Friday, October 26, 2012

Fall Colors, Caves and a Whole Lot More

After a few failed attempts at hanging out Caitlin and I were finally able to coordinate a weekend with no plans.  Unlike the last few weekends there were no notable festivals happening this weekend so we had an open slate of destinations to chose from.  Wanting to take advantage of the fall colors and having never been there, I suggested traveling up to Gangwon-do, the northeastern province in Korea.  Caitlin had been a few times before but said that it was pretty and worth the drive (yes drive, Caitlin's fiance has a car so there was no bus necessary this weekend, thank god!) 
Quick side story - not sure if I ever explained how I came to know Caitlin and her fiance, 존우 (Joonwoo):  About two years before I came to Korea my friend Tami (from UW-La Crosse) was teaching at Samsung electronics in Gumi. When she left in June of 2011 she was replaced by Caitlin, who just happened to be another UW-La Crosse graduate (small world).  Fast forward 8 months and there I am getting the news that I would be teaching at Buksam HS, just outside of Gumi.   I later contacted Tami to let her know I was in her town at which time she told me about Caitlin and forward me her contact information. So, within a 2.5 year time span there were three UW-La Crosse graduates placed in Gumi South Korea, none of whom knew each other before coming here, small world indeed.  Then to make the story even more exciting, after living here for shortly over a year Caitlin got engaged to one of the sweetest, nicest guys I've ever met - and even luckier for her, he's willing to move back to Wisconsin with her! 
So back to the weekend, Saturday morning we met in Gumi and packed up the car to start our adventure to Gangwon-do. While waiting for Joonwoos cousin 세운, to join us, we began brainstorming a plan for our trip.  Finally around 1 o'clock 세운 arrived and we were on our way.  We drove for a few hours, stopping at the Gunwi reststop for lunch and eventually found ourselves at Guinsa temple in North Chungcheong province.  The temple is uniquely located among a narrow valley with mountains surrounding it on all sides, making for a spectacular view. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Not Quite London 2012

I've said it before and I'll probably say it again, many times, my school is awesome. Last week Friday we had the long awaited for sports day.  Some of my friends had this at their school last spring so I've been looking forward to the day for a while, I figured if it was anything like the school festival it'd for sure be a good day.  The students have been talking about the day for the last few weeks as each lunch period consisted of a soccer game between various homeroom classes, ultimately determining who would be playing in the final match at the festival.  As I arrived to school on Friday I could sense a bit of a buzz in the air, not the normal slow paced grumble of student but instead enthusiasm to get the events started.  The students were soon gathered on the soccer field for a brief speech from the principal followed by a yoga/warm-up routine.  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lanterns, Eel, Art, and More!

To continue on our festival roll Sara, Amanda and I made the trip to Jinju last weekend.  If you recall the three of us made this trip one before, but for a a very different reason.  Reminiscing about our [attempted] hike of Jirisan made for some good jokes this weekend.  I was lucky enough to have a half day on Friday due to midterm exams so I decided to catch a mid-afternoon bus despite the fact that the other two would not be arriving until much later in the evening.  I'm not sure what I did wrong but I've had some stinky luck with buses recently, literally.  This time it was a man who though bathing in cologne would be a good idea before a 2.5 hour bus ride with 20 other strangers, thank you kind sir.  My bus pulled into town just after 5pm so after checking into our motel, conveniently located right across and down the river from the festival, I decided to go explore - as luck would have it I was just in time for the sunset. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mask Dance

After a short stint in Japan, Korea wanted to welcome me back with open arms. How, you may ask?  By giving me some beautiful fall weather chock full of festivals, that's how. To kick it off I ventured up to Andong with Sara and Amanda for the second (and final) weekend of the International Maskdance Festival.  Andong is just over an hour north of my town but I've yet to travel there, I guess part of me was intentionally saving the visit for this festival. Having just gotten back into the country the Wednesday before the three of us opted for a Saturday departure, arriving in Andong around lunchtime.  We found our hostel (The Peter Pan Guesthouse)  with ease and then made our way towards the festival, which was conveniently only a short walk away. The walk was made even shorter thanks to a shouting Ajumma who, we thought, was trying to shoo us away, when in reality she was leading us down a great shortcut. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Home Again, Home Again

After my final bus ride I found myself back in Fukuoka, the underrated and overlooked city where I first started my travels.  It was another early morning as I brushed my teeth in the bus station bathroom debating what I should do with the next few hours.  I had already seen most of the city and lets face it, I was tired, so I decided that a relaxed morning at a coffee shop is what I needed.  I made my way out of the station, greeted with a gorgeous sunny day and headed towards Tenjin, the center of town.  I was a bit stubborn as I wandered the streets looking for the perfect spot.  I wanted good coffee and fresh bakery, no chains stores, starbucks, or day old oversized, overpriced muffins.  I guess I forgot I was in Asia and not Rome or Greece, as what I really wanted was an outdoor cafe along the river, eh no such luck.  After walking in a few circles I was able to find a small bakery where I bought some treats and then settled on "Seattle's Best" outdoor patio - with great views of the "Starbucks" across the street, it'd have to do.  

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Bit of History

After a morning filled with the beauty and calmness of nature it was time for me to get a bit of a history lesson.  I took the streetcar back into town which took a good 45 minutes, but not quite peaceful enough for me to sneak a nap.  Conveniently, the A-bomb dome has it's own stop along the streetcar route so it was extremely easy to find.  This was likely the most tourist trap portion of my trip, I felt like I was in Europe with the number of foreigners soon surrounding me. I'm sure everyone reading this knows the history here so I'll just let the pictures explain what I saw that day.
A-Bomb Dome
Memorial Cenotaph
Peace Gates "Peace" in 49 languages
Children's Peace Monument - Sasaki Sadako a HS junior who died after radiactive effects from the bomb.
Paintings created by survivors, most touching part of the museum
After spending hours in and around the park, including a lengthy visit to the  museum I was famished. Both tired and hungry I was ready to find what I came for - Okonomiyaki.  To be fair my brother raved about this dish after he came home from Japan and argued that it was much better than the Kansai style, so after having and enjoying that I figured this one must be good.  I received a few different recommendations but the closest, and what I expected to be easiest to find, was Okonomi-mura, an area with roughly 25 vendors selling the same thing. It took a little while roaming the streets but soon I was there and selected a booth with two nice women, to be honest none of them were busy as it was only 5pm, but I was hungry. Apparently I picked the right place because soon after being seating a large group of Japanese workers came in along with a few other solo diners, soon all the seats were full. 
Tastes better than it looks, it was amazing
Although I still had hours before my bus was due to leave I thought i'd walk back to the station where I stowed my bag earlier that morning.  I wasn't entirely sure where I'd be catching the bus that night so I also wanted to figure that out before the information booths closed.  Turns out it's a good thing I decided to head back when I did, my bus was in fact leaving from the bus terminal, not the train station.  Wouldn't luck have it that the bus terminal was only steps away from where I had just been.  Not wanting to change the walking theme of the trip, and having plenty of time to spare, I decided to trek back to the terminal on foot.  I suppose I could've explored more of the city before grabbing my bag but to be honest I was dead tired and all I wanted to do was sit down and relax.

Clearly I didn't really piece together the amount of time i'd have in Hiroshima - arrive at 6:30 and then depart later that night at 11:30, it was a long day. This was obviously not my favorite part of the trip, bus stations aren't really the ideal place to hang out at 11 o'clock at night, but I made sure to stay close to the ticket counter.  I did make one friend at the terminal though, an older Japanese man who was keen to practice English and learn about why I was traveling Japan.  At one point he handed me his cell phone because his friend that "could speak really good English" wanted to talk to me - turns out his daughter lives in Chicago and he's traveled around the US a few times.  Oh the random meetings while traveling.  Finally the bus came and thus started my near 24 hour trek home. 

The Sacred Island, Peace and Serenity

The above quote was after returning from my trip to Japan and honestly, Brad could not have said it better, doing the low budget route through Japan made for some interesting nights and mornings on buses and in train station bathrooms.  Tuesday morning I arrived bright and early to a still sleeping Hiroshima. The station was more like a ghost town with few people coming and going on their early morning commute, not even the information booth was open.  With little to no luck in finding a map in the station I wandered to a nearby hotel lobby and took full advantage of the resources at the concierge desk.  Seeing as I had an early start to the day I decided to make my way to Miyajima island, hoping to beat the crowds.  I bought my train/ferry combination ticket and about an hour later was arriving on the island. It was still only about 8:30 so with the high tide predicted for 10:45 I decided to explore the rest of the island before heading for Itsukushima Shinto Shrine.  

I started with a walk through Momiji-dani Park which sits at the base of Mt. Misen and is well known for it's beautiful fall colors.  I was a bit early for the changing of the leaves but the park was still gorgeous and provided a nice backdrop for a morning stroll.  Also popular on Miyajima island is the large number of deer roaming the streets, not that dear are something new for me but i'm definitely not used to them coming right up to you. There's a rope way which will take you to the top of Mt. Misen or you can chose from three different hiking courses.  I was considering testing out one of the trails but I wasn't really sure how long it would take and I wasn't really hiking prepared so I decided to stick to the park.  I made my way up and around then headed east to check out Daisho-in temple.

The park was super peaceful and almost deserted until I got closer to the temple.  First there was the group of men trying to get their car back on track after they almost drove it into a ditch. Really guys? I'm pretty sure that's a sign that maybe you shouldn't be driving on these paths.... Just ahead of that there was a staircase leading up to what I assumed to be a restaurant (beer advertisements were one clue), at first I wasn't going to head up there but then I realized it would provide an awesome view so I made the trek up.  As I reached the top of the stairs there were numerous picnic tables and one old man sitting among them. He quickly shoed me away yelling "no back, down, private property - my house", umm really? Yeah, I guess I have beer advertisements and picnic tables in my front yard too...

Just before leaving for Japan I was looking through my brothers pictures from his trip to Hiroshima and so I was educated on some of the random facts of this temple.  I'm not sure if it was the temple itself , the peaceful island setting or the extremely detailed brochure but this was one of my favorite temples I've visited (Korea included).  I think the temple brochure says it best "Simply standing here and being exposed to the serene atmosphere may enhance your peace of mind." 

1000 Fudo Images

Dai-hannyakyo Sutra - six hundred volumes of scripture
"It is believe that touching these sutras will bring you enormous fortune."
you better believe I touched them all
After getting my fill of peace and serenity I realized that it was already 10:30 so I made my way to the shrine, just in time for high tide.  The shrine was originally built in A.D. 593 and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.  The shrine is best known for the main entrance gate, torii, which appears to be floating during high tide.  Miyajima has been considered sacred so no commoners were allowed to set foot on the island throughout much of history. The temple was built this way so that commoners would have to steer their boats through the torii before approaching the shrine.

Fun fact - in order to retain the purity of the shine no deaths or births are permitted near the shrine. To this day, pregnant women are supposed to retreat to the mainland as delivery approaches, as are the ill or very elderly whose passing has become imminent. 

Of course by this time I had to battle more crowds as I navigated my way through the shrine, I guess most tourist don't get the same 6am start I had.  After the shrine it was time for a snack so I sampled what the island is known for, Momiji-Manju which literally means maple-shaped cake. I'd previously sampled some when my brother brought them home after his trip, but I must say they were much better hot out of the oven. To follow it up, and continue with a healthy diet, I opted for some soft-serve ice cream, not a big surprise to those that know me well enough. As the afternoon drew closer and crowds became thicker I decided to make my way back to the mainland and continue with my tour of Hiroshima. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Torii torii torii

The next morning as I showered I heard pots and pans clattering in the kitchen and was a bit surprised when I came out to a full spread for breakfast which Haruka had prepared. Such a fantastic host - and did I mention she insisted I take the bed while she slept on the floor mat? Too nice. I was soon out the door and on my way back to Kyoto station via bus (which yes, to the dismay of my Korean co-workers, I was able to navigate by myself). Today's main objective was to make it to the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, so I set this as my first destination.  The shrine is one of the most visited in Japan and notably so as it contains over 5000 orange torri gates, winding through the hills behind the shrine. 
Entrance gate to the shrine

After wandering the hills for a few hours I decided I should probably try to make my way back to town, there was still plenty to see in Kyoto! I strolled back through the shops outside the shrine and was sure to buy some green tea ice cream, which was delicious, before finding the bus home.  It was still another 20 minutes before the bus came so I decided to wander a bit, eventually making my way to the next stop down the street, thankfully I'm easily entertained and my camera provided me with entertainment in the interim.

I got back to Kyoto station around 3:30 which left me plenty of time to visit one more temple (as most of them close by 5pm).  Due to numerous suggestions from friends I set me sights on Rokuon-ji temple, which is home to the famous Kinkaku (Golden pavilion), named a World Heritage site in 1994. The temple is a zen Buddhist temple and the garden and buildings are said to represent the Pure Land of Buddha. To be honestly I was considering passing this stop but boy am I glad I didn't, the temple really was a sight to see.

I was planning to meet Haruka for dinner at 7:30 so I still had some time to kill before heading back to the station.  Although the Imperial Palace closes at 5pm I decided that it would still be worth it to take a walk around the palace gardens, plus it was free! The garden was HUGE and actually a bit eerie as the sun began to set.  There were still many people walking, running and biking around the park, but as it got dark I decided to make my way to the well lit streets of the city. 

Although the sun had set, I saw my fill of Kyoto and had been walking all day, I decided to continue with my marathon tour of Japan and walk back to the station.  I had time before my planned meeting with Haruka, so why not? It was a straight shot to the city so I had no fears of getting lost along the way, plus it gave me a chance to experience the city away from all of the tourists.  I arrived just in time to meet Haruka and we then proceed to find a sushi restaurant for dinner.  YUM I'd go back to Japan tomorrow just to eat some fresh, delicious, non-Korean style sushi.  Although it was short trip, accompanied by a typhoon, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Kyoto. I said goodbye to Haruka and made my way to yet another overnight bus, this time en route for Hiroshima. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Typhoon Schmyphoon

After an enjoyable overnight bus ride I found myself in the city of Kyoto. As I entered the station I felt like my sleeping pill from the night before was still in effect, it seemed like I was wandering around in a cloud not really comprehending what was in front of me. After a quick change, brushing my teeth and washing my face I emerged back into the station like a new person.  I soon met up with Haruka, a girl I met through Couchsurfing , who agreed to show me around Kyoto for the day and provide me with a place to stay for the night.  After organizing our plan over a coffee we set out for the Higashiyama part of town, starting with the Kiyomizu-dera temple.  This temple was high on my list of must sees so I wanted to head there before the typhoon hit Kyoto.  The temple is one of the UNESCO world heritage sites and the name  comes from a waterfall that runs through the complex meaning "clear water". The temple is known for the main hall and large veranda that juts out of the hillside offering impressive views of the city.  
famous view of Kiyomizu-dera

Oh, I Would Walk 500 Miles

After my enjoyable ferry experience I arrived in the land of Fukuoka at a cheery 7:30am.  My first destination was the bus terminal where I planned to store my bag until my departure later that night. I also took the opportunity to change, brush my teeth and wash my face in the bathroom classy, I know. I grabbed a city map and decided since I had a large amount of time to kill that day i'd cover the city on foot.  I decided to start with the nearby Gion district which held many temples and shrines, plus it was only a short distance from the terminal, perfect!  My first stop was Tochoji Temple, which is the head temple of the Shingon Buddhism Kyushu sect, and promised the largest seated Buddha statue in Japan. I wandered around the outside and was greeted by a friendly old man inquiring as to where I was from, it was pretty but I wanted to find the Buddha. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Long Weekend Travels

One of the down sides to living in a foreign country for a year is obviously missing out on things back home, notably the holiday season will be one of the hardest. Last week I gave a "Thanksgiving vs. Chuseok" lesson and I was quickly dreaming of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie - but then my focus shifted back to the present, the fact that I was leaving for Japan in two days! [the pie can wait]

Chuseok is simplified version, the Korean Thanksgiving, many go to their hometowns to visit and spend time with family and remember their ancestors, for me it only meant a 5 day weekend! And with 5 days off of school what better idea could I have then to venture to Japan.  As Friday afternoon came to an end I prepared my escape , left school a bit early and was soon on a bus to Waegwan where I would pack into the train with dozens of other travelers on my way to Busan, where I would then hop on the ferry. Oh transportation, the love hate relationship I have with you is unreal.  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

"Oh Shit, They're Good"

About two weeks ago there was some talk around school about a staff volleyball team.  Not being very gifted in the volleyball department I didn't pay much attention to it.  I translated one office message that there would be practice on Friday for all interested in joining, again I let this go. The next week there was another message about a "friendly competition" taking place Thursday afternoon versus Impyeong Middle school.  This one I was a bit interested in, my friend Loudine is the English teacher there and so we thought maybe we should go as cheerleaders for our respective schools, if nothing else I knew that would earn me brownie points with the principal! 

I want to...

I've written before about my students creativity and uniqueness and once again they have entertained me.  Last week I decided to teach the "Bucket List" lesson, first explaining to kids what it is and then giving them some time to write their own. Obviously some of my students took it much more serious than others but all of their answers were enjoyable to read.  I gave the students about 10 minutes and asked them to try and make a list of at least 10 things they want to do before they die, some kids were writing before I said go while others stared blankly into oblivion.

I want to...