eat where the locals go, try your hand at Japanese and it goes a long way.

Contrasting Kyoto with Tokyo (the former capital city with the present day one, one is even an anagram of the other) would be like comparing an antique and hand crafted car to the latest techno, computer crafted one - there is no comparison at all. Whereas Kyoto is peaceful, friendly and distinctly oriental in it's demeanour, Tokyo is a lively, heady, almost seedy (at times) and almost the opposite. Revelling in its modernity, Tokyo in places could be like any other city in the world - ok so they probably have more neon than any other city, and the historic temples can still be found squashed in the middle of high rises and mobile phone shops, but it feels as impersonal as any big city.

Getting lost in Tokyo, however is never a problem. Complete strangers will cross the road to help confused looking tourists, maps on street corners are plentiful - so its still a much friendlier place than most cities.

We feel we planned a good contrast of things to see, the only thing we struggled with was 3 days in Kyoto - if you want to see it, take a week, take more if you can, it is really something. As with the US we have put together a couple of factsheets (available on www.pebbleinthesea.com) to provide an insight into the quirky aspects of Japan, the things that the guidebooks fail to tell you!

Hong Kong, on the other hand was a return visit for both of us, a return to where we first fell in love. We feel we know Hong Kong pretty well, and much of our enjoyment is of the architecture of the new buildings. This time we opted to stay in Kowloon, and for most this can be a major culture shock. The closest description would be like staying round the back of Kings Cross Station. Like Japan, Hong Kong has its own culture and it doesn't take too long to discover it. Kowloon "the tourist bit" is a cesspit of cheap tacky jewellery shops, trinkets and computer stuff, mixed in with modern, high priced shopping centres and centuries old temples. Touted in many guides as a mini heaven for backpackers to stay on the cheap, what you really find depends upon your own views, however, we fould Kowloon to be full of hard working normal people who were struggling to make a living, intermingled with the usual smarmy "sales" (we'll say that loosely) people trying to sell you some fake watch or a new shirt/blouse. Getting off the main shopping areas of Kowloon and into the local areas brings a whole new view of Kowloon, whether you like this view may be a different matter.


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