Friday, April 29, 2011


Beautiful, picturesque Nagasaki is nestled among mountains along the western Japanese coast. A nighttime trip on the cable car gave us a panoramic view of the city as it stretched across the valley.

The next day we would watch video simulations showing where the epicenter of the atomic bomb tore through that same valley. Nagasaki’s Peace Park was built at this site and cherry blossoms were in full bloom, belying any sign of what once happened there. The nearby museum graphically accounts the bomb’s toll (75,000 people killed in 3 seconds, out of a population of 240,000) and has audio testimonies of people who lived through the blast and described their ordeal on a very personal level. The word “sad” can’t even begin to describe it. I couldn’t shake the feeling of self-consciousness at being an American here and, yet, the Japanese have only espoused a resounding message of peace. It made the whole experience that much sadder.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

You get what you pay for

Waking up on our last morning with Divyam, we were off to Osaka to pick up our Chinese visas and spent the night watching a bunraku puppet show.  Aside from learning that it’s ok for grown men to play with puppets in ladies’ dresses, it was a window into Japanese discipline to watch the narration, the Shamisen player, and the puppets move in perfect unison. 

We hit the road early the next day to speed straight away to Hiroshima to visit the Peace Park and Miyajima.  Little did we know that our JR (Japan Rail) passes, although much cheaper than the Shinkansen (bullet train) passes, were next to useless in terms of getting us from one city to another.  6 ½ hours and 3 transfers later we found ourselves in Hiroshima, much too late to see anything that we had wanted to.  The kicker is that it would have taken a little over an hour on the Shinkansen.  I was reminded of how a friend who lives here once told me that Japan is great but you have to be prepared to spend money to enjoy it: a lesson that has made itself felt more painfully each day we were here… 

At dinner later that night, we made the best of the situation by finding Tia some oysters (I take full credit for turning her on to them when we were in Sydney) for which Hiroshima was renowned.  They came roasted and were delicious.  As I idly squeezed lemon onto an oyster shell and Tia looked at me with utter astonishment, I realized that we have reached that point in our marriage where we don’t care if we look like complete morons to one other.

Monday, April 25, 2011

If you give a deer a biscuit...

It’s cool that Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital and is full of imperial history but it was talk of free-roaming deer that eat out of your hand that really drew me in. Sure enough, as soon as we stepped foot into Nara-kōen (a huge park occupying half the city), we were surrounded by deer. True, I’d already bought deer biscuits and they could probably smell them, but they were also everywhere. Laura Numeroff should steer clear of writing, “If you give a deer a biscuit…” because really all that happens if you give a deer a biscuit is that he follows you around until you have no more biscuits, then he follows you around just a little longer to make absolutely sure. Considering how intimidated I was by this, you can probably imagine how the little kids felt. Their faces would go from excitement to sheer terror in a matter of seconds. Kind of priceless.

We obviously stopped by Tōdai-ji for a look at the famous Daibutsu (Great Buddha) and Niō guardians at the entrance gate, but we also discovered that Isui-en garden is Juan’s favorite Japanese garden in all three of his trips to Japan. The show-stealer for me, though, was the walk to Kasuga Taisha shrine. The pathways are lined with hundreds (maybe thousands) of lanterns. And I’m not talking paper lanterns you buy for Halloween to line your sidewalk. I’m talking four- to six-foot stone lanterns patterned after pagodas and covered with delicate rice paper. The 8th-century shrine itself is also fascinating because Shintō tradition apparently required that it be completely rebuilt every 20 years.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Helping Japan's economy one tourist at a time...

After carefully parsing through all the sensationalist news coverage on the disaster in Japan, we ultimately decided not to cancel our trip. I mean, how many other chances will we have to visit Japan during cherry blossom season? We cut Tokyo from the itinerary but everything else was a minimum of 500 kilometers from Fukushima. Anyway…it was a good decision.

Most people who know Japan know that Kyoto is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places to visit. Suffice to say, there are lots of temples, they are surprisingly unique, and our legs are tired from seeing so many. When we finished biking the Philosopher’s Path under the just-bloomed cherry blossoms, I could see Tia’s eyes sparkle as if meeting me again for the first time. Which, when you consider how androgynous someone becomes after spending 270 consecutive days with them and watching their sweat stains on clothing grow dark, is nothing less than remarkable. You should go there.

Our stay in Yonbanchi guesthouse, an old samurai abode, was improved by the acerbic wit and reliable tour advice of its host, Divyam, a native Frenchman who spent his restless youth wandering the world and “just missed Woodstock” to give you an idea of how long ago. He subsidized his first years in Kyoto by selling paintings he bought in Hong Kong as French masterpieces to the burgeoning Japanese middle class (who evidently didn’t know any better in 1980). It’s inspired us to come up with a similar scheme: maybe mixing cheap versions of Kahlua and Bailey’s and calling it Tia Vasquez Mexican liquor?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


On a whim we decided to book a flight to South Korea’s version of Hawaii, Jeju-do. It’s got pristine beaches, ancient volcanoes, knobby tangerines, and waterfalls pouring directly into the ocean: everything you need for an island vacation except little drink umbrellas. Deep down, though, we were just hoping that we’d find someplace in Korea that was actually warm— sadly, it turned out to be too cool to break out the bathers.

Our wanderings led us down a 1km-long lava tube, to the top of an extinct volcanic caldera, and along a gravity-defying road where cars seemed to drift uphill. Everywhere we went, the South Koreans seemed to be enamored with us and often had us pose in pictures, making the ubiquitous Asian V with our fingers as they shouted, Kimchi! Our bestest friend of all, though, was the lady at the bus station. When we arrived filled with the fragile hope of finding our lost camera, she smiled and understood our inept gesticulations enough to direct us to a back room where, lo and behold, some honest soul had returned it. In no other country we’ve visited could we have even dreamed of such a lucky outcome— again, it speaks to the quality of the Korean people.
The last night on the island we witnessed a street taekwondo brawl and sated our adrenaline with a ridiculously juicy, fatty, Korean-barbequed black pig. Ahh, contentment.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Back when I was a kid, my mom used to dress me and my older sister in matching clothes.  Seems fair considering just how cute we looked dressed up all twin-like.  Exhibit A:
In fact, I must admit that I am guilty of occasionally buying my nieces matching outfits.   What can I say? I can’t help it.  Anyway, having firmly believed that this was a craze reserved only for children, South Korea has surprised me once again!  Indeed, people everywhere yearning for a world in which matching clothes is not just a childhood fancy should definitely move here.

I can’t help but wonder if the girl that gets her boyfriend to wear a matching t-shirt looks enviously at the girl who gets her boyfriend to also wear matching jeans and shoes.  Perhaps the seriousness or happiness of each couple’s relationship is based on how much they match.  Either way, Juan and I must look pretty happy with our matching jackets.  :)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Modern-day pyramids

We hadn’t read much about Gyeongju before arriving, but perhaps even if we had, we would not have been prepared for the sight of the 4th century Shilla burial mounds that rise like sentinels out of the Gyeongju landscape. Beautiful and eerie, it’s like stumbling into a Lewis Carroll poem… Built by piling rocks up to 22 meters high and packing dirt on top, they store the remains of Shilla monarchs and their families. Obviously grassy hillocks are a bit more subtle than pyramids rising from the starkness of the desert, but certainly they deserve a little more attention!

We also explored the beautiful Bulgak-sa temple, reputedly one of the best examples of Shilla architecture although, admittedly, we were more intrigued by the mysterious stacks of rocks near one of the shrines than the intricate woodwork.

If only our food explorations in Gyeongju were so grand… We attempted to find a Korean BBQ place recommended by our Norwegian sunmudo teacher but, having only vague directions and no name (as if we could read one anyway), it was a hopeless cause. Luckily, the Pizza Hut we spotted on our long search was still open (and packed with people). Americanization saves the day!

Monday, April 4, 2011

How to run a Love Motel

Like technology for Japan, South Korea is at least five years ahead of the US with its own titillating industry: love motels. They’re everywhere. We found one near the Gyeongju bus station (naturally) that came recommended by LP and Tia is threatening to move in for good. Here's why:

1.  Popcorn machine in the lobby
2.  Dark glass reception window painted with a lascivious pixie and a small hole at the bottom where you duck your head to ask for a room (yes, they seem surprised when you want to stay a whole night -- yes, a whole night -- yes, for sleeping)
3.  Profound, nonsensical quotes on the hallway walls (e.g. “A life without love, without the presence of / the beloved, is nothing but a mere magic-lantern show”)
4.  Suite with magic-castle-in-the-forest theme
5.  Free bottle of Korean port
6.  Mirrors on the ceiling (obviously)

7.  Mood lighting, e.g. glittered ball on bathroom ceiling softly changing colors
8.  Complete array of free men’s products: after shave, cologne, hair spray, facial cleanser, condoms, shoe horn
9.  Heated toilet seat with special spray settings for women

10.  Full hair product suite for women – Vidal Sassoon shampoo and conditioner, hair dryer, round brush, hair spray, smoothing gel, spare hair elastics, etc.
11.  Enormous flat screen TV with all sorts of channels (wink, wink)
12.  Full spa bathtub with two headrests and accompanying hot pink bath salts
13.  Loads of other free stuff!

The place screams of sketchiness and class at the same time (the numbers for hookers on the outside door make it lean more toward the former).  Still, after a few days of sleeping on floors, this is perhaps the best $55/night we have ever spent.  

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Wax on, wax off

When I first told my mom that Juan and I were headed to a Buddhist temple for a few days, her response was, “How relaxing.”  As it turns out, not so much. 

Each day began with morning chanting at 4:30am.  If you were even a minute late, you must perform 3000 bows – a process which reportedly would take from 8-9 hours and leave your knees begging for mercy.  I was somewhat skeptical they would enforce this punishment against tourists, but I also wasn’t willing to risk it.  Unfortunately, this meant I was awake most of the night babysitting our $4 Brazilian alarm clock which, sure enough, stopped working around 1am our first night in Golgul-sa.  It did mysteriously start working again the next day, but obviously trust is like a mirror, once it’s broken...

After morning chanting, we had 30 minutes of sitting meditation.  We now know it’s surprisingly hard to focus on meditation when all you can think about is how cold you are, how you’d rather be sleeping, or how the resident puppies on the pillow behind you are snoring like old men.  The rest of our days were filled with walking meditation, sparse vegetarian meals, community service, and two sessions of Sunmudo training – a uniquely Korean zen martial art passed down from generation to generation by Buddhist monks.

Most of our Sunmudo classes were taught by a Norwegian who has been studying the martial art in South Korea for the last six years.*  We sort of expected he’d have some watered down exercises for the tourist initiates.  Wrong again.  Our legs haven’t been this sore since Roraima…

We were also around for a couple of Sunmudo demonstrations performed by some of the black belt monks and participated in Barugongyang (a traditional Buddhist meal) where the principle of “cleaning your plate” took on a whole new meaning.  You start with four bowls – one for rice, one for soup, one for kimchi/ accompaniments and one for “pure water.”  You must clean the spice out of a piece of kimchi in your soup and set it to the side of your rice bowl.  After finishing your meal (we were told not to eat faster than 5 minutes, but under no circumstances to take longer than 10), you are responsible for making sure not a single grain of food is left in any of the three bowls.  At the end of the meal, a monk comes around to pour hot water into your rice bowl.  You the use the kimchi as a rag to clean it then you transfer the water and kimchi to the soup bowl and repeat.  When you finish this process you drink the liquid containing the remaining food tidbits.  Finally, you transfer the “pure water” into the rice bowl, then soup bowl, then accompaniment bowl and perform a final rinsing using your fingers.  The monk collects this water in a bucket when everyone finishes.  If anyone pours water containing food into the bucket, the contents of the entire bucket are redistributed to everyone for drinking: an etiquette point for which the monks were forgiving.  When the Spaniard next to Juan poured his dirty ass water into the bucket the shocked monk unsuccessfully tried to stop him, then shamefacedly presented it to the head monk who laughed and permitted him to throw it away.  Funny (and lucky for us) we didn’t have to sip people’s backwash…
We really enjoyed our four days here, but it was a cruel wake-up call.  Our bodies are not in great shape and the month of kung fu training we’ve signed up for in May might be rough.

*Speaking of which, he knew a lot of different ways to say “flex your butt” for someone whose first language isn’t English (e.g. “contract your anus”, “tighten your rectum”).