Shop ’til You Drop in Nagoya: Sakae, Osu & Studio Ghibli

I am not normally a shopping oriented tourist, but it can be fun to shop in some of Japan’s more unique markets. You can find good bargains in the street markets and second hand shops, and you can explore unique parts of the town that are just gushing with Japanese charm. Every city has it’s shopping centers and for Nagoya that’s Sakae, Osu, and Nagoya Station, with a side of Oasis 21. I managed to hit up all four of these while I was in town. Plus, a visit to the unique Studio Ghibli theme store where all things Miyazaki reside.


Sakae

20180507_181345Sakae was my first non-airport sight in Nagoya where I disembarked the airport shuttle bus and met up with my friend. It’s a large and bustling neighborhood in Nagoya with lots of trendy shops and restaurants.  While waiting for our dinner restaurant to open, we decided to do a little shopping.

Department stores in Japan (and Korea for that matter) are really just large buildings where a bunch of shops get a few square meters. It’s a very open floor plan, so it can be hard to tell where one shop ends and another begins, but each shop has it’s own cashier as well, so while it may look like a Macy’s or Harrods, you can’t just wander around collecting things and take them to one register at the end. I don’t usually shop at the cutesy boutique places inside such department stores because their prices are INSANE. I can’t really wrap my head around 300$ blouses or 500$ shoes. At first, I got currency confused because Korean Won are (as a very loose rule of thumb) USD + three zeros. So 10USD is about 10,000 KRW. It’s not exact, but it helps us to think about what things cost. Many Korean places have simply stopped writing those three zeros on menus and advertisements, too. 14,500 won might be written as 14.5 on a menu.

Japanese yen are, by a similar rule of thumb, USD plus two zeros. So 10 USD is 1,000 yen. This cause my brain to do some flips since I’ve been thinking in Korean won for the last 2+ years. Seeing things that cost 30,000 yen, at first I was like, oh that’s not bad, about 30$. Until my brain caught up and went, no wait, that’s Japanese money, that’s 300$, not 30$. Eeek!

Instead, I prefer to shop the bargain racks. Daiso is a famous Japanese store full of cheap but relatively decent quality basic necessities and cute extras. In fact, you can outfit everything you need for a home from Daiso except the furniture without breaking the bank and most of it will last for years. Another great place is Book Off.

Photo credit: Bookoff.co.jp

You wouldn’t know from the name, but that’s a second hand clothing shop in Japan, like Goodwill or Value Village in the US. I was able to find my-size clothes at the one near my apartment back in 2015, so I was happy to waste a little time perusing the cheap rack with my friend while waiting for the restaurant to open. The front of the store is still a little pricey since it’s all brand names, but the farther back you go, the cheaper things get all the way to the 200 yen rack. I was able to get a nice summer blouse for 500 yen (5$) which will help me avoid dressing in unprofessional T-shirts at my new job as the weather warms up.

Bonus Street Performance

On most good weather weekends, there is at least one part of Sakae hosting outdoor performances. We passed one briefly on Saturday, and since we had some time to kill on Sunday, we made a small detour to see where all the beautiful costumes were coming from. Once we got through the crowd, we found a small stage set up under some elevated train tracks where groups were performing song and dance numbers dressed up as various anime shows. Sadly, we also got there in time for only the last two numbers, but it was still fun to watch. I love that people in Japan will just randomly have full costumed dance competitions on the sidewalk.

Osu Kannon

Osu is one of the many shopping districts that combines the feel of an outdoor market with a bustling mall. It’s technically blocks and blocks of shops, but many of the busy streets are covered with semi-permanent or even permanent covers to protect shoppers and strollers from sun and rain. It’s a great place to find more famous food shops, cheap souvenirs, discount shoes, and second hand yukata (summer weight kimono). It’s also home to a beautiful Buddhist temple known as Osu Kannon.

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I honestly do not know why so many shopping centers like this are close to famous Buddhist temples in Japan. I remember going to Asakusa in Tokyo, which is a stunning temple, and finding not only the corridors leading up to the temple covered in temporary carts and stalls selling to tourists, but a very similar covered multi-block shopping district. I don’t get the impression that it’s new, either. Cursory historical prodding indicates the shopping districts grew up side by side with the temples over decades, if not centuries.

I did a fairly quick walk through of the temple. It’s usually not permitted to take photos inside, so I refrained. It was small but glittery. Most of the walls are painted bright red, and every available surface is covered with an assortment of golden statues of various Buddhas and Bodhisattva. There is a small area where one can give donations in exchange for prayer papers or beads. The temple, like many, is actually dedicated to Guanyin (pronounced Kannon in Japanese). Originally, Guanyin was Avalokitesvara (a male) in India, but sometime in the move to China, she transitioned and is now the stand in for the goddess of mercy, compassion, and childbirth. I like her because she’s either Trans or NB and is one of the most popular subjects of reverence in Buddhism around the world.

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The temple at Osu isn’t that big, and the atmosphere of commerce nearby detracts a bit from the usual sense of serene calm I enjoy in temples, so after a few photos, we wandered out into the shopping streets.

Side note about Buddhism:
This religion is, like all religions, super complex with a long history and many cultural twists and turns. When I talk about it, I’m both generalizing and filtering it through my own lens. Not every Buddhist will agree. Typically, although the Sakyamuni Buddha was the one who discovered the four noble truths and the path to enlightenment, not many people actually turn to him directly. I personally think this is because the Buddha was way into self-responsibility and most people can’t really dig that, but the official story is that he’s basically gone because enlightenment.

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Instead, Buddhism has developed something of a saint class called “Bodhisattva”. These are beings who have attained enlightenment, but then decided to stick around and help others. Many of these slid conveniently into the role that local gods and goddesses had been filling culturally prior to the introduction of Buddhism. So, Guanyin didn’t so much come from Buddhism as put on a Buddhist dress when the times changed. There are actually plenty of stories of gods, goddesses, demons, spirits and the like who followed the teachings of Buddha. No shame in converting. Nonetheless, for those who feel like enlightenment is too far out of reach this lifetime, praying to Bodhisattva like Guanyin can provide some relief from the suffering of this world, and maybe a boost into better circumstances in the next life. Reincarnation, after all.

And Shinto Shrines:
A small Shinto shrine can almost always be found a stone’s throw away from any Buddhist temple in Japan. Shinto is the indigenous religion to Japan, while Buddhism was imported from China (who got it from India). The Japanese don’t see any particular need to separate their religions and the same individual may pray/make offerings at Shinto, Buddhist and Christian places of worship without any sense of conflict. It’s actually a very fascinating aspect of Japanese culture that they are able to be so syncretic without actually seeing themselves as “religious” at all. One of my professors in grad school taught a whole class about it.

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Osu is no exception. We ran into a little Shinto shrine moments after leaving Osu Kannon. I enjoyed the beautiful red toori gates, the paper lanterns, the stone fox spirits in their jaunty red kerchiefs, and of course the gardens. Shinto is strongly connected to the gods (kami) of the land, trees, rivers, and other aspects of nature, so the shrines tend to reflect that. To give you an idea of how many shrines can be found in a small area in Japan, I went back to Google maps later to get the name of the place we visited and I had to check the street view of no fewer than four before I finally found the one that matched my memory. It’s Fujisengen, by the way. It seems there are more than a thousand shrines across Japan with the same name, all dedicated to Princess Konohanasakuya, the kami of Mount Fuji, and possibly volcanoes in general. Now that I know that, I feel like it was much cooler to have visited a volcano goddess shrine…

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See the rest of my photos of the temple and shrine over on the Facebook Album.

Ok, Back to the Shopping:
Everyone complains about how expensive Japan is, and I know it certainly can be. I will never take a taxi there for anything other than a true emergency, but even taking public transit, it’s easy to spend 7-10$ a day. (good news is, if you know you have a lot of trips planned, you can get a day pass for about 7$, but still). We had visited Daiso and Book Off on Saturday, so on Sunday we hit up the other great dollar store (100 yen store), Siera. I thought Daiso was full of great bargains, but man this place was epic. I heavily considered getting some of my summer prep goodies there before I remembered that I have Daiso here in Korea. I did pick up a usb splitter because I had cleverly forgotten my second charger (one for the phone, one for the back up battery). That 1$ splitter worked a dream, by the way, so it’s not just cheap crap in the store either!

Photo credit: Japan-guide.com

If you’re looking for traditional Japanese styles and/or J-pop fashions you can find them both in Osu. I poked around a few shoe shops looking for summer sandals, and almost bought an insane pair of super cute Lolita platform shoes before remembering I will wear them exactly nowhere.  Finally, we popped into a Kimono shop to try on some things from the discount rack. A brand new high quality kimono or yukata can cost hundreds of dollars (or thousands). However, older models, used models, or items with small flaws in the cloth or stitching can sell for as little as five dollars. What! So, if you like kimono/yukata it’s worth it to peruse the discount rack at the shops here in Osu where you might find a real treasure!

Ghibli Store

One of my other goals for this trip was a stop off at the Studio Ghibli shop. It’s called “Donguri”. I’ve never seen a permanent one anywhere but Japan, but they do occasionally  pop up when Ghibli shows go on tour. I went several times when I lived in Yokohama in 2015 and bought much swag for my stateside friends.

20150823_171542The shops in Yokohama and Tokyo had a huge array of Ghibli goodies and I wanted to go back and see if I could get something unique for my niblings (gender neutral for the children of siblings, I did not make it up but I love this word). I’ve been sending them one Ghibli movie a year along with a few themed toys. Every other family member is drowning them in Disney, so I claimed Miyazaki. So far they’ve gotten Totoro, Kiki, and Ponyo (they are still quite young). My niece especially loves the lace bracelet I got at the shop, but mine is from Mononoke which they are not old enough for yet. I did manage to find a Totoro online, but it was twice as pricey as mine had been, so I figured I’d hit up the shop in Japan and have extra prezzies. Cool Auntie!

The Problem of the Train:
My friend recommended the one at Nagoya Station, which wasn’t so much bad advice as incomplete advice. With no data plan in Japan, I was reliant on WiFi for internet. Sipping my latte in Starbucks (free WiFi) outside Atsuta Jinju , I tried to plot my route through public transit to Nagoya station. It’s the main hub in Nagoya, so you’d think that would be easy. But it meant getting off the subways and onto the trains. I learned it in 2015 and then I forgot again because in Korea the trains are only between cities (going from Seoul to Busan) and the subways are all inside a single city, often even stretching to suburbs and neighboring smaller satellite cities. I was able to take the Busan subway all the way to Yangsan for dental appointments. It was the end of the line, but still.

In Japan, trains do run between cities, but they also run within cities. And they don’t work like subways. You can still use a general Japan transit card on any train, so visually it’s very similar to the subway system. Tap your card and walk through the turnstyle. The platforms also look like subway platforms, but unlike a subway where only one route will come and stop at your platform, train stations have LOTS of routes sharing a single platform. So not only do you have to find the right platform (which can be one of 20 or 30, I still have eye-twitches about the Yokohama station), but then you have to carefully observe the digital readout to see what train is coming at what time. Your train may be scheduled for 3:16, but some other train is going to pull up at 3:13 and you MUST NOT GET ON. It will take you to the wrong place.

Assuming that you have correctly found your platform and patiently waited for the correct train, you must now pay vigilant attention to the announcer (all Japanese) because while the subway cars all have maps with LED lights to show what stop you’re on, and digital readouts, and often announce stops in 3-4 languages, the trains are ooooooold and do none of this.

I made a horrible error in reading my directions and somehow got “ride 7 stops” when it actually said “ride 7 minutes”. I take full responsibility for this flub of my native language. Lucky for me, I figured out my error about 3 stops in and was able to get off and turn around. No trip to Japan would be complete without ending up on the wrong train platform in the middle of nowhere.

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Takashimaya

I finally made it to Nagoya station and went in search of the Takashimaya department store. It is a hike. The signs are not awesome. And the “department store” breaks the mold and spreads out over several buildings more like an American mall than a Japanese depato. I walked a lot, and asked directions more than once. Fortunately Donguri is a popular store, so people knew what I was talking about. Finally, drifting outdoors, looking at bus stops, taxi stands and the subway entrance I spotted the Disney store out of the corner of my eye. Only because my friend mentioned that the Ghibli store was across from the Disney store did I find it at all. That place is bonkers. I think it would have been a wonderful place to wander through shopping, but it’s kind of a nightmare if you’re just looking for one specific shop.

I was excited to find the shop and the giant Catbus out front. I’ve seen them at other places with signs that it’s only for children but this one was up for grabs so I headed on in. While I was admiring the interior, petting the fur, and generally being a silly fangirl, one of the other customers offered to take my picture. So now I have a pic of me riding Catbus. I look on this as a win.

There was also a rather large Totoro, only slightly smaller than “life size”. Loads of fun. Unfortunately when I got inside the actual shop I realized that a lot of the lower priced swag I’d picked up in Tokyo was remarkably absent. There was a section of children’s clothes, bathroom stuff, lunch boxes and other dishes, soaps and perfumes, posh grown up jewelry, school supplies, a billion stuffed toys and VERY EXPENSIVE display figurines. I was looking for things like kids jewelry (charms, fabric, rubber, etc), maybe a coloring book (there were “art” books… not for kids, just collections of Ghibli art), smaller toys, games or activities… ? It seemed like the only things for kids in the age range I was looking for was stuff like lunch boxes, chopstick kits and pencil cases. And most of it started at 20$ and went up from there.

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I was so confused because the shop in Tokyo had masses of stuff that was under 10$ which is why I was able to bring things back for so many people. Nothing in the shop that day was especially jumping up and down and saying “buy me” so I decided to have a quick look at the one other Donguri in town before giving up.

Oasis 21

20180507_181041The other shop is at a place called Oasis 21 which is ostensibly a bus station, but is really a shopping center. It’s much easier to find and less crowded than Takashimaya. It’s part of the lovely greenbelt in Sakae and it has a great view of the Nagoya TV tower which Nagoya loves to brag about like it’s the Tokyo Tower. It’s a little adorable. The Donguri in Oasis 21 isn’t as decked out in plush petable Totoro characters, however, so if riding the Catbus is on your bucket list, you better go to Nagoya Sta instead. I didn’t really have much time to see the other stores in Oasis 21, but it looked cute. It’s a big oval with an open center and covered shops on two stories around the outer rings.

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The selection at the shop wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t know if it’s just Nagoya or if the whole chain is going through a change in inventory. (Seriously, I went to 3 or different ones in 2015 and they all had a wider range of items and prices). In the end I settled on some water safe Ponyos and some mystery rock Totoro (the niblings have recently discovered the joys of rock collecting, it tracks). For myself, just some very practical binder clips in Totoro theme to liven up my work environment. I hope it’s better next time I’m in Japan.


I would never have expected to spend so much time in shopping districts, but it was fun. Even without a lot to spend, Japan has great dollar stores and second hand options and window shopping can be it’s own reward in a culture where there is so much chibi cuteness everywhere you turn. Happy to be back writing more about my travels, and counting the days until I hop a plane to the EU for the summer! I hope you’re enjoying Japan as much as I did. Stay tuned for more Nagoya soon, and as always, thanks for reading! ❤

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Letters From China (Winter 2007-8)

A decade later, I’m in Korea suffering below freezing temperatures and I *still* ended up with a rainy Christmas instead of a white one. Let’s go back in time and look at my first snow in China. Also that winter I discovered my favorite “traditional” cold remedy, went to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, found out I was allergic to tigers, and visited what later became my favorite temple in the world (so far). Hop in the Way Back Machine with me.


Dec 13, 2007 at 2:22pm

A couple of days ago on Monday we had our first snow. The internet’s been mostly out since then, so this is the first opportunity I’ve had to post the pics I took.

Starting out leaving my apartment going to class in the morning.

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It kept snowing all through class, and on my way home, I spotted some mischief makers throwing snowballs and took some more pictures of the snow covered trees.

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I thought the red berries were particularly striking, and the little winter sparrows were adorable.

On my way to class on Tuesday morning, I found some snowmen that had apparently been constructed the evening before, not all of them survived the students’ rambunctious winter games, but at least they look happy. (Don’t ask me why they have antlers, because I really have no idea)

Dec 21, 2007 at 11:34pm

I’ve had a cold for about a week now, which royally sucks cause its hung on through my birthday and finals week and so far three Christmas parties. Last night after a class party, I went by my regular restaurant to get some dinner. I’ve mentioned before that I go to this one place nearly every day, sometimes twice a day. The lady who works there (her name is Lian) is super nice and the food is pretty good and reasonably cheap (if a little oily). They’ve even got an English menu now, since a student translated it for us. I’ve been going there every day for 4 months, and we’re developing a friendship. We chat to the best of my limited Chinese ability whenever she’s not too busy.

I must’ve looked as bad as I felt, because she asked if i was sick, and I told her i had a head cold, but it would be ok because I had some medicine at home, which I do. She said that she never takes medicine for that, but eats oranges and drinks soup and 姜丝可乐.

Here I was sure my translation was way off, because I could swear she was talking to me about boiling coca cola. I looked at her like she was crazy (just about the same way she looked at me for drinking 7-Up when I had that stomach flu), but she kept insisting it was the best thing, and finally sensing I hadn’t fully grasped her meaning, she wrote it down for me.

I’m a curious person, and I look it up on the internet (here some credit to Adam, who was online chatting with me at the time and opened a page for me I couldn’t get to so I could discover the meaning) for jiang si ke le.

“Jiang si” is ginger, and “ke le” is cola (any of the dark cola drinks), and once I knew what I was looking for, I searched for it in English, and found several blogs mostly from other expats who had learned of it from theirChinese friends.

You take a can of Coke (opinions differ as to whether or not you can sub Pepsi or generic brand, but everyone insists you need the sugar and caffeine, so no diet!), and pour it in a saucepan to heat up.

You peel and mince/chop/grate a LOT of ginger, I couldn’t find a specific amount, but it seems the more the better and you’re aiming for at least one decent sized 2-3 inch piece, maybe more.

Then when the Coke is hot, you add the ginger and simmer for a few more minutes, pour it into your mug and enjoy! (being sure to eat at least some of the ginger pieces too)

Now, most people hear hot Coke and think of a can or bottle that’s been left in the car on a hot sunny day, but I can assure you it is nothing like that. In fact, its really nothing like Coke. But it IS tasty and it DID make me feel better for at close to 8 hrs (and even now as its wearing off, I still feel marginally better than this morning before I had it).

I went back to the restaurant this evening for dinner, and told Lian I had tried her suggestion and it really helped, and she informed me I needed to drink one cup of it every day till I was better, so I’m gonna keep going.

The only downside is that between the caffine and the ginger, your metabolism speeds up enough that you wouldn’t want to drink it before bedtime, however as a morning or afternoon pick-me-up when sick, I highly recommend it.

What’s more, its a pleasant hot drink, so even if you don’t have a cold, you can still give it a try (though I would suggest using less ginger for a non-medicinal version).

*2017 Note: I still love this remedy. The only reason I haven’t been using it this year is because Korea sells these jars of sliced ginger and lemon in honey and you just put a spoonful in hot water and bam, instant “tea”.

Jan 6, 2008 at 11:28am

I’m back from Xi’an. It was really cool, I’m really tired, I took almost a whole gig worth of photos and video, and I found out I’m allergic to tigers…

Xi’an City

These are from my trip to Xi’an in January. The first is a picture of the old city wall.

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The bell and drum towers are some of the oldest structures in the city, they date back to the Tang Dynasty, and hold HUGE instruments a bell and drum respectively, which were used in Buddhist rituals.

And because it is so far west, there is a large Muslim population in Xi’an, creating the city’s Muslim quarter.

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The city wall is the only complete city wall in China, though most cities still have remnants of their old protective barriers, Xi’an has reconstructed the entire wall. Of course the city is quite a bit bigger now, so its more like a wall around the city center, but its really amazing, and I’m kind of sad I only got night shots, because its hard to really grasp the size and scope of this wall that encircles a part of the city equivalent to downtown, cap hill and the u dist., maybe more. You can actually walk around the entire thing, and there are a limited number of gates which makes the flow of traffic in and out a little… interesting.

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Qinling Zoological Park

This was the zoo/park/safari/circus thing I went to in January in Xi’an.

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I had to ride the bus for over 2 hrs to get there, but it was pretty cool. I hope to be able to go back when the weather is nicer and things are greener. (an interesting side note, this trip was one of my biggest tests of comfort and Chinese ability, since the bus my map said to take wasn’t on the hotel’s map and I had to ask the hotel, a traffic cop, and two bus drivers all in Chinese to find where I was supposed to be, and it took three buses to get there)

We start off with the entrance walkway, which is probably way cooler in the summer, but there were lots of interesting carvings in the trees.

Next I got on a bus to drive thru the safari part. The first half was just farm animal type things, there should have been more interesting animals like giraffes and whatnot, but the weather was too cold. The second half is carnivores, and while I had read in reviews that they enticed them near the bus with meat treats, this was not true. The photos aren’t great because I had no zoom on my camera, but it really was a neat experience to have nothing between me and those carnivores but a bus window.

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Then we move on to the walking area, where you can walk around and see various animals in cages and on chains (unfortunately). Many were missing, the flamingos, the pandas, the warm weather creatures, so this part was a little disappointing, but still interesting.

And last but not least was the animal show. This was everything animal rights activists will not let circuses do anymore in America. Dancing bear and tiger’s jumping through hoops of fire, and at the end, I paid an extra 10kuai to have my picture taken with a tiger, which was by far the highlight of the trip. You simply can’t appreciate how much cat is there from a picture or even at a zoo. WOW.

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2017 Note: When I went back in 2017, the conditions for the animals were much better. The habitats were improved, there were still too many bare boring cages, but at least animals weren’t being staked out on the path with chains. I didn’t put those pictures here because I didn’t want to ambush anyone with animal cruelty photos. in addition, the circus show had shortened the tiger performance by more than half and replaced the fire with flowers, then added human acrobats to fill the time. And there was no tiger petting at the end. I’m still glad I had the opportunity to get up close to this incredible animal, but I’m very happy that China is improving conditions in it’s zoos. I hope it keeps going.

Tang Dynasty Dinner Theater

Another event from the trip to Xi’an. We went to the dinner theater, had a whole bunch of dumplings many of which were shaped like the food they were filled with, and enjoyed some beautiful dance and music.

 

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a 7 story pagoda that was built many centuries ago. There was a sect of Buddhists that had not yet gone vegetarian, and when they were travelling and hungry, a wild goose threw itself to the ground for them to eat, inspiring them, ironically, to embrace ahimsa (nonviolence) to the point of vegetarianism and to build a temple on the site.

We start as I get out of the taxi at the far end of the north square, which is huge.

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Then we have to walk around the pagoda, because the entrance is on the south side.

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Then travel into the pagoda all the way to the top, all 7 very narrow stories of it.

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Then to the grounds and structures behind the pagoda.

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Finally ending the day with the night-time fountain show.

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Hope you enjoyed!

Da Cien Temple

Here are the promised photos of the Da Cien temple. This is the temple that is on the grounds of the Wild Goose Pagoda, so you’ll see the pagoda too.

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The photos don’t really do the white marble justice. I’ve never felt like such a geek, but it really made me feel like I was standing in Gondor.

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There are some beautiful carvings not only in the marble, but also in sandalwood, other walls and even some that look like paintings but are actually made of carved pieces of semiprecious stones (the ones in the next batch of photos are about 5 feet tall)

Unfortunately, it was very dark in there, so the image quality isn’t great, but it was truly amazing in person. Based on our crafts system, I’d have put this room at over 6 successes, because when I walked in I just stood and stared for I don’t know how long until some other tourist walked in. It was really the kind of art you can believe is inspired by true faith!

(for those who don’t know much about Buddhism, the mural depicts the life and enlightenment of the Buddha Gautama, starting with his mother being chosen, going thru is childhood, youth, adventures, enlightenment and post-enlightenment works)

Enjoy!

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*2017 Note: the craft system referenced is a way of marking the quality of imaginary crafts in a game setting. 1-5 are considered human achievements, 5 being the best. 6-10 are considered supernaturally beautiful and affect viewers in deeper ways. By saying this art was a 6, I was describing it at having that kind of supernatural quality that affected me more than just a pretty picture.

Terracotta Warriors

2017 Note: There is no writing about the Terracotta Warriors. I didn’t get around to it before I left China, and by then I didn’t need to write it on the board, since all those stories were just a way of keeping my friends and family up to date. Thinking back on my visits in 2008 and 2012, it’s a deeply overpowering experience. Buses leave from the city center as soon as they fill up, and people call out in the parking lot advertising for the ride to the site. It’s a long drive through farm country, although I do recall passing by a replica of the sphinx and pyramid of Giza on the way. Oh, China.

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The dig sites are covered with structures like airline hangars, and even though you are indoors, the space is vast. Many statues are still where they were buried and tourists look down on pits full of excavated warriors. A few have been removed to be studied and displayed and we can see the broken pieces and the restoration in progress. You can walk around for hours before covering all the ground and no two statues have the same face. The amount of labor boggles the mind.

It’s one of those experiences where, at the time you feel like each new statue deserves it’s own photo, and you keep finding better and better angles to showcase them from, and then later on you have a thousand nearly identical pictures which simply do not capture the feeling. Because it isn’t just the artistry, craftsmanship, or even the size or number (although all those things contribute), it’s the knowledge that you are walking in the earth that these artifacts were buried in for 2000 years. Museums are wonderful, but there is something special about being at the dig site, and because of the sheer scale, and the ongoing unearthing, that’s what I got viewing the Terracotta Warriors.

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I went back to Xi’an in 2012 as part of a holiday. Some of those pictures were better, and may have been substituted for quality. And there are hundreds of photos, the best of which I’ve put, as always, over on Facebook: Campus Snow, Xi’an City, Tang Dinner Theater, Qinling Park, Wild Goose Pagoda & North Square, Da Cien Temple, and Terracotta Warriors.

As I’ve been processing all these photos over the New Year’s weekend, two things have become painfully obvious. 1) whatever I was taking pictures with in 2007 was terrible. 2) My writing style has changed drastically in the last decade. Nowadays, a weekend like the one I spent in Xi’an would have been 3-4 posts of 3000+ words each. It’s not just about the word count, though. It’s the choice to use words to tell a story that pictures may compliment as opposed to using pictures with a few words about them. The story about jiangsikele is closer to my current style of prose, but only because I had no pictures to lean on. I like looking back on my photo albums, but I think 10 years from now me is going to like reading what I’ve written about my adventures as the Gallivantrix. I wonder what will change about me by 2028.

I hope you enjoyed this throwback post, and as always, thanks for reading!

 

 

Letters From China (Playing Tourist 2007)

In October, I’d gotten into the swing of my teaching schedule, and the oppressive heat of the summer began fading into autumn coolness, affording me the chance to spend more time exploring Beijing and other nearby sights. I took some trips on my own, and others under the supervision of the school which made arrangements to take the English teachers to the Great Wall. In the original letters, I put thumbnail links of every photo, but in this re-posting, the majority of the pictures are in the Fabcebook albums. Enjoy!


Oct 4, 2007 at 8:04pm

Another round of pictures.

The first place we went was the Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing, and home of the world’s largest standing wooden Buddha statue. Last time I was here (2005), I was running low on memory space, so I only got about 6 pics, but yesterday I got tons, so hopefully you’ll enjoy.

First we have the main gate, the guardian lions and a couple of monks grabbing a snack.

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Next there is a secondary gate, a detailed map and history of the temple (you can actually read it if you zoom in), a nice bell, me next to another lion and one of the many buildings around, this one houses the statue that follows.

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And now we see the Turtle and carvings that are in building just above.

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Next is me with a prayer wheel, a kite trapped in a tree, a little girl throwing a coin for luck, a temple replica, and me with some more statuary.

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Some nice trees, roof spirits, and a giant lotus statue thingy.

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More lovely architecture, and in the last two you can see part of the city in the background. It amuses me to see the incongruity.

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This next line is one you need to read and look at to appreciate. These six statues are large, they go in order from smallest up, and each one is further into the temple complex. The first is about 5 or 6 feet high. You can see the roof in the next two, and its a vaulted ceiling, so these are 10-12 feet or so. The fourth is over 15 feet high, the fifth is at least 2 stories high, and the last, being the largest wooden buddha in the world stands about 4 stories high. There’s not much in each photo to present scale, the flowers and other decorations are to scale with the statues so they are ginourmous too.

And some parting shots on our way out.

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After a hour or so of wandering around the temple, we headed over to the lake district, flopped on the first soft seat I’ve been on since I got here at Club Obiwan and enjoyed some tasty fresh fruit smoothies. After the rest, we headed off for a walk around the lake, punctuated by the occasional pit stop for lunch and a happy hour mojito.

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On our way back to the bus station we spotted what we think was a gate house left over from when the old city wall was there.

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And after a long day in the city, we took a bus with standing room only back to our home in Yanjiao to be greeted by the evening piles of garbage left behind by passing citizens and collected by duly employed street sweepers.

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*(See the full day’s photos in the Facebook album)

Oct 15, 2007 at 10:20pm

The school took us on a little field trip to Huangyaguan, which is a section of the Great Wall near Tianjin. It was initially built in Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 C.E.) and later renovated and lengthened in Sui Dynasty (581-618 C.E.) and again during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644C.E.) The Great Wall is not actually one continous wall, its built in several sections, and over time those sections have been repaired or lost so its seriously broken up nowadays, this section is about 26 miles long here.

It is regarded as an ‘Impregnable Pass’ in Tianjin. This section is the longest restored section of the Great Wall with a length of about 3337 yards. The city at the base also contains some gardens and a museum which will be in the second post.

We went up the shorter of the two sides, and it was still quite a climb. You can see the other side in the background of many pictures, and I urge you to realize that it went all the way over the mountain and down the other side.

Anywho. We left at 9am, preparing for the 2 hr drive, and it turned out to be three, since we were stalled by a police blockade which was stopping overloaded trucks. The traffic backed up to the point that there were 5 lanes of driving on a two lane road. We passed thru many very rural spots which I almost regret not taking pictures of, but its a little scary.

When we arrived at the wall, we had lunch before beginning out climb, fairly plain local food, including what appeared to be a whole chicken chopped up in a bowl, anyway I found feet.

We started our climb in the rain, and the school cordinators rented umbrellas for us.

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The beginning of the climb was easy enough, mild stairs and long flats. A nice view of the gardens below, one of which you see here, other’s you’ll see in the second post. We made it to the first watchtower with little trouble.

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Leaving the watchtower, the climb started getting more steep. There was a pretty harsh incline and some pretty scary stairs. And of course, endless gift stands. Some of the views are looking forward, some are looking back to give perspective on how far we’ve come and how far we have still to go. I’m pretty sure you still can’t see our final destination in these pics.

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I continue to impress upon you the steepness of these stairs, we’re going up a mountain here, and the Chinese take a very direct route to the top of a mountain, straight up. In this series, we made it to the second tower, or really I should say I made it, as I was rather slower than the rest of the group and paused often to take pictures.

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On the way to the last tower of this section, the construction of the wall changes a bit, becoming much less even and alot more multicolored. The sun finally started coming out and I captured a fantastic example of a tourist leaving thier mark on the wall… I felt only slightly mollified that they were Spanish.

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There was more up, but it got considerably rockier and there were no more towers, so most of the group settled for stopping here. I went up a bit more for some more photo ops from the top.

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We then began our descent, and since the sun came out, I took a bunch more pictures, I tried not to include duplicates.

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I hope you enjoyed, and again, I encourage you to take the time to look at the full size pics by clicking on them, as there are sooo many lovely details that can’t be seen in the thumbnails.

Coming soon: Great Wall Part II, in which there will be pictures and descriptions of the unique gardens at the base.

(full album on Facebook)

Oct 16, 2007 at 2:47pm

Guancheng (Pass City) is the center of the Huangyaguan section. Guancheng was itself a perfect defensive project and it is also where Bagua Village (The Eight Diagrams Village) is situated. Bagua Village was built in the Ming Dynasty according to the Eight Diagrams created by Fuxi (an ancient tribal leader).

In the reparation during the 1980s, more tourist sites were built at the foot of the Huangyaguan Great Wall in Bagua Village, including Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum and the Stele Forest. Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum is the first Great Wall museum in China.

We went thru the maze at Bagua, the Museum, as well as the stele garden (yes that’s how its spelled), saw a lovely miniature wall garden and the longevity garden.

The first pictures are of the bagua maze, there’s a lovely yinyang on the floor at the center, and later on in the museum section, you can see a model of it as well.

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Next is the Stele Garden and the miniature Wall. I didn’t take pictures of the poetry on the walls, since none of you can read it, I figured we’d all rather see the wall.

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Next we have the museum itself, not terribly impressive, but i’ve noticed that Chinese museums tend to lack the flair we’re used to in the states. I mostly took landscape photos, since the displays were not to interesting, but I did take a couple of the model of the city so you can see the basic layout. And a neat door knocker.

32museum6.jpgLastly is the Longevity Garden, which you can see in the second layout model above. It has a nice waterfall, and a reflecting pool in the shape of what may appear to be a swastika, but it really a sacred symbol of Buddhism. And while I’ve seen this figure in a statue before, I’m still not sure who it is, other than it seems to be someone important in Buddhist history.

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Hope you enjoyed! I think my next major trip will be to the home village of one of my students this coming weekend, which should be a real adventure.

(full album on Facebook)


The Lama Temple was a revisit for me, but the Wall at Huangyaguan was a new experience. In both cases, the art, architecture and history of China were still new to me. This is not to say that I do not still enjoy them, but I find that once I’ve gotten past the big tourist bucket list, there is so much left to see. When I compare this to my trip in 2012, or even my explorations more recently, I can see the seeds of my tourism habit forming in this place: a blend of bucket list and local flavor. A good reminder as I head off to explore a new land for the Chuseok holiday this year.

Malay Peninsula 16: Surat Thani- Floating Market & Fireflies

Given the events leading up to my final day in Thailand, it could easily have been a wash, however, the small non-tourist town of Surat Thani still had some surprises up it’s sleeve, and I managed to end this holiday on a beautiful high note. It’s my goal to publish all the stories from one holiday before I take another, and I’m barely achieving that by finishing off this post with three days to spare before I hop on a plane to visit the US for the first time in 18 months. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the journey as much as I enjoyed writing about it.


Adventure Hangover

Although the Wangtai had transport out to Khao Sok, I couldn’t bear the idea of waking again in only 6 hours and vowed to sleep until about an hour before breakfast ended, then eat and sleep some more. It was sad to give up on my elephant excursion, but when I woke up the next morning I realized how important that decision really was. I felt weak, as though I had just come through a severe illness or fever. My limbs shook as I walked and even as I held my phone. I had no strength and no speed, but found my way down to the breakfast buffet where I positively stuffed my face after days of light or missed meals.

Mentally, I felt clearer for the sleep and food and I began to realize based on the way my body felt that I had pushed myself a good deal farther than I had known. It was likely not any one thing, but a combination of poor sleep, poor diet, excessive heat, lack of water, physical exertion and the coral injury (which can be known to cause fatigue and other symptoms). I had hoped that I could make it just one more day, just one more activity and then sleep on the plane and of course back in my flat in Korea, but my body was just finished. If I’d tried to force myself to rise early and head to the elephant, I would likely not have had a pleasant day, but only another day of crammed vans, heat, dirt, hunger and dehydration, worried about what standing around in muddy water with an elephant was going to do to the probably already infected open wound on my foot.

Instead, I slept some more, watched some movies, ate lunch, admired the view of the river, took a nap, and read up more on Thai culture.

Spirit Houses

20170125_150240Since arriving in Thailand via Koh Lipe I had seen these tiny ornate houses on posts everywhere. I saw them on the remote islands around Lipe, near the caves of Bor Tor, in the cities, at gas stations, and in the front yard of homes we passed on the road. Some were simple, others like miniature mansions. Some had tiny model occupants while others were uninhabited. Nearly all of them had offerings of food, sweets, alcohol, or incense.

The houses are a throwback to Thai folk beliefs in spirits of nature and the land. The tiny houses are built to be homes for these spirits. They may be built near special trees, bodies of water, mountains or natural formations to house the spirits of the land. And they may be built by homes to attract spirits who will inhabit the house and aid the family in exchange for lodgings and gifts.

I have seen similar spirit houses in Japan, but at the time I completely failed to make the connection because the architecture is so different.

Night Market

The clerk who had checked me in the night before had mentioned the floating market was within walking distance, and I had also read online that one of the few cool things worth doing in Surat Thani was the firefly boat ride. Around 5pm, I set out on the short walk down to the river where the maps indicated I would find the market and the boat rides.

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The river front park is small, however there is a large island in the middle of the river called Ko Lamphu that does not allow cars past the carpark near the bridge. Under better circumstances, I would have loved to explore it, but I was still a bit woozy wobbly and didn’t want to push myself into illness or another breakdown, so I stayed on the near bank and enjoyed the small corniche.

I read some articles about the floating market that seemed to indicate it was only open on Sundays. Surat Thani is not a tourism hub, so there is a limited amount of information, but what I can gather is that there is a night market more often than a “floating market”. The floating part is supposed to be where some pontoons are set up on the quay side and vendors sell wares on these ersatz rafts. When I went, nothing was on the water, but there were plenty of stalls selling all kinds of tasty treats and some live music at the far end. If you’re in Surat Thani and Google says the floating market is closed, ask a local about it because there’s nice stuff in Si Tapi Park.

Street Food

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I first browsed the whole selection of stalls, checking out the food on offer. I passed a woman making fresh juice (very common in Thailand), and at first thought she was using limes because the peels were so green, but the juice was a bright almost neon orange! I don’t mean like a little tinge of green that you get on your organic oranges, seriously lime green. It turns out that this is what oranges look like in Thailand and Vietnam. And a glass of that fresh squeezed neon was a delicious treat. I passed some foods I was familiar with and others I was not. I was briefly tempted by a stall selling horseshoe crabs, but in the end I chickened out and got a serving of pad thai served up fresh on a banana leaf.

There were carpeted areas with low tables where people could doff their shoes and sit down on a clean patch of ground to eat. To westerners it’s a picnic style, but sitting on the floor is common all over Asia. I had a great view of the river and the large island park. And although the sunset was a little obscured, it was still a beautiful night.

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OK That’s Creepy

One especially strange thing that happened while I was wandering around: there was a PA system that had been piping out a low volume background music. This is not too weird because it’s nice for public gardens or parks to have a little ambient music and I hadn’t been paying too much attention to what was playing because it was in Thai and low key. Then suddenly as I was walking back toward the food stalls from the far end of the park, I noticed that everyone around me was standing up and not moving. Up until now, the park had been a bustling active place with people strolling along, taking selfies with the statues, kids running around and everyone munching on snacks. Now, it was like some kind of internal evil robot switch was activated and the whole human population stopped and stood straight, staring ahead, gazes fixed but not on anything. I drifted to a halt as I realized I was the only one moving, not wanting to cause offense but also deeply creeped out.

When the song came to an end, everyone began going about their business once again, resuming their casual chats and picnic dinners. I realize of course that robot overlords is not the real story, but it was very eerie. I’d been in Thailand for a few days and hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Language Barrier

I spend most of my time living, working and traveling in countries where English is not the native language. I’m used to working through a language barrier, but Thailand was the most challenging linguistic obstacle I have ever faced. (That includes Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, French, German, and Czech). The rest of the Malay Peninsula had been far easier for me to manage. In Singapore, everyone speaks English (national education tests are administered in English). In Malaysia, most people spoke English or Chinese (which I’m not fluent in, but can get around). Nearly everyone there is bi- or tri-lingual, speaking their native Malay and at least one of the other two. Plus, even though I can’t speak Malay, it’s written using the Roman alphabet (the one we use in English), so I could sound things out, and got good at recognizing the words for “bathroom” and “coffee” (priorities). However, Thai is written in it’s own special alphabet. It’s beautiful. It’s arcing graceful curves and swirls. But it has 6 different letters for the sound //, and I can’t read it.

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I imagined as I wandered around the less touristy parts of Thailand that this must be how my friends felt exploring China with me, or how the teachers here in Korea who can’t read Hangul must feel every day. It also makes me appreciate how much of a difference having even a tiny understanding of the language can make.

Firefly Boat

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As the sun went down, the sign I’d been looking for appeared. Near a tiny dock, a young lady set up a folding table and a cute sign advertising for the firefly boat tours. If you have read my blog up till now you will know that I am a sucker for glowing lifeforms, so the idea of taking a nice riverboat trip and watching the fireflies was enticing, especially at the bargain price of 50 Baht (less than 2$ US). The boats don’t leave on a schedule, they leave when they have enough people, so I did my best to express my desire to go to the ticket seller, and then pulled up a nearby bench to wait.

After a number of people wandered over to look at the sign and wandered away, a group in matching t-shirts expressed some interest and stood off to one side while a single member of the group approached the ticket seller. This looked hopeful to me, because they were obviously a group, and after some back and forth, they decided to go, at which point the ticket seller gestured to me and made sure that I could take my trip with them. One of the group, the designated talker, happened to speak excellent English, so we were able to chat along the way. She told me she was from Surat Thani, but now lived in Phuket and had come back to see her family (the other members of the group).

As the longtail boat pulled away from the dock, we sped down the river passing the buildings of the city and toward a forested area of the delta. Looking at a map of Surat Thani, you can see that the city is built along the main part of the Ta Pi river. Just east of the dock, there is a little fork in the river and while the main branch continues along the urban areas, the side branch goes off into a green and verdant delta.

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Local Knowledge

Along the way, as I was chatting with the English speaking girl who asked me to call her Monica, I ventured to explore the bizzare robot occurance I’d seen earlier in the evening. Trying my best to be tactful and circumspect, I described what I had seen without the cyberman elements, and she told me that it had been the national anthem playing. Is that something that happens often or is today some kind of holiday? (It was Lunar New Year, but I understand that’s not often celebrated in Thailand outside of Chinatowns). She told me that it happens every day, twice at day at 8am and 6pm.

I thought about the ostentatious displays of portraits of the recently deceased king that I had seen around town. In Koh Lipe and Krabi, I had seen these only in government buildings, like the immigration office and police stations. But in Surat Thani, they were everywhere. And more than just paintings, they were like shrines with ornate decoration, bunting, flowers and other accouterments of borderline worship. Even taking into account that the mourning period for his death will extend until October of 2017, there was a marked difference in the way that residents of Surat Thani were carrying out that mourning from how the more tourist oriented towns I had seen before were.

The King and I?

photo credit: BlossomFlowerGirl

Thailand was a military dictatorship with a figurehead monarch, but the late king was instrumental in moving the country into a constitutional monarchy (some say democracy, but … king, so I disagree). It’s been shaky, but he was enormously popular, and has apparently left in his wake a movement of “ultra-royalists” and there is some concern that populist nationalism / military dictatorship will return (which is funny cause you’d think the ultra-royalists would respect the king’s wishes to create a constitutionally run society, but hey). This political struggle will never be in the western news because Thailand is poor and can’t really impact life and economics in the West. *sigh.

My best guess is that tourist towns tone it down to protect the revenue stream, and that there is almost surely a regional difference in how much the population supports royalism or democracy. Surat Thani is clearly royalist. It probably also explains why in place of a Gideon Bible, my hotel had this book of Buddhist teachings in the night stand.

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Magic on the River

Once we turned away from the main river course, it didn’t take long for the lights of the city to fade behind us and for me to start feeling like I’d stepped into a ride at Disneyland. The river was wide and slow running. The night air was a perfect temperature that could not have been achieved better with climate control. We passed by some houses on stilts that was surely the Surat Thani version of the suburbs, but they were so picturesque with bright lanterns hanging from the porches and architectural flourishes on the rooftops, they looked like life-sized versions of the spirit houses. Don’t get me wrong, reality is often an amazing place and I will take the real thing to a theme park replica any day, but this boat ride was so perfect that it seemed like there must be a secret team of imaginieers behind the scenes making it work.

As we approached the first firefly spot, the guide slowed the boat down and directed our attention to a shadow just ahead. I did not know what to expect. I had read blogs that touted the tour as amazing, and seen about a hundred descriptions of the experience as being “like Christmas lights”. As a child, in Maryland, the fireflies came out on summer nights and let us chase them around the yard, and put them in jars for an hour or so before going on their merry way. My childhood may have been excessively Norman Rockwell from time to time. Nevertheless, my image of fireflies is a couple dozen in a field or meadow flying around and looking for a mate. I imagined something similar, but on the banks of the river amid the dark sillhouettes of the brush and trees. Nope.

I don’t know if it happens elsewhere, or to what degree, but in Surat Thani, the river fireflies occupy trees.

As we drew closer to the shadow our guide was pointing to, the shape of the tree became more distinct and just after, the glow from hundreds of fireflies reached my eyes. Although every bush and tree around it was dark, this one tree was home to a firefly colony of massive proportions. I didn’t even know fireflies lived in colonies. But I now know that the berembang (also known as the mangrove apple, or crabapple mangrove) is a big hit with the firefly population. Because the delta near Surat Thani is abundant in these trees, they get more than their fair share of firefly light shows.

There is no hope of a photo or a video. The light emitted by these little bugs is just too faint. But to the naked eye, far from the city lights, the twinkling of hundreds of little bodies against the lacy black outline of the tree is a sublime experience. I could understand why so many people described the flashing as Christmas lights, becuase in addition to their huge numbers and single tree occupation, the fireflies blinked in unison. Ok, not every single one, but I’d say 65-75% of a tree would blink on and off together in perfect synchonicity. I was able to find a few more examples of species that do that, but not a single explaination for the behavior. I had always been taught that the light show was a mating display, and it seems counterintuitive to blend in with the crowd when trying to get a potential mate to notice you. Whatever their evolutionary imperitive, the synchronized twinkling was amazing to watch.

And it was not just one tree. Our boat was out for around an hour, and close to 40 minutes of that was spent in the dark mangroves drifting along from apple to apple, each tree laden with it’s own colony and sparkling like a glitter bomb under a disco ball. We passed tree after tree of glowing glimmering lights, up one side of the river banks and back down the other and I will never get tired of looking at that. No one goes to Surat Thani except to go somewhere else, and I very much understand why, because the town is not a tourist easy place, but if you find yourself there, take a night out to do this tour.

Let the Good Things Happen

Despite the fact that the night before I had been at the lowest imaginable point in this trip, the fact is, I had a lovely and unique experience on Saturday. I rested, gave myself permission to “miss out” on the elephant, and found a small local activity that was suited to my tastes and my energy level. Bad things happen on holidays. People get sick or injured or run into culture shock mood swings, but it’s important not to let it ruin everything. I’ll say it over and over, the key to maximizing a good vacation is to do something great at the beginning and the end, and I’m glad that my final memory of Thailand was something so beautiful.

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And so ends my final day of this all too brief foray into the three countries of the Malay Peninsula. Will I go back? Well, it’s hard to resist the siren call of Koh Lipe, and I still have some ethically treated elephants to visit, so I’m sure I’ll go back one day. On top of that, I think Singapore will make a great destination to bring my niblings to get them adjusted to traveling abroad. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out the Instagram and Facebook for daily slices of the life of a Gallivantrix. ❤

Queer Up! Pride 2017

This week more than usual it is apparent to me how much I am not like journalists. I came back from Seoul feeling happy but tired and spent Sunday resting and doing laundry so I could go back to work Monday morning. I watched article after article come out online about the event while my own writing languished in rough draft state and my photos sat unedited. I sometimes wish I could be more timely, but then I remind myself that this is my hobby. No one pays me, and no one sets the deadlines but me. So, here it is, a week later: Queer Pride in Korea. Don’t forget to check out the full photo album on Facebook!


Late For a Very Important Date

20170715_134128I wasn’t sure I was going to make it this year. Some people weren’t sure there was even going to be a Pride this year. Of course, every single year since the first festival/march in Seoul in 2000 the conservative religious zealots have tried to stop the Korean Queen Culture Festival (KQCF aka Pride) from happening. They try to file legal objections. They try to file use of space applications for the same day. They throw temper tantrums and accuse foreigners of bringing homosexuality and AIDS into Korea (because there would of course never be any gay Koreans if we hadn’t infected them!). This year, the issue was with the grass.

During the impeachment of former president Park, a small but dedicated group of her supporters camped out illegally on the lawn at Seoul Plaza to protest the totally unanimous vote to oust her from office. They were mostly old people, so the government didn’t want to force them out. There is a serious cultural value of respecting the elderly here and no one in power wanted the optics of police forcing old folks to move along. Although they did eventually leave after 4 months, they ruined the grass on the plaza and it had to be replanted and allowed to grow before another group could use the area.

Thus KQCF was turned down for the usual June date. The community waited anxiously to see if a new date could be agreed upon or if the grass was going to be the final straw. So to speak. As you can guess by the existence of this post, they did secure July 15th as this years festival date, and I marked my calendar with mixed feelings.

Examine Your Feelings

Part of my feelings were of course excitement; however, I could not help but remember the rise and crash emotions of my first Seoul Pride last year when I woke up the next day to the news of the Pulse shooting in Florida. Additionally, the two people I had most looked forward to attending with left Korea in March. And finally, I was worried that the postponement and battle would dampen participation (boy, was I wrong about that one). Finally, I found a friend to invite who had never been to a Pride in any country, and her excitement reinvigorated me.

Demarcation

20170715_152825We woke up in our slightly fancy downtown hotel, lounged around, had a leisurely breakfast and finally headed over to the plaza a little after the 11am start time. We passed rows and rows of police buses parked along the side streets. Last year, I came up from the subway and the first sight that greeted me was a veritable army of uniformed officers lining the street and crosswalk. This year, we walked in from another direction and saw a little of the behind the scenes police preparation as well as walking through some of the protesters who were stationed next to the festival exit and a subway station. I knew what to expect going in from last year, but my friend said that walking past all the police and protesters made her feel anxious about the day. The reported police presence was about 6,000 officers.

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Booths For Everyone!

Once inside the temporary walls, we hit up the press booth first. Even though I don’t work for a press outlet, the sensitive nature of the KQCF means that everyone who wants to publish pictures has to register with the press booth and sign an agreement about respecting the sexual minorities present. Especially not taking pictures without permission and about not showing any faces that might out someone who isn’t ready. You might think that being at Pride is already outing, but many people here can’t come out to family or employers without being disowned and unemployed, so coming to Pride is one of the few times they can really be themselves without having to worry about the anti-queer culture ruining their lives. Many people even wore masks (fun and fancy masks, but still) to protect themselves while marching.

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The booths, much like last year, were marvelous. There is almost no corporate sponsorship for KQCF. Most of the booths were run by charities or other small organizations with some funding from small local businesses. The only big companies I saw there were Google and LUSH. There were several embassies representing their countries as well. Although last year the US had great representation, I wasn’t able to find them on “embassy row” this time around. I read another article that said they were there, but I visited every booth and never saw them. (I did see Australia, The Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, Germany, U.K., and “the Nordic countries” 4 together as a group).

The Issues

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In the absence of corporate sponsorship, each booth was run by a small organization raising money for LGBTQIA awareness and rights in Korea. And that umbrella was generously huge. In addition to lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual I also found a wealth of other issues: AIDS/HIV health, at risk youth, abortion rights, toxic masculinity, gender discrimination in the workplace, sexual awareness/pleasure/safety, children’s sex education, parents of sexual minority children, feminism, gender non-conformity, and even armpit hair. (this group of ladies spent the day holding up their posters to show their unshaven underarms, and when they prompted me to show my armpit too, they seemed a little sad it was bare. However, I apologized in Korean and they quickly burst into smiles and told me it was ok)

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This sign held by a smiling grey haired older man (who I cropped out to protect his identity) is calling for parents meetings for parents of sexual minority youth. Another sign holding group had one in Korean I was struggling to read, when a young man came to my rescue with an English translation. They told me to imagine that the sign was “mansplaining” and hit it with their huge toy hammer. I made such a face posing for their photos I think I scared the guy holding the sign! Later on I tried to read the poster and got the gist it was about workplace discrimination as well.

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Another woman had made a cut out sign simulating a newspaper headline, but since she didn’t speak English we had to wait until later on to find out what it said. Unsurprisingly, it was an issue we could get behind, that of improving sex education in school and to stop treating children so differently based on gender roles.

Literal Translation:

  • Education Hope (news.eduhope.net)
  • juvenile sex minority exclusion
  • “school sex education” finally discarded!
  • binary gender: students are not divided into boys and girls

The organization is a teachers group committed to a wide array of educational issue in Korea. The complaint is about sexual and gender minorities being excluded in school education programs. The headline calling for the elimination of school sex education does not mean they don’t want any, it’s a reference to the government policy that excludes education on sexual minorities and has been criticized by the UN and Human Right’s Watch. The issue of students being divided is that in Korean schools, kids are divided by gender for everything, which could be very painful for trans or genderqueer students, as well as reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes for cisgendered kids.

Come to Jesus

20170715_133630(1)The protesters outside are entirely Christian, but there are plenty of Korean Christian churches that came inside too, eager to point out their own perspective on the Bible and love (hint: it’s about inclusion, acceptance, and more love!). One group had even made a pamphlet that deconstructed the most common biblical arguments against homosexuality and explained the verses in historical context. But mostly they just wanted to show that the church can be accepting too. There was more than one Jesus costume at the event as well, and while the one making the rounds in the media seems to be a white guy (*sigh), I found this Korean one first. His sign is surprisingly excellent when you look closely at the comparison of Christianity hope.ver and armageddon.ver.

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Whypipo

Speaking of white people at Seoul Pride. I noticed that looking over the media in the days afterward, there are way more pics of white people than Koreans. Don’t be fooled into thinking this means there were more white people actually there. It’s just that foreigners tend to be more open about being in the Queer Community and are far less likely to lose friends, family or jobs for appearing in a news article supporting gay rights in Korea. Plus, they (we?) are way more exhibitionist and while there were plenty of Koreans in costumes, a larger percentage of the white people were dressed up in visually interesting (read photographer’s dream) clothing. These things combined mean that more pictures of white people get published. I probably had more foreigners in my photo roll last year than Koreans, and this year I tried to focus more on the Korean attendees and promoters. After all, this is their fight and I’m just an ally and supporter since I don’t get to vote here.

Buddhist Queer Dogma and the Dancing Monk

20170715_134723There was also spiritual representation from the Buddhists! I accepted a pamphlet from one nun, which after some time spent translating seems to give the following basic message: while Buddhism condemns sex in general as being one of the things that ties you to the material world (monks and nuns are supposed to refrain entirely, but lay people are expected to do it in moderation, like alcohol consumption or meat eating) that there is no specific teaching about who you have have sex with or what type of sex you have (they listed 3 choices: vaginal, anal, and oral). The takeaway for me was that Buddhists should not condemn queer sex because of it’s queerness. One should regard all types of sex equally (while still bearing in mind things like adultery and unchecked lust are bad for everyone, too). If you’re going to accept that regular folks get into loving relationships and have sex while straight, you have to accept the same for all other flavors too. This was the first year a representation from any Buddhist temple came to the festival. It was glorious.

One the one hand, it was heartwarming to see monks and nuns there smiling, dancing and sharing love, but one monk in particular completely stole the show. Dressed in gauzy flowing ivory robes, he danced ecstatically while the rock music was blasting from the stage during Kucia Diamant’s performance. Kucia is possibly the most famous Drag performer in Korea (Hurricane Kimchi gets love too but the art styles are very different). I’ve seen Kucia twice in Korea and enjoyed her shows, but I don’t mind at all that I missed her performance for this wonderful dancing Buddhist gay monk. Sometime during the second song, he was joined by a member of the press. The interloper tried to bow out after his aide had taken some video, but the monk wouldn’t let him leave and they danced wildly in a circle of cheering admirers.

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More On Stage

20170715_141013Later on, we spotted Wonder Woman and a jedi (maybe young Aniken?) facing off on the stage, but I only made it close enough for a couple pictures at the end. I’m still not sure what they were doing, because that’s a serious genre clash. Once I was up near the stage, surrounded by people with much nicer cameras than mine, I got lumped in with the more official press (since our press badges weren’t different) and was ushered right up to the edge of a small clearing where I got a front row seat to watch the LGBTQIA traditional Korean drum performance. This is the classic drum and cymbal parade that accompanies every event and festival in Korea and it’s great to see the traditional cultural arts merging into the new cultural milieu.

Get Your March On

Shortly after the performance ended, we took a break to get some lunch, missing out on the worst of the rain that the day had. Mostly, it had been cloudy with some occasional showers that caused every Korean to pop an umbrella at the first drop. More than once I was afraid of loosing an eye to an umbrella spike as the press of bodies and umbrellas became impassable. I often didn’t need to open my own umbrella since I could shelter under those around me! The lunchtime rains were a serious downpour and when we returned to the plaza, the grass that the festival had been postponed to regrow was a big muddy squish.

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We herded over to the far side where the march would soon begin. Like all events in Korea, nothing starts quite on time and we waited for a while watching the decorated trucks over the fence and speculating on how many people would try to squeeze past us while there was still nowhere to go. Between us and the main stage was a field of flags, ready to take to the streets. Outside the begining of the parade route was lined with protestors, signs in Korean and English to tell us off.

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Nonetheless, the rain seemed to have worn itself out and we marched the 4km around downtown Seoul in rainless if humid conditions. It was the first time I actually needed the little rechargeable hand fan I bought for the summer. I took lots of pictures of people at the parade. Korean drag queens, camping and vamping every time a lens was pointed at them. Floats from various organizations. Random sights around Seoul, and one really adorable international couple (US/Korean) with the sign “Seoul mate” because they met in Seoul.

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Military Entrapment

It was hot hot hot and I was starting to lose my drive toward the last km. We were walking slower than the procession as a whole and were gradually passed by more floats and people, but that was ok because it just meant I got to see more. At the finish, we found ourselves directly behind a truck displaying against the military ban. Military participation is not optional for young men in Korea, and yet it is illegal to be gay while in the military. A high ranking military officer started a sting operation recently to entrap soldiers with Grindr (popular gay dating app) and several were arrested. I am personally outraged by this situation because there is literally no way for the men to avoid breaking the law. Of course I want it to be ok to be openly gay, but I was a fairly socially aware teen when “don’t ask don’t tell” passed in the US and although eventually we found that to be not enough, it was a huge step at the time… and the US doesn’t have mandatory military service. So, I’m not expecting Korea to do it all in one giant leap, but the current situation boils my blood.

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Unlike the other floats we’d marched behind that were dancing and cheering, the young people on this float were wearing uniforms and speaking passionately about the political injustice. It looked like something out of a revolutionary film plot. Every so often the speaker would pause in his oration and do a call and response with the crowd where we would repeat his last word three times while hammering the air with our fists. It was very powerful and a strong reminder that Korea hasn’t reached a point where Pride can truly be a celebration, but instead must continue to be a protest.

Wrap Up

With the plaza in sight, we pulled off to one side and took shelter from the sweltering heat in the cool air conditioning of a Starbucks. Not usually my place of choice, but I promised a friend I’d pick her up a Starbucks mug in Seoul and it seemed like this would make a fun story.

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Last year the KQCF had 50,000 attendees and beat all previous records. This year there were an estimated 85,000. I read elsewhere that the Korean police estimated the attendance to only be 9,000 and had to go searching for an explanation of this discrepancy.  

“Police count heads at the festival by calculating the size of the land used and a density of eight people per 3.3 square-meters (35.5 square-feet). Organizers do the same, but also acknowledge the population density could rise up to 20 people per 3.3 square-meter space during peak hours.” (source)

I don’t know what event police were attending, but there were WAY more than 8 people per 3.3 m². That place was so packed at times we could hardly move. I didn’t need to open my umbrella because I was protected by the umbrellas of those around me. On the other hand, I saw a photo of the same location during a Psy concert with 80,000 attending and it looked more packed than the plaza felt. It’s hard to take an accurate head count when there are no tickets, no registration, people coming and going throughout the day, a 4km long march, and a strong political adgenda.

Regardless, it was obvious to me that the event was much more crowded than last year, even with the delays and heavy rains. Every year the attendance grows, the media coverage grows and the protesters voices are heard less. The new president, although a moderate, was cornered into denouncing homosexuality during the debates and no one knows if he’ll feel more pressured by the conservative voices or by keeping Korea’s international good standing. Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage and now we all wait to see if Korea will become a leader in human rights, or fall behind.

This year’s slogan?

There is no later. We demand change now.

Malay Peninsula 13: Thailand – transportation, pharmaceuticals, and towelephants, oh my!

From Koh Lipe, my last few days of vacation were to be held back on the mainland, in that narrow part of Thaliand that extends down onto the Malay Peninsula. This post is about the smaller adventures and major learning opportunities I had spending the better part of an entire day getting from Koh Lipe to Krabi.


My final morning on Koh Lipe, I needed to be at the beach to catch the ferry back to the mainland by 10am. I was awake much earlier than that and hoped to use my extra morning hours to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the beach. I had read the ferry confirmation email several times, but made a critical error in judgement. The first instruction was the location of the office and the check in time. I did the unforgivable sin of making an assumption that I would need to check in at the office. I headed out on foot, one sandal awkwardly secured so as to minimize contact with the reddening skin around the coral scrape, toward Sunrise beach, the third major beach on Koh Lipe and the only one I hadn’t yet seen. Great! I could see another beach and have breakfast with a new view and still have plenty of time to board the ferry.

My walk from the campsite to Sunrise beach took me past a wooded temple compound. I didn’t have time to go in and explore, sadly, but I did see even more of the tiny houses on posts along with offerings of food, sweets, and liquor bottles. I still know next to nothing about Thai Buddhism. I never saw anything like this in temples of China, Japan, Korea and Singapore, so they really caught my eye.

Sunrise Beach & The Fine Print

Sunrise beach is beautiful, especially as it’s name implies, in the morning. It was larger than Sunset beach but less crowded than Pataya. There were several much nicer looking bungalows than mine in grassy glades along the beach and I resolved then and there that the next time I came to Koh Lipe, I would absolutely put up the extra money and stay here. I got very near the location of the office as shown on the map and sat down at a restaurant to order breakfast.

I double checked the itinerary one more time because I am paranoid like that and suddenly realized, like Wile E Coyote reading the fine print  my eyes glued to the phrases “Please check in on board…the Tigerline Ferry is parking at the Pataya Bay”. 

On the other side of the island!


Seriously look at this thing. The instructions are massively confusing. The ALL CAPS sentence is about the office on Sunrise Beach. Specific directions are given to the office. Pataya beach is huge and there’s no office or meeting point mentioned, just “check in on the ferry”, which you have to take a longtail boat to get to. I’m not saying I didn’t make a user error here, but wow. 

This shows the basic route from my camping zone, over to Wapi Resort (closest landmark to the defunct ferry office) and back to Pattaya. lipe walking

Unexpected Pancake 
I canceled my breakfast order and set off again for the far side of the island. I did find the office, by the way. It was empty and looked like it had been abandoned for some time. On my quick shuffle back to Pattaya beach, I turned back into the main street of the island and paused for a much quicker breakfast of the famous Thai pancake. This is not a pancake like we have in the West, not even like a crepe. It came first from the roti style bread of India and was later adapted to Thai tastes and then back to western. I had a banana nutella pancake (and another Thai iced coffee, because yum). The dough was a both chewy and flaky with warm soft banana filling and a generous smear of nutella on top. Even though I’d entirely messed up my morning plans, it wasn’t too shabby to visit a beautiful beach and have one of the most famous foods on the island, after all.

Farewell Koh Lipe

When I got to Pattaya, I began looking around the immigration building to see if I could find any sign of which boat to get on. Fortunately, there was a young man at a folding table who was checking in travelers for the outgoing ferries. The sign and company name were not at all my company, but he was the only one in sight and I figured he’d at least know where I was supposed to go. Proving the adage, “always ask”, it turned out that he was the guy I was supposed to check in with! Despite the total lack of signs. I got my sticker, identifying me as allowed to board the boat and was told which longtail to take to the ferry.

Unlike the ferry we arrived on, which docked with a floating pontoon pier thing, the boat taking us north was just hanging out in the water and we had to do a direct boat to boat transfer. Koh Lipe is not for folks who are afraid of boats. The seating was much less formal than the ferry from Langkawi, and I was able to head up to the main deck. Many passengers headed outside to soak up more sun (the crispy and the melanin blessed), but I had not slathered myself in sunscreen that morning, so I opted to stay in the shade (and air conditioning) and enjoy the view from the window. Even though the bench I sat on was plain wood (breaking in some parts), it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. I think I slept through most of the voyage and woke up later on in time to get some beautiful views of the towering limestone cliff islands off the coast.

The Bus That Wasn’t

We pulled into a tiny dock called Hat Yao Pier near Trang where we were bustled off the boat and into a nice shady little convenience store where I was able to find a restroom and a snack while waiting for the next leg of my journey, the overland ride to Krabi.

Side note about transportation in Thailand: It is terrible. Unless you have booked with a lux upscale tour company on one of the main tourism routes with the big limousine buses, prepare for cramped misery. Tigerline ferries, with whom I booked my transportation, advertised a bus ride to Krabi. As a native English speaker, I have some preconceived notions about the word ‘bus’. I expect you do too. If you need help, I suggest doing a google image search and looking at the things we think of as ‘buses’. In Thailand, I believe that ‘bus’ simply means anything bigger than a car, or possibly anything that holds more than 4 people. This 17 seat minivan (18 if you count the driver) was common, although none were as clean or new as the advert here. Note the impressive absence of leg room.

One of the main reasons I like to understand my transport options is because I have shredded knees. Other people might have long legs, or bad backs or a thousand other reasons to have strong preferences in transport. Mine comes from the issue that if I sit with my knees bent for too long (more than 45 minutes), it starts to feel like someone has inserted red-hot steel rods into them. I can usually avoid this by simply straitening the leg for a moment to stretch it out. I can do this on airplanes, boats, buses, cars, so it’s hardly ever an issue unless someone takes away ALL thee leg room (cause I’m short and don’t need much). Which is exactly what happened in Trang. The “bus” that arrived for us was a little silver minivan with seats so close together that leg room was imaginary. I finally had to resort to simply standing up and hunching my back regardless of how awkward it was with the other passengers. Unfortunately, I know of no way to discern the type of vehicle in advance in Thailand which could make future journeys problematic.

Towlephants

The good news is that the Tigerline company had agreed to drop me off directly at my hotel in Krabi (the Lada Krabi Residence, highly recommend), so I didn’t have to try and arrange yet more rides. This hotel pick up and drop off is crucial to any experience in Thailand unless you’re in walking distance of your hotel or are driving yourself. I cannot stress enough how hard transportation in Thailand is compared to nearly everywhere else I’ve been. It’s not just me, all my friends in Korea who traveled around Thailand this winter had similar experiences with the exception of those who stayed in a major city, or booked an all inclusive tour.

When I got to my room, I nearly cried with joy. It was so nice and clean and big. The very helpful staff got me checked in quick and the room not only had plenty of space (soooo much space) and places to hang my wet clothes, and a separator between the shower and toilet to keep the toilet seat dry, and a mini-fridge with complimentary bottles of water, and a kettle with complimentary coffee/tea, there were even towelephants on the bed! (Towelephant™: a towel folded in the shape of an elephant. Credit: Diana). I was so dirty/sweaty/sandy/gross. Days of being cramped, damp, uncomfortable and unclean had been worth it for the amazing experiences, but I think the only other time I was so glad to see a “regular” hotel room was after a two week backpack around China.


Finding Birth Control Abroad

I had a very important goal to fulfill in Thailand, and Krabi seemed like my best chance: Depo. Yes, the shot. It’s my lifeline to sanity because it’s the only thing I can take that totally eliminates all the horrible pain of “that time of the month”. I do not disparage the women who are in tune with their cycles and flow, but as a child reading fantasy novels, I always wondered how the characters managed without once dealing with a pad or tampon the whole time they were saving the world, let alone crippling pain from cramps. So, yes, when I found a medicine that brought on that relief, I clung to it.

Up until now, I have always brought my supply from the US, and returned to the US within a year (the amount the will sell you if you prove you’re moving abroad). But I had already been in Korea a year and wasn’t planning to go back to the US soon. I was all out. I knew birth control was available in Korea, so hadn’t given it much thought until I took my last dose and was looking for a new doctor, and no one had it. However wonderful Korean medicine and even culture is in many ways, I stumbled headfirst into the backward treatment of women’s reproductive health.

In Korea, women do not go to regular check ups. My co-teacher, who I asked about finding a good doctor, said she didn’t know because she’d never been. She is married with a son, by the way. The stigma of going to a gynecologist is that a woman must be “loose” or worse, have an STD already. Birth control is not taken on a regular basis, but instead is used to stave off a period if the woman has a vacation or important event coming up. Which sort of explains why tampons aren’t popular here, since women can just take a few pills to schedule their period for a more convenient time. On the one hand, the government passed a labor law mandating that women be granted one (unpaid) day of leave per month for menstruation (not kidding). On the other hand, women never take it because they fear the perception and shame surrounding it. Depo is legal here and I’ve heard of people getting it, but given the huge number of hospitals and clinics, as well as the language barrier, the task of trying to find one that would have my medication was quite daunting.

Pharmacies Without Prescriptions?

Turning to my trusted friend, Google, I found that Thailand (of all places) sells my drug of choice over the counter! For a few dollars. And yes, I have heard every argument about buying off market drugs in countries without enough regulations, but what are you supposed to do when the country you live in doesn’t have the drug? Also, as an expat, I’ve been to doctors and pharmacies around the world because that’s where I was when I needed the medicine. Egypt, Saudi, and France were all places I had to visit pharmacists. I take other medicines here in Korea that, when I look them up, are not on the US market by the same name or even manufactured by the same company. Were I to take a job in Thailand, as people in my career do from time to time, that is the medicine I would take. Maybe the drugs are actually less well regulated or maybe the US pays too much for pharmaceuticals. Not sayin’, just sayin’.

So, I discovered that there was a pharmacy within a couple blocks of my hotel and set out on foot. Depo Pravera goes by the alter-ego name Depo Gestin in Thailand. It took a little bit of translation and pictures from the internet, but once the pharmacist realized what I wanted, they had no problem selling me a whole year’s worth along with the needles to inject myself (which I was taught to do by my doctor in the US, don’t freak out). The vials are now in my fridge at home and I suspect I’ll be taking a pilgrimage to Thailand next year even if it’s just a weekend to Bangkok because it will cost me less to fly there and buy the medicine than the medicine cost me to buy when living in the US (sans Obamacare).

The Night Market

Following a truly epic shower full of hot water, soap, and scrubbing to erase the days of sweat, sand, sun and sea from my skin and hair, I headed out to find food. The night market was just around the corner from my hotel. I got some more phad thai in a tiny stall with plastic seats and a kind older couple managing the ersatz kitchen serving fresh shrimp and other types of Thai soul food to locals and tourists alike. I took a to go plate of sticky rice and mango for later, and found even more Thai pancakes that were completely different from what I’d had on the island. These were similar to crepes, but smaller and thicker. Each little silver dollar round was dabbed with a filling, and then rolled into a tube. I got egg custard and taro flavors. They were delicious.


Looking back on this holiday, I can only surmise that I was both insane and overly ambitious. This day was day 10 of the vacation, country 3 and city 6. With 2 more days and one more city ahead of me, I had already seen enough for at least 3 vacations, and I’d spent an amazing amount of energy running around in the tropical heat, and I’d managed to get a foot injury (though, no food poisoning so that’s good). One of these days I’ll listen to my own advice and slow down. Until then, enjoy the view 🙂

The Flying Lanterns of Daegu

This week was a non-stop trip planning extravaganza! Not just two regular weekends out of town (Daegu flying lanterns and Jindo Sea Parting), but also the long holiday in the first week of May (do I go to a Korean island getaway, or do a Temple stay for the Buddha’s birthday?), and bonus round I’m trying to plan for the 10 day Chuseok holiday in October NOW because all of Korea will be flying somewhere and I need to buy tix fast. PLUS I’m trying to get the summer camps blocked out not only so I know what to teach, but also so I can try to get back to America. That’s right kids, summer in America. And somehow it all has to be planned RIGHT NOW! So, while I try to get my ducks in a linear arrangement, enjoy the magic of sky lanterns.


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Samgwangsa April 2016

Last year during the lantern crazy that surrounds the Buddha’s birthday, I visited Samgwangsa, a temple near my home in Busan. It was magical, my gbff and I twirled around like school children singing the Tangled song and generally being giddy idiots. Then after all the festivities were over, I saw some photos online of an actual flying lantern festival (a la Rapunzel), but it was too late to go! I vowed to find the festival again were I to stay another year in Korea. I began to search for it in January this year, but my hunt seemed in vain since there were no websites or festival updates. Even reaching out to Koreans I knew who lived in Daegu (the home of this flying fantasy) turned up a big bubkus.

W4jaUO

Then, during the week while I was poking around online once more looking for ideas on how to spend my upcoming holiday, I spotted an article about the festival. Worried that I’d once more missed it, I clicked on the link and scanned eagerly for the dates. Luck and fortune were on my side and I found out the date of the festival less than 5 days before it was set to take place. Even better luck, the trains between Busan and Daegu run late into the night, so I would be able to do it as a day trip!

This also led to my first attempt to buy train tickets online, which was not as hard as I was led to believe. letskorail.com is a multi-language website that allows us poor waygookin to book tickets in advance, avoiding the long queues and potential sold out trains. You just need your passport number and credit card info (plus ARC if your card is Korean issued).

Arriving in Daegu

20170422_181014.jpgThe festivities were set to start around 6pm, so we left in the afternoon and had a lazy, but comfortable ride into Daegu where we had to relearn bus navigation. One wrong bus and two right ones later, we got off in the general vicinity of Duryu Park. The weather was fine and we dawdled our way over to the greens, stopping to snap photos and buy iced coffees. In addition to being a huge green space, and housing the baseball stadium the festival would be hosted in, Duryu Park is home to E-World, which is a sort of amusement park and gardens. Not to mention the 83 Tower, replete with gondola rides. There may be another trip to Daegu in my future.

By the time we got inside the park, we were ready to start looking for the parade. We eventually found it on a side road, holding perfectly still. I can only assume the info I’d read online was inaccurate in timing, but it was a great opportunity to get up close to the floats for pictures.

The festival limits lantern participation to 1,000 people who sign up in advance. I’m not sure there’s any way a foreigner could get in on this, since the limited number of English language websites were all mum about the festival until it was too late to sign up for that part. The tickets to sit inside the stadium are sold on a first come first serve basis, starting at 1pm that day. Not having any information to go on about the views, I figured we were safe, since flying lanterns could be seen from just about anywhere. In retrospect, I would recommend trying for stadium tickets. They are wristbands, so once you get your spot, you can still go out and check out E-World and the rest of the park while waiting. Plus, although the website I read said that everyone should be in the stadium by 5pm, there were people coming in and out of the gates much later than that. However, even if you can’t get in the stadium proper, it’s still worth going, because I watched from outside and don’t regret a minute of it.

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We meandered around the stadium toward higher ground in hopes of finding a spot with a decent view. Us and a few thousand Koreans who also couldn’t get into the stadium. We settled on a ridge overlooking a gap in the stadium seating and surrounding trees that gave us as good a view as we were going to get from outside. There was only one row of people in front of us and we jealously stood our ground over the next hour as the concert below began, and ajuma and ajoshi tried to elbow their way to the front.

Side note:

17888705_10208562203273054_1559197028_nFor those who don’t know, these words used to be terms of respect for middle aged women and men, but have come to be less flattering terms used to describe a particularly rude class/age group of Koreans. Ajuma (women) tend to shove… a lot, and cut in line. Ajoshi (men) will join in on the shoving if their wives are around, but are perceived as perverts who peer into ladies bathrooms otherwise. I know that at least some of the younger Koreans use the words this way, and definitely all the expats I’ve met do. There is a culture of respect for age, so actually old frail people are often given seats and ushered to the front for views (and are usually super sweet about it, every one I’ve given a seat to has said thank you and offered to hold my bag in her lap), but these ajuma are just bitter middle agers who don’t want to stand in line like everyone else. Think of them like the entitled soccer moms of Korea. And yeah, they pretty much all look like that picture, too.

20170422_195103.jpgLanterns Aloft

A few people jumped the gun and released lanterns a little early, causing all of us in the crowd to whip out our phones in anticipation. It was a long wait, standing in the crowd, but as the sky darkened and the sea of people inside the stadium became a sea of multi-colored light, I knew I’d made the right decision to come.

20170422_195432At long last, the moment we had waited for, the lanterns were released in earnest. They did not rise swiftly like balloons, but in a slow and drifting manner as the tiny flames inside each one warmed the air contained by the colorful paper dome. 1,000 globes of light ascended into the blue and black night sky, and I knew no matter how hard I tried, my camera could never capture that moment. It was what we were all here for. People from many cities and even many countries, gathered in the soft night air to witness the magic of fire in the night, lanterns becoming stars, and wishes rising to the heavens.

But Wait, There’s More…

20170422_195403Shortly after the main release was over, people around us began filtering back out of the park. They had seen what they’d come for and were eager to move on to the next attraction or to beat the traffic. This meant that we suddenly found ourselves at the fence with an unobstructed view of the field below, and enough elbow room to turn around and attempt selfies (which were less impressive due to the low light).

Suddenly the shrill whistle of a fireworks mortar pierced the air and brilliant red sparkles showered down. The lantern release was followed by a fireworks show, much to the delight of everyone in the park. Bursts of red, green and white, arcs and sparkles, plus a plethora of ooohs and aaaahs from the crowds took our mood from wistful to joyous before sending us off into the night.

20170423_010828.jpgFinally the last twinkling lights above became no bigger than pinpricks of stars and we joined the crowd shuffling out of the park. We had 3 hours left before our return train and sat down for a moment to check the internet for a restaurant serving anything Daegu local. While we were seated, a family carrying armloads of paper lotus lanterns came by, and the young boy gave us each one, nervously testing out his English with as few words as possible.

Parade After Dark

20170422_204729With our gifts in tow, we set off toward our restaurant of choice, but quickly became sidetracked by the parade. The floats we’d seen before were now all lit up, but the parade itself was stopped again. We dodged in and out, taking more pictures and pausing to watch a monk’s drum performance. Back in front of E-World once more, we spotted a street vendor selling flying lanterns as fast as he could light them up, and we were able to get a closer look at the lights that had filled the sky less than an hour before.

Adventures in Dinner

We were so enchanted by the parade of lantern floats and other decorations that we lost track of time and direction. We had to give up on the local specialty restaurant in favor of one that happened to be right there. While perusing the menu, the woman in charge pointed at a particular dish and recommended it in Korean. I’m sure she said something eloquent about the flavor or ingredients, but my Korean isn’t that great. My sense of food adventure is, though, and I happily agreed to her suggestion. 20170422_212942Moments later, I had a humongous bowl of seafood and spicy broth in front of me. Mussels, clams, shrimp, crab and octopus crowded the bowl and heaped up atop a generous portion of noodles. (octopus is not something I order knowingly, but I didn’t want to waste it’s life once it was on the table) The broth was rich and spicy, causing me to reach for the ice water more than once and leaving my lips pleasantly tingly by the end of the meal. I think 2 hungry people would have had trouble eating the whole thing, and my day companion was not a seafood fan, so it was all me.

Wrap up

Tired, but full and happy, we made our way to the subway network and finally the train station. While we were standing on the platform, we were spotted by some more EPIK teachers from Busan across the tracks and conducted a conversation by shouting across from our platform to theirs. I only realized later how strange this must have seemed to the Koreans watching us who are always quiet and reserved (at least outside of bars and clubs). I’ve gotten used to holding my conversations on trains and buses at a whisper so as not to disturb the silence, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that the outdoor platform might have the same etiquette. We also got solicited by a private English school manager, which just goes to show how many jobs there are out there if you’re willing to go the hagwon route.

We drowsed and scrolled through our photos of the day on the slow train ride back. In some ways it seemed ludicrous that we had spent 3 hours on trains and another 2.5 hours in buses and subways, plus stood in the crowd waiting for over an hour all just to see 15 minutes of flying lanterns. Of course we saw more than just the flying lanterns. We saw the parade and a new city, tasted new food, and met many friendly people along the way. Travel is so much more than the destination, so while the brief and fleeting moment of magical sky lanterns was the cause and certainly the highlight of the trip, I consider the day time well spent and would highly recommend this or any similar festival if you ever get the chance.

EDIT (5/1/17): Expat community is such a tiny random world. Remember that pic I used to talk about the ajuma? Funny story – the friend I went to Daegu with sent me that pic a few weeks earlier after a conversation in which we’d been sharing “worst ajuma” stories (the one that shoved you out of the way so she could stand one person closer to the subway door you are already walking out of, the one who plowed into you despite the fact that there was plenty of room on either side, or the one who shoved you while you were dripping wet from the rainstorm, then got mad you made her wet, too). I liked the pic so much, I decided to use it as my example here, relying on the artist’s signature to credit the art. Less than a week later, I found myself on a trip where I met some of this year’s crop of EPIK teachers, and as I’m exchanging FB and Instagram contact info, one of them turns out to be this very artist, @shmamee. She asks how I got introduced to her art and I explain about D. It then turns out D, as a second year EPIK, is the assigned EPIK mentor of @shmaymee, but also had no idea the art she shared was from her own mentee! The internet does a great job anonymizing us, turning each work of art or each written story into some distant and impersonal thing. However, the person who introduced me to @shmaymee was none other than Annemone, a blogger who found my page when she was planning her own move to Busan. I don’t make any money off of my content (photos or writing), in fact, I pay an annual fee for the privilege of putting it online. This got me thinking how important it is that hobby content creators support each other, and that everyone supports artist/content creators who do this for a living (ie pay them)


The party don’t stop in Korean springtime! Next weekend I’m heading off to Jindo to watch the once annual parting of the sea and walk to the island of Mordor (no really). After that, who knows? Hopefully something fun and interesting with beautiful photos to share. Wish me luck, and light a lantern for the Buddha this May 3 (lunar birthday). Thanks for reading!

Malay Peninsula 7: Ipoh- Temple Caves

Spring marches on, and Korea is filling up with colorful lanterns to celebrate the Buddah’s birthday. While I work on assembling my lantern festival stories, what better time to take a look at the temples of Ipoh? Despite the fact that Ipoh is not a tourist hotspot, there are certainly some stunning things to see. Just remember to take plenty of water!


Ipoh Caves

The Reggae House was a typical late night backpacker’s party hostel and so everyone was still asleep when I got up in the early morning to start exploring. After figuring out the padlock and iron door trick to lock up behind me, I set off in search of breakfast to discover that Ipoh is a very sleepy town. Only a couple places were open at 9am on a Saturday and these were offering a traditional Malay dish called “mee” (which just means “noodles”).20170121_091629 I managed to order something by playing a sort of 20 questions with the waitstaff, and enjoyed my noodles and mystery meat in a not yet too hot outdoor dining area with views of the neighborhood. There were a startling number of funeral homes nearby and plenty of evidence of the British colonial architecture, although much of it was in disrepair.

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Kek Lok Tong
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After breakfast, I caught another Uber to the Kek Lok Tong Cave Temple. Ipoh is probably most famous for it’s caves, and there are many of them around the city, and by around I don’t mean inside, I mean in a ring out and around. Unfortunately, the public transportation in Ipoh is somewhat lacking and it would have taken over 2 hours to get to my target by bus, but less than 20 minutes by car. Online advice suggested that I should negotiate with a taxi driver for a day rate, and I’ve done this before when I wanted to travel to remote places and be assured of a ride back, but I looked at the costs other travelers were paying for half and full day taxi hires and decided that I’d take my chances with ride-sharing.

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The temple is the star of Ipoh tourism and it’s not hard to see why it’s on the top of everyone’s list. Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur is a Hindu temple, but this is Buddhist. There were extra decorations in preparation for the Lunar New Year and a very short stairwell up to the main entrance. There is no admission fee for the temple. The limestone cave is open at either end, making it a lovely wind tunnel and a cool place to get away from the heat. It was still early enough in the day that I wasn’t uncomfortable yet. The wide cavern is completely day-lit, but does have a few artificial lights to show off exceptional formations. There are stairs to help access different levels, and the main areas of worship house large golden statues on plinths with the natural art of the cave as a backdrop. It was breathtaking.

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The back opening leads down to a lake and garden that is nearly completely enclosed by sheer towering limestone cliffs dripping with lush greenery. Although there was a quarry in the distance, it was far enough away not to disturb the tranquility of the garden. I was surprised to see it so empty on a Saturday morning, but I have no doubt that on the weekend of the New Year it was packed to the gills. I took my time walking around the garden in the relatively cool morning air. I enjoyed the sweeping grandeur of the cliffs, the bright tropical flowers, the miniature landscape art, and even the company of a few geese. In those hours I spent between the cave and the gardens it seemed like all the dirt and grime and inconvenience of Malaysia faded away, focusing my attention on only the calm beauty around me. 20170121_111231

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On my way out, I climbed up a few more staircases to get a closer look at the cave formations. Much like Batu caves, the limestone was in familiar shapes, but so much larger in scale than I was used to. I had no trouble getting another Uber to come out for me, and while I was waiting, I took a tour around a little turtle pond on one side of the parking lot. Most of the turtles were quite shy, plopping into the water to escape as soon as I got within a couple meters, but one large guy was holding his ground and I managed to get a few cute pictures.

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Sam Poh Tong20170121_122213

The next cave temple I wanted to visit wasn’t very far away and turned out to actually have 3 temples all along a single short road, so while the other two weren’t on my list it seemed a waste not to at least peak at them while I was there.

20170121_122942Sam Poh Tong is also a Buddhist temple and is said to be one of the busiest and most popular in Ipoh. I could tell it was an active temple from the freshly lit incense, but little else gave evidence that it was maintained or cared for. Even so close to such a large holiday, the grounds looked unkempt and abandoned. The huge numbers of underfed and skittish stray dogs was off-putting, but they were not aggressive. The garden in the front was a small lake with tiny “islands” that became miniature mountains holding tiny temples. As I walked around one side of the temple compound, I came upon a building that seemed long empty, covered in dust and bereft of occupation, yet there was incense burning at the dusty altars, observed it seemed only by me and some monkeys on the fence nearby.

I went back to the main gate and into the cave itself. The differences were striking. Where Kek Lok Tong had been left mostly natural and had only a few additions of statues and stairs, Sam Poh Tong looked almost like a building inside the cave.

20170121_124426The walls were painted and florescent lights were on the ceiling, while piles of furniture and other stored items crowded the rooms. The floors were finished and there were windows and doors installed into the stone. It felt less like a cave and more like a basement.

O20170121_125808n the other side of the cave was a small enclosed garden. The walls of the garden were more towering limestone formations and the greenery within was Jurassic in scale and seemed to be overgrown with no concern for trimming or arranging, dead leaves carpeting the ground. There was a small turtle pond behind a fence filled with turtles of all sizes that could be fed fresh greens and veggies bought from a 20170121_125305stand inside the cave. The stand and it’s sales person were some of the only signs of tending I saw. At the back of the garden behind a locked a fence and a forest of unkempt branches was a bright red pagoda that seemed more like something in an abandoned jungle than in a living temple.

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20170121_132845I crept around the cave rooms from one altar to another, plastic cups and cleaning materials lay scattered around, the tile floor was cracked and uneven. I followed a treacherous staircase up a flight, but it ended only in a tiny window and more dust. It was so easy imagine that I was exploring a temple long forgotten, and then I would find a lit candle, or a smoldering joss stick or even a lone employee selling souvenirs. Outside once more, I continued on to the cemetery. In Buddhism, cremation is the norm, so there were small buildings in another alcove that housed the remains. Despite signs requesting that no incense be burned, there were sticks shoved around all the doors and soot marks as well. The buildings were grown over with moss and leaves, the paint peeling and the ground cracking under the pressure of new roots, yet the incense showed me that human presence was recent.

20170121_133150The farthest end of the compound was an area designated for ritual burning and another weedy and overgrown garden that seemed to be turning into a dumping ground. As I made my way past more dogs and tourists, I couldn’t help wondering at how this temple had been so highly rated by so many visitors when Kek Lok Tong was so clean and well cared for. I enjoyed visiting Sam Poh Tong, but it felt like an archaeological excavation rather than a place of worship.

On my way out, an elderly gentleman on a bicycle greeted me in excellent English and as we chatted he told me that this was his regular temple. He was not looking forward to the coming new year celebrations because he said the temple would be overrun by traffic. Scalpers would charge for street parking and people would come just to show off. I was torn between hoping the extra income would help the temple recover and being bewildered as to how it could still be so shabby when expecting the year’s biggest visiting weekend in less than two weeks.

Nam Thean Tong

20170121_142613Next door is Nam Thean Tong, which turns out to be a Taoist temple. It was sparkling clean and in excellent repair if somewhat empty. The floors were also finished tile, but the rooms felt more like natural cave than basement room and the altars were small but beautiful and well cared for. In front of the main altar was a place to do a fortune telling by a traditional method that involves a cup filled with sticks. The supplicant shakes the cup in a rhythmic way until one stick comes up and out and then the meaning is interpreted. I didn’t partake myself, but I watched another do so. There were carvings and paintings on the walls and lanterns hung around for the coming celebration. Another staircase led me to a viewing platform and a small bridge where wishes were tied to the chain railings. When I came across a steep stairwell leading into darkness, I paused for a moment to consult my own oracle: Google. It transpires that the top few floors of this temple are in total darkness and are rumored to have a haunted house combination of cobwebs, unsteady floors and ghosts. Yet even the most avid ghost hunters seemed to think the climb was a little unrewarding, so I decided to save my energy.

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Although the beautiful artwork and unique architecture was a treat, it’s hard not to think the best part of these cave temples were the wind tunnels created by the rock formations that allowed visitors to have a seat in a naturally cool and breezy spot, gaining some respite from the oppressive heat outside.

Rojak

I was finally drawn back outdoors by hunger. The afternoon was getting on and my noodle breakfast had long since worn off. There were some little shops along the outside, mostly selling souvenirs like a local tea and charms, a few selling drinks and ice cream, and one had a handwritten sign advertising a food called “rojak”. 20170121_145104I looked it up to make sure it wasn’t something too scary, then ordered myself a bowl for lunch. Rojak just means “mixture” but fruit rojak is a common dish made of crisp (less than fully ripe and therefore slightly tart) fruits and veggies. Jicama, cucumber, mango, and apple are standard ingredients. The sauce is the magical part. The recipe gurus of the internet assure me it’s made with shrimp paste, hot chilies, sugar, soy sauce, and lime juice (with some regional variance). To me it tasted for all the world like molasses with chili, ginger and lime. I don’t know if mine was made with molasses or if that’s just what it tastes like when you mix soy sauce, shrimp paste and sugar together, but it was yummy!

The outside area was under some reconstruction, but it was a spacious courtyard with plenty of trees and benches, a giant golden statue of what was probably Lao Tsu, and a brownish pond with a moon bridge.

Ling Sen Tong

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20170121_151734Just one gate over is the third and final temple on this street, Ling Sen Tong. This temple mixes Taoist and Buddhist imagery along with other folklore in a big colorful Chinese melting pot. It is an all singing all dancing color fiesta. There are beautiful facades of buildings and temples, giant statues in fresh bright colors, elaborate scenes of mythology played out, and everything was touchable/climbable so visitors were having a blast posing for photos. There was only one small, dark cave. The ceiling had turned black from years of candle and incense soot, and it was chaperoned by a figure whose offerings exclusively included alcohol (for some reason, especially Guiness…) I enjoyed exploring the many statues and hidden rooms. I even found this one guy who looks like he’s checking his phone in the bath! I’m sure there’s a better explanation for it, but along one wall was a series of statues in sunken pits that had all filled with water. I don’t know if it was meant to be a kind of wishing well or something else entirely, but this one in particular stood out to me.

Hostel Hangouts

Finally, I couldn’t take the late afternoon heat anymore and had to call a car to come and rescue me. It was my intention to have a meal and a rest in the hostel before heading out in the evening (and cooler air) to check out “old town Ipoh”. However, I ended up meeting a trio of backpackers from Europe who dealt me into their game of Uno and chatted for a few hours. Then when they went upstairs, I ended up talking to the wifely part of the duo who runs the hostel for quite a while more. She is a Japanese lady who had spent so much of her young adult years in Malaysia that it just seemed natural to her to find a husband and move there. So it was that I spent my whole evening happily in the hostel chatting with new and interesting people from around the world until I was too tired to stay awake any longer and headed up to try and sleep.

As kind and wonderful and gracious as the hosts were, the Reggae House was a little hard to sleep in. The lack of full walls meant that light and sound easily came in from the spaces around my room, and the visiting rat didn’t really set my mind at ease, but I was settling in to the “roughing it” mindset and managed to persevere.


Stay tuned for the next installment of adventures in the Malay Peninsula wherein I go hunting for Ipoh White Coffee and learn more about my favorite bean on the way. Don’t forget to check out all the photos of Kek Long Tong and the other three temples on Facebook and keep an eye out for more spring colors in Korea coming soon! Thanks for reading ❤

Malay Peninsula 3: Singapore Temples

Here in Korea, the insanity of the first month of school is winding to a close, the root canal adventure goes on with no end in sight, and the first cherry blossoms have burst forth, promising at least two weekends of magical pink snow beauty and wonder. In the mean time, here’s the story of my second day in Singapore exploring the famous temples in Chinatown.


20170118_104531After an incredibly full first day in Singapore, I had a much lighter day of temple viewing planned before I hopped on the bus to Kuala Lumpur in the afternoon. It’s never hard to wake up in a dorm hostel, since everyone else is waking up, too. After packing up and enjoying another cup of teh tarik, I headed out to catch the sights. The night before, I’d run across a giant rooster in the street (in anticipation of the impending lunar new year holiday), so I did a quick rerouting to pass back by in the light of day. Chinatown was already putting on a decorative show two weeks before the holiday; I can only imagine how crazy it was on the actual holiday weekend. 20170118_104832In addition to the stunning decorations, I passed by a street artist sitting in the shade of an overpass and working on the beginning of a painting of the festivities. He was kind enough to let me take a photo and we wished each other a happy new year in parting.

I found the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in the middle of a sprawling street market. One major advantage to backpacking is the space restrictions prevent you from picking up souvenirs. Otherwise, I might have been in danger (I love the red paper cut art!). After locating the temple, I ducked into a little food court and wrangled some dumplings and fresh lime juice for breakfast. I seriously dig the Singaporian food court concept, using a larger space to allow a multitude of different cultural food shops to share a common dining area. We have them in malls in the US, but they are usually terrible food and not a wide variety (plus embedded in a shopping mall, ew). In Korea there are dozens of tiny restaurants with very small seating areas, so you can get variety, but if one place is more popular, seating is limited. None of the food courts in Singapore were top notch restaurants, but they were all several steps above corporate fast food. Just in case anyone is looking for a new business model.

The Love of Money…

20170118_113909After breakfast, I headed into the temple. I generally don’t wear short shorts, and while I go wear sleeveless in heat sometimes, since my plan for the day was temples, I was dressed appropriately. However, for the tourists who weren’t, a staff of firm but polite people arranged for them to wear long skirts or shoulder wraps from a shared bin. Once past the main entrance, I walked into a smaller room where two monks were performing a blessing on a couple donating to the temple in a red envelope (traditional for money gifting at the new year). As I watched, I realized people around me were taking photos and video and I was surprised. I looked around for any signs about cameras, but there were none. It seemed that the temple allowed visitors to take pictures. It felt very strange taking pictures in a temple, and in the end I could only take a few before my sense of unease overcame me.

20170118_114516The main hall on the ground floor was an ode to opulence. I’m used to Buddhist temples being ornate. Wood and stone carvings with intricate detail are common (though never boring). Paintings or works in colorful semi-precious stones, and even the occasional gold paint or gilt covering to add some shine. The point is, that I’m used to temples being about effort and time and skill, rather than about blatant displays of wealth. In fact, a common art form is the sand mandala, which is made over weeks or months of painstaking hand work, then wiped out to represent the impermanence of reality. I don’t have an issue with beauty in a temple, I go to temples in part because they are beautiful, but something about this temple and it’s over the top gold, it’s donation jars every few feet, and it’s designated VIP seating for supplicants just did not sit well with me.

20170118_115923I found the elevator and went all the way to the roof to see the orchid garden. That at least was in keeping with temple life as I think of it. Although orchids are rare in the world, they are common in Singapore and the difficulty of their cultivation reflects the work that monks and nuns put in as part of their practice. Below the gardens, the top floor contained the relic for which the temple is named, a fragment of the Buddha’s tooth. It was also the only room in the building where shoes and cameras were prohibited. There were dedicated meditation mats along the windows where a few people were sitting in silent contemplation, and there was another large gold display.

I don’t actually believe in holy relics. I did not come to the temple to be close to a piece of the body of the Buddha. Aside from the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that this bone was really from the human being known as Siddhartha Gautama, if one embraces the ideals of Buddhism, one would know that the body is not the person, and even beyond that, the idea of separate person-hood or individual ego identity is an illusion. I almost understand Christians who seek holy relics because they are thought to be touched by the divine, but I scratch my head at Buddhists who think that enlightenment may somehow be transmitted through dead tissue.

A sign next to the relic boasted that the shrine housing it was made of solid gold (not merely gold plated) and went on to say that offering gold to the Buddha (meaning of course the temple) was a high honor and was greatly encouraged. I nearly gagged.

20170118_114221I’ve seen American “mega-churches” that have gold plated elevators and preachers with 5 cars and 3 houses and a minimum annual income requirement for membership. These also disgust me and I often wondered how any Christian could justify that kind of obvious money-grubbing and wealth favoring within their doctrine. This was the first time I’d ever seen a Buddhist “mega-temple”, and it was awful. It made me feel ashamed to be associated with the faith. It made me want to run around to tourists and exclaim “that’s not what Buddhism is about!”. It made me want to drag out some scripture and ask the people praying there if they’d even read it. And for just a moment, it made me think about Terry Pratchett’s Yen Buddhists, whose main theological argument is that:

excess money and valuables are a drain on one’s spiritual welfare and an active impediment on achieving dharma and oneness with the universe. Therefore, the monks make the world the selfless offer that they will undertake, at the risk of their own union with the godhood, to take away this impediment to other people achieving consciousness and the opening of the Third Eye. They accept the spiritual tarnish that comes with being one of the richest religious sects on the Disc so that you don’t have to.

Sadly, I don’t think that the Buddha Tooth Relic temple had such altruistic motives in collecting wealth.

20170118_120625I headed down to the third floor to see the museum, which was a worthwhile collection. It was a nice museum of Buddhist art and man-made relics that included a sort of “intro to the Buddha” story on signs around the displays. Like the rooftop garden, it felt far more authentic and enjoyable. The relics were primarily stone, clay, bronze or wooden and had clearly been the result of effort and craftsmanship. Although the extraordinary focus on Guan Yin and the Maitreya was a little overwhelming, it did point to the fact that the temple’s own branch of Buddhism was a salvific form that relies on Bodhisattvas and future Buddha’s to save the world, rather than on the practice of self cultivation for individual enlightenment.

20170118_122525.jpgThe second floor had a nice place to rest, which I desperately needed. Adjusting to the heat and extra walking was taking a toll. It was such a great contrast to my energy level in New Zealand where the weather was cool. Just minimum exertion in a hot humid climate seems to drain me like a marathon! After a rest and a look through the last floor of displays, I made my way back to the ground floor, once more shaking my head at the ostentation, this time walking past the VIP seats they were filled with supplicants who had paid I’m not sure what to get past the velvet ropes. All in all, I’m still glad I went to see it, because I learned something about the corrupting properties of money. All temples ask for donations to help feed the monastic population, pay the basic bills, and to provide services to the community. Money is, in this world, unavoidable. However, when a house of faith relies on wealth or doles out blessings for cash or claims that the donation of great wealth is a higher holy act than living a good life, that’s corruption.

Count your deities, count your blessings…

20170118_132532.jpgAfter the Buddhist temple, I took the short walk two streets over to see the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore: Sri Mariamman. This humble wooden structure was not a display of wealth, but was still anything but plain. Wooden carvings covered every inch of the outer facade and were brightly painted besides. Anyone was welcome to enter, leaving their shoes behind on racks on the sidewalk. There were saris for anyone who felt inadequately dressed, and while we were free to wander around the grounds barefoot, the main areas of worship were cordoned off, not for a fee, but for the faithful. I am not a Hindu, so I contented myself with observing from behind the lines. The interior of the temple is a large courtyard with smaller buildings, each one dedicated to a different divinity. There are over 330 million gods in the umbrella of Hindu faith, and while only a couple dozen are among the most popular, it can 20170118_132153.jpgbe hard for a layperson to know which altar is for who. I found 10 names of deities for this temple on it’s Wikipedia page. There might be more. In addition to the colorful decor and variety of spots to worship, there appeared to be a large hall at the back used for everything from yoga classes to wedding ceremonies.

On my way out and back to grab my bag from the hostel, I passed by one more religious building, a famous mosque. It struck me then that within only a 20170118_132927.jpgcouple city blocks, I had passed 3 major religious buildings, and I knew from the map that a Christian church was not far off. Curious, I looked around the map for a synagogue and found one a little over 3km away, and it was neighbored with another church, Hindu temple, and Buddhist temple. It seemed that it wasn’t hard to find a spot in Singapore where at least 4 out of the 5 major world religions shared a small space and yet no one was getting blown up, shot or even harassed on the street! While I’m sure that Singapore’s strict legal code has something to do with the lack of violence, I like to think that pluralism in the culture helps everyone to get along. People of other faiths or cultures seem less scary when they are our neighbors and not “those others”.


Please check out the rest of the photos in the Facebook albums: Around Singapore and Singapore Temples, and stay tuned for the next installment where I leave the clean and ordered city-state of Singapore and experience a mighty dose of culture shock in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). As always, I hope you enjoyed, and thanks for reading!

Summer’s Almost Gone

I know many people think that summer starts around May or June, but here in Busan the weather didn’t get ugly until July and it’s only just starting to get nice again now that October is half over. I have already shared my early summer adventures, June with the sand sculpture festival, drag show and Pride Festival in Seoul, July with the Mud Festival in Boryeong, and I’ve started to share the August adventure in New Zealand. Oh, and the Jeju September trip is in second draft… but, things in Korea happen faster than I can write about it and I’ve been getting behind on some of my smaller weekend adventures. So, what’s fallen through the cracks this summer? I got some parental visits (other people’s not mine) and had a chance to play tour guide around the Busan Tower, Yongdusan Park, Dadaepo Sunset Fountain of Dream, UN War Memorial Park, more Dala & Sulbing, and Beomeosa Temple. Plus, I took myself down to the amazing lantern festival in Jinju. Let’s check it out.


Busan Tower & Yongdusan Park

escalator-yongdusan-park-busan-south-koreaThis park in the Nampo neighborhood is up on a bit of a mountain, but there’s no need to climb up exhausting stairs because there’s an outdoor escalator installed to let you ride up in comfort! When we got to the top, we were already blown away by the great views of the city below and we hadn’t even gotten to the highest points yet. As we passed by the stage area, it was clear that a performance was about to get underway. There were plenty of people dressed in the standard white garb trimmed with bright colors and fun hats and the parents hadn’t gotten to see any traditional dances, so we pulled up a seat. I have since found out that cultural performances happen here every Saturday at 3pm between March and November.

20160910_142412The MC for the day was excited to see so many foreigners (not just us) in the audience and brought out a poor young Korean lady who was nervous and not particularly fluent to try and translate for us. Representatives from each visiting country in the audience were invited to come up on the stage and play a traditional Korean game of trying to toss a stick through one of 5 rings attached to a jar. My friend’s mom went up and they let her stand extra close because she was over 60 and she brought us honor by scoring the center ring! We didn’t sit for the whole performance, but it was a kind of musical story. From what I could follow, some performers arrived at a lord’s house and were invited in to party, but there were some rascals around who may have been trying to steal away or marry off the lord’s daughter? The language barrier was a bit of an obstacle to the plot, but it was fun to watch and clap along with.

20160910_145221We snuck out during a lull and headed to the main attraction of the Park, Busan Tower. The tower stands 118m high, but it’s also on a mountain so, it seems to be rather higher than that when you look down. For 5,000won you can get a ticket to ride up to the top of the tower where you can enjoy a stunning 360 degree view of Busan. There are helpful decals on the windows that identify major landmarks and there;s a little cafe where you can enjoy a snack with your view.

UN Memorial Park & Busan Museum

I went here in February with the EPIK orientation team and I meant to go back in the summer for the roses and azaleas, but it seems that I missed them because by September, all that was left of the flowers were a few fading blooms. One stunning contrast was this tree which went from a brown lace of twigs in winter to a full brush of vibrant color in summer.

The little streams that had flowed in February were dry, but there were beautiful dragonflies all around the pool and grounds. I think the UN Memorial is a beautiful park, but it’s also a sad one. My trip this time was enjoyable because I was hanging out with some military history buffs who were tickled pink to look at all the markers and statues for different nationalities. I’m not really sure what else to say about it, other than war is horrible.

The Busan Museum is just a short walk away from the Memorial park, so we decided to stop in afterward. Unfortunately, a large part of the museum is under construction this year, so we were only able to access the second gallery, but it was worth the visit, especially since they gave us free tickets to enter. It’s largely a history museum, but it focuses narrowly on Busan and the history of this particular region of Korea. Since I’m still learning the big picture of Korean history, it was occasionally hard to place things on a timeline in my head, but there was a timeline on one wall that lined up Korean history with Chinese and Japanese histories (which I’m much more familiar with) and that was a useful comparison.

Dadaepo Sunset Fountain of Dream

Who doesn’t love giant bursts of water and light choreographed to music on a summer night? Waaaay back in 2008 I went to Xi’an China for the first time and in addition to getting to see the Terra Cotta Warriors which the city is famous for, I managed to catch both the day time and night time editions of the Xi’an North Square Fountain Show (someone else’s video).

Later in 2015, I made it to the Dubai Fountain show (my video).

Both are astonishing and huge. The Xi’an Northern Square is 168,000 square meters (1 ½ football fields) and the fountain show covers most of it. There are dry spaces around the edges to stand, but the whole middle is full of moving, glowing, colored fountains. The largest one, the Fire Fountain, can shoot water 60m high. The Dubai Fountain show is in the man-made lake (121,400 sq m, a little more than 1 football field) at the base of the Burj Khalifa and it’s highest water spout reaches 140m high. It also claims to be the largest choreographed fountain show in the world. I’ve seen tiny versions of choreographed fountain shows in a few other places, including the Tokyo 20150823_200510Sky Tree (left) where the small fountain lights are coordinated with the tower lights high above. These shows are fun, awesome, wonderful, and sparkly, so when my friend told me he wanted to take his parents down to Busan’s own choreographed fountain show, I was all in favor.

I have to be honest, I expected something small, colorful and cute. I was completely blown away. Dadaepo is far out at the south western corner of the city, so you have to ride the subway line all the way to the end and then take a bus the rest of the way. And then walk several blocks. The fountain and lights are all flush with the ground, so before the show starts it just looks like a flat open space. 50f0There are some permanent concrete bleacher type seats along one side, but the rest of the area around the fountain had been filled up with plastic chairs to accommodate the higher number of spectators on the warm weekend nights. We arrived early and laid claim to seats in the front row, hoping that we wouldn’t have to worry about the crowd standing in front of us when the show started. Refreshingly, the Korean audience stayed in their seats during the show and we had a first class view. In both China and Dubai, the spectators jostled for the best standing spots and to get my video, I had to start standing in my spot almost 30 minutes before the show started to get an unobstructed view. IMG_0101This is 2,519 sq m fountain is listed as the largest fountain in the world by Guinness. I suppose that the show at Dubai is not considered a single fountain and is therefore only the largest fountain show. The tallest jet of water at Dadaepo is a mere 55m.
In case you’re wondering, the world’s tallest fountain goes to the King Fahd Fountain (right) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at 260m (which I visited in 2014, it’s tall, but not much else).


While the sheer square meterage of the event isn’t 3% of a football field, the show more than makes up for it in quality. The tempo at which the water and lights shift and change to keep pace with the music is astonishing. The colors come and go, making the water seem to appear and disappear, lighting up only a portion of the water’s path or changing partway through it to take advantage of the new shape to make a different effect. The fountain heads move. Water comes out at different speeds and volumes. There is such a wide variety present that I felt more like I was watching a special effects music video than a choreographed fountain show. This video on youtube is better than what I was able to capture. 

I understand they change songs on a regular basis, so although this was my friend’s second time to the show, the songs were totally different. After the final song, the fountain and lights are turned on a bit more sedately to allow people to come in to the water to pose for pictures in front of the lighted shapes or to run through the cool streams in the warm summer air. There is only one show on weekdays, but two on weekends, so you can see the second one if you’re late or just stick around and watch both because it’s amazing.

Dala & Sulbing

20160430_134641I’m not a food blogger, but sometimes food is just too good not to write about. I’ve done some basic coverage of these things elsewhere, but it doesn’t get old. Dala 100% Chocolate is this tiny hole in the wall chocolate cafe in my neighborhood in Seomyeon. The first time I went there, I had to try their signature dish, the dinosaur egg. This was an amazing concoction of shaved milk ice topped with crushed chocolate cookies and chocolate shavings with a giant egg made of cookies and cream candy. When smashed with the provided hammer, the egg reveals a scoop of truly decadent chocolate ice cream and a tiny chocolate dinosaur. If that’s not enough chocolate, you can pour chocolate sauce over it too. It takes at least two people to eat this dessert. Since that time, we’ve also tried the chocolate pizza (nutella spread, banana slices and toasted marshmallows for toppings, scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce again), and for the two separate parental visits this summer, I also managed to try the fruit fondue (kiwi, grape, orange, grapefruit and banana… turns out grapefruit in chocolate is awesome), the “special brownie” (molten chocolate inside!), and the chocolate churros (churros you dip in chocolate). Let us not forget the milkshakes, which come in a variety of chocolate compliment flavors and can be made white, milk or dark. I don’t just love this place for it’s chocolate, but because it’s good chocolate. It’s not too sweet and they do a good balance of flavors in each dish so you don’t get tired (as if that were possible) of a single chocolate flavor. I think we’re about halfway through the menu now, and if the weather keeps cooling off, I’ll get to try their hot drinks soon!

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My first encounter with sulbing was during my first week at work when my co-teachers took me out for dessert after our first staff dinner. It pretty much blew my mind and I’ve been trying to drag everyone I know there ever since. The season fresh fruit flavor that was there in March was the strawberry cheesecake, and while they have strawberry on the menu year round, it’s just frozen berries out of season. However, the summer seasonal flavor was in full force and we got to indulge in the melon-cheese-yogurt madness. The uniqueness of sulbing as opposed to bingsu is what the ice is made of. The traditional shaved ice desserts just use water ice. The Korean Dessert Cafe (a chain by the way, look for it if you’re here) and a few other places make a different dessert using frozen milk for a richer taste. 20160730_174636-1The melon special was not just using frozen milk, but frozen yogurt… and not the kind you’re thinking. Imagine you mix some yogurt with milk or water until it’s all liquidy, then freeze it solid, then shave it off into teeny tiny snowflakes. Ok. Now, take a honeydew melon (the green ones) and cut it in half. Hollow it out and freeze the shell. That frozen melon rind is now our bowl, filled with the snowflake texture frozen yogurt and topped with some cubes of what I can only describe as cheesecake filling. 20160730_175713Now, over the whole thing, put the melon you removed from the rind, the hemisphere of melon, all of it. The dish was served with a big plastic knife so we could cut up the melon for ourselves. It was the perfect combination of sweet, tart and creamy to refresh us in the summer heat.

Beomeosa Temple (more pictures)

That’s really redundant, since “sa” means temple, but for the ease of transliteration, that’s what people tend to call it. It literally means “heavenly fish temple”. According to tradition, there is a well on the top of Mt. Geumjeongsan and the water of that well is gold. The golden fish in the well rode the colorful clouds and came down from the sky. This is why the mountain is named Geumsaem (gold well) and the temple is named ‘fish from heaven’. Its one of the most unique temples I’ve had the opportunity to visit. It wasn’t even high on my list of temples to see in Busan, but one of the visiting parentals had read about in Lonely Planet and was dead set on going so we set off to the northern edge of the city to ascend the mountains on a warm and misty Saturday.

We took the subway to the Beomeosa stop then decided to hire a taxi to take us up the mountain rather than wait for the bus. The driver didn’t turn on the meter, but helpfully explained his fare to us. We were 4 people and the bus would cost us 1.3 each, totalling 5.2 and he was going to charge us 6. Compared to the meterless taxis in China, it was truly refreshing to have a driver not try to take advantage of four foreigners at a tourist site. As we were driving up the mountain, he pointed out a spot where lots of taxis were stopping and said we could easily catch one back down from there and expect to pay a little less going back, but he drove us all the way to the highest car park so we didn’t have to trek up the mountainside.

20161001_131512When we arrived, a very nice older Korean lady offered to explain a little bit about the main gate to us in English and we got to hear a little history of the naming of the temple and the unique four pillar style that makes this era of architecture distinctive. As we ascended the stairs and passed through several gates decorated with bright lanterns and beautiful paintings we moved through a hall of fearsome statues and finally emerged into the main courtyard. The temple was originally built about 1,300 years ago, but was destroyed during a Japanese invasion in 1592 and later rebuilt in 1713, but a few stone remnants and one stone pagoda left from the original still stand in the wide open square. The temple is dedicated to the practice of Seon Buddhism, which is the Korean descendant of Chan Buddhism the same way Zen in Japan is.

Buildings for various types of study, practice and prayer surrounded the square and monks and supplicants came in and out about their business. We heard chanting, drums and bells and the smell of incense was faint but pervasive. There was a spring near a large rock, presumably the ‘golden well’, where we could drink fresh clean water from the ground with no worries of pollution or infections. There was a hidden path that led around behind the main grounds to a smaller hall of prayer and some living quarters where we found piles of tiny rocks and beautiful blooming flowers.

After exploring the main temple grounds, we wanted to visit one of the eleven hermitages nearby. I’d read online that the Blue Lotus Hermitage was both the easiest to get to and the prettiest, so I asked for directions at the souvenir stand and we headed further up the mountain road. Within a few minutes of walking, we spotted a giant golden Buddha in the distance and soon we came to the Hermitage itself. There were hardly any people there, but the courtyard was a stepped platform covered in statues of sages and Bodhisattvas with the golden Buddha at the peak and center. The entire day was gray and the mountains were wreathed in mist, giving our temple visit a quiet and magical feeling. I hope I can find time to go back in another season to see the mountain foliage in different phases (especially in May for the famous wisteria blooms) or maybe even try my hand at one of the overnight “temple stay” opportunities that allow visitors to experience the monastic life for just one day.

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Jinju Lantern Festival (photo album)

20161008_170238Also called the Jinju Namgang Yudeong Festival, it is held in honor of the fallen during the seiges by Japanese soldiers in the Imjin War in 1592-3 (the same time frame the orginal Beomeosa Temple was destroyed). During the war, lanterns were used as military signals, a means of communicating with reserve forces, and as a way to keep in touch with family members outside of Jinjuseong Fortress. Even after the war, people continued the tradition of floating lanterns down the river to pay tribute to the brave souls that had been lost during battle. Today, the festival is far more than a few lanterns on the river and instead is a whole palisade of life size and larger than life lanterns floating on the river and filling the riverside park where the fortress once stood.

It took us about 2 hours to get there in total, although the intercity bus is less than 90 minutes. We were able to walk down to the river from the bus station and get a daylight preview of the lanterns. We also walked around the festival tents and enjoyed a local specialty of Jinju bibimbap. It’s supposed to be made with a type of spiced raw beef, but sadly our tent dinner stop used the sunny side up egg instead. It was very good, though, so we didn’t mind too much.

20161008_181542.jpgWhen we entered the display area, we were given arm stamps so we could come and go as many times as we liked, then we began our stroll down the riverside. The water was covered in giant lanterns in shapes of mythical animals and heroes as well as famous landmarks like Stonehenge, the leaning tower of Pisa, and the Statue of Liberty. There were floating restaurants, boat rides, and yet more tents offering delicious snacks.There were giant tunnels of red lanterns where couples walked hand in hand in the twilight.

20161008_175956Two floating bridges at either end of the display allowed visitors to pass from side to side without returning to the street level. The day had been rainy, but as the rain dried up, the sunset lit the clouds in shades of brilliant gold and scarlet.We crossed the river and ascended into the wooded area to be greeted with the most amazing forest of light. Unlike the Taean light festival where everything was wrapped in LEDs, the park grounds had become friezes of the battles done in light and cloth. Japanese and Korean soldiers filled the grounds attacking and defending glowing battlements. As we moved along the scenes became festivals, crowds watching bulls in an arena, people at work in the village doing daily crafts.

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There was a section of small, delicate lanterns on display like a gallery. More soldiers stood guard at every gate and wall. A landscape of giant mushrooms and insects took up one hillside. Enormous saxophones arched over a performance stage with live musicians. Glowing globes hung from the trees like ripe fruit. Overgrown flowers sprouted from the grass. Tigers wearing top-hats and smoking pipes smiled at us from behind trees. There were no gates or guardrails, and we were free to walk among the lanterns at will. There were tunnels of love and fields of snowmen. There were more lanterns than we could ever hope to see in just a few hours and we wandered back and forth through the park following winding trails and making our way from one scene to the next until we were forced to start looking for the exit in order to catch our bus home in time.

We got back down to the river and walked along more floating paths all the way to the far end of the park. My friend described it as “drunk walking” because the floating panels would occasionally shift to one side with no warning causing us all to lurch and stumble. The bamboo forest growing along the waterfront was filled with glowing cranes, frozen in the act of taking flight or catching fish. When we reached land again, we were greeted with the largest lantern structure of all: a giant castle with a dragon and phoenix on either wall and a crowd of lantern people celebrating below. Above the castle walls, large poles held LED fireworks that burst over and over again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lantern festival on such a scale.

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I feel like every time I think Korea can’t show me something even more amazing, it does, and yet before coming here I knew almost nothing about this country, it’s people or it’s culture. Plain old “weekends” become magical adventures in a land of light or a sea of flowers. Misty mountains redolent with the odor of incense and the chanting of monks are just a bus-ride away from beachfront karaoke bars. Dancing fountains are down the street from skyscrapers that hide forests of cherry trees between their towering walls. Hidden gems wait around every corner and there is always something to celebrate. Thanks for reading, I hope you’re enjoying my stories at least half as much as I enjoy making them. Don’t forget to check out the Facebook page or Instagram for updates and pictures. ❤