A Thirsty Waterfall Hike and Some Magical Watermelon Juice – Day 2 in Taiwan

IMG_7387

When planning our trip to Taiwan, Annin and I were both set on getting out of the city for at least a day. Taiwan being a fairly small place, it’s known mostly for its major city, Taipei. And while we were interested in exploring the city, we had also heard some pretty great things about the Taiwanese countryside. If you travel just an hour outside of the city, you have easy access to some gorgeous mountain hiking and beautiful coastline rock formations. After a bit of research Annin found a particularly appealing waterfall hike, and so on Friday morning we set out for Sandiaoling. Continue reading

Advertisements

A Trip to Taipei

Summer in Japan is a great time for festivals and fun, as noted in my last entry, but it’s also a great time to get away from Japan. Students in Japan don’t have quite the same summer break as we do in the states, but there is definitely more time off over the summer than at other times of year. Sadly, this time off is mostly just for students, not teachers, but with a bit of creative scheduling I was able to plan a trip to Taiwan with my frequent travel buddy, Annin. Continue reading

How to Spend a Summer in Japan

The start of my second year in Japan marks the end of my first full Japanese summer. Summer is a fantastic time to be in Japan (despite the high temperatures and killer humidity) as it’s the height of festival season. Everywhere in Japan, from tiny towns to major cities, has its own festival, and if I had the energy I could spend every weekend watching fireworks and eating festival food. It’s a nice change from winter, which gets pretty quiet as everyone hides inside under their kotatsu.

Since I’ve only done this once, I’m no expert, but in my experience I’ve learned there are a few key aspects to having a great summer in Japan. Below I’ll walk you through my list of things to do for summer. Continue reading

To the US and Back Again

Hello everyone! I’m sorry I’ve been seriously slacking on my updates. When life falls into its normal routine I run out of steam to write, and of course  I forget that what I see as everyday occurrences might actually be interesting to everyone back home. But now the weather’s warming up and we’re approaching festival season again, so hopefully I’ll have plenty to write about in the coming months.

In the meantime, I’m back from a quick trip home to the US, where I actually saw many of my usual readers, which was great. While I had originally planned on going to Indonesia with my friend Selina, a few things changed back home and I decided that it would be a good idea to use that rare stretch of time off to spend time with family instead.

In truth I was a bit worried about going home. I talk a big game about my love of travel and adventure, and I know I make it sound like I never want to go back, but that’s simply not true. While I spent most of my adolescence dreaming about escaping St. Louis, once that actually happened I started to realize that home wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, every time I come home I find new things to love, and it becomes harder and harder to leave again. That doesn’t mean I’ve decided to move home forever, but I’ve accepted that St. Louis is home, and going home is nice sometimes. And while I’ve generally enjoyed my time here in Japan, the month or so prior to my trip was a bit of a struggle. I was really worried that if I came home, I wouldn’t be able to return to Japan with quite the right amount of “genki” spirit.

I’m relieved to say that wasn’t the case. Sitting here at my desk I’m actually doing a lot better than I was before I took my trip. Reminding myself of what awaits me when I eventually come home was nice, and sort of helped me reframe my thinking about the things I’ve found difficult in Japan. Of course I’ve always known this wasn’t permanent, and that I should appreciate living here while I can, but that’s not the sort of idea that’s top of mind when I can’t find decent cheese in the grocery store, or when walking into a shop causes the clerks to panic and suddenly disappear. These things will still annoy and upset me to varying degrees, as will all of the cultural blunders and miscommunications at work and with friends, but at least for now it’s not so bad.

And honestly, the month I’ve had since returning to Japan has been pretty good. I’ve had enough classes to be busy but not overwhelmed, spent time catching up with friends near and far, checked out some new places (photos to come) and have generally had a very chill time. As summer approaches my days will soon get significantly sweatier and possibly busier, with speech contest season on the horizon, but for now, life’s good.

So thank you to everyone who took the time to see me while I was home. The food was great and the company was even better. I miss you all and promise to be back again before too long. But until then, it’s time to soak up as much Japan as I can.

Lanterns, Revisited

Lanterns in Nagasaki
Lanterns in Nagasaki

[Note: I wrote this up almost a month ago, but somehow never got around to posting it. Apologies for the delay!]

It’s amazing to think that a little over a year ago I embarked on my first solo trip. It feels like ages ago. A few weeks ago it was once again the lunar new year, celebrated in Vietnam as “Tet” and other parts of Asia as “Chinese New Year.” Japan, like much of the rest of Asia, sees the New Year as one of the most important holidays, but moved the date in line with the Gregorian calendar in the 1800s. But while China, Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan use the same calendar these days as well, the lunar calendar is still used for holidays and religious celebrations (just like in Judaism, though they do disagree on when the new year is).

While Japan as a whole doesn’t celebrate the Lunar New Year anymore (though they do have holidays that still work on a lunar calendar) there is one part of the country that does: Nagasaki. The port city of Nagasaki was the country’s most prominent center of trade, and was in fact the only city that remained open to outsiders during Japan’s period of isolation. Because of its proximity to the rest of East Asia, and its status as a gateway to the outside world, it has long catered to outside influences in a way the rest of Japan still often resists. The population of foreigners and people of foreign descent is also much higher in Nagasaki than other areas. And it’s for this reason that they hold a Chinese New Year Lantern Festival every year.

thumb_IMG_6121_1024
Lanterns in Nagasaki

When my friends told me about the festival I pretty much decided on the spot that I would go. I loved the feeling of Tet and Chinese New Year in other parts of the world, and missed that atmosphere living in Japan. I also heard good things about the lanterns themselves, which turned out to be really beautiful. In fact, they were very similar to those that the Missouri Botanical Gardens used during their own lantern festival.

In any case, I booked a hotel back in November (Japan is not a great place for last minute travel decisions, especially if there’s an event) and invited my neighbor. When the date of the festival got closer, my neighbor said she couldn’t go, but luckily the festival is a popular event, and it wasn’t hard to convince other friends to go.

thumb_IMG_6120_1024
Lanterns in Nagasaki

So on Thursday, February 11 I drove up to Nagasaki with my friends Mei and Eddy. We had the Thursday off for a national holiday and decided to take the Friday as well and make it a long weekend. Nagasaki is around a four or five hour drive from where I live, but to hear my coworkers talk you’d think it was more like 10 or 12. I’ve learned that Americans tend to think a lot less of long car trips, since our country is massive and we can basically drive across the whole thing (and many of us do). I mean, Nagasaki is about as far from Miyakonojo as Kansas City is from St. Louis, and I’d barely consider that a road trip. But Japan, being a series of not-so-big islands, really isn’t as on board with the road trip idea in general. Also, speed limits are waaaaay lower in Japan than in the US, and highways are almost all toll roads, which all serves as a bit of a barrier for travel. Regardless, we were determined to make it work.

After a full morning of driving, with a necessary gas/ice cream stop or two along the way, we made it to our hostel in Nagasaki. If you’re a traveler of the hostel-going variety and find yourself in Nagasaki, I’d definitely recommend AKARI, which was right on the edge of Chinatown, walking distance from all of the excitement. We unloaded and chatted with the very friendly staff before setting out to see the lanterns for ourselves.

Small lanterns lined the streets and shopping arcades, and larger lantern installations sat on street corners and along the river that ran on the outskirts of Chinatown. We made our way through the crowds and happened upon a parade. There were dragon dancers and children playing instruments, and we decided to follow them. They led us to a stage, where we learned there would be Lion Dancing. We settled in and watched a really fun show.

thumb_IMG_6138_1024

If you’ve never seen Chinese Lion Dancing before, it’s pretty amazing. Each “lion” is made up of two people, wearing a joined costume. One person mans the head and front legs, while the other plays the back legs and tail. This may sound like the old joke of a two-person donkey costume, but there’s really no comparison. The two dancers move together to give the illusion that the lion is one animal, and they dance, jump, and run round the stage and through the crowd. The costume has puppet components as well, and the lions bat their eyes, waggle their tails and sometimes “eat” gifts thrown in their mouths by audience members. Below is a short clip of a professional lion dance, which is definitely a step above what I saw, but you’ll get the idea.

After the dance we ate a bit of street food and continued to wander and take pictures. Somehow in our wandering we realized it was late, and most of the restaurants were closing. We couldn’t make up our minds about what to eat, so we ended up with a conbini meal. Not ideal, but also not the worst thing in the world. We decided that the next day we would plan out our meals better, and went to bed.

Day two was mostly driving around the outskirts of the city. My friend Mei had developed an interest in kimono, so we spent the day in second hand stores looking for kimonos and the various accessories that go with them. She even convinced me to buy one or two things, which I have no idea when or where I’ll ever use, but they’re really beautiful. I’ve given some thought to taking up sewing, because used kimono are so cheap, and the fabrics used are just gorgeous…. Every time I see one in a shop I can’t help but picture how it’d look as a skirt, or a dress…. but I haven’t worked up the motivation to really pursue this interest.

In any case, after a full day of shopping we found ourselves in Sasebo, a town north of Nagasaki near a US military base. While military bases are often controversial, they do have one uncontested positive point – the plethora of restaurants that pop up around them. We ate an amazing Mexican dinner, and I remembered exactly why I missed cheese so much.

thumb_IMG_6165_1024

On our third day in Nagasaki we decided to walk around the city. Nagasaki has a fair amount of tourist attractions if you’re historically or religiously minded, but my friends had been there before and already done most of them. They insisted that they’d go again if I wanted, but they didn’t sound like the idea was super appealing. Instead we wandered the streets and found cool shops, snacks and art, which is pretty much my idea of a good day anyway. We also stopped outside of Dejima, the island where the Dutch were confined to during Japan’s period of isolation. It was tiny, and honestly not much to look at. The ramen shop we found down the street was much more interesting, but it’s hard to compete with a bone marrow and chicken skin broth.

In the evening we drove to the neighboring prefecture, Saga, to check out a lantern festival. Saga is known for its ceramics and massive kilns. In fact, when we showed up we realized that it was a ceramic lantern festival, and the lanterns lined a path up the hill around a very large walk-in kiln. They had set up a cafe inside the kiln just for the festival, so we went on in and drank some coffee. It was an interesting experience, but once we went back outside it had started to rain, so the festival was a bit of a bust.

On our way back to Nagasaki for the night Eddy’s friend contacted him and invited us to dinner back in Sasebo, this time for Thai. We made our way over and had yet another fantastic meal, at a restaurant I was sort of glad we went to at night, since it sat right on a cliff. I’m sure it was a gorgeous view, but I didn’t mind not seeing the drop.

The next day it was time to leave. We packed up and checked out, then made our way to our final destination for the weekend, a massive field of plum trees. February is when the plum blossoms bloom in Japan, and while they are planted in parks and gardens all over, this place was actually a plum farm. There were thousands of trees in various stages of bloom, mostly with white flowers but with a few pink and red throughout. The really lovely thing about plum blossoms, called “ume” in Japanese, is their smell. They have a lovely cinnamon scent, which a friend described to me as “exactly like big red gum.” Standing in a whole grove of them was fabulous.

After snapping some photos and breathing in the cinnamon smell, we left the farm and headed for home. Looking back, I’m glad I made the somewhat impulsive decision to go for this trip. It was a lot of fun, and a great chance to see a unique part of Japan.

Tết Traveling, Part 1: Vũng Tàu

Cần Thơ at night
Cần Thơ at night

After returning from Guam it was time for Vietnam’s biggest holiday: Tết. Tết is the Vietnamese celebration of the lunar new year, and is celebrated anywhere from 3-14 days. If you were to compare it to an American holiday, it would be something like Thanksgiving and Christmas combined. Everyone goes back to their hometowns to spend time with their families and ring in the new year by cleaning, buying new clothes, and visiting friends and neighbors.

Out for an evening walk with my uncle
Out for an evening walk with my uncle

In the weeks leading up to the holiday I watched as Cần Thơ transformed in preparation for the holiday. While christmas-style lights had been up since December, February saw flower markets spring up all over the city. Apricot blossoms are the symbol of Tết, and they were suddenly everywhere. It was beautiful to see, and as more and more decorations went up, I got more and more excited for my holiday plans.

Family reunion in Cần Thơ
Family reunion in Cần Thơ

While most Vietnamese go home to visit family, I had just seen my parents in January, and had made plans to spend most of the holiday traveling on my own, which was looking a bit lonely. Luckily for me, right before Tết my uncle Brad came to visit, and I was able to show him around my new home in all of its decorated glory. We rode bikes, ate in my favorite restaurants, did a bit of walking around the city center and even went to high tea. It was really good to see family, and it was fun to host my first (and possibly only) visitor. Thanks again, Brad!

High tea with family and friends (Brad's on the other side of the camera).
High tea with family and friends (Brad’s on the other side of the camera).

Right after Brad’s visit my holiday truly began with a 6-hour bus to Vũng Tàu with friends. My housemate, Peter, had invited us to spend a few days with his family and hang out at the beach. We hopped on a sleeper bus Saturday morning and, after taking full advantage of the reclined seat/beds (and the delicious pancakes sold at the rest stop), arrived in Vũng Tàu in the late afternoon. We all set our stuff down at Peter’s family’s house, then took a walk out of town and by the water to get a feel for our surroundings. I guess we walked in the right direction, since we had a nice view of the sunset over the ocean.

Taking in an seaside sunset.
Taking in a seaside sunset. (thanks for the photo, Selina!)

After a while we realized that it was getting late and went back to the house for a delicious seafood dinner with Peter’s family. After dinner another friend arrived, and we all went out for bubble tea, which was probably the clumsiest evening I have had in years. The tapioca “bubbles” were too big for the straws, and so they would get stuck as we drank. One by one we all had this happen, then attempted to pull the straw out and get the “bubble” off of the end, while simultaneously spilling tea all over ourselves and the table. It was like something out of a comic skit, as we would laugh at one person and then turn around and do the same exact thing. We went home with sides that hurt from laughing and hands sticky from bubble tea.

Beach yoga with Selina.
Beach yoga with Selina.

The next day was our beach day, and we went all out. It took maybe 15-20 minutes by taxi to get to the nice beach, and we walked a ways before staking our claim to a stretch of clean sand. I had brought along a book and had intended to spend most of the day reading under an umbrella, since I’m not a big swimmer, but as the day went on I found myself jumping in and having a lot of fun.

We spent the entire day by the water, swimming, eating ice cream and taking tons of ridiculous photos. We buried one person in the sand, and I even took a stab at making a sand-sculpture. Yes, it was a sand manatee.

What else would I make but a sand manatee?
What else would I make but a sand manatee?

The next day our numbers began to dwindle. Selina and her friends from the US had to catch a 6am bus back to Tra Vinh, and they had to be at the bus station by 3am to ensure that they could get a seat (they don’t do reservations and every type of travel was crowded for the holiday), so when I woke up they were already long gone. Everyone was moving slowly that morning, and I was a bit burnt after a day in the sun, so we decided against going back to the beach and instead went out for coffee. Peter and Marc hung back and stayed at the house, so I spent a few hours sipping coffee, eating banh mi and talking with Laura and Hang. I can’t exactly say why, but I think this was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip, just hanging out and talking with friends. By the time Peter and Marc met up with us it was already time for lunch, and we were treated to another delicious home-cooked meal with Peter’s family.

Beach buddies. They guys weren't as into the photo shoot.
Beach buddies. They guys weren’t as into the photo shoot.

In the afternoon Marc took off for the airport, and the remaining four of us decided to go to the city center and find a gift to give Peter’s family for letting us stay with them. We ended up at the local Lotte Mart and ate a super healthy lunch of KFC and pastries, caught an afternoon movie, and then bought a cake as our gift. When we got back to the house and gave Peter’s family the cake, we learned that it was actually his aunt’s birthday, and so the cake was super appropriate.

Cake with Peter and his family
Cake with Peter and his family

The next day was our last day in Vũng Tàu, and we decided to once again have a lazy morning at a nearby coffee shop, where Laura, Hang and I planned out an extravagant evening in Ho Chi Minh City, where we were all headed that night before going our separate ways. We had one last meal with Peter’s family and then caught a bus into HCMC.

After dropping stuff off at the hotel we went out in search of our chosen restaurant. After sitting in traffic for a while we made it to the restaurant only to learn that it was closed for the holiday. So we then took off on foot for plan b, which was also closed. We walked around from place to place only to find that all of the places we had planned on were closed, all of our second and third and fourth choices were also closed, and eventually we ended up walking all the way back to the backpacker district, where we had halfway decent (by Vietnamese standards) Mexican food. The night sounds like a disaster on paper but it was actually a funny adventure, going from place to place only to end up back where we had started. It seemed like a good way to end the first leg of my holiday before setting off on my own.

IMG_2849

The next day I embarked on my first true solo vacation, four days of shopping, sightseeing and drag queens in Singapore, but that’s a story for next time.

Holiday in Hawaii, and an End to my Winter Travels

And now, FINALLY, we have reached the final stretch of my winter travels, my family trip to Hawaii. It has taken me far too long to write all of this, and I really appreciate everyone being patient with me and my turtle’s pace.

Yet another Pac Rim reunion. From left: Me, Annin and Selina at a street side bar in the backpacker's district
Yet another Pac Rim reunion. From left: Me, Annin and Selina at a street side bar in the backpacker’s district

Where I left off last time, Annin and I had just left Cambodia and flown back to Ho Chi Minh City. We met up with a group of my friends who also happened to be in the city, and all five of us had decided to cram into a hotel room for the night. And here my family is absolutely right to be thinking, “ahh, to be young and broke,” which is pretty much why it happened. And also because my friend’s friend works at the hotel, and was cool with looking the other way as we squished into the room.

Anyway, that night we all went out for dinner, drinks, and dancing. One friend promised to take us to a club that played hip hop, but after about an hour and a half of techno we gave up on this hope and crawled into bed, sometime in the wee hours of the morning. The next day we all went out for pho, then Annin, Selina and I set out to find the Saigon Flea Market, which is held 2x a month in district 7. None of us had ever been to this district, and it turned out to be a bit of a trek. Once we arrived I felt like I was in a completely different city – District 7 is where all of the mega-wealthy Saigoneers live, and so it’s filled with fancy expensive shops and big buildings. This was all a bit of a surprise for us, and going into the market I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But there was no need to worry, it ended up being a pretty cool place. Lots of boutiques and local artisans were selling everything from clothes to macarons, and it was really cool to see that this sort of artsy event was available in HCMC.

After the market I started feeling the effects of a night of drinking, and suddenly the thought of 12 hours of travel looked downright gruesome. But, with no way out of it I downed some aspirin, hugged Annin and Selina goodbye, and arrived at the airport too early to check-in for my flight, which was then delayed an additional hour. Travel tip for anyone traveling in Asia – avoid all airlines with the word “China” in them. They are probably cheaper, but will inevitably be delayed.

But by some miracle of travel I made my connecting flight in Taipei, and then arrived in Honolulu with time to spare, and even made it onto an earlier flight to Maui. Sadly, my family didn’t have quite as much luck, and after a cancelled flight ended up in Hawaii sometime very late. I woke up and said hello when they arrived, but I can’t say I was too awake. Pretty much the only thing I really remember from my first night in Maui is the drive from the airport to the hotel, where a friendly couple and their dog told me all about how they couldn’t stand Thailand because it had that, “third world stink.” I was really glad when they got off the shuttle before me…

Mom, Katie and me under the banyon trees
Mom, Katie and me under the banyan trees

But moving on, it was really great to be reunited with the family, and we spent the week doing the relaxed resort thing: shopping, sitting by the pool, and day-tripping. Our most eventful day was probably the tour of the Road to Hana, a twisty crazy road that winds around the island and is known for beautiful views.

IMG_2751

The scenery was indeed gorgeous, but the day was a bit marred for me by the guide, whose colorful commentary managed to be both racist, sexist, and generally uninteresting. By the end of the day I had given up on him, preferring instead to put in my headphones and use music as my guide to the scenery, which made for a much more pleasant experience. But even so, after 12 hours of winding, bumpy, tiny roads, everyone was ready to go back to the hotel.

Black sand beach on the road to Hana
Black sand beach on the road to Hana

Otherwise the trip was quite lovely. We spent time in the town of Lahaina, had delicious shave ice and Korean tacos, attempted a day of hiking (which really didn’t work out, but was fun anyway), and I got a lot of quality shopping in, so you know I was happy. The family also tried a fresh coconut for the first time, and learned very quickly that they much preferred the sugary variety found in a pina colada to the real thing.

IMG_2729

After a week of fun in the sun it was time for me to say farewell to the family and begin the trek back to Vietnam. It was sad parting with everyone, but, if things fall into place, I’m hoping it won’t be too long before I see everyone again.

Welcome to Hawaii, have a shave ice
Welcome to Hawaii, have a shave ice

I had worked it out so that when I left the family, I still had one day in Honolulu to spend with a friend and fellow Pacrimmer. We spent the day driving around the island and I got a good feel for the absolute chaos that is Oahu traffic. Drivers in Vietnam may be crazy, but I’ve never waited in traffic for more than 10 minutes. But here, we sat on the road for probably an hour, for a stretch that otherwise would have taken 10 minutes. Just… wow. But really I didn’t mind, since the Island was beautiful, and I had a great time catching up with Erin. We ate some AMAZING Korean and Japanese food, I met her adorable dogs, and had avocado bubble tea (which should really move to the mainland, asap).

Failed hike # 1 - we thought this was going to be a 45 minute hike, but it was more like 10 minutes on a paved trail. Still, very pretty
Failed hike # 1 – we thought this was going to be a 45 minute hike, but it was more like 10 minutes on a paved trail. Still, very pretty

At the end of the day Erin dropped me off at the airport, and I made the long journey home. On both flights I was seated next to babies, because the universe knows that even on a good day that’s my idea of hell. I think the flight attendant on plane #1 saw the sheer panic in my eyes when I discovered I would be sitting next to two tiny babies for a 11 hour flight, and quickly offered to reseat me. Even though it meant giving up my aisle for a middle seat I jumped on the opportunity, and the mother seemed happy to have extra space to stretch out.

Failed hike # two was just a flat dirt road, past a bunch of horses. But hey, it was still pretty.
Failed hike # two was just a flat dirt road, past a bunch of horses. But hey, it was still pretty.

In the end I made it safely back to Vietnam, and I realized I really was really happy to be back. After almost three weeks of travel, it was great to be home again.