My Japanese Chinese New Year Vacation

Lunar New Year, more commonly known as Chinese New Year in America, hit Seoul a few weeks after the start of 2012 and the entire country of Korea went on vacation.  While most people use this opportunity to visit family in their home towns, I took advantage of the long break to head off to Japan.  At this point, it had been nearly a month into my school’s intensive winter camp and a break from everything work related was drastically needed before I would have eventually gone crazy and thrown a child out the window.

TokyoI went to Japan with a couple of my co-workers and we decided to split the trip up and do two different cities: Tokyo and Kyoto.  Tokyo, as 99% of the world probably knows, is the largest city in the world and seemingly oozes out neon while Kyoto, as fewer people may be aware of, is the ancient imperial capital that has great examples of classic Japanese architecture around every corner.

The first stop was Tokyo.  Compared to Tokyo, any city in the world looks like a small town out in western Kansas.  The buildings are giant and stretch out farther than the eye can see in every direction.  We stayed in the Shinjuku area, a dense, neon-coated part of the city.  In Shinjuku we walked around the canyons of skyscrapers to a park and took in the sights before heading up to the top of the Municipal Government Building.  From the top of the Municipal Government Building we got our first view of just how massive the city is.  There wasn’t a spot as far as the eye could see that remained undeveloped until Mount Fuji way out in the distance.  Shinjuku is also home to Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red light district.  In addition to gawking at the blatantly obvious hookers and naughty nurse billboards the size of buildings we also managed to squeeze in dinner and a karaoke session in our own private karaoke room overlooking the Tokyo skyline.

View from ShinjukuIn Tokyo, there are what feels like millions of 20-somethings wandering around the city dressed like the lovechild of Hello Kitty and Ozzy Osbourne and this group seems to have their headquarters centered in the Harajuku district.  Harajuku is more low-rise and pedestrian-oriented neighborhood than the rest of Tokyo.  In addition to admiring the outrageous fashion, there are also plenty of restaurants and shops for everyone to stay occupied.  After exploring Harajuku we went to Shibuya, Tokyo’s equivalent to Times Square.  Shibuya is probably best known for the intersection in which a football stadium’s worth of people cross the streets every two minutes.  After crossing the street multiple times and getting swept away in the sea of people, we went to a pachinko parlor.  Pachinko is the Japanese version of gambling.  Gambling for money is illegal in Japan so people instead gamble for little metal balls, which are in turn exchanged for cash.  Oh the crazy Japanese and their loopholes.  Pachinko parlors are all over the city and the actual game of pachinko is like an odd, flashy mixture of a slot machine and pinball.  When we finished gambling away our life savings we walked back around Shibuya and admired the neon-center of the city at night.

ShibuyaOn our last day in Tokyo we headed to the river to take a boat cruise to get a view of the skyscrapers from the river.  Our boat took us from Asakusa in the north down to the Tokyo Tower in the south.  The Tokyo Tower is a bright orange full-size reconstruction of the Eiffel Tower.  We went up right before sunset to see the city in the daytime and then gradually turn into the lights Tokyo is known for at night.  Despite some rain, the view was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  After descending the tower we left for Tokyo Station where we got on an overnight bus to Kyoto.  The seats on the bus turned into beds and not once in my life have I ever slept so well on a moving vehicle.

Kinkaku-jiWe got to Kyoto at about 7:00 am.  The first thing we saw was Kinkaku-ji, a temple in the hills made from gold.  The temple itself in addition to the surrounding gardens were absolutely gorgeous.  Apart from the temple, there was nothing man-made in sight, something nearly impossible to come by in Korea.  Up next was the To-ji shrine, the tallest pagoda in Japan and it really was tall.  From To-ji we took a bus to the Fushimi Inari shrine.  The Fushimi Inari shrine is the tunnel of orange pillars that is on the cover of countless Japan guidebooks.  Like Kinkaku-ji, there was plenty of the nature around the shrine that both Tokyo and Seoul lack.  After a day of temples and shrines, we spent the evening in Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto.  Gion is a district of Kyoto with blocks and blocks of traditional architecture.  The old buildings and the geishas walking down the sidewalk fully dressed in their kimonos and face paint in a completely non-touristy way was like being a different universe when compared to the modern lights of Tokyo.  After dinner and sake we got back on another night bus to take us back to Tokyo to get on a flight bound for Seoul.

Fushimi Inari ShrineJapan was one of the strangest, coolest places I have had the privilege of visiting.  The amazing food (sushi, udon, tempua, surprise wasabi appearances, and a never-ending supply of sake), the perfect contrast of Tokyo and Kyoto (which were both outstanding on their own), and unique mix of old and new were all reasons that make me want to look into teaching in Japan sometime in the future.  The only downside is that Japan is insanely expensive, but who needs money when sake is (relatively) cheap and plentiful?

Sushi

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New Year’s in China for the Non-Chinese New Year

Tiananmen SquareIn Asia, celebrating the new year on January 1 isn’t the biggest of holidays.  It’s not even the biggest of New Year’s celebrations over here.  On this side the Pacific, Lunar New Year, which usually occurs a few weeks after the other New Year, is the more widely celebrated one.  This is the holiday known as Chinese New Year in America, although in actuality this day is celebrated by many Asian countries other than China, including Korea.  Even though Koreans seem to identify more with the Lunar New Year than the one on January 1 my school still had a vacation.  My school never has days off so I decided to do something dramatic and make the most of my time off by going to Beijing, China.

Forbidden CityI went to Beijing with three of my coworkers.  We signed up for a package with an English speaking travel agent in Seoul and got our flight, meals, accommodations, and entrance fees to attractions all for a pretty good deal.  We flew into Beijing and were picked up by Charlie, our guide who looked far more like the reincarnation of Buddha than most people do.  Charlie wasted no time and immediately took us to Tiananmen Square, where we took a few photos and walked over to the Forbidden City.  The Forbidden City, former home of the Chinese emperor, was my favorite thing I saw in China.  The entire palace complex seemed like it could have been an actual city in it’s own right, it was that massive.  The regal architecture and intricate details that are found on everything surpassed any palace I saw in Europe, including Versailles.  After walking around the Forbidden City in below freezing temperatures the group headed to a tea tasting where where we tried various kinds of herbal teas.  I ended up buying some and it’s probably the best tea I have had in my entire life.  This trip taught me that if the Chinese know one thing, it’s how to make truly amazing tea.

Great Wall of ChinaThe next day we got up bright and early and headed to the Great Wall.  The wall is actually about an hour and a half outside Beijing, which means it goes through the more rugged mountains and provides a more secluded feeling than anywhere else I visited on the trip.  Climbing the Great Wall was what I looked forward to the most before I got to China and it did not disappoint.  It’s hard to appreciate how huge the wall is until you are standing on it and there is no end in sight.  After a few hours of walking up and down the hills on the wall we headed back to the city and went to the Summer Palace.  The Summer Palace is where the emperor spent the warmer months of the year.  It houses an enormous lake, a giant temple, and, like the Forbidden City, some great examples of classic Chinese architecture.  My visit to the Summer Palace, unfortunately, was in the middle of winter so the lake was iced over and snow covered the ground but I was still blow away by everything about it.

Summer PalaceThe group decided to hit up Beijing’s markets on the third day and get out haggle on.  These markets are packed full of anything you could ever want, from knock-off Gucci to electronics to tacky souvenirs.  Haggling is expected and it was pretty fun going back and forth with the shopkeepers.  I ended up buying a t-shirt with terrible grammar, a Chairman Mao shot glass, a set of chopsticks, a couple of dragon statues, and a watch with Mao waving his hand as the second hand ticks.  When everyone was finished supporting Chinese capitalism we headed over to the Yonghe Lama Temple, an active Buddhist temple right in the middle of the city.  The temple had a few different pavilions, each with their own courtyards and statues of Buddha.  People were burning incense and praying at each statue and I thought it was very interesting seeing local people doing a simple daily activity of theirs away from all the major tourist sights.

That night we went back out to another market, the Wangfujing Snack Street.  This is the famous street where vendors sell anything that was once alive deep fried and served on a stick.  Seahorses, starfish, and scorpions were probably the most popular items available though there was also ostrich, pigeon, and more dumplings than I thought humanly possible available.  I ate a scorpion and a sparrow fetus.  The scorpion tasted a bit like popcorn and the sparrow fetus was like really chewy chicken.  While neither one triggered my gag reflex, I don’t think I will be indulging in them in the near future.

HutongOn the last day of the trip we went to a hutong, an old neighborhood in Beijing.  Hutongs are all over the city.  They are made up mostly of alleyways and densely packed low-rise houses.  We took a rickshaw ride through one of the hutongs, visited a man’s home, and got a pretty good idea as to what living in a hutong was like.  After the hutong we went to the Temple of Heaven.  Like much of what I had seen the past few days, one of the first things I noticed about the Temple of Heaven was its enormousness.  The Temple of Heaven was more like a park than a temple.  People congregated for exercise, games of cards, and just to socialize.  When I was there I saw people dancing with ribbons, playing hacky sack, and listening to singers performing little concerts.

Temple of HeavenAfter exploring the Temple of Heaven, we headed for the airport to catch our flight back to Seoul.  Even though I was only in Beijing for a few days I really enjoyed the city.  Beijing was just as good as, if not better than, cities like London or Paris at a fraction of the price.  The sights were outstanding and the food was among the best I’ve had anywhere.  Panda Express has nothing on the real China.