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.
Friday, April 29, 2011
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
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
Friday, April 22, 2011
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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
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”).