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

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.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Fall

LeavesPeople don’t really put Korea’s weather in guidebooks, praising it like they might do with places like Southern California or the Mediterranean.  It turns out there’s a very good reason why:  Korea has a truly horrendous climate.  On this side of the Pacific the days of the week bounce between the boiling heat and sweltering humidity more associated with Miami in August to the undeniably chilly days that require jackets and sweaters.  However, as of lately there have been more pleasantly crisp fall days than anything else.

With the onset of fall, the leaves have started turning yellow, orange, and red and Seoul’s color palate transforms every few days into something entirely new.  Despite the fact that Seoul’s metropolitan area has around 20 million inhabitants and spreads out for miles and miles, the city is filled with what often seems like just as many trees as people.  I took advantage of the changing of the season and wandered through one of my favorite parts of the city, Changdeokgung Palace, to get a better look at those trees.  The photos below are what I saw in the palace gardens.

Palace and PondThis is Changdeokgung Palace, a palace in Seoul famous for its gardens.  I had already seen the gardens in the summer so I thought it might be worth revisiting them to see the new colors.

Palace WallsThe gardens are on the other side of the palace walls.

CourtyardThe courtyard in the Changdeokgung Palace gardens has a pond, Asian architecture, and (of course) leaves of all colors.

Little Building, Big TreesHere’s to hoping this pleasant fall lasts a little while longer before the Siberian winter inevitably takes hold.

Apartment Life in 한양 아파트

It occurred to me the other day that after living in Seoul for more than four months I still have not shown anyone my apartment.  Truth be told, there really isn’t that much to show.  It’s one long room with a divider between the two main areas plus a little bathroom.  I live on the eleventh floor of a fifteen story building in Hanyang Apartments (or 한양 아파트), a giant apartment complex that could easily be a city in its own right.

EntranceAs I said before, my apartment is nothing to write home about, which is probably why I haven’t.  When you first walk in there is a little entrance corridor, as you can see in the picture on the left.  The door on the right side of the picture goes to my bathroom and the counter top on the left is part of my kitchenette. When you walk through the entrance you pass under an archway and are in the dining room.  My dining room has a table with two chairs and a TV that does not work.  I put a big wall map up on the wall above the table because in Asia maps are centered around the Pacific rather than the Atlantic.  The picture below shows the side of the dining room with the table leading into the bedroom.

Dining RoomThe bedroom has an armoire, bed, and a desk.  All the furniture in my apartment was here when I moved in.  One very noticeable part of the bedroom is the giant green blanket hanging over the sliding glass door that leads to the balcony.  One thing that was not in my apartment when I arrived was a curtain and I have been too cheap to buy one.  The blanket might not be the prettiest thing but it gets the job done.  Below is a picture of my bedroom.

BedroomThe balcony has a laundry machine and a bunch of children’s furniture.  The teacher I replaced who lived in the apartment before me was married with a little kid and left the stuff on the balcony.  It’s too big to throw away for free and I can’t find anyone who wants it so, much like with the blanket/curtain, I just leave it out there because I don’t want to pay to get rid of it.  I think it will be sitting there for quite some time.  When you walk out of the balcony and look towards the front door the view looks a lot like the picture below.

Apartment from behindEven though my apartment is not the Taj Mahal it’s perfectly fine for how much time I spend in it.  Most of my time on weekdays is spent at work and on weekends I try and explore as much of the city as I can so I’m not in my apartment too much.  Really, the only thing I don’t have that would be nice is a dryer.  Until then hanging clothes on my snazzy metal drying rack will have to do.

Busan is the Korean New Jersey

Haeundae Beach

Busan is the Korean New Jersey.  I don’t mean the Jersey Shore guido kind of New Jersey. I’m talking about the overcrowded stretches of sand that have been completely ravaged by man and no longer resemble their natural selves.  Now, I have never been to New Jersey so what I’m saying might be completely false.  For all I know the beaches of the Garden State might actually have white sand and crystal clear water, but in my imagination I picture brown sand and brownish-green water packed with New Yorkers on summer break.  Something tells me the New Jersey of my imagination might be a little closer to reality.

Haeundae BeachWhether or not the sardine can-esque beaches really are a trademark of New Jersey doesn’t matter because I know for a fact that everything I ever thought of as being quintessentially Jersey is in fact found in South Korea.  A couple of weeks ago I went to Busan, the second largest city in Korea.  It is also a favorite place for the people of Seoul to go on long weekends due to it’s nature as a beach city.  Korea isn’t especially well known for its beaches but all the guidebooks and websites kept saying the beaches in Busan were among the best on the peninsula.  I didn’t go to Busan planning on seeing something as pretty as St. Lucia or the Cayman Islands.  I went expecting something along the lines of Daytona or Cocoa Beach which ended up being a fairly accurate assumption.

The beaches themselves weren’t all that bad, but there absolutely nothing about them that looked in any way like they were a part of nature at one point in time.  Busan’s skyline goes right to the coast and then plummets into the water, a bridge connecting two sides of a bay runs parallel to the water in the horizon, and umbrellas completely cover the shore so there is no trace of sand left.  Not even the water is safe.  Bright yellow inner tubes form a line that closely follows the shore.  That being said, those annoyingly colored tubes were pretty fun to bob around in while drinking a beer and hitting Korean children when the waves rolled in.

Gwangalli Beach

When I wasn’t spending my time on the beach, I was able to visit the Busan Aquarium and a Buddhist temple outside the city.  The aquarium is located right on the beach so the whole area outside was more crowded than Disneyland in the summertime.  The crowds did not let up inside the aquarium either, but the inside was air conditioned and it housed some sharks and penguins so the massive amount of people didn’t bother me too much.  In addition to various sea creatures swimming about, the tanks also feature fake animal statues that just kind of hang out while the real ones swim around them.  So while it may look like an anaconda is about to pounce on you at any moment while you’re innocently looking at the piranhas, you can actually be assured that is in fact a fake snake.

The temple outside of Busan was just as crowded as the beaches but the scenery around the buildings was among the best I’ve seen in Korea so, again, I did not think much about the entire population of Seoul having followed me down to Busan.  The temple is right on the water and built up on the rocks on the coast.  Statues of Buddha are found scattered throughout the complex and the architecture is the stereotypical Asian style I love.  I only got to spend a little bit of time wandering around because I had to catch the bus back to Seoul but visiting this temple made me want to see more of the many scattered throughout this country.

Temple

Even though Busan might not be a Korean equivalent to Miami, it was fun nonetheless.  I actually think that if I did decide to do another year teaching in Korea I would want to spend it living in Korea’s New Jersey instead of Seoul.  That’s what Snookie would do at least and what’s good enough for Snookie is good enough for me.

Gwangalli Evening

Taiwan: The Tropical Paradise Your Toys Come From

Grand Hotel

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last updated my blog and in that time a lot has happened both at work and outside the office.  I’ll start off with the boring work related information just to let everyone at home know that I have not fallen off the face of the earth.  At school we have started what are called “intensives.”  Intensives are just extra English classes students take in the summer.  Students in Korea go to many different schools throughout the day, each one specializing in a certain subject.  In July and August their main school goes on vacation and a lot of those students fill up the time they would be at their main school by taking extra classes at another school.  My day normally goes from about noon to 7:30 but with intensives my days now start at 9:00 AM.  This schedule lasts for a couple more weeks, and even though it hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would, I’m still looking forward to having my mornings back.

After the first week of intensives, my school had a week of vacation so I went to Taiwan with some of my co-workers.  In all honesty I didn’t really know what to expect when I went to Taiwan.  It’s one of those places I knew existed, but I never really thought that much about it other than when I saw that “Made in Taiwan” stamp on clothes or toys.  When the plane touched down in Taipei and the group left the airport, the only thing we could see were grey, run-down buildings that blended in with the grey, rainy skies.  After about half an hour or so the clouds gave way and a change of scenery showed that Taipei is actually a very pretty city that looks much more stereotypically Asian than Seoul does.  Asian architecture was plentiful and food carts lined the streets.

After a very brief first encounter with Taipei the group went to the train station and boarded a train to Hualien.  Hualien is a city about two hours south of Taipei nestled between cloud-covered mountain peaks and a clear, wavy sea with plenty of palm trees and tropical plants in the middle.  The first night in Hualien was spent at the beach playing in the pounding waves as the sun set.  After a couple hours of night swimming we went to one of Hualien’s night markets.  Night markets are very popular in Taiwan and they sell all kinds of food at very cheap prices.  Taiwan has amazing food, even better than Korean food in my opinion.  There were so many different fruits, vegetables, and sauces, and they even use lots of tofu which is something I have been missing in Korea.  When we had sampled as much as our stomachs would allow, we went back to the hostel and got some much needed rest before Taroko Gorge the next day.

Hualien

Hualien is the gateway to Taroko Gorge, or the Grand Canyon of the Pacific as one brochure put it.  Taroko Gorge consists of mountains and cliffs all impressively cut away by a clear, turquoise river.  We spent our time at the gorge walking along the trails, playing in the water, and taking in the scenery.  Taroko Gorge is far and away one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen so just looking around at the geography was enough to keep me occupied.  That night after spending the entire day at the gorge we ate authentic Chinese food.  The owner of the hostel told me what she liked, which was a very spicy tofu and noodle dish.  It definitely was not Panda Express but I would probably go as far as to call it my favorite food from Asia thus far.

Taroko Gorge

The next day we hired a driver to take us a few hours further south to Kenting, a beach town on the southern tip of the island.  The drive between Hualien and Kenting followed the coast and the scenery was exactly what I imagine a desert island in the South Pacific looking like, with the soaring peaks falling straight into the ocean.  The group stayed in Kenting for a couple of days for some beach time.  The beach in Kenting was right by our hostel and it had golden sand and deep cerulean-colored water.  The vast majority of my time in Kenting was spent on the beach, soaking in the sun while Korea was being destroyed by massive rainstorms.  Seeing that big, blue sky was worth the price of getting out of Korea.

The second day at the beach was very wavy.  Apparently there was a typhoon in the Philippines and Indonesia which sent the waves north to Taiwan.  My co-worker Aliya and I decided to sign up for surfing lessons to take advantage of the situation.  Another co-worker of mine, Paul, is from San Diego and has been surfing forever so while he was further out on the bigger waves, Aliya and I were on surfing’s equivalent of the bunny slopes.  While I am most likely never going to be a pro-surfer, I did learn to keep my balance, paddle with the waves, and ride to shore without falling off.  In my book that is a major accomplishment.

Kenting

After the second day in Kenting we took the high-speed train back up to Taipei where we did all the sightseeing we could fit in.  Taipei is much smaller than Seoul so it was pretty easy to get around the city in short periods of time.  As I said before, Taipei looks much more along the lines what I imagined Asia being like than Seoul does.  The red roofs, temples, and Chinese-style architecture were universal in the city.  During my time in Taipei I was able to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial (which was probably my favorite thing in Taipei), the Grand Hotel, Longshan Temple, the 101 Tower (the second tallest building in the world), and another night market.  Overall I loved Taipei and visiting the city made me regret not looking more into teaching in Taiwan as opposed to Korea, even though I still do really love Korea.  Most of the time.

Taipei