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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It’s Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Winter

Winter!With the first snowfall a few days ago, it is safe to say that winter has officially arrived in Seoul.  Temperatures are dropping, days are growing shorter, and I finally caved in and bought a scarf and hat.  As many people in the world are aware of, I am an outspoken critic of nearly everything involving cold weather but this year I think I’ve decided to suck it up and accept the fact that I can’t hide from the icy Siberian winds blowing through Korea.

It’s a good thing I decided to just deal with winter because the next couple of months are going to be pretty busy.  My last three day weekend was at the beginning of October so I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to leave Seoul.  There are, however, a couple of vacations we get from work in December and January so I’m finally getting an opportunity to get out and see some more of this side of the world.  I decided to post my schedule for the next month just because my skype account might end up going MIA for a little while.

December 17 – Seoul – 12 Bars for the 12 Days of Christmas Bar Crawl

December 24-25 – Gangwon-do (Korea) – Christmas Ski Trip

December 29-January 1 – Beijing!!!

January 7-8 – Gangwon-do (Korea) – Ice Fishing/Ice Festival

January 21-25 – Tokyo!!!

Unfortunately, I also have to go to work in between vacations and work is going to be anything but easy this month.  Starting on December 26 (you know, all of one day after Christmas) my school is starting their winter camps.  Just like the summer camp we did a few months ago, these intensive camps are provided to the students on vacation from their other schools and have parents who feel their children should be in school for approximately 83% of their waking hours.  This means that soon I’ll start my 10-11 hour workdays that will last until after I get back from Japan.  Merry Christmas to me.

My Trip to Some Islands You Have Never Heard Of

Monday on my side of the world was Chuseok, a holiday in Korea that is sort of a combination of Thanksgiving and Labor Day.  It is a big fall harvest feast people go back to their hometowns for and it marks the end of summer.  Since my family is on another continent right now I decided to leave Seoul and go to Ulleungdo and Dokdo, two islands halfway between Korea and Japan.  Ulleungdo is an island famous for two things: pumpkins and squid.  It’s an odd combination but that’s just Korea for you.  Dokdo is a rock way out in the middle of the ocean that is important for political reasons to both Korea and Japan.

Ulleungdo

The first stop was Ulleungdo.  To get to Ulleungdo my group took an overnight bus to Donghae, a town on the east coast about five hours away from Seoul.  The bus got to Donghae a little bit before 5:00 AM and our boat to Ulleungdo left at 7:00.  While everyone else stayed on the bus catching some sleep before we got to the island I decided to go out and watch the sunrise over the beach.  Donghae is apparently famous for it’s beautiful sunrises but the overcast skies unfortunately meant that all I saw was a black sky gradually turning into a lighter shade of grey.

After a three-and-a-half-hour boat ride from Donghae, we arrived in Ulleungdo, about a hundred miles off the coast of the mainland.  When we got off the boat, we were welcomed by a rainstorm.  The entire time on the island would be interrupted by on-and-off rainstorms.  Because we were all already soaking wet we went right from the hotel to the water.  The coast in Ulleungdo is absolutely gorgeous.  It’s not very beach-y.  Cliffs go straight into the water and there are trails carved right into the cliffs.  To get from the trails to the water there are bridges scattered about to jump from.  Because the water is so clear and blue it would be easy to assume it would be like the tropical water found elsewhere in the Pacific but, sadly, it ended up being freezing.  Thankfully there were plenty of distractions from the beauty of the rock formations and water that kept my mind off how cold I was.

Cliffs in Ulleungdo

The next day was just as rainy but we had a tour around the island scheduled.  The tour took us along the coast and stopped at various rocks that supposedly look like animals, lookout towers, traditional houses, and spots along the coast.  By the time the tour was halfway over I was just as wet as I was when I jumped into the ocean because of all the rain.  When the tour was over I dried off and went hiking up Seonginbong Mountain, the highest point on the island.  The hike started off on a paved road that made the hills of San Francisco look like the plains of Kansas.  The steep slope wasn’t short either.  It lasted for about a kilometer.  When it finally turned into an unpaved path it leveled off for about twenty feet until the seemingly 90 degree angles started up again.  After another four kilometers of torture, we reached the top and were treated to a near-360 view of the island.  As neat as the view from Dobongsan was, with all of Seoul underneath it, the from from Seonginbong was definitely the better of the two.  You could see all the mountains plunge into the sea and many of the trees beginning to turn colors.

Seonginbong View

After a disappointingly short night’s sleep, I woke up early with one of the other people on the trip and went to Dokdo, an island about three hours east of Ulleungdo.  Dokdo is disputed territory with Korea and Japan both laying claim to it.  The island itself is tiny and not much more than a giant rock sticking out of the water but it’s located in rich fishing grounds so both seafood-loving countries see the water around the island as economically important.

The boat to Dokdo is in no way able to handle big waves, and with the heavy rainstorms going on there were lots of waves.  I’m not being remotely sarcastic when I say that about three quarters of the passengers were on the floor clutching their seasickness bags for dear life.  I saw more vomit on this boat ride than I ever care to see again.  People were lying on the floor looking like death was imminent and others were leaning over the side of the boat letting their projectile drift away wherever the wind and water took it.  About an hour into the boat ride I started feeling like an Italian immigrant coming to Ellis Island in the 1800s.  I was on a crowded, rocking boat filled with seasick passengers who were all looking out to sea, hopeful for any trace of land.  Luckily, I was not one of the miserable majority although I did start to feel pretty dizzy towards the end.

Seasick in Dokdo

As luck would have it, land eventually popped up on the horizon and we docked on Dokdo Island.  There really is nothing to do on Dokdo other than admire the scenery.  It’s too small and steep for anyone to live there.  The fact that there is even a ferry that takes people out to the island is really just a symbolic “Screw You” sent out to the Japanese who also think they own the island.  From what I was told, the vast majority of the trips do not dock on the island.  They merely sail around it.  I think the captain realized his boat full of seasick Koreans would have probably organized a mutiny and decided he needed to let them touch solid ground before heading back to Ulleungdo.

Since the island is so tiny the short time we had in port was long enough to see just about everything.  This pretty much consisted of tall rocks, clear water, green moss covering everything, and lots of birds.  I had never seen an island quite like this.  As I said before, this is really more of a big rock than an island so it was just a different experience being on land that remote.  Any other time I’ve seen an “island” of comparable size, it was located right off the shore of a bigger piece of land but this was out at sea with no other land in sight.  It was a very Gilligan-esque feeling.

Dokdo Rocks

The ride back to Ulleungdo was a bit easier as were traveling with the current this time, although I did still see my fair share of people who did not look like they were having the time of their lives.  After we landed in Ulleungdo we went back to the hotel to get our bags and got on another boat to go back to Donghae.  Four hours later we were back on the Korean mainland and in a bus headed for Seoul.  I got back to my apartment around midnight, passed out, and had probably the best sleep of my life.  When I woke up I had rotated 90 degrees in my sleep, my head and arms were hanging off one side of my bed and my legs were dangling off the other side.  All-in-all, it was a successful escape from the crowds of Seoul that had the prettiest geography I’ve seen in Korea; even if the sky was spouting rain as the people around me spouted their breakfasts into the sea.

Dokdo