Ladies’ Weekend at Kurokawa Onsen Village

From the moment I returned to Japan from my winter trip home to the states, I pretty much hit the ground running. I had to work two weekends in a row, co-led a workshop for the annual Miyazaki JET Skills Development Conference, and spent the dreaded inauguration weekend answering questions and playing American-themed games at a the local “World Festa” event, where I was meant to engage families in internationalization. If I had 100yen (roughly a dollar) for every old man who came up and made a joke about Trump over the course of those 5 hours, I’d be able to buy enough alcohol to make the whole thing slightly more bearable. But alas… In a small act of defiance, I wore my “The Future is Female” shirt, and all Americans in charge of decorating our booth refused to use any pictures of the Cheetoh in Chief. All complaining aside, I did manage to have a few thoughtful conversations about the state of the US, and overwhelmingly the Japanese people I spoke with were concerned about the relationship between our countries. It was a long, interesting day.

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Walking down the street in Kurokawa

Needless to say, after two weeks of non-stop work and a bit of jet lag, I was absolutely ready for a weekend of relaxing in an onsen village. A friend of mine had organized the trip, apparently a semi-annual tradition among the foreign ladies of Miyazaki, and we were all very excited. Kurokawa Onsen Village is about four hours north of me, up in Kumamoto. It’s pretty close to Mt. Aso, the volcano that caused the massive Kumamoto earthquake last year, so I was surprised that everything was open and functional.

I had volunteered to drive and so early in the afternoon I set off with my friends Amber and Dasha. Dasha, who is from Siberia, spent a lot of the ride telling us about what life is like in Russia, and what she thinks of working as a TV personality in Japan (she’s the co-host of a local show about travel and food). The whole thing made me want to book a ticket to Siberia immediately, and I think Amber felt the same. It was also nice to talk with someone who wasn’t a teacher, which is a rarity these days. Anyway, we were having a lovely time when we entered the Mt. Aso Geopark. It was stunningly beautiful – the mountains were covered in yellow grass, and the clear weather meant we could see the whole mountain range. It felt a bit like being on another planet, like a set they could use for Star Wars or something. Dasha said it reminded her of home.

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There are worse places for your car to break down

As we were appreciating the scenery my car made a rather ominous sound and came to a stop, much to my surprise. We were a bit confused, and since none of us knew much about cars we fussed around a bit before managing to get the hood up, all on the side of a two-lane mountain road. After much googling we decided that my car had probably overheated after I pushed it a bit too hard up some serious hills. Remember, my car has a pretty tiny engine, and I had not paid close enough attention in my haste to get to our destination. We let the engine cool a bit, took some pictures, and then slowly made our way out of the park. Luckily everything was fine after that, and we made it to the village with no further problems.

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My weekend companions

When we arrived in Kurokawa we bought a pass for three onsens (hot springs) each, which was about $12. The village has tons of options to choose from, and after driving I sort of left the decisions up to the others. They decided on an outdoor bath and we walked through the town to find our first stop. The town was really cute, full of tiny shops, a pretty river, and lots of charm. The onsen was equally lovely, and to our delight we were the only ones there! Normally you’re not allowed to take your camera anywhere near the baths, since everyone wanders around nude, but we took the opportunity to snap a few shots of our surroundings.

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A lovely rotenburo all to ourselves

Kurokawa is pretty high up in the mountains, and at the end of January it was pretty cold. Most onsen require that you rinse yourself off before getting in, and they usually provide a special area to do so. This particular onsen had the rinsing area on the opposite side of the pool from the changing rooms, so we had to run to the other side in the freezing cold, to douse ourselves in scalding water, before getting in the super hot pool. It was quite the experience. After the initial shock it was lovely, and we spent a nice long time lazing in the water before we decided it was time to move on.

We dried off, put our clothes back on, and set out to meet up with the others at an onsen a bit further away. The lovely thing about hot springs in the winter is that they leave you feeling warm from the inside out, so when we walked around town this time we felt nice and cozy. We stopped by the river, now lit up, and took in our surroundings before getting back into the car.

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Onsen number two was a bit fancier, and involved a decent walk from the hotel to the water. We met up with most of our friends, about 12 of us in total, and practically took over the place. There were only a few people there when we arrived, but by the time we left (nearly 2 hours later) we were the only ones left. I’ve been told that large groups of foreigners speaking English sometimes make Japanese onsen-goers uncomfortable, so this wasn’t entirely a surprise. We tried our best to keep our voices quiet and respectful, but the sheer numbers were a bit much, I think. In any event  this led to us once again having the place to ourselves, and I had a great time chatting with everyone. This particular onsen had a nice view of the stars, and a second pool overlooked a small waterfall. Not too shabby.

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After a while we realized we had stayed way longer than we had intended, and the place was about to close. We quickly packed up and made our way to the cabin we had rented for the night. The rest of our group had already arrived and started preparing a nabe (hot pot) dinner. I’m convinced there’s nothing nicer on a winter evening than a Japanese nabe, especially when surrounded by friends. There are versions of this type of communal hot pot dinner in many Asian countries, and I always enjoy the process (even though I will say that I like the flavor of the Japanese version more than the Vietnamese lau). As we cooked dinner Dasha made spiced wine, and we had a lovely, silly, slightly drunken time.

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Nabe party! Photo by Lindsay

In the morning one of the ladies had thoughtfully brought a waffle iron, so we had a leisurely waffle breakfast, followed by one last onsen. This time we chose a spot overlooking the infamous Mt. Aso. This particular volcano is one of the easiest mountains to recognize – it has a trademark jagged rim, which is both really cool to look at and a bit terrifying to think of, given how recently it went off. But we were far enough away to enjoy the view without too much fear, and so we had a lovely morning soak. By the end of our time in the onsen we were, surprise, alone again. Cameras came out, and we decided to take a few photos. The whole thing was such a strange combination of super Japanese and not at all culturally appropriate, but extremely fun and pretty memorable.

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Onsen #3 – the mountain in the distance is Mt. Aso

Finally it was time to go home. We took a commemorative group photo, hugged goodbye, and hit the road again. My car held up just fine, and we made it back without incident. I was happy to be home and ready to not drive again for a while, but I could easily have spent another day or two soaking in the onsen town. It’s been a few weeks now and I can definitely say I’m ready to go again!

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Kagoshima Road Trip – Camping, Hot Springs and Archery

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Selfie at Cape Nagasakibana, in front of Mt. Kaimondake (the “Fuji of Satsuma”)

On the road again after my stop at the Ibusuki sand baths, I took several detours – I visited Cape Nagasakibana, the southernmost tip of the Satsuma peninsula, and Lake Ikeda, the largest lake in Kyushu. Both were gorgeous, offering stunning views (despite the crazy heat) and interesting history. A highlight for me was the statue of Lake Ikeda’s resident monster, Issie (pronounced ee-shee), which is absolutely the Japanese version of Nessie. The lake is actually home to giant eels, so as far as I’m concerned the lake does in fact have monsters.

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The infamous Isshie

Monster hunting out of the way, I drove the last hour to Makurazaki, where I was decidedly late to the JET party. I arrived at a small port and was playfully scolded by the ferrymen who had taken the others over to the beach three hours earlier. Basically, the beach we went to was part of the mainland, but separated by seriously rocky terrain that makes in inaccessible by anything other than small boats. I hopped on the boat and I knew it was going to be great – the sun was out, the weather was hot but perfect for swimming, and the scenery was absolutely stunning. It reminded me a bit of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, but with almost nobody around and no garbage in the water.

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A gorgeous beach all to ourselves

Once at the beach it exceeded my expectations. The water was clear, the sun was shining, and I had a blast swimming and chatting with friends.

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The view from our campsite

Eventually it was time to head back to the mainland, so we packed up and dried off. The whole event was a camping trip, so we drove out to our campsite, which turned out to be a gorgeous park overlooking the ocean. And much to my surprise, the camping was both legal, encouraged, and completely free. It was amazing! We pitched the tents and a group of us decided we still felt a bit salty after the swim, so we took advantage of a nearby onsen to clean off. This was my third onsen in two days, and although it wasn’t particularly fancy, it was definitely my favorite. We arrived just as the sun was setting, and the outdoor hot springs offered an amazing view of the sunset over the ocean and the cape. It was one of those moments where everything felt at peace, and I remembered how lucky I was to be there, to have these experiences.

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Group photo at the campsite

We dried off and ate some ramen, then spent a good few hours playing games and drinking maybe a bit too much at the campsite. In the morning the sun was strong and the heat drove us out of our tents early in the morning. We packed up, took a group photo, and set off on our separate ways. My friend Jean and I decided to go through Kagoshima City on our way back home and check out an archery event. I enjoyed having company for this leg of the trip, and we arrived in time to have lunch at one of my favorite bakeries before braving the crowds at Sengan-en Gardens.

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Sengan-en Gardens has a pretty amazing view of Sakurajima on a clear day

We got off to a bit of a rough start with crazy traffic and some seriously incompetent parking attendants who seemed to think the only way to communicate with me was through stern looks and gestures. After being accidentally hit in the face during one of these gestures (and then getting no acknowledgment that I’d just been hit in the face) it was eventually made clear that the attendant wanted me to back up through the parking spot he had directed me to, not into it. But eventually it all worked out. I tried to channel my sister’s signature death glare his way, but sadly I don’t think he cared. I eventually let it go and we went into the gardens.

The event, called yabusame, is a type of very traditional horseback archery. I’ve written about it before. The event was free with admission to the garden, but took a while to start, so we wandered the grounds, admired the horses, and watched the archers warm up. We also ran into a large group of Kagoshima JETs, and almost everyone from our camping trip.

When the main event finally started, it was just as cool as we’d hoped. Archers, dressed to the nines in the most fantastic traditional gear, rode their horses at top speed past two targets. The goal was obviously to hit both, and it was no easy feat! There were a number of archers of varying skill levels, which you could determine based on their clothes. The best archers had deerskin over their hakama pants, and were decked out in all kinds of accessories. The lower level archers still looked cool, but had a bit less flare. All of them looked like Japanese cowboys, due in large part to the hats. It’s safe to say I enjoyed the clothes and the archery in equal parts.

Once the event wound down we had to brave the crowds yet again. Even though this all took place in September, it was ridiculously hot, and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. We were all probably a bit dehydrated, and just looking at the archers in their full gear made me sweat. But eventually we made it to my air conditioned car, and then back home. I was exhausted, but in the best way. All in all, it was a fantastic weekend.

Hot Springs Weekend – Ibusuki, Kagoshima

Japan is made up of 47 prefectures. I live in Miyazaki, on the southern island of Kyushu. Much like in the US, it’s very easy to travel between prefectures, and many travelers make it their goal to visit as many as possible. Personally, I’ve visited roughly ten prefectures, mostly via road trips around Kyushu. The travel fanatic in me is very tempted to go the “gotta catch em all” route, but it does seem a bit unreasonable if I’m only living here for two years.

So instead of traveling the whole country, I’ve been enjoying the sights a little closer to home. A few weeks ago we had a national holiday on a Thursday, so I took the opportunity to make a long weekend for myself and do a bit of exploring in neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture.

Originally I had planned to go to Yakushima, a heavily forested island famous for ancient cedar trees and its role as inspiration for yet another Miyazaki film, Princess Mononoke. But as my trip approached so did Typhoon Malakas. There was so much talk of how big it would be and how much damage it could wreak that I decided to cancel my island trip in favor of one on the mainland. And as the storm came and went (without much damage to anything but my sleep schedule), I felt pretty happy with my decision.

While my Yakushima trip would have started on Thursday, I instead took the day to relax and clean my apartment. This plan would have gone really well if the building managers hadn’t scheduled an 8am lawn mowing. Seriously, 8am on a public holiday,  right after a late-night typhoon, for the teacher’s building. Sometimes I just don’t get this country…. Sleep was pretty much off the table, so I settled my plans, moved furniture, and generally felt productive. I packed up and the next day I set out for Ibusuki, Kagoshima.

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A handy map of Kyushu

Ibusuki is a town on the eastern coast of Kagoshima’s Satsuma peninsula. It’s not a super exciting place but it is well known for its hot springs, and for its thermal sand baths. I spent Friday night at 心の湯, an onsen (hot springs or spa) recommended to me by one of my favorite teachers. The hotel itself was nothing particularly exciting, but one thing I was particularly pleased with was the availability of a single room. Anyone who’s ever traveled solo knows that finding a single room is a challenge most places, and more likely than not you’ll end up paying full price for a double room. Not in Japan! I presume this is because of traveling businessmen, but basically if you’re looking to travel on your own you’ll have very little trouble finding single rooms and single-serving anything. It’s really nice and has made me a little bit spoiled – I’m not sure I’ll be able to go back to sharing hostel rooms after being able to get single hotel rooms for a comparable price!

But anyway, the onsen. Because I was staying at the hotel I was given a yukata, which was basically a slightly more formal robe. I could then walk next door to the spa spend as much time as I liked in the hot springs. I was pretty excited, but also a little nervous. This was only my second time going to an onsen, and I wasn’t totally sure of the rules. I’d say that onsen, while a staple of Japanese culture, are a bit notorious among foreign visitors. First, there’s the fact that they are almost always completely nude – no swimsuits allowed! This makes a lot of foreigners a bit nervous and uncomfortable, especially if you’re the only non-Japanese person there. Luckily, I’d visited a similar spa while back in the US, so I knew that after a few minutes of slight discomfort, I’d get over the whole no-clothes thing. The second reason onsen are a bit notorious, however, is due to a particular type of etiquette that needs to be observed. There are rules (both written and unwritten) about the order in which you are to shower (before you get in the baths), you must keep your hair out of the water, must be courteous to your fellow spa-goers, you must be careful with where you put your towel, etc. Famously, you are also not usually allowed in public baths if you have tattoos, since these are traditionally worn by yakuza (Japanese gangsters).

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A few Onsen no-no’s. You can read a longer list of rules here

So onsen can get a bit complicated. But after a few minutes of confusion and self doubt I managed to relax and enjoy myself. The spa was outdoors, the water was nice, and I even spent some time chatting with a few other women about the area. I took a break for dinner at the spa restaurant, then treated myself to a massage and a bit more time in the hot springs. It was a pretty relaxing evening.

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A mysterious space ship in Ibusuki

The next day I had a lot planned – the end goal was to meet up with some other JETs for a beach party on the far side of the peninsula, but there were plenty of things to do and see on the way. Leaving the hotel I passed by a really strange building and had to stop to take some pictures. This place looked like an abandoned spaceship, crashed in the middle of all these small traditional houses. I still have no idea what it actually was, but I walked around and watched as people cleaned up after the typhoon.

After that slight detour I visited a small art museum attached to the Hakusuikan hotel, which was gorgeous. They had tons of beautiful satsuma ceramics, historical information about the area, and a pretty thorough English audio guide.

Next up was the main event, the whole reason for visiting Ibusuki – the thermal sand baths! Because this area is heated by volcanic hot springs, the beaches are warm as well, and Ibusuki has made a name for itself by setting up sand spas where you get buried in this hot sand. They claim that since the sand is heated in hot spring water, it’s got amazing health benefits, and 10 minutes of lying in the sand can cure you of all your ills. I’m not so sure about that, but it was certainly an experience. I was given a yukata and then lead down to the beach, where I was instructed to lie down in a slight hole in the sand. The staff then buried me in extremely warm sand (very little of which touched my actual skin) and I stayed put for about ten minutes. It was not exactly a super relaxing experience, since I felt a bit claustrophobic and had to keep wiggling my toes to remind myself I could get out at any time. And that sand is hotter than you think – by the time I got out I had worked up quite a sweat. When I freed myself from the sand (it’s easy to do, after all – it’s just sand) I was directed towards the baths and washed all the sand off. In the end, I’m not sure I’d do it again, but I’m glad I tried it out.

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The sand baths in Ibusuki. Photo from Japan-tour.jp

 

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

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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.

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Fresh-faced at the beginning of the hike. You have to cross an open stretch of railroad to get there, and how could I pass up a photo op?

Our day began with a bit of a frantic scramble for both train tickets and breakfast. While the subway system is super efficient with a train every few minutes, getting outside of the city requires a bit more planning, and the Taiwan Railway website isn’t super intuitive. We tried speaking with someone at our hostel, but unfortunately by the time we asked, the English speaking staff had already gone home. In any case, we eventually pinpointed what we hoped was the correct train, and made our way to the station early in the morning. We bought our tickets, and had half an hour to find food before our train left.

While Annin did a lot of the research into where we would go, the job of finding out what to eat fell to me. I had read about a bagel shop near the main train station and since we were already there, I was determined to find it. Bagels are a rare treat when you live in Asia, and these ones looked pretty promising. A few things I didn’t account for were 1) the fact that, as we had discovered the day before, google maps is not the most accurate in Taiwan, and 2) once we actually found the place, it took them a good 20 minutes to make my cream cheese and lox sandwich. Not great when we were short on time! They handed us our bagels just in time for us to run back to the train, and oh man they smelled so good. Sadly, eating on public transportation is sort of looked down on, so we didn’t actually get to eat them for an hour and a half. It was pretty rough.

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Fresh-faced at the beginning of the hike. You have to cross an open stretch of railroad to get there, and how could I pass up a photo op?

In any case, we took two trains: Taipei Main Station to Ruifeng, then Ruifeng to Sandiaoling. The trains were really crowded, but only one other group got off at our station, and they seemed to have done so by mistake. We took a few minutes at the station to eat our bagels, which were just as delicious as I’d hoped, and set off to find the waterfall hike.

The hike we chose, Sandiaoling Waterfall Hike, is a bit off the beaten path. Most tourists opt for the much easier Shi Fen Waterfall, which is sometimes called the “Niagara Falls of Taiwan.” That hike is much shorter, and closer to a train station. But we were looking for a challenge, and were delighted to find that there was almost nobody on the trail, whereas the whole crowd on our train was likely headed to Shi Fen.. We probably ran into a total of 10 people over the course of 3 hours or so.

The trail took us through a lush tropical forest, over two rope bridges, up a particularly steep set of stairs, and past three lovely waterfalls. I think that the water was a bit low due to the time of year, but we still thought the falls were beautiful, and the surrounding forest was spectacular. I would highly recommend the hike to anyone visiting Taiwan.

But as beautiful and peaceful as the hike was, it was also incredibly hot and humid. We really underestimated the weather, and neither of us packed quite enough water. By the tail end of the trail we were pretty thirsty, and a bit worried about finding drinks. While Taipei has a convenience store on every corner, the hike was really in the middle of nowhere. From the trailhead we had seen a sleepy little town, but nothing that resembled a store from the outside. Once we made our way off the trail and into town, it didn’t look very promising, and I was feeling more than a bit dehydrated. Just as I was starting to worry, we stumbled across a hotel with some tables set outside. The owner was chatting with someone, and we tried to ask about water. Of course, we don’t speak Mandarin, and she definitely didn’t speak English, but holding up the empty water bottles seemed to get the message across. She said something and brought us two bottles of homemade watermelon juice, which was close enough for us. Now, I’m not usually a watermelon fan, but I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything as good as this watermelon juice. It was pure heaven, and the woman was clearly pleased we liked it so much. Once we’d paid for the juice she brought out a kettle and refilled our water bottles for free. We left with quenched thirsts and a serious appreciation for her kindness.IMG_7535

As we walked back to the train, we decided that rather than continue on to Jiu Feng, a nearby village, we would head back into the city to change and have a chill evening. We were exhausted and more than a little sweaty after the hot hike. And the universe seemed to approve of our choice, since right as we made the decision the sky opened up and let out a tropical downpour. Now we really wanted to change, and so we took the train back into Taipei.IMG_7433

The rest of our evening was centered around food. We sought out a famous beef noodle soup restaurant and followed that with a long-anticipated treat – mango shaved ice. It’s just as tasty as it looks, being made up of mostly condensed milk and fruit, and a pat of panna cotta on top. Fabulous!

IMG_7434After eating we stopped by Longshan Temple, an old confucian temple near our hostel. It was a beautiful place, but what really struck me was the number of people out playing Pokemon Go. I haven’t played the game myself, and don’t really plan on playing, but it seemed such a shame to me that in such a beautiful and culturally important place, people were all staring at their phones. But I suppose to each his or her own.

We rounded out the evening with another trip to The 58 Bar and called it a night. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty good day.

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.

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Statues in front of Taipei Main Station

Taiwan is a place I’ve had on my “must-visit” list for quite a while now. An island off the coast of China, Taiwan has a complicated history and lots of fascinating culture. To seriously oversimplify, Before WWII Japan occupied Taiwan and used it as a Japanese colony, and after WWII it was “returned” to the Republic of China (ROC). Then, when the communist party ousted the ROC a faction of nationalists, known as the Kuomintang, fled China and took over Taiwan, using it as the base for the ROC, which they claimed was the true/rightful government of China. What followed was, as I said, a very complicated and often bloody history. Today Taiwan maintains a tenuous relationship with China, one I cannot even begin to explain because I don’t entirely understand it myself. There are also remnants of Japanese occupation all over the place, and I remarked many times that Taipei felt a bit like a grittier version of Tokyo. And to be clear, I view that as a positive thing. Japan is awesome, easy to live in, and very safe, but I’ve found that I miss the hustle of a place like Can Tho. There’s an energy to a place that’s still growing and developing, and Japan sometimes lacks this, in my opinion.

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Taiwan is known for delicious food, but I’m not so sure about this place…

In any event, Taiwan has seen a serious boost in tourism in recent years, and it’s developed a bit of a name for itself among those who are interested in traveling within Asia. The food scene is legendary, and while the capital city of Taipei is certainly just as urban as Osaka or Singapore, the surrounding area remains far less crowded, with gorgeous coastline rock formations and tons of hiking trails.

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Ximending at night

With all of this in mind I set off to meet Annin in Taipei. Upon arrival it was clear that Taipei would not be so difficult to navigate – signage in the airport was clear, people were super friendly, and transportation was easily accessible. I took a bus to the center of town,  bought myself an MRT pass, and made my way to the hostel. We chose to stay in Ximending, a shopping district which seems to be the center of youth culture in Taipei. There were hundreds of shops blaring music and blasting air conditioning into the hot summer streets, and the area was hopping well into the night. Coming from my sleepy little town in Japan, I was both surprised and thrilled to find myself once again in such an urban setting. Looking back on the trip I’m not sure I’d choose to stay in Ximending again, but the proximity to the subway and low price of the hostel were both pretty nice for a short trip.

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In front of the National Palace Museum

On our first full day in Taipei it was a bit overcast, so we decided to check out the National Palace Museum. This museum holds the largest collection of Chinese art in the world, and is probably one of the most visited places in Taipei for tourists. Despite the weather and summer travel season, we lucked out and it wasn’t too crowded. The museum’s collections are really amazing, though we somehow missed the two most famous pieces. Regardless, we both walked away feeling much more cultured, and also ravenously hungry. We decided to try for one of the city’s most famous dishes – xiaolong bao, or soup dumplings.

The restaurant we tried to go to initially, the original din tai fung, had a 40 minute wait, which we weren’t quite up for. So we walked around the corner and found another highly-recommended restaurant around the corner, where we were seated immediately. The food was delicious! We ate xiaolong bao, steamed pork buns, seasonal veggies, and shumai. All of it was amazing, and I was in heaven.

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A mural on the side of a bubble tea shop that caught my eye

After our super filling lunch we decided to stay in the city and find the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. We wandered for quite a while circling a university because Google Maps said it was somewhere inside. After almost half an hour of this we realized that the building on the map was not in fact the famous memorial, but the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Gymnasium. No wonder the students were giving us strange looks…. Moral of the story is, don’t trust Google Maps abroad.

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Delicious tea and scones at Smith&Hsu

Anyway, after failing to find the memorial we instead made our way towards Taipei 101, which at one point was the tallest building in the world.  On our way we happened upon a fancy tea shop called Smith & Hsu, where we had the most amazing tea and scones. It was a much-needed pick-me-up after our memorial search, and we were both super happy to get a break from the heat. I had read about the shop on Lady Iron Chef, one of my favorite sources for food recommendations in Asia (I have yet to be disappointed by any of their recommendations). The atmosphere was sleek and modern, and the tea selection was really impressive!

After our tea break we walked in and around Taipei 101, though we decided against a trip to the top. It’s a pretty pricey elevator ticket, and we both felt that we’d visited enough tall towers to have a good idea of what we would see. Far more interesting to me was the Eslite bookstore around the corner, which had a larger selection of English language books than I’d seen anywhere else in Asia. Somehow I was able to limit myself to a single collection of Ray Bradbury short stories (probably because I was doing this trip carry-on only), but it was tough. Honestly, the store was so nice I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a highlight of the trip!

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Selfies are a struggle. But hey, look – Taipei 101!

By the time we finished up at Taipei 101 it was time for another meal, and so we hopped on the subway and went to Yong Kang for some street food. We had the most amazing scallion pancakes at a tiny shop with a line around the block. They were super simple, but possibly the best thing I ate in Taipei. Part of that might have been due to the setting. We bought our food at the stall and sat in a nearby park to eat, which is something I did a lot in Vietnam, but which is seen as a bit strange in Japan (unless you’re at a festival). I had really missed the laid back feeling of hanging out in a park at night, eating cheap street food and just people watching.

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Delicious scallion pancakes

 

And finally it was time to head for home, but not before a drink! It turns out there’s a really cool bar in Ximending that only sells Taiwanese beer. I think it’s owned by some expats, but the sheer number of locally made beers was really impressive. There were lots of interesting options, and they were nice enough to give recommendations, since I know almost nothing about beer. So we settled in for a drink and watched a bit of Olympic archery (which was far more interesting than I anticipated).

All in all it was a solid start to the trip, and I’ll tell you all about the rest of our time in Taiwan next week.

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Locally brewed beers at The 58 Bar

Let the Holidays Begin – Pac Rim Reunion in Saigon!

Alright, time to begin the holiday travel posts! I think I should start by explaining exactly what I had planned for a very extended holiday, one I’m still shocked went off without a hitch.

Hanging out with Lisa and Selina
Hanging out with Lisa and Selina

While I was given the green light to take almost three weeks off to travel, the first few days of my trip were a bit more complicated. From the very beginning of my stay here in Can Tho, I had always planned on spending Christmas Eve in Saigon, where this year’s Pac Rim group (including several staff members from my trip) would be holding their holiday banquet. I was beyond excited to see old friends, meet the new students, and generally wax nostalgic. A few days after the party my friend Annin was going to meet me in Saigon, and we would then travel around Vietnam. Our friends Lisa and Pase, staff for this year’s Pac Rim, would also be joining us for a few days during their holiday. Everything was coming together and it was looking great!

A few weeks before the party, I realized that while I was told I could have time off, my university course’s final exam was scheduled right between the Pac Rim banquet and meeting up with Annin. This meant that my schedule would have to go as follows: Dec 23 – bus up to Saigon and hang out with Pac Rim. Dec 24 – Pac Rim Banquet! Dec 25 – bus back to Can Tho, teach in the evening. Dec 26 – Administer final exam in morning, finish grading all 50 tests in afternoon, and bus back to Saigon at night to hang out with Lisa and check into hotel with Annin.

Yes, it was a bit of a crazy schedule, and yes, grading took far longer than anticipated, but it all worked out fine in the end.

Now, for what you’re really interested in – how was it meeting up with this year’s Pac Rim?

The banquet marked the end of Elisabeth and Nima's final Pac Rim, and a new director will take over for the second semester.
The banquet marked the end of Elisabeth and Nima’s final Pac Rim, and a new director will take over for the second semester.

Well, it was great to see old friends and say hi to a few of the students whom I had met back on campus. I spent most of my time running errands with Lisa and Selina and trying to be helpful with party preparations. I loved hanging out with old friends and getting to know the new staff members, but one thing was made abundantly clear: three years is a lot of time, and I am definitely no longer a student. This sounds obvious, but spending time with current students really hit home to me how much I’ve changed over the past three years. And, while I loved my experience and wouldn’t change it for the world, I’m not interested in going backwards. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have an awesome time seeing everyone.

Realizations aside, I spent a lot of time catching up with Elisabeth and Nima, who had led my trip. This year is Elisabeth’s final year as Pac Rim director, and she and Nima were leaving the trip mid-year to allow a new director to step up. It was great to see them, and we had a wonderful time together. On the second day in Saigon, Selina and I snuck into the Grand Saigon’s breakfast buffet to eat with our friends (and, let’s face it – our hotel’s breakfast was not nearly as nice), and we ended up having a lovely meal with EB and Nima, talking about the highs and lows of this trip, their plans for 2015, and how much I missed non-white bread while in Vietnam. Elisabeth was very cute and surprised Selina and me with a loaf of wheat bread later that night, which was so nice, and much appreciated.

Thanks for the wheat bread, Elisabeth!
Thanks for the wheat bread, Elisabeth!

Other highlights from the visit include going out to an American-style BBQ restaurant, where I was super excited to eat ribs, mac n’ cheese, cornbread and beer that wasn’t mostly water (Vietnam is great for many things, but beer is not one of them). Earlier in the day we went out for coffee near the hotel at a famous Vietnamese chain, Trung Nguyen. I was shocked to see that prices in Saigon were basically double what I would normally pay in Can Tho, but I guess that’s how it goes. Strangely, it took around 45 minutes for us to get take away coffee, so these days I’m far less enamoured with this brand of coffee shop (although if I bring anyone back coffee from Vietnam, it will probably be from here – it’s widely known as some of the best quality coffee and it’s very easy to find).

Dinner at an American-style BBQ joint. The ribs were delicious!
Dinner at an American-style BBQ joint. The ribs were delicious!

After coffee I set out with Selina and Lisa’s friend Linda to try and find the offices of Saigon Artbook, whom I had read was selling decks of cards printed with illustrations by local artists and representative of Vietnam. It was a bit of a long trek, and once we found the building it was clear that it was not usually used as a storefront – there was no sign, no markers to indicate where to go, and the first floor of the building was a cell phone shop. But in the end we were successful, and everyone bought a beautiful, very unique deck of cards.

The illusive Vietnam card deck! I had been looking for them for almost 2 weeks, and the day I left for Saigon I happened to see a notice that they had a limited printing available. It must have been fate :)
The illusive Vietnam card deck! I had been looking for them for almost 2 weeks, and the day I left for Saigon I happened to see a notice that they had a limited printing available. It must have been fate 🙂

Moving on – the actual banquet was lovely. I sat at a table with a few friends, and a student whose parents were both Pac Rim alumni. It was really interesting to hear about both the current trip and his parents’ experience in the 80s. We were also treated to this year’s mid-year video, which I must admit was very well done, and this group was clearly better at remembering to film things… Oh well! After the video the students presented EB and Nima with scrapbooks as a parting gift, and it all got a bit emotional. I started tearing up for sure. All of EB’s students were invited up to give a hug, but Selina and I weren’t sure if we should sit back and let this year’s students do their thing. Eventually we were prodded into going up by our table mates, just in time for the group to start singing a song we absolutely didn’t know. It was a bit awkward, but funny. After hugs, it was time for a dance party, which was a blast, and a fitting way to bid farewell to Elisabeth, who truly shines on the dance floor.

Traffic on Christmas Eve - photo taken from the Saigoneer (nothing I actually saw was this bad)
Traffic on Christmas Eve – photo taken from the Saigoneer (nothing I actually saw was this bad)

As we all know, after the party comes the afterparty! Selina and I went back to Lisa’s room and played drinking games with the other staff and our friend Jewel, who was the coordinator for the student program assistants in Hanoi, and a surprise party guest. We hadn’t seen her in three years, so it was great to catch up. Once everyone had gathered, we headed out to Saigon’s backpacker district for a few drinks and some dancing. Little did we realize that Christmas Eve is one of the craziest times to be out in Saigon, as traffic was NUTS. Luckily we didn’t have far to go, and when we returned to the hotel around 4am, it was significantly quieter.

Drinks in the backpacker district
Drinks in the backpacker district (photo by Selina)

Anyway, in the end I’m glad everything worked out and that I was able to meet up with the group, if only for a little while. And who knows, maybe I’ll see them again before the year is out – they’re headed to some pretty cool places, and the travel bug hasn’t left me yet 🙂

Elevator selfie!
Elevator selfie! Hanging out with the Pac Rim staff on Christmas Eve

How is it already December?

Hey everyone!

The river at night.
The river at night.

I’m having a tough time believing that it is, indeed, December, but the Christmas decorations on every street would seem to indicate that it’s true. I didn’t think Vietnam would be particularly excited about Christmas, seeing as it’s a primarily Buddhist (but 7% Catholic, according to Wikipedia) country, but it appears the stores all know the value of a holiday promotion, and the Christmas feel that goes with it. Yes, I am a bit of a grinch, but with not one Hanukkah bush to be found, I feel I am entitled to a little less enthusiasm than some, haha.

Not a christmas decoration, but a typical holiday display at the local grocery store. They get very creative here...
Not a christmas decoration, but a typical holiday display at the local grocery store. They get very creative here…

But regardless, there have been a few holidays in the past weeks that I did celebrate, including Thanksgiving and my 24th birthday! Thanksgiving was a fun affair – it was completely last-minute, but a bunch of the foreign teachers organized a dinner at a friend’s house and made everything from chicken to spring rolls. I dutifully provided cheese and crackers, and a few store-bought cookies, because we all know that cooking is not my forte. I did miss my usual job as pumpkin pie baker (even I can’t screw that up), but I still had fun. Unfortunately, since Thanksgiving isn’t really on the radar in Vietnam, I had to work that night from 6:30-8:30pm. I arrived at dinner in time to help set up, left right as everyone was about to eat, and returned in time for everyone to leave. But not to worry, I still ate my fill of food and was able to get in on some games and singing before heading home for the night. In the end I decided I was very grateful for the friends I have made here, my supportive friends and family back home, and the fact that I can be here doing this right now. I’m a very lucky person, and sometimes it’s nice to sit back and reflect on that.

I don't have any photos of Thanksgiving dinner, but lunch that day was pretty American. It was an alright steak, and a nice change of pace. Also, nobody got food poisoning, despite the food being extremely rare, so hooray for that.
I don’t have any photos of Thanksgiving dinner, but lunch that day was pretty American. It was an alright steak, and a nice change of pace. Also, nobody got food poisoning, despite the food being extremely rare, so hooray for that.

So, since Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday here in Vietnam, the designated time to begin decorating for Christmas appears to be December 1st. I swear, on November 30th I walked down the street and everything was normal, and the next day I was swimming in a sea of Christmas trees, lights, and Santas. I haven’t really taken any pictures, but even now, I’m writing this in a cafe and there’s a strobing string of lights and ornaments right in front of me, and pictures of snowmen everywhere. It’s a tad strange, but I’ve decided to just go with it.

Did you know they have Baskin Robbins's here? A friend was getting ready to move to Phu Quoc Island for a few months, so we celebrated with an ice cream cake. We didn't stop to consider that this was really too much cake for only 4 people... Live and learn
Did you know they have Baskin Robbins’s here? A friend was getting ready to move to Phu Quoc Island for a few months, so we celebrated with an ice cream cake. We didn’t stop to consider that this was really too much cake for only 4 people… Live and learn

Anyway, the start of December was a great time for me. As some of you know I was really excited to have clothes made for me once I arrived in Vietnam. Somewhere in the shuffle of getting settled in and working and traveling, I lost track of that thought. A while back I told a friend that I wanted to have some clothes made, and she surprised me a few weeks later by saying that she’d take me to a fabric shop, and then to her friend’s mom, who is a tailor. This all came together about 2 weeks ago, and I picked up my finished clothes just in time to go to a friend’s birthday party. I don’t have pictures yet, but below are a few of the fabrics I picked up. The one on the left is now a nice, full-length skirt, and the other two are waiting for me to figure out what I want. I’ll post pictures once I figure it out.

A bit of Fabric shopping. The one on the left has been made into a skirt, but I'm still thinking about what to do with the other two...
A bit of Fabric shopping. The one on the left has been made into a skirt, but I’m still thinking about what to do with the other two…

In any case, after picking up my awesome new skirts and dress I went to a friend’s birthday party, since she’s also an early-December Sagittarius. Fun fact, people I’ve met here talk about astrology a lot. If I tell friends I was born in the year of the horse they know how old I am, and I’ve had my palm read by students at least twice. Fun stuff. Anyway, the birthday party! We went out for goat hot-pot, which I love, and once we got their my friend asked if I had ever tried hột vịt lộn, or fertilized duck egg. Now, before arriving in Vietnam, I thought this sounded like the most horrible thing ever. Having lived here for a while, I’ve had a bit of a change of heart, and decided I was willing to try the egg, provided it was dark, and I’d had a few drinks first. And maybe I’d start with the quail version, since it’s much smaller… In any event, I told her that I hadn’t tried it yet, and that it was still to bright out to change that at the moment. It turns out she wanted to add one to our hot pot, and that sitting on the tray of veggies waiting to be cooked were two, perfectly innocent-looking eggs. Peter and I were both convinced she was just teasing us, and that these were in fact just normal eggs. So, quite brazenly, I told her to go ahead and add them! It was her birthday after all, and I figured if it was the real deal than at least it’d be cooked when I ate it. I was soooo not prepared for what came next. She cracked the egg and poured it on into the pot, and I really haven’t seen anything quite as… well, gross. The egg oozed a black, mucus-y membrane, which was bad enough, and then, out plopped the tiny almost-duck. I don’t tend to be a squeamish eater, but that almost did me in. Even Peter, who had eaten hột vịt lộn before was a bit put off by the whole thing. But after a few minutes we had regained our composure and our appetities, and everyone dug in. I don’t think I ate any of the duck itself, but the hot pot was delicious, and I can now (sort of) say I’ve tried hột vịt lộn. Go me. After dinner we all went out for karaoke and dancing at a local club. It was an eventful, fun night.

Surprise cake from my students!
Surprise cake from my students!

The next day I had to give my university students their midterm exam, which they were of course thrilled about. But even so, after the test was finished they surprised me with a birthday cake and they all sang. I was really touched, it was so nice! They gave me a cake even when I gave them an exam, haha. It turns out that my students in almost all of my classes had found out from each other that it was my birthday, and for the next few days each class sang to me. It was so sweet, I really love my students…

My students are pretty great :)
My students are pretty great 🙂

And that was about it for my birthday. I went out to a rooftop bar for drinks with friends, but we kept the whole thing pretty laid-back, which pretty much falls in line with how I usually celebrate my birthday. I also went to Ho Chi Minh City for the weekend, but I’ll save that for another post.

Funny face photo!
Funny face photo!

So, here I am, a week into being 24, and I’m pretty happy about it. I’ve gotten a lot of love from friends, family, students and coworkers the past few weeks, and I’ve been constantly reminded of how happy I am to be here, living a life-long dream, learning every day, and generally just having a blast.

Thanksgiving/birthday surprise from my friend Sarah! You might remember her as my roommate from Nantucket, and you will notice that the package was a very cute nod to our summer there (nantucket cookies and a can of cranberry sauce)
Thanksgiving/birthday surprise from my friend Sarah! You might remember her as my roommate from Nantucket, and you will notice that the package was a very cute nod to our summer there (nantucket cookies and a can of cranberry sauce)

Thanks to everyone who sent me birthday/holiday well-wishes, and to everyone who has been following my adventures here through my blog. I’ve got a good bit of traveling coming up at the end of the month, so hopefully I’ll have some fun stories (and pictures) to share with you soon!

Another birthday surprise - my neighbor has started selling waffles right next door. This could be dangerous...
Another birthday surprise – my neighbor has started selling waffles right next door. This could be dangerous…

PS – I saw this bike one day parked outside of a restaurant. I still can’t ride, but if I could have this bike, I think I’d learn right away 🙂 IMG_2317