Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Thoughts on Leaving Japan

OK, so I actually left Japan about 3 weeks ago (has it been that long?), but I’m just now getting around to writing this post. I felt really sad about leaving Japan. I’m leaving behind some amazing people and I’m really going to miss them. I’ve made some great friends and I’m not sure if I’ll ever see any of them again. As I was walking through the airport thinking about it, I got a little misty eyed. I am ready to see my friends and family at home.  I missed the familiarity of America and being able to read whatever I want, but now l miss my Japanese friends.

I’m not really looking forward to returning to reality. In Japan, every night seemed like a wide open possibility. I could do anything and I had all kinds of crazy adventures. Just by being a foreigner I could talk to people and they would instantly be interested in talking to me. When I stayed home, it was by choice, to rest up. In America, it's practically impossible to do anything special five nights out of the week. On the weekends I can go out to the same places, but I rarely meet new people. In America, I'm just another while dude. I know that part of the fun in Japan was simply being in a new place. I had a lot of crazy San Francisco adventures when I was still new to the city, but Osaka is a whole different level. Not only is it a new city, but the culture difference is gigantic and the language barrier is huge. Talking with locals was an entirely new experience, but as a foreigner I also became a member of an exclusive club with people from countries from around the world. 

The fact that I wasn’t working obviously contributed a lot to my Japanese experience. I probably spent a good 4 hours a day attempting to learn Japanese, but it was more like a hobby than work and I had a lot of free time. Reality means interviewing for a new job. Engineering interviews are always challenging and I usually end up questioning my abilities. What do I really want to do? Am I really a qualified programmer? When I do get a new job it’s going to be challenging getting up to speed and learning the new environment. Japan was an escape from all of this, and frankly, it loved up to expectations. Oh, I am ready for a schedule again. I know it’s time to get a job and I actually miss the challenges associated with being an engineer, but it sure was nice getting away for a while. I liked hanging out with people who don’t know the difference between Javascript and Java. The tech scene permeates San Francisco so much that sometimes it drives me a little crazy.

In any case, things are changing as they always do and it’s on to the next thing. I’ve got to look forward instead of backward. After lugging my overstuffed bag through trains and subways, my roller handle broke off as I was about 20 ft away from the check-in counter. I guess it means I’m done.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Korea's got Seoul

On my exit from Japan I swung through South Korea for four days. I stayed at Sunshine Guesthouse near the center of Seoul. Seoul is massive. It's the second largest metro area in the world (behind Tokyo), so it has all of the things that come along with big cities. It's a little strange that half of South Korea's population lives in this one city.  I was immediately impressed with Seoul's subway system. It's quick, efficient, cheap, and super expansive. It's less than a dollar to ride anywhere in the city and it goes everywhere you need to go. Subway stations even have screens shielding people from trains. As I wandered around I was struck by how new everything is. It seems like everything has been built in the last 15 years. They have also done a lot of redevelopment where they basically mow down an entire area and start from scratch.

Jongmyo Shrine Entrance

Jongmyo Shrine (Korean Kings are enshrined here)

I like Korean food, but they eat some weird stuff. I ate some street food and I had no idea what I was getting. Some sort of fried organs, but it was good. I had a lot of really spicy stuff too and of course lots of kimchi. Weather wise, Seoul was cold! Living in SF for the past four years has built up my tolerance for year round cool weather, but I don't think I'm built to survive really cold temperatures.

Changdeokgung Palace

I noticed a few things that you would never see in Japan. Koreans don't cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. Also, there's street spitting. However, you still have to take off your shoes before entering a house. In general, there seemed to be more white people than in Osaka and I seemed to get less “looks” from people. One evening I met up with Hany and went to an area known as Itaewon. Itaewon is located near the US Army Garrison and has become a major foreign area of Seoul. When we were walking around it felt like I was in America. It was surprising to walk into a bar and sometimes see less Asians than a typical San Francisco bar.

Changdeokgung Palace

Changdeokgung Palace

After only a short time in Seoul I realized that I learned some Japanese after all. In Japan I felt comfortable interacting with people in daily activities like shopping and buying food. I could ask basic questions and understand basic answers. In Korea I don't know anything and it makes me uncomfortable. I tried to learn some basic words, but it seems extremely difficult. Maybe it's because of familiarity, but when I hear Japanese I hear distinct word boundaries. Korean sounds like a flowing stream of sounds, none of which make any sense to me.

Gyeongbokgung Palace Gate

Gyeongbokgung Palace Gate

I think I hit all the main tourist sights. I saw a bunch of different palaces. I overheard one of the tour guides saying that over half the visitors are Japanese and I wondered why all the placards were only in Korean and English. Then I started reading the placards to find that most of them reference how the Japanese kept burning down the palaces. Oh, that's why there's no Japanese subtitles.

I visited a couple of market places. Namdaemun Market was the most thriving packed market place I've ever seen. Stuff was just piled in the middle of the street. The market predates cars and is car inaccessible so shopkeepers have to hall everything in by hand or by scooter. It's basically a bunch of twisting alleys. There's multiple levels and you can even go underground. Namdaemun Market isn't for souvenirs, it's mainly retail goods. Just down the street is Myeong-dong which is entirely different. Myeong-dong is a trendy commercial shopping area lined with all kinds shops from around the world. Apparently in terms of floorspace rent, Myeong-dong is the most expensive place in the world.

Namdaemun Market

Hany and I visited Bukchon Village village which is a recently renovated area of traditional Korean housing. While strolling through we came across a couple film shoots. We got to see a couple of takes from a gang confrontation from a Thai movie.

Thai gang fight film shoot

Near Bukchon Village

Bukchon Village

It was a bit of a whirlwind trip, but I'm really glad I got to see a bit of Seoul. It was fun hanging out with Hany on her home turf.

Gyeongbokgung Palace garden

Seoul's Main Street with Gyeongbokgung Palace in the background

Toy Museum

Chongyecheon Riverwalk

Monday, December 12, 2011

Maple Leaf Time!

Japan has four distinct seasons.  In the winter it snows and it’s cold enough to need a scarf (This was the first time in my life I’ve ever worn a scarf).  In the spring there are beautiful cherry blossoms (sakura) that fall to the ground like snow.  In the summer it’s sweat drenchingly hot and humid.  In the fall trees light up with spectacular red maple leaves (momiji).  Japanese people tend to flip out a little bit about season changes.  You’ll see blossom and leaf forecasts on the nightly news.  I got to see sakura last time I was in Japan, but this time I was lucky enough to see the height of the fall foliage season.


Awesome Reflection

I actually went to two different “leaf viewing” locations.  First I went to an area called Arashiyama in west Kyoto.  I went on a national holiday(I believe it was day of the aged) so unlike many of my previous adventures, there were some large crowds.  The Arashiyama area is really nice.  There are a bunch of shrines scattered around picturesque ponds, streams, and bamboo forests.  As I was crossing one of the rivers I saw a bunch of people pointing at something in the water.  It turned out to be an over 5ft long giant salamander.  The leaves were pretty amazing.  I started taking pictures right away only to realize that I wasn’t even looking at very good examples.  I visited a couple of temples and saw this awesome cloud dragon painted on the ceiling of the Tenryuji temple.  The surrounding gardens were truly beautiful.  I loved how the leaves reflected in the ponds.  I spent several hours wandering around the hills and running into a bunch of shrines, but there are way too many to visit them all.  I paid $2 to get my fortune at one of the shrines, but unfortunately I can’t read it.  I got a Japanese person to translate and they told me it was a very good fortune, but I still don’t know the specifics.  Eventually I returned through a bunch of little souvenir shops and headed home.

The next week I visited Mino just north of Osaka.  Mino is right up against the hills.  There’s a paved trail that winds through a wooded valley following a little stream.  It eventually comes to an end at a big waterfall.  It feels surprisingly remote for a place that’s so close to Japanese urban sprawl.  I was excited because Mino is famous for having a bunch of wild Monkeys that tend to be fairly aggressive.  However, there didn’t seem to be any Monkeys around when I walked through.  Perhaps it wasn’t the right season.  Everyone I talked to was surprised that I actually wanted to see the Monkeys.  They seem to be a massive pain.  Along the route there are several merchants selling actual battered and fried maple leaves.  I bought a bag and they were actually pretty tasty.

 From the valley floor

 Don't feed the monkeys

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Brewery Tour Day

I thought it would be a great idea to spend one of my last Japan days going on a couple of brewery tours. It sounded like a great way to get some free alcohol and I was not disappointed. First I took the train to Suita, just north of Osaka, and took a short walk to the Asahi beer brewery. It’s actually the location of the original Asahi brewery built in 1891 and a few of the original buildings are still around. I guess you’re supposed to call ahead to reserve a spot so they were a little surprised to see me, but they were very accommodating. I was the only visitor who was not Japanese so consequently I was the only person in the English speaking tour group. My guide was very friendly and did a great job of showing me around. I have been to a few breweries before so seeing the inner workings were not super special, but watching the bottling process on such a massive scale is always interesting. They had a slick set up to show off the process for visitors. At the end of the tour you have 20 minutes to drink 3 beers. Yes, I drank all of them although I had to chug the last one. My guide stood by me, practicing her English, as I awkwardly drank alone in the tasting room. Luckily the Japanese tour group showed up 10 minutes later making it only slightly less awkward.
My Asahi Brewery Tour Guide

From there I took a couple trains to Kobe and on to the Hakutsuro Sake Brewery Museum. It took a while to actually find the place so there was a fair amount of street wandering involved. The museum sits in a large two story thatch roof factory. It used to actually produce sake, but as the factory was modernized the building was converted into a storeroom before finally becoming a museum. They had a large set up showing the various stages of sake brewing. Each exhibit had slightly creepy life size people statues performing various sake production tasks. The captions weren’t in English, but there was an English pamphlet that let me in on what was happening. The brewery was established in 1743 and had obviously been through a lot. One of the rooms had a bunch of old brewery artifacts which were pretty cool. At the end they gave me 2 shots of sake. The sake was actually really good and I thought about buying a bottle as a souvenir, but the prospect of lugging it back in my already overstuffed bag made me think twice.

So, interesting information, free alcohol, awkwardly drinking alone. Mission Accomplished.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Kumano Kodo: The Food

I was very surprised at the awesome food I was served at the Minshukus along the Kumano Kodo.  I was especially impressed with Minshuku Tsugizakura where I felt like I was eating from a 5 star restaurant.  I'm no food critic, but everything tasted excellent and the presentation was really beautiful.  Mr. Yuba was both an excellent chef and host.  Here's a bit of what I ate.

 This was starters.  Plum wine, sushi, mushrooms, coconut mochi, and some fruit.

 Lightly cooked shashimi.

 Various soups.

 Whole fish and some sort of zucchini like vegetable.  I ate the whole fish, bones organs and all, except for the head and tail.  It actually tasted sweet.

 Green Bean, shrimp, zucchini tempura

 Miso soup, rice, pickled vegetables

Desert was shaved ice with frozen fruit

Breakfast was lots of pickled things, more miso soup, and some eggs.

Dinner at Minshuku Yunotaniso was similar to the previous night's dinner just not as interesting and not quite as delicious.

The Kumano Kodo

As part of my Japan experience I wanted to do some sort of cool outdoor activity. My Rough Guide mentioned a series of trails called the Kumano Kudo which seemed like a perfect candidate. The Kumano Kodo is actually a set of ancient pilgrimage trails which recently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They wander down from Kyoto to a network in the Wakayama peninsula where they link several important shrines. About a month ago I started researching what it would take to put a hike together and slowly came up with a plan.

Damage from landslides

Last Tuesday I took a 2 hour train down the coast to Tanabe and then hiked for two 7 hour days deep into the mountains of Wakayama. I didn’t even bother trying to get people to come with me. I was kind of excited about doing this alone. I figured I would see people along the route, but after 14 hours of hiking I actually never ran into anyone on the trail. There are a few small villages on the route and I saw a couple people there, but otherwise I was alone. I was prepared for cold weather and the possibility of rain, but the weather was absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t have asked for better hiking days.

Endless Stairs

Along the trail there are several shrines and lots of little statues and monuments strewn about the woods. Sometimes there’s a placard telling you what they mean, but sometimes you’re just left to wonder. I was amazed that all these artifacts just lying around in the woods. The trails have a lot of fairy steep ups and downs. You pretty much go straight up the mountains and then straight down. I guess ancient Japanese pilgrims didn’t believe in switchbacks. There are a lot of seemingly endless staircases. The forest is dense in most places so I wasn’t always aware of my surroundings, but every now and then I’d hit a ridge or a clearing and I’d see just how lush and beautiful the surrounding mountains are. I passed a number of natural springs and some beautiful little streams. I didn’t see much wildlife, but I nearly stepped on a couple of snakes.

 Little Statue

 Shrine Ruins


Shrine to ???

The first night on the trail I stayed in a little Japanese Inn called Minshuku Tsugizakura that’s run by a former chef and his wife. I was really impressed at how friendly they were and the food was absolutely amazing (I’ll talk more about the food in a later post). I’ve stayed in a few of these traditional inns before(Ryokan and Minshuku) and it’s always an experience. They have straw tatami mats, sliding paper doors, Japanese style spas, and in the evening futons are rolled out for beds.

Minshuku Tsugizakura

 Room Decoration

 Actually 3 separate rooms separated by sliding doors

The next day I had to take a bus to bypass part of the trail that was damaged from Typhoon Talas. I saw several signs of damage mainly from massive landslides and a few washed out bridges. Toward the end of the second day I reached one of the major shrines, Kumano Hongu Taisha. I’m not sure what I was expecting after hiking for so long, but it was actually a little underwhelming. The main hall was under construction, but even if it had been open I’m not sure that there was all that much to see. I guess it’s one of those things where the journey really is more important than the destination. There is a massive Torii gate near the river. It’s the largest Torii that I’ve ever seen and it towers above the trees. I was really surprised at how few people I saw. I was the only customer at both of my Inns. I can only guess that it was a down season although I can’t see why since the weather was so perfect.

Giant Torii from far away 

Giant Torii, closer

Kumano Hongu Taisha entrance

 Kumano Hongu Taisha

After visiting Kumano Hongu Taisha I had to do a killer hike over a mountain to get to my final Inn. It was a really hellish trail that went straight up and then straight down. It was getting dark and I was pretty exhausted. After a long day, going down is almost as bad as going up. I finally reached a small mountain town called Yunomine Onsen. It’s a one street town sandwiched between two mountains. It’s hard to call it a town since it’s just literally two rows of houses lining a natural spring river. The whole town smells a little like sulphur due to the hot springs. There is a little wooden shack that sits in the middle of the stream called Tsuyobu. It’s the only spa on the World Heritage list in the world and pilgrims have used it for centuries. I tried to be one of those pilgrims, but the water was too damn hot. I stayed at another Japanese inn called Minshuku Yunotaniso and had another wonderful meal. The next day the staff dropped me off at the bus stop and I started my journey home.
 Yunomine Onsen

 Tsuyobu Spa

Bus Stop Home

I get a real rush from hiking alone like this. I know I’m not actually doing that much, but it feels like I’m making some sort of huge accomplishment. I was happy to see a whole new side of Japan. It was basically the exact opposite of Osaka.