While WiFi is becoming more common, and the EU recently passed the free roaming rules, getting mobile data as a non-EU resident is more challenging than it needs to be. I read a lot of blogs before I went and no one really seemed to know what I should do. If you’re an EU citizen, it’s great, because you can travel anywhere in the EU and use your home plan without paying more. As a tourist, it gets … complicated.
Some people (mostly older than me) may wonder why I’m so data dependent. It is really a convenient way to combine your travel guide, phrasebook, map, and camera in one little device. Sure, paper can’t “break down” but it can be heavy to carry all of those things, and they can be lost or damaged, too. I just like being able to look up any and all necessary info on the go while traveling. How and where to get my SIM card is one of the most critical parts of preparing for a trip.
This post is part rant, and part hopefully useful information for future travelers who encounter the same obstacles I did.
I arrived in the airport quite late at night and all the shops that might have had SIM cards were closed. Instead, I got my first SIM card the following morning at a little neighborhood shop. I opted to use LycaMobile as my service provider.
I bought a month worth of data thinking it would work all over Europe. I was wrong. I can’t tell you what you should buy for an EU trip starting in Paris, but I advise that whatever company you chose, start with the minimum purchase and add more GB later if it works. That way if it stops working when you cross a border, you don’t loose as much. Oh, and don’t expect to be able to add data or minutes using any online form of payment unless you’re a resident of the country you bought the SIM card in since they don’t let foreign bank accounts pay online!
Belgium: My mobile data stopped working as soon as the bus crossed the France-Belgium border. It said I was running with 3G but refused to load anything. I tried to fix it but nothing worked. Brussels has a lot of free WiFi so I survived my arrival, but the smaller towns were not so convenient.
I was stuck going to Ghent without data because it was the only time I could see St. Bavo’s, but the next day back in Brussels I tried to find the LycaMobile shop, thinking maybe they could get my SIM card from France to work.
I walked around aimlessly because I just could not orient myself on the map without mobile data to fill in the blanks. I used to read paper maps, I feel like I’m usually good at maps, but for some reason the streets of downtown Brussels were confusing as heck to me.
Finally I found it and it turned out to be two dudes in a tiny room with one fan and one desk and a lot of people in line. (That photo is from Google Maps, the day I went it was sunny and there were WAY more people in line, but this is about what it looked like.) The line was short when I walked up but it grew fast. LycaMobile is the cheap phone service of choice in the EU which is why I picked it, but I was not the only person having problems. In Belgium you have to register your sim card at an authorized shop and there aren’t many of them. The only other white people in the line were also backpackers.
The guy who helped me really did his best. He tried everything to get it to work and when he couldn’t he took it to his boss. In the end the answer was definitive: LycaMobile France and LycaMobile Belgium aren’t really the same company, just owned by the same company, so this isn’t really our product.
I don’t blame the guys at the shop (well maybe the one in Paris who should have known this was going to be a problem), but I must recommend AGAINST LycaMobile for non-EU residents who want to do multiple countries. They get good reviews online which is why I chose them, but when I went back and looked later, all the good reviews were from EU citizens. Orange had some bad reviews from non-EU citizens that were basically once they got your pre-paid money, they don’t care if your service works.
Proximus looked like my best option so I went to find the one in the train station. The line was long again but it was a real retail store and not some shady looking box with two guys at one desk in front of a roll up security door the way LycaMobile had been. (this photo is from Proxiumus’ website, but you get the idea)
When it was my turn the sales person helped me to understand the way the card worked as well as how to top up. For 10€ I got the card and 500Mb. It doesn’t seem like much but they’re is a lot of free WiFi around, so it is enough if you’re careful about uploading and streaming. I asked the sales clerk about the Netherlands and she said she thought it should work but urged me not to buy too much data just in case (refreshing to be urged to spend less!).
Important to note, that while the SIM must be purchased in a regulated shop and registered, top up cards are all over the place. I was told you can only top up online with a Belgian credit card, so once I leave Belgium won’t be able to get more. I was going to be in Belgium technically 2 weeks, one in Brussels and the other in Lanaken, the small town near Maastricht, Netherlands where my Airbnb was located just on the Belgian side of the border. During that week I’d be going across to The Netherlands and Germany, and I figured if the data worked I could buy lots before finally leaving Belgium for good.
One more thing I noticed, when I got LycaMobile in France I had to activate roaming on my phone for it to work… even though I was in France. I thought it was weird but also thought maybe it was a feature of the global plan that it was just always roaming. My Belgian plan looked like normal data, no roaming needed in Belgium which is more in line with my expectations.
Later that week, on my way to Antwerp, I had another mobile mishap. I didn’t realize I needed the PIN code to restart my phone, sooooo I accidentally locked myself out for the day (the PIN was in my hotel room and I was already at the train station!) In addendum to recommending Proximus, I would urge users to carry their SIM pin on them in case the phone resets.
The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway
Proximus worked smoothly across Lanaken (Brussels), Maastricht (Netherlands) and Aachen (Germany). I decided to buy what I hoped was enough data for the rest of my trip through Germany since I thought I would not be able to top up once I left Belgium.
I had zero issues all throughout the Netherlands (Den Haag, Amsterdam), crossing back into Belgium (Leige), and in Hamburg, Germany. The Proximus service occasionally took a few minutes to adjust to crossing a border while it searched for a new network but it operated exactly as advertised.
I also discovered the happiest of circumstances while in Germany. I accidentally forgot to use my WiFi to upload photos and it ate all my data. I had been told that it would not be possible to purchase top ups outside Belgium without a Belgian bank account, however, the Proximus website had a PayPal option!!!!! I was able to top up my account from Germany using my Korean PayPal. Plus, buying top-ups came with free Mb, so it was actually a very good deal financially. I was able to stop worrying about hoarding my data bytes and just enjoy the trip for the rest of the EU countries.
TDLR? LycaMobile BAD. Proximus GOOD!
I heard that there was tons of free WiFi all over Moscow, so I decided that my 20 hour layover didn’t require a SIM card. I regret this decision.
I was able to use the WiFi in my hostel with no issue, but when I tried to log into the free WiFi at the metro station, I could not get anything to load.
During lunch, I asked the staff of the hotel restaurant if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant. The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number.
Eventually, I was able to figure out the public WiFi on the metro; however, two things: it only worked IN the subway cars (not on the platform or in the station), and the internet access was severely limited, allowing me to use Google Search and Google Maps, but not Facebook or Instagram. It did help a little, but it was hard because the service would also stop every time the cars pulled into a station!
So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi they are both right and wrong. Depending on when your helpful adviser was last in Moscow, there may have been an abundance of free public WiFi. However, just like the EU is changing it’s roaming rules, the Kremlin is kracking down on anonymous internet use. In 2014 the government began to implement laws requiring netizens to have some kind of ID to get online. I’m assuming this is why you have to be a guest at a hotel to use their wifi (the hotel collects your ID), or you have to get your confirmation code via text to a phone number that is also matched to your ID somewhere.
The WiFi is still free to use in the sense that it doesn’t cost money, but you can’t use it without some kind of ID. If I had known, I would have made getting a SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!
I didn’t receive any kickback for reviewing any of the companies above. This is just my experience and opinion in the hopes that my trial and error may help out a fellow traveler some day. Also, as I noticed myself, the times they are a’changin’, so if you’re reading this post in the distant future, please double check that these policies are still in effect for the time of your trip.
If possible, in every place I go, I like to find at least one less well known but still terribly interesting place to go. Atlas Obscura has become one of my best research and planning tools for this particular goal. In Moscow, I settled on a place called Izmailovo Kremlin. The website described it as “an unexpected, fairytale-like cultural wonderland” so of course I had to go. It was a bit of an adventure just finding the locale, and the weather was not especially co-operative, but it was definitely an entirely unpredictably unique experience. Plus, I got some bonus political commentary fodder at the airport on the way out!
Getting Lost and Found
Without any WiFi, even in restaurants or cafes, I was totally unable to look up the route to travel there. I found myself standing in the Revolution Square (red square) metro station with no idea how to get to my goal. I racked my brains trying to remember how in the world I had navigated complex subway systems before my life was data-plan dependent and finally remembered the existence of metro maps!
I knew the name of the station (Partizanskaya) I wanted to go to, but I couldn’t find the station on the subway map. I didn’t even know which color line to look at. Finally, I fell back on the most low tech of options… I asked the person at the information desk. It’s not that I mind talking to humans, I like talking to humans quite often, but I have become rather dependent on my map apps and had nearly forgotten how I used to do this when I didn’t have a smart phone. Thankfully she was able to pull out a Metro pamphlet with English and show me where I wanted to be in relation to where I was.
Armed with this knowledge I set off into the subway. It turns out the one place you can maybe sometimes get actually free WiFi is ON the subway (not in the station, but in the subway car). This WiFi did allow me to pull up maps and do basic google searches, but it blocked me entirely from any and all social media platforms. It was also very hit or miss and dropped out quite often, but I grasped it like a lifeline to verify my travel directions.
At this point it is important to note that I cannot read Russian letters. I picked up a couple just looking around. The thing that looks like “P” is really “R”, and П is “P”, and the thing that looks like Greek “theta” is “F”, and the thing that looks like a backward N is “i”… and I just do this because reading is such an important part of my world that my brain needs to make sense of the symbols it knows are words. Whenever I saw English and Russian side by side I’d try to piece it together. But, mostly, I was relying on the English transliteration of these words to find the right Metro stop because, bless, they are all written in both alphabets at all the stations and on the maps.
Anyone who has ever tried to learn a complex new word or name in a language quite different from your own will understand how all our mental tricks for remembering are totally useless! If it’s more than two syllables, I’m going to need to hear, say, write and read it several times to really remember. So, when I’m looking for a shortcut to help me identify things like metro station names, I tend to look at the first sound and last sound (or letter cluster) in a word and forget the middle. So “Partizanskaya” became “P -something – kaya” in my head. Most of the time this works very well.
Most of the time.
On the blue line in Moscow, there is another stop that is “p-something-kaya”, Pervomayskaya, that is only two stops over. Now that my linguistic brain has had more time to look at the map, I realize that “kaya” is basically “station” or “platform” and ALL the stops end this way. Instead of getting the beginning and end of the station name, I actually was looking for “P-station”. No wonder that didn’t work out well. In hindsight, I can see several other mnemonic aids that would have been far more effective, but alas, at the time, p-something-kaya seemed like such a great idea.
I actually rode outside the brown circle during this trip. There’s a wall or fence there. The metro comes out from underground and you get to see some scenery. I’m a little tripped out by the fence. The first time I saw it I thought maybe it was the edge of a park (because I was looking at the wrong part of the map), but on my way back in, with proper spacial orientation, I realized that it lined up with line 14, the Moscow Central track, the edge of the city proper. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t able to find any official information on whether this fence goes all the way around or covers just a part of the area, but I did find an interesting article on fences in Russian culture.
I got off the metro at the wrong P-something and was staring intently at the signs and street names trying to orient myself on a Google Map that refused to tell me where I was (GPS doesn’t need data or WiFi, but still worked very sporadically in Moscow). There were some people handing out pizza coupons at the metro entrance and I asked them if they knew where the Izmailovo Kremlin was. I was hoping that even if they didn’t understand my English that my pronunciation of “Izmailovo Kremlin” would be decent enough to get the idea across, but they were flummoxed. Thinking I was going to just have to pick a direction and start walking, a young lady asked timidly in accented English if she could help.
I accepted gratefully and she was able to explain to me my mistake with the P-something station names and directed me to go back two stops and that it would be quite obvious from there. One more reason to get unlimited metro travel if it’s possible is the almost inevitable need to back track, or side track or otherwise take more trips than would be necessary if you weren’t a lost tourist.
When I did make it to the right stop, it was fairly obvious which way to go as soon as I got to the main intersection. Izmailovo Kremlin’s distinctive fairy-tale buildings are visible a good way off, and gave me the almost immediate impression that I was walking into the Russian version of the magic kingdom.
Not really knowing anything about this place, nor being able to read the signs, I just followed the road into the large and colorful gate. The gray skies were a disappointment since bright sunlight would have brought out the color more, but I was determined to make the best of it. However, just as I entered the main gate, a torrential downpour that had more in common with an Indian monsoon than a European rain began. It was even more intense than the rain that had fallen while I was walking around the real Kremlin. The concrete pathways of the nearly empty market became ponds and rivers within a few moments.
Recalling how quickly the earlier deluge had subsided, I huddled up next to an empty stall under the wooden awning and exchanged “what can you do?” looks with the vendors nearby. It took about 15-20 minutes to calm down and even then, walking was precarious.
At first I thought these were simply vendors lining the entrance of the park. It’s fairly common to see the souvenir shops at the entrance/exit of any attraction, but as I walked more, I realized that the entire space I was in was nothing but market, and more than 90% was empty. I have seen pictures online where it looks full, but I have to think that was just a really creatively aimed shot because it is huge. I stopped and spoke with several vendors selling matryoshka (nesting) dolls. I had one when I was a child and I thought that some authentic Russian dolls from Russia would be nice gifts for my niblings.
If you are in the market for unique matroyshka, this is the place. While there were plenty of vendors offering the same factory mass produced dolls as every souvenir stand in Russia, there were also many vendors who had exclusive deals with local artists or were themselves artists. I spoke with one man whose wife painted the dolls he sold. They were exquisite. Each set, he said, took her 10+ days to paint and he was selling them for 40-60$ US. You can’t GET original hand-painted art of that quality at that price most places. After even just a few booths it became obvious which styles everyone had and which styles were unique among the vendors. I wish I’d been in the market for some art because I was honestly blown away. Some sets had more than 10 layers and the smallest doll was only the size of a lentil. In the end, I settled on some of the lower cost, but still unique styles to send to my sister’s kids so they could have something special, but not too special to play with.
Once I moved in past the opening cluster of booths (which were still less than half occupied) the whole place turned into a ghost town. Row after row of empty, disheveled booths. Perhaps once grandiose decorations in a state of discoloration and disrepair. Gardens and their statues overgrown and wilting. And everything empty and silent. It was eerie, but more than that, it was bewildering. Where were the fairy tale buildings? Where were the museums? Where was all the stuff that was not market?
I could slightly see some interesting looking buildings that were off to one side of the market area but had no idea how to get to them. I followed path after path that led me to soggy, deteriorating and empty spaces for displays or cafes. A huge covered space of tables and benches stood abandoned, no restaurant in sight. I don’t know if it was the rain or the season that led to the strange emptiness of the park that day.
Finally, I met up with a group of Spanish tourists who were also trying to find a way into the “other side” of the park. They were looking for a place to eat as well as the advertised attractions. In the end, we found a single bridge that went from the gardens at the back of the market up and into a much more active looking area. Alas, the bridge was flooded. The sides of the structure went from footpath to handrail in one seamless block, allowing no spaces for air or water to escape. Instead of being built, as most bridges are, with a slight arch that would sweep water off the ends, this bridge sagged in the center and allowed a positive lake of rainwater to collect across more than 3 meters of the path. I was so focused on crossing, I forgot to photo the flood, but here’s more eerily empty shopping stalls!
We searched for an alternative route in vain. None of us were wearing waterproof shoes, and I had so underestimated the rain in Moscow that I packed my rain-covers in my checked luggage! The idea of spending the rest of the day, the whole flight back to Korea, and the bus ride to my home with damp socks was not appealing. I was just about to give up and head back to the main entrance when one of the guys figured out the secret: walk on your heels! He carefully walked, stiff-legged, placing only the heel of each shoe into the water gently so as not to splash and made it to the other side with dry socks.
Slowly the rest of us followed suit with someone I assumed was the “dad” of the trip laughing and filming the girls who were walking across as I did. I expected to feel the cold seeping wetness in my socks at any moment, but I did make it to the other side dry. I’m sure I looked like a perfect idiot, but I’ll take looking silly over wet socks any day.
Crossing into the Secret Place
Finally we were in the fairy-tale realm. It was still astonishingly empty, especially compared with the huge crowds at the real Kremlin in Red Square. I bustled around taking pictures and exploring the space. There were several places to get food and drinks, although I was still happy after my Metropol meal. Most of the museums were either closed or thinly veiled gift shops. And there was an excess of brides. I think there is actually a chapel there, but definitely a wedding photography studio. I can understand why people would love to have wedding photos taken against the dramatic background, but I felt sorry for the brides that day who had gray and rainy skies. One of the Spanish tourists told me that in Spain it’s actually good luck to have rain at your wedding, so maybe they brought some of their cultural luck with them that day.
I meandered into the church of St. Nikolas and up the stairs of the central hall. It wasn’t open that day either, but I think the interior is used for parties or receptions. There seemed to be a stage in front of an especially colorful building, but no performances listed. I don’t know what the experience would have been like if it had been fully open and bustling, but I rather enjoyed the silence and stillness after the rush and crowds elsewhere. I felt like it was my own little private discovery I was sharing with only a few other people that day. I also felt like it gave me a view of Russia behind the curtains.
I think every country wants to show it’s best face on websites and tourism videos. I know for a fact that LA doesn’t really look the way tourists expect it to. However, I find that some countries try harder to keep tourists in the “pretty” places than others. China, for example, works very hard to create an image in tourist areas that you have only to walk a few blocks away from to realize isn’t really accurate. Most tourists never do, though. Moscow felt like that to me. Because I used the public transit, got lost a couple times, and went to this out of the way attraction on what seemed to be a rather slow day, I saw parts of the city and the culture that I would have missed on a well managed tour.
Of course, there’s only so much I could see on a 20 hour layover no matter how lost I got, so I know that my impressions are only cursory. Nonetheless, I’m glad I chose to set out solo and take my chances, even if that meant taking some lumps along the way.
Toward the end of my time in Izmailovo Kremlin, the sun came partway out, creating a dynamic sky of dark clouds with golden light. It made me happy, standing on the top floor balcony and looking over the church and square below, to get this little sliver of sunlight as my farewell.
On my way back out, I paused at one more puddle to take a reflection photo. This requires squatting down to get the camera lens as close to the level of the puddle as possible, and some other tourists stopped to watch me. When I stood up again they politely asked what I had been doing and I showed the mother and her two tween girls the effect of using a simple rain puddle as a reflecting surface. One of the girls was instantly enchanted and dropped down to try it out for herself. After very few pointers, she had it down pat, and even got a beautiful shot with one of the brides walking away. I missed my chance at that one because I was looking over her shoulder playing teacher, but I think it was a worthy trade.
I took a lot of photos that day, so here’s a little video montage with the rest of my best shots from Izmailovo Kremlin.
Pravda in the Airport
The airport express from central Moscow to SVO is, like all the public transit in Moscow, quite efficient. It was a little crowded, but affordable and on time with no unexpected troubles. It did let us off a very long way from the international terminal, but that gave me a chance to get some coffee and new earbuds for the long flight back.
I’m very glad I was already checked into my flight and had a boarding pass. The lines for customs and security check were ridiculous. I had finished my coffee and of course emptied my water bottle during this process and had no recourse but to buy water from the airport vending machines. I still haven’t found a single source of free drinking water in the Moscow airport.
Last but not least, while waiting for the boarding line to shrink enough to be worth standing in, I noticed one of the large TVs was rolling trailers and advertising for one of Russia’s major news networks…. Russia’s state sponsored “news” networks.
As an American who actually remembers the USSR and the cold war, I grew up with some ideas about Russia that were surely American propaganda, but one of the things I learned about that was not was that the Soviet’s state run newspaper was called “Pravda” which means “truth”. It was anything but. Between the end of the cold war and the beginning of the cyber war, there was a short but glorious time where we were able to get some relatively accurate information about the Soviet state.
I didn’t bother much with Russia when I was studying my MA because I very foolishly thought we were allies now. Oh, past me, how optimistic you were. I did, however, study the entire history of nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation activities which MOSTLY involved us and the USSR / Russia so I had to learn a modicum of Russian history and culture as part of that. Let me just say, when the Guardian called the Russian state run media “a propaganda machine”, I don’t feel like they were exaggerating. On a scale of 1-10, I’d say it’s on the propaganda side of Breitbart, well past Fox News, and can’t even see the BBC with a telescope.
And yet, because of what it is, it cannot help but spew propaganda, especially to a captive audience in the airport. In English, so we know it was directed at us and not the locals. Putin uses any and all foreign media bashes on Russia to bolster his own popularity and prove the greatness of Russia, but unlike Trump who throws angry temper tantrums on Twitter when he doesn’t like what other countries (or his own’s) free press has to say about him, Putin and the state sponsored media are using … sarcasm.
“The more people watch, the angrier Hillary gets.”
“Warning! Propaganda Machine in action!”
“Missed a flight? Lost an election? Blame us!”
…and several more I failed to make note of. Other than remarking on a fascinating and somewhat frightening public communication tool, it had little effect on me, but seeing the way that these English slogans were written and presented in Russia made me take a serious think about some of the slogans coming out of the MAGA faction on social media, where the Russian trolls and bots live. Especially that one about making Hillary angry. I mean, why would Russians care if she’s mad? The only people still chanting “lock her up” are at Trump rallies.
Russia may have beautiful scenery and nice people, but that final interaction before boarding my flight was a chilling reminder that they are not now and possibly have never been our allies. The competition between “the West” and “the Soviet” has always been one of ideology, fought in the shadows with science and spies. When I look at things like “post truth” or “alternative facts” it seems like their ideas are creeping in like mold under paint.
I’m a big fan of multiculturalism and respecting cultures different from my own. I don’t know if it was my cold war upbringing, or if it’s a more objective analysis that things like “facts” and “free press” and “transparency” (glasnost) are necessary for a happy and healthy society, but either way, I just can’t accept the notion that Soviet ideology is the right way forward. I’m grateful to have had the chance, however brief, to visit. It helps me to remember that the people in each country are mostly kind and just want to live happily the same way we do. Whatever I think of their leaders or government policies, I hope I can always remember the regular people I met on the streets and in the subways who helped me when I was lost and shared the beautiful things in their city with me.
I am falling right behind on my goal of 1 blog post a week. In a desperate effort to get moving, I went and found the most complete draft on file, also the only one I wrote AFTER vacation instead of quick notes on a bus this summer. Maybe there’s a reason Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote such long novels. I was also inspired toward verbosity by my brief visit to mother Russia and I have had to split up the story into 2 parts. In part one: explore the bureaucracy of communism, the truth behind the soviet stereotypes, and an encounter at the Metropol Hotel.
Airports Are Ugly
I have flown through the Moscow SVO airport before. It’s not especially exciting, but their primary state run airline is dirt cheap so I find myself having layovers lasting on average 3-4 hours there. This time I had a 20 hour layover on the return flight. I can’t imagine many airports I would willingly spend 20 hours inside. As Douglas Adams once famously wrote, “There is a reason why no language on earth has ever produced the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.” Since the first time I read this I have had the singular experience to be in some of the best and worst airports in the world, and I can say with certainty that the Moscow International Airport is not a place to linger.
There are few places you can sleep inside the airport, like hourly rental sleeping pods, or even the airport’s very own hotel (the one Snowden hid out in). I looked into these and discovered that the prices are almost as much as the plane tickets. Even if you’re willing to camp out on the crowded and uncomfortable airport seats, there is no way to get WiFi unless you have a Russian phone number, so be prepared to be both uncomfortable and bored. In order to take advantage of any less expensive hotel (or WiFi) option, you have leave the airport, but unless you are from a very narrow list of close Russian allied countries, you can’t leave the airport without a visa. And you can’t get a visa at the door, you have to apply for and pay for that visa well in advance of your arrival.
You Need a Visa To Get In
Tourist visas to Russia require a letter of invitation. These are usually arranged by tour guides which seems like a giant scam, but that’s a whole other rant. Transit visas can bypass the letter requirement if you have proof of your ongoing flight. The transit visa can be used for up to 3 days if you’re flying and 10 if you are travelling by train.
Thus, my trip to Moscow actually started in June with the Russian Consulate in Busan, South Korea. Since they weren’t open on my day off, I got up very early in the morning on a Friday and bused into Busan to file my paperwork. I was able to fill out and download the application online and print it at my office, however the application took several hours to fill out because in addition to all the normal information, they wanted the exact dates of all my international travel for the last 10 years. They also wanted complete information on all my secondary education, and on my parents, and to know if I had any education whatsoever about nuclear weapons (I do!). I felt like I was filling out a background check for the CIA.
I nervously handed over the painstakingly researched application form and paid the 100$ fee, hoping that nothing would disqualify me from going and returned to my home to wait a week for the results. I shouldn’t have been worried. Communism loves bureaucracy and to make people jump the hoops and I have become an expert form filler. A week later I made the trek back to the consulate and my passport was returned to me with a shiny new 1 day visa inside. I booked a hostel and an airport shuttle and more or less forgot about it for 2 months.
When I landed in Moscow, it was just after midnight and amid a flood of Chinese tourists, but it didn’t actually take all that long to go through customs and immigration. Since I was technically on a layover with a connecting flight, I had checked one bag through and was only carrying my day pack and a basic change of clothes with me. My visa was scrutinized intensely. This guy busted out a jeweler’s lens to stare at it in minute detail. Eventually, finding nothing wrong, they allowed me to pass out of the international terminal and onto Russian soil.
There is an oddity about the Moscow airport in that the WiFi requires you to give a phone number where they will send you a code to log on. It’s “free WiFi” but you can’t access it if you don’t have a Russian phone number. It’s frustrated me every time I’ve flown through, and I’ve never been able to get it to work. Really, it’s free if you’re Russian, but it’s a taunting WiFi dream to international travelers. Knowing this, while still in Norway, I had downloaded the offline version of the Moscow map in Google maps (which is a lie), and the Russian language on Google translate (which I never actually used) as well as information about my hostel, just in case.
I got some money changed to Rubles, and I found my driver. If my flight had landed during the day, I might have tried out the public transit, but at midnight thirty I was happy to see a man holding a sign with my name on it and ready to take me directly to the hostel, even if the ride did cost more than the room. It was a long and empty ride through Moscow. I’m not sure if it was just the late hour but the roads were empty. And they were huge! City roads, with business and sidewalks, not like highways, just roads that were 10 lanes across, 5 lanes in each direction. I stared at them wondering how people crossed the roads on foot and even more if these behemoths aided in the flow of traffic. Do enough people in Moscow own cars for this to be actually useful or is it just for show?
Checking into the hostel was another long rigmarole of paperwork: fill this out, sign this, make a copy of my passport and visa, etc. I chose a cheapish hostel thinking since I only was going to get maybe 6 hours of sleep, I didn’t need much but I also carefully selected one that was highly rated with plenty of good reviews and a location that would make it easy to get to Red Square in the morning.
One day… the lesson is going to stick. When travelling in less affluent countries: spend the money on a private room! The hostel bed was around 10$ and a private room would have been about 30$. It’s a big difference and at the time I was thinking about every little penny because I wanted to keep my budget down and Moscow was already costing me 100$ just for stepping out of the airport. I had spent a single night in Paris in a dorm and slept pretty well, but that was Paris.
The hostel itself did not live up to my expectations based on ratings and photos. Looking back I can see those are real photos, but they were clearly taken when the interiors were brand new or at least recently deep cleaned. In reality the place was much more dark, dank, cramped and dirty than the photos represent. Even by the light of day. Now, I’m not saying it was a shithole… it did meet my minimum standards of clean and the staff were very polite in a cold sort of way, but I did not rest well.
Like many hostels in Europe, I was expected to make my own bed. The staff do not consider it their responsibility to put sheets on the bed, nor to remove them. I struggled with this as it was almost 1am and I had a top bunk and everyone else was asleep, so I couldn’t turn on the light. Also, the bedroom door seemed to have no lock at all. The bathrooms were very tiny and when you’re sharing a single bathroom with all the other women in a large hostel, that’s a challenge. One of my roomies snored so loudly that it made my bed actually vibrate. I could feel her snores. I put in earplugs, headphones, and squashed pillows, blankets and towels around my ears to no avail. When I got up to get dressed, there was no place private to do so.
The hostel included WiFi, which did work well, yay, and a free “breakfast”. In the morning I discovered this meant a choice of two sugar cereals, luke-warm milk, watery coffee, and packets of what I really think were yogurt powder. I couldn’t read the Russian labels and I didn’t try to eat it, but they were packets filled with what felt like a powder with pictures of bowls of yogurt and fruit on the front. And somehow this breakfast is rated 7.7 on Booking.com. In fairness, that is the lowest internal rating and every other criteria is rated 8.4 or higher. I don’t know what your life has to be like for this to be a 7.7/10 breakfast, but I never want to live it.
Just, please, if you see me talking about booking a hostel dorm in a developing country or a current/previous communist country STOP ME. I’m not trying to be a snob, but sleeping properly is so important to my well-being and my ability to enjoy waking activities and I just can’t sleep properly in those conditions. I envy the people who can.
Despite these setbacks and the severe lack of sleep, I was still determined to make the most of my day in Moscow. I had a detailed and timed itinerary that I hoped would allow me to see everything I wanted to before it was time to go back to the airport. The first thing I discovered is that the Google Map of Moscow isn’t great, and the offline function doesn’t really do anything. Here’s a pretty building I found while searching for the metro.
It took me ages to find the Metro station that was meant to be a 5 minute walk from my hostel in part because Google, and in other part because the Metro stations in Moscow don’t have any helpful signs with pictures or symbols to identify them. Maybe they say the name of the station on the outside, but I was looking for a big “M” or an icon of a subway train which has been a constant in every other metro system I’ve used. This is actually the logo for the Moscow metro and it was not on any of the buildings or any signs nearby.
When I finally realized that the big square beige building was the metro station, I had walked past it at least 7 times because I thought it was a government building like a post office or police station. It was much easier every other time because at least they all look the same. Of course I didn’t take a picture at the time, and now looking at stock photos of the building I see that it clearly has a big red M on top and a sign out front, so I can’t explain why it eluded me so. I blame sleep deprivation.
Once I found the entrance, I was happy to learn that the metro system itself is actually very easy to use, and cheap too. Rather than go through the hassle of buying a ticket for every trip, I just bought a 24hr pass for about 3$ US. That’s a whole day pass for less than the cost of a single trip in most EU countries, by the way, and goes a long way to explaining the powdered yogurt situation.
On top of its ease of use and affordability, the Moscow metro is famous for it’s unique and beautiful (on the inside) metro stations . At some point in the soviet era, it was a gift to the people to make each public transit station a work of public art. No one could visit them all in one day, but I tried to get some pictures inside the ones I did use. They are very very Soviet, but amazing works of art nonetheless.
Red Square Obscured
When I emerged from the station at Red Square I was instantly lost. I had expected the world’s largest public square to be visible from the metro station that shared it’s name, silly me. I adopted the time honored method of picking a direction and watching where my GPS dot went on the map. The first landmarks I ran across were actually the Metropol Hotel and the Statue of Marx. I recognized them from my plans as places I had intended to go later in the day, but it did help orient me to find Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral which was the top of my list for the day.
Sadly, I still don’t know what Red Square looks like, since there were about a million white tents set up and a large area blocked off and converted into a stadium for an upcoming festival. I walked slowly and perused the kiosks selling a narrow but colorful array of Russian souvenirs. I didn’t stop to buy, however because it looked mostly mass produced.
I also walked past the line to Lenin’s tomb, where he is preserved and laid out in a rather grotesque honorarium. Entrance to the monument is free, but there is no way to reserve an entry time, so people queue for hours for a chance to gawk at the dead body. I told myself it would be interesting if the line was short enough, but by the time I arrived around 10am, it was already all the way down the block and didn’t seem to be moving very fast.
St. Basil’s did not disappoint. It was crowded as heck, but it is a fun building. Everyone has seen at least one picture of the iconic colorful onion turrets and it was definitely a treat to see it in person. I wandered around trying to find the best angle for a photo, but since large swaths of the surrounding area were blocked off for the upcoming festival, it was a little challenging.
It’s possible to go inside for a fee, but online reviews all agreed that the cool part is on the outside. Bonus, there was a marching band practicing in the temporary stadium field nearby, so I got to watch a little bit of counter-marching through the fence and experience some serious cognitive dissonance as they played the 1812 Overture (for non-Americans, that’s because it’s a staple of our own Independence Day celebrations).
Checking the clock, I realized it was time to head over to the gardens and try to find the entrance to the Kremlin. Only, because the entire breadth of Red Square was fenced off with a giant temporary stadium and lots of souvenir booths, I couldn’t follow my pre-planned route and Google maps was turning out to be f*ing useless. Once more I adopted the “pick a direction and walk” method, which resulted in me walking nearly all the way around the Kremlin, which is not a small building. In the middle of my walk, the sky went from a bit overcast to “wrath of Neptune”.
I always have my travel umbrella but it would not have withstood the torrential downpour that issued forth from the skies. Lucky me, at that precise moment, I happened to be passing under the only cover for several blocks in either direction, a bit of scaffolding along one corner of the Kremlin’s outer wall. Even standing under the scaffold with my back to the wall, I could feel the spray from the force of the rain around me. I sat there as other pedestrians scurried to the shelter and wondered if my plans to explore outdoors would be totally rained out, and what I could possibly do instead with no working internet. But before I could even really start to work it out, the rain slowed to a drizzle and I felt confident in resuming my walk armed with my little umbrella.
When I did reach the entrance, I found another huge line for the people who already had tickets, and I continued on through the gardens in search of the ticket office.
What’s With All These Lines?
I know there is a stereotype about lines in Russia. Or at least there was when I grew up in the cold war in America. We were told about how people had to just stand in long lines for hours to get bread, or sometimes not even knowing what was being passed out at the head of the line or if there would still be any by the time you got to the front of the line. They were communism horror stories told to show us how terrible the USSR was and how great America and capitalism were by contrast. I know it was propaganda, but I’m not sure it was untrue. I had already seen the huge line for Lenin’s tomb, but I knew that was a free event, and no way to buy tickets in advance.
Looking at the line to buy tickets to stand in the line to get in at the Kremiln was just insane. I freely admit that I ignored my note to myself in my calendar to book those tickets online in advance. Everything else in Europe I booked before I even left Korea, but Russia only takes reservations for the Kremlin 2 weeks in advance. While I was in Sweden. I made a note to do it, and I saw the note, and I ignored the note. My own fault. However, looking at the lines, I am not sure I would have made it through the “advance ticket line” even with enough time to really see anything.
I am a bit sad I didn’t get to see the Kremlin and especially the museum with the historical art and artifacts of pre-communist Russia. However, if I do make it back to Moscow, I will dedicate a whole day to the Kremiln alone, knowing what I know now.
Fun With Costumes
Instead of sulking about it, I decided to move on and see what other fun things I could find. I was not disappointed. Shortly past the ticket office, the scenery livens up and I found some more public gardens, statues, fountains, and a quite charming pair of street entertainers dressed up in “historical” costumes and posing with tourists for tips. They made me smile and so I probably gave them more money than I should have, even though it was less than they asked for.
Continuing on I managed to find a slightly more accurate historical costume depiction where it seemed like a professional group was showing off the history of Russia and perhaps it’s trade partners with booths showing different herbs and spices, old astronomical tools and charts, paints and dyes, and other medieval type crafts and pursuits. It was all in Russian, though, so I wasn’t able to glean much from the informative talks the costumed historians were giving to the other folks in the park.
Thwarted at Every Turn
After a quick gander at the statue of Karl Marx and the Bolshoi ballet because I was standing right there,
I headed up to the Metropol Hotel to see what I could find in the way of a fancy lunch. I had found a few places on line that seemed to indicate there was a high tea available, and while the website of the hotel still had it displayed in some places, the actual “high tea” page was not working. Still, I had seen the restaurant menu and knew it would be ok even if I just had lunch.
The very first thing I saw was a bunch of construction and a sign saying the restaurant was CLOSED for repairs and upgrades. My optimism and adventurousness was wearing thin at the edges around now. So far, all of the things I’d set out to do with my very limited time in Moscow had either been harder than expected or totally impossible. I was also VERY hungry since the last meal I ate was a deli sandwich I got in Oslo the night before. I am not counting the bowl of sugar coated flakes at the hostel as a “meal”.
Clinging to the very last shreds of my “lets have a good time anyway” thoughts, I found the main entrance to the hotel to see if they were serving anything anywhere because I really didn’t know what else to do or where else I could go for a much needed lunch.
Although the staff at the hotel bar had no idea what tea ceremony I was talking about, (even though it’s on their website!) they were happy to seat me at a comfy chair in the lobby and bring me a menu. I ordered a “Stranger in Moscow” to drink, and salmon blinis for lunch.
The WiFi Is a Lie
When I went to explore the WiFi options, I discovered that the special nature of the Moscow airport WiFi was actually the rule of thumb for all Russian WiFi. I asked the staff if there was any way to log on, but without a room number or Russian phone number it was impossible. They didn’t even have a guest account available for customers of the bar or restaurant.
The more places I went, the more I realized this is just the way it works. Even Starbucks, a place famous for it’s free WiFi was inaccessible to anyone without a Russian phone number. So, if someone tells you not to bother with a SIM card because there’s plenty of free WiFi, well, they are both right and wrong. The WiFi is free, but you can’t use it without that SIM + Russian phone number. If I had known, I would have made the SIM a higher priority since it seems they are not too hard to find, but by the time I realized that WiFi was going to be impossible, I was more than halfway through my day and had no way to look up where to buy a SIM!
This obstacle was suddenly one straw too many in a morning full of them and I slowly began to leak from the eyes. I try really hard not to sink into despair or self pity when things don’t go my way on a trip, but everyone has a wall, and it gets closer with things like lack of sleep and low blood sugar, both of which I was suffering from at the time. It’s likely that I would have recovered after a some food and a rest, but that day I didn’t have to do it alone. A very kind fellow solo-female traveler sitting one chair over asked if I was ok and invited me to join her. She let me vent a little about my morning and then we quickly moved on to talking about our travels and experiences.
Lunch is Saved!
It did so much to lift my spirits and we chatted all through a leisurely lunch. The blinis were nice, a little sweeter than I was expecting for a seafood pairing, but not really much different from crepes.. maybe a little more oily? but not unpleasantly so. Out of curiosity I looked up the difference, and it’s yeast. Blinis have it, crepes don’t. The smoked salmon was delicious, and even though I had eaten lots of it in Sweden, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. Plus it was served with sour cream and salmon caviar so there was a nice blend of textures and flavors.
The Stranger in Moscow was a vodka drink made with Campari, ginger, and blackberry syrup. The presentation was stunning. The drink was quite different from the cocktails I have had before. It was more bitter than sweet which is usually a good thing for me and I attribute that to a healthy portion of the Campari, but there was a slight “cough syrup” aftertaste that I associate with Jagermeister or almost any cherry liquor. My best guess is that the type of blackberry syrup they used carried that flavor, which many people find appealing in drinks. It was also served with a tiny bowl of dark chocolate chips which made an excellent compliment to the drink. Quite a unique cocktail experience overall.
My lunch companion told me about the book “Gentleman in Moscow” which is set in the Metropol Hotel and I am now on the wait list to check that out of the library. In case you’re curious, a standard room at the Metropol runs close to 150$ US/night, but my drink and lunch were a much more reasonable yet still high for Russia $27 US together. I still wish I could have found that tea ceremony, but I am happy with the experience I had, especially with company to make it better.
Here’s a little slideshow with more photos from the first half of my day in Moscow. Please pardon the lack of music. I’ve been using YouTube Editor, and recently it’s decided to delete everything good and useful from it’s online service and I haven’t found a replacement yet. Stay tuned for part 2 where I go “off the beaten path”.
If there is one famous place that exemplifies Nagoya, it is the sprawling grounds of the reconstructed Nagoya Castle. I couldn’t possibly visit Japan’s fourth largest city without spending some time at it’s most famous historical monument! I was hoping to get a sunny day and take some sweeping landscape photos of this majestic structure, but the weather was not on my side. Even without the sun, Nagoya Castle was beautiful, fun and educational to visit. Plus, there were Ninjas!
I woke up Tuesday to the sodden realization that the weather forecast had changed again, and the rain was not going to stop until I was back in Korea. It wasn’t as bad as Monday, however, mostly cloud cover and the occasional sprinkle. I had forgotten my umbrella at the katsu restaurant the night before, but I wasn’t worried since umbrellas are for sale in every subway station and convenience store (right next to a huge steaming pile of foreshadowing).
Golden Bus or Subway?
I looked into the possibility of doing the Golden Tour Bus day pass. The Me-Guru is a kind of hop on hop off bus that runs around the most popular places in Nagoya. You can get a Me-Guru day pass for 500 yen which is great if you are planning to hit up several tourist hot spots in one day. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a stop anywhere near my friend’s house, so I was going to have to take the subway at least 2 times (out and back) making the 500 yen ticket less attractive to me. If the Me-Guru isn’t getting you where you want to go, you can also get a city day pass for subways for 740 yen, or subway bus combo for 850 yen.
The main attraction of the Me-Guru Golden Bus is that it drops you very close to tourist attractions that might otherwise be a hefty walk from the nearest regular bus or subway stop. Atsuta Jingu is very central and easy to access, but the Nagoya Castle and Tokugawa Gardens are rather out of the way. Lucky for me, the Me-Guru bus also offers single ride tickets for 210 yen which you can buy on the bus just like any other city bus. I would recommend the Me-Guru day pass if you happen to be staying anywhere near one of the bus’s stops, however I opted to take the subway (270 yen trip) to Nagoya Castle, then the Me-Guru to Tokugawa (210 yen), and finally the subway again (270 yen) back to my ersatz home base for a grand total of 750 yen.
I mention all this because it’s acutely important to figure out transit in Japan before you go unless you are made of money and time. Since most of us aren’t… Data plans and mobile WiFi hot spots are expensive and not really necessary given the proliferation of free WiFi, but it does mean you can’t to a Google search any time anywhere, you have to find the WiFi first. I like to research my routes over breakfast and take screenshots of the map and directions to reference later when I’m out of WiFi range. So, Tuesday morning, while I was enjoying my “morning service” again, I pulled up a million maps to see where I would go and how far I would have to walk/wait between each one. The public transit options between the Castle and the garden are dreadful. Hence the one stop Me-Guru ride.
If you don’t plan ahead, you may not know where the next bus stop/subway station you need is (it might not be the one you came out of or the closest one may not go where you want to go). You could find yourself walking farther than you want, which doesn’t sound like much, but we tracked our walking on Sunday and got almost 10 km in one day of aimless tourist meandering. It adds up fast, and while I don’t mind walking for health or enjoyment, I don’t want to waste vacation time and energy walking extra to the bus stop when I could be using it to walk through something cool! Plus, if you suddenly find yourself knackered from unexpected heat, humidity, and ridiculous amounts of walking (this happens to me at least once per vacation), taking a taxi back to your hotel in Japan could cost 50-100$, that’s US dollars, folks. Taxis are EXPENSIVE in Japan. Ubers are not better.
Let Them Eat Gold
From the nearest subway station, the walk into the Castle compound is down a little restaurant corridor that sells everything from Nagoya specialties to the Castle’s very own gold plated ice cream. Yes, gold plated ice cream. It’s not actually very expensive, and it’s highly Instagramable, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one as I have recently been complaining about the out-of-touch rich people in America eating gold plated tacos while children can’t get fed in school… soooooooo…. no gold ice cream for me.
The ice cream isn’t trying to be Richie Rich, it’s actually meant to imitate the golden tiger-fish that is the symbol of the castle. During my post vacation research phase, I got curious about how they could afford to sell these golden ice creams for 6-9$ a pop, and I discovered that you can buy edible gold sheets for surprisingly cheap. One seller on Amazon is selling 10 sheets for 7$. The gold taco I was upset about? 25,000$… US….At 0.70 per sheet, it may be silly to eat a golden ice cream cone, but it’s not actually Louis XVI levels of decadence and class warfare. Eat the rich.
Fire Bombing Damage
Nagoya Castle is the number one tourist stop in Nagoya and it’s not even finished! Almost everything you see there was destroyed by Americans in WW2 during the fire bombings. A fact the informative signs will not let you forget since everything you read will tell you how the original was destroyed and whether what you’re looking at is a transplant or a reconstruction.
Traveling around Asia, you inevitably see signs like this because nearly every temple, castle and historical site has been sacked during one war or another. In China and Korea, you find things that were destroyed by the Japanese. In Japan, you find things that were destroyed by the Americans.
The castle and grounds were still heavily under construction during my visit, but I’m told with some degree of excitement by the locals that the reconstruction should be finished this (2018) summer.
The first sight that greeted me walking in the gate was the tower of Hommaru Palace. The tower is done in a similar style to the main castle, but is much smaller. Once you get around the corner and over the moat, there is a beautiful brand new palace. According to the literature I was given to take home, the Nagoya Castle was declared a National Treasure back in 1930, but sadly destroyed in the 1945 air raids… ok they don’t call out America by name, but we all know. The palace compound has been undergoing reconstruction on and off since 1959, but the Hommaru palace reconstruction only started in 2009!
I am not an architecture buff, but I do enjoy a beautiful building. I especially appreciate that Nagoyans decided to use all traditional materials and craft techniques to remake the structure. It doesn’t just look like the original, it preserves the artistry and history of Japanese culture — not only the woodwork, but also the fittings, metalwork, and paintings. There was an intense research project designed to microscopically and chemically analyze the original scraps that survived the fire bombing (have we mentioned that recently, because Nagoya Castle does not want you to forget) so that the paintings could be replicated as authentically as possible.
Despite the chronic reminders of our history of conflict, the restoration process is fairly interesting. If you want to see more details, they’ve got a lovely website.
As I approached the palace proper, there was a group of Japanese businessmen having a chat in front of a very photogenic area. However, my faith in Japanese politeness was rewarded. As soon as one noticed me holding my camera (phone) nearby, they gestured to the others to move out of the way and we all smiled and bowed to each other before I went on to take the photo. So much politeness!
Following the path, I noticed an area where a few other visitors were lining up and entering the building so I paused to check it out. The staff were sooooo excited to share with me. They showed me a little video of how to tour the building correctly (no touching, no flash photos, etc) and explained the character in costume stopping all the bad behavior on screen was the father of the famous king who had ruled from this palace and a famous general.
I was asked to wear my backpack on my front to avoid bumping anything, and all of us were asked to remove our shoes before going inside. Slippers were available, of course, and there were free shoe lockers as well. For an extra 100yen, an audio tour of the palace was availble in several languages. I thought about getting the English one, but it was taking the staff 10+ minutes to set up the couple at the front of the line, and I wasn’t second in line. I decided to risk moving on less informed.
The palace itself is bright and open. Although the day was cloudy, the inside of the palace somehow still managed to feel sunny with the warm wood halls, paper windows, and gold accents. Drifting sock footed through the hallways, I felt a sense of what visiting the royal palace might be like. Everything was hushed and clean. The halls were made of the same pale wood on all 4 sides creating an effect of being inside a tree. Every few meters, the interior hall wall would open up into an opulent room. The 3 visible walls inside each room were covered with the ornate and painstaking replicas of the Edo period paintings.
In practice, each of the rooms would have had a specific ceremonially significant purpose. A room for receiving guests of a certain social standing or another. A room for dining, one for tea, one for drinking sake and listening to music. One room had a fire pit built gracefully into the floor and a hidden vent in the ceiling to carry the smoke of roasting meat and fish up and out. The low wooden bars are just to keep people from walking into it, not an actual part of the function. Indoor fire pit is now added to my list of things I want in my imaginary dream house of the future.
The palace doesn’t take long to explore and it’s included in the park entry fee. I highly recommend a walk through. On my way out, I ran into the very helpful staffer again. It turns out she had lived in America a while ago and was happy to practice English with me (although I don’t think she really needed “practice”) She told me some more about the restoration process and said I really needed to come back after the construction was complete to see it at it’s best. It made me happy that the people working there take so much pride and interest in the history and culture of the site. Enthusiasm is highly contagious and just talking with her made me more excited to be there.
Just after leaving Hommaru, the path turns a slight corner and suddenly there’s the first real view of the Castle proper. This was the real moment I was sad about the weather. Nagoya Castle is elevated, and huge, so any photo will have plenty of sky in the background. My cloudy, rainy day resulted in a very plain light gray sky instead of a fluffy cloud filled azure backdrop. Is it cheating to use filters?
Did I mention there are ambulatory ninja on the castle grounds? It’s part of a cultural and historical show. According to the ninja website, two words I never thought I would string together in a non-hyperbolic fashion, there are performances every weekend, but weekdays are listed as “hospitality”, a kind of meet and greet. I was there on a Tuesday, so I only met the two posing for photos and promoting their future shows.
No Nagoya Castle for Me
Sadly, the castle was closed for the finishing touches of construction, so I couldn’t go inside, but I’ve heard there’s an excellent view from the top. Looking at other people’s photos online, it seems the decoration style is very similar to that of Hommaru palace. The only truly distinctive thing I missed out on seems to be the huge Shachihoko (the tiger fish) that you can sit on and pose with, and the tall geometric stairwell. Next time.
Since the castle proper and some of the other areas were closed off for construction, I was encouraged to wander a little off the beaten path. In addition to stopping for teeny tiny flowers which earned me some very strange looks. (Why is she looking at the grass when the castle is right there?) I also wandered off into a little forest grove filled with large, semi-flat stones. It was not cordoned off, but also not really connected to the main walkway either. After some assistance from the Google oracle, it seems I discovered a stone tomb of unique historical properties.
I’m still unclear if it’s an original or a replica given the whole bombing debacle, and I don’t know why it was over there all by itself in an extremely unmaintained state in the middle of what were otherwise meticulously maintained grounds. The only informative sign was in Japanese and it mostly focused on the description of the architectural style, geography and time period with no mention as to its context near the castle. Still, it was pretty, and from inside the trees, I got some fun new perspective angles on the castle itself that don’t look identical to every other tourist shot on the web, so yay!
A large chunk of the grounds were completely blocked off during my visit. I found a few more interesting goodies like ancient gates and the working tea house where you can stop and have a traditional cup of matcha green tea and a sweet. Of course the souvenir shop would never be closed for construction, but I found the gardens to be a bit lackluster, as though they had not been tended to yet this year, so even though they were not blocked off, they weren’t exactly visitor ready.
Samurai and Shachihoko
On my way back toward the main gates, I happened to run into the Samurai. Ninjas AND Samurai. It’s like cosplay meets museum, so very Japanese. Much like the ninja, the Samurai pace the palace grounds daily for photo ops and perform shows on weekends and holidays. My desire to avoid weekend/holiday crowds may have backfired here, but the guys I met were pretty cool nonetheless.
The last important sight before my path led me outward was the Shachihoko – the fish tiger. What’s up with that? Well, it’s a mythological creature that is half fish (specifically a carp) and half tiger. The Japanese characters that make up the name of the creature is also a combination of “fish” and “tiger”. 鯱 (shachi) = 魚 (sakana, fish)+ 虎 (tora, tiger) Some argue that the fish is really an orca because “shachi” also translates as “orca” in Japanese. I love language.
It’s often put on temples and palaces to ward off fires, but in Nagoya it has become the special symbol of Nagoya Castle due to the two large golden Shachihoko on the roof. Most of the souvenirs, or omiyage, of the castle involve this magical creature in some way, and of course, so does the golden ice cream.
I do hope that I’ll have the opportunity to return to Nagoya again after the construction is complete. I would not only enjoy seeing the inside of the Castle proper, I suspect I would greatly enjoy the gardens and side buildings that were inaccessible during my visit. What little I could see through the scaffolding looked intriguing. Plus, next time I won’t feel guilty about trying that glittery frozen treat now that I know more about the edible gold market.
Due to the weather, there is no accompanying photo album to this trip, but I hope you’re enjoying the Instagram photos in the mean time. As always, thanks for reading ❤
Oh, and the umbrella foreshadowing? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the next post to find out about that adventure. 🙂
I don’t think that I ever truly appreciated food tourism for most of my life. Of course I like to eat locally, to try new foods, to sample the regional cuisine, but I’ve never made it a goal. It was always more of a side quest, a “since I’m here anyway, I might as well”. I thought I was doing quite well given the (not inaccurate) stereotype about American (and British) tourists who like to go to exotic places and then eat familiar foods. I thought my willingness to try was good enough. What did I know?
I have noticed since living in Korea that there is a strong feeling bordering on obsession with the famous foods of any given tourist destination. Not only outside of Korea, but regionally within the country as well. If you go to a certain place, it was taken as given that you MUST get some of the locally famous food. To do otherwise was simply unthinkable.
As my friend and I sat waiting for our food, I shared this observation with her and she made a politely stiffled “wtf whypipo” sound and tried not to look completely aghast. Her family is from Mexico (yes, she’s American) and she explained to me that as a Latina, for her and her family (and her culture as far as she is aware) it’s always about the food. I have to admit, I did feel a little abashed, but I have no reason to cling to my old ideas. I usually enjoy the hell out of eating locally, so why NOT make it part of my to-do list rather than merely adjacent to it?
Our first famous food sight was Yamachan, a chicken joint that is usually so popular that wait times can be over an hour. Yamachan is famous for chicken wings. Initially, I was very skeptical since I get plenty of chicken in Korea, but when we arrived we were sufficiently early as to be able to get a table. We had to take the smoking section, but it was still clear air when we were seated.
Smoking sections? Yeah, Japan has relegated smoking to a few small designated areas. You can’t just smoke anywhere, even outdoors. There are designated smoking spots with ashtrays. Some are open air, while others are actually a glass booth to protect passersby from the second hand fumes. Since people can’t just step onto the sidewalk for a smoke, restaurants have smoking sections. These are also cordoned off with floor to ceiling walls and sometimes even a double door airlock system to keep the smell from entering the non-smoking section.
Back to the chicken wings. Nagoya is famous for tebasaki, a crispy fried pepper spiced chicken wing. There’s no batter, so the wings are just fried nice and crispy on the outside, but moist on the inside. They are coated with a lightly spicy salt and pepper flavor that was zingy and enjoyable. Plus, each order comes with instructions on how to eat the wings Nagoya style (and get all the meat off in one swipe!). I found later that a lot of people consider these wings to be “quite spicy” so Korean cuisine might have impacted my spice meter, as I only found it pleasantly zingy.
Conveyor Belt Sushi
As we finished our plate of wings, the restaurant was filling up and the smoke was getting thicker so it was time to move on. After the tebasaki appetizer, our main course was to be conveyor belt sushi.
We arrived at Sushiro, the famous 100yen restaurant, only to discover that going to a popular restaurant on a Saturday night that is also a holiday means a long wait. Quelle suprise! The good news was that we’d already had some chicken wings, and it was our first time to catch up since parting ways in February, so the waiting area was just a place to sit down and chat by then.
This was a true dollar menu style conveyor belt place. Any dish that came by on a plain yellow plate was up for grabs and only 100 yen. If you wanted something specific, you could use the little computer at each table to place an order. I got some of my favorites (unagi, fatty tuna, salmon roe and more) and proceeded to stuff my face with sushi. It’s amazing to me that even though Korea and Japan are separated by only a narrow strip of ocean and both are heavy seafood consumers, the difference in ingredients and flavors is mind-blowing. Even in Japanese sushi restaurants in Korea, I have trouble finding things like tuna and eel. Salmon roe? Forget about it. I was in sushi heaven until I thought my tummy would explode and then the waitress came by to calculate our bill. She did this by measuring our stack of plates! They don’t even have to count, since each plate is the same height, they just hold up a special ruler and then type up the bill.
Two of us stuffing ourselves was still less than 12$. Japan doesn’t have to be expensive.
Amid the many things that I found to try while in Nagoya is the “morning service”. Many of the cafes around town have begun to offer a light breakfast (egg and toast or ogura toast) for free (“service” in Japanese) with any order of coffee. Sunday morning my friend and I headed over to Komeda Coffee. This cute little coffee shop is a chain restaurant famous for it’s special morning service of thick, fluffy, buttery toast and red bean paste, also known locally as “ogura toast”. While lots of places in east Asia love sweet red bean paste in pastry (I eat it in Korea all the time), Nagoya got famous for ogura toast by adding… wait for it… margarine! The sweet thick red bean spread with creamy salty margarine creates a unique Nagoya flavor that should definitely be on your “to eat” list. Plus, their coffee is pretty good.
In the spirit of being on vacation, and fondly remembering my childhood year in Japan I ordered a “cream coffee”, the picture of which looked like iced coffee with a generous twist of whipped cream on top. Vacation calories don’t count right? When I received my mega sized coffee drink, it turned out not to be whipped cream, but ice cream! Smooth, rich, vanilla soft serve floating on a small iceberg inside the cup. I am especially fond of red bean and cream, so I dolloped some ice cream on my toast for extra decadence. So good. And all for less than a Starbucks’s latte!
I went back to Komeda every morning of my holiday because it was a) close to my friend’s house and the subway, b) very reasonably priced breakfast, and c) SO DELICIOUS! Free WiFi and friendly, patient staff helped a lot, too.
The evening highlight of Sunday was a visit to one of Nagoya’s most famous restaurants, Atsuta Horaiken, to enjoy this local specialty. I know eel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve been in love with Japanese grilled eel since the first time I tried it. It’s flaky, smokey, sweet and savory. It’s everything a grilled fish should be plus some undefinable extra flavor that comes from the eel and it’s special sauce. Unagi sauce is actually sold in stores because it’s such a unique blend. I bought some once to make eel at home and had so much leftover sauce I started eating it with eggs, which turns out to also be good. Anyway, when I found out that one of my favorite Japanese foods was ALSO one of the most famous local dishes of Nagoya, I immediately put it on my to do list.
Bear in mind that Japan was just finishing a holiday weekend on Sunday, so for many folks it was the last fling before going back to work on Monday. To make matters worse, this famous and delicious restaurant doesn’t take reservations on holidays or weekends, it’s first come first serve. We tried to make a reservation for one of the weekdays I was in town, but they were booked solid. Instead we planned to head over about 30 minutes before opening and get a good place in line. When we showed up, the restaurant had workers stationed all the way down to the elevator to show visitors where to go, and very polite hostesses were arranging guests on a looooooong line of chairs in the open space in front of the restaurant.
We were only about 20 people down the line and were honestly quite excited about it, since we were originally prepared to wait an hour or more for a table. Even better, the restaurant started seating people well before the posted opening hours. I’m not sure if it was because of the holiday or because it was the last weekend this particular location would be open before prolonged remodeling. Whatever the reason, we found ourselves playing musical chairs for a remarkably short time. I love the fact that the restaurant had seating in the waiting area. While I think pagers might have been a better way of alerting guests that a table was ready, it was a little exciting to be in line and to shuffle seats every time someone ahead of us went inside.
They also brought us an English language menu while we were waiting so that we could peruse the options, and the hostess did her best to make recommendations and give explanations in English for us as well. I really appreciate this because although my Japanese isn’t half bad, I am terrible at the super polite version of Japanese. Especially fancy shops and restaurants will often use a version of Japanese that is so formal I can’t understand it anymore, and then I just end up feeling embarrassed.
Hitsumabushi is NOT cheap. A single order is almost 40$. Both of us wanted to have some, but we were also eyeing an appetizer on the menu that was tamago (egg) with eel filling. In the end we decided to order the 1 ½ size hitsumabushi and one of the egg eel omelettes to share. The omelette arrived first and was quite delicious. The egg was light and fluffy and the eel inside was rich and savory. I think if it had been my dinner choice I would have been a little sad, but it was a perfect appetizer experience.
Finally, the star of the show arrived. Hitsumabushi is served in a huge wooden bowl with a tray full of fixings. We were issued careful instructions on the proper way to eat this delightful dish. On the surface, it looks like unagi-don, a bowl of rice with eel on top. However, the Nagoya style eel is thinner sliced and has a crispier exterior than regular unagi. Also, it’s not drenched in eel sauce.
We ate according to the instructions, spooning ¼ of the large bowl’s contents into our smaller personal bowls and eating it plain at first. I was impressed straight away.
Even in normal restaurants, eel is one of the more expensive dishes. I tend to avoid buying it here in Korea because it’s often not prepared well. Nonetheless, it is one of my all time favorite Japanese foods. The “plain” hitsumabushi still had plenty of flavor. Of course the smokey, fishy unique flavor of the eel itself, but also a lighter version of the sauce it’s cooked with, as well as the vinegar in the rice. It had so much of what I look for in a good meal, I instantly knew the price was well worth it.
The second ¼ of the dish is meant to be served with the dry fixings provided in the little side box. In our case, we were given small slices of spring onions, thinly shredded nori (seaweed), and what very well may have been fresh wasabi. Most wasabi in the world is fake, sadly, it’s just green horseradish. Now, I love horseradish too, so that doesn’t usually bother me. I’ve learned a little about fresh wasabi from watching cooking shows and documentaries, but I’ve never had any. When I looked at this wasabi, I noticed the texture was very different from what I’m used to. Instead of a smooth paste, it had little shredded bits of plant matter.
Real wasabi is a root that is grated to get wasabi paste. I thought that the texture could be an indication of fresh grated wasabi. I tasted it on it’s own as well before adding it to my bowl and found that it was lighter, fresher and less “bitey” than what I’m used to in wasabi paste. It didn’t even try to get up my nose. Again, it lines up with everything I’ve read about the flavor of real/fresh wasabi. Excited by this prospect, I added some of each ingredient to my bowl and lightly mixed them together.
Whatever I thought of the wonderful flavor and texture qualities of the first unaltered bowl were blown straight out of my mind. Everything wonderful about the plain hitsumabushi was suddenly illuminated by fireworks-like bursts of green umami jumping out of the simple yet high quality spices I had added in round two. Sometimes, I go too long between truly spectacular life changing meals. I lose sight of the artistic heights of food that were so poetically expressed by a cartoon rat. Worse, I may even come to look at food as a burden, simply fuel for my body with no other reward, if I am kept in sub-par food land for too long. But then a restaurant like this comes up and gives my taste receptors and limbic system something to scream about and I remember what is possible. This isn’t just food tourism, it’s heaven in a bowl.
Round 3 we were instructed to replicate round 2 and then add broth. I don’t really know how to describe the flavor of the broth. It was also a little smoky, a little umami. I suspected there were some dried shitake involved in the flavor as well as some konbu dashi. It was nice, but for my taste it didn’t really add to the flavors the way that the spices alone had. Additionally, it drastically changed the texture of the dish, turning crispy eel and rice into a wetter soup. It was still delicious, and I’m glad that I was able to try all the different styles of eating hitsumabushi, but I was grateful for that final ¼ serving where we were instructed to return to whichever of the first three we had liked best and do it again!
By the time we finished, I was on an insane food flavor high and I thought my stomach might explode. If this experience sounds like something you want to try, don’t worry, although the Sakae location is closing, there are other branches of Atsuta Horaiken around Nagoya you can visit.
What flavor is that?
Our last stop before going back to the apartment was a kind of bargain grocery store. Advantage of shopping with someone who lives there is that they’ve found and vetted all the cheap places before you got there. My friend was actually just stopping in for some toilet paper, but I decided to wander the candy section to see if I could find some unique chocolates to bring back to friends in Korea. This is more challenging than it sounds since most Japanese brands of candy are sold here in regular shops. What I found was a wall of every flavor of kit-kat imaginable.
I don’t even really like KitKat as a candy bar. It’s always tasted a little like sweet cardboard to me. But the Japanese are obsessed with it. I love finding new flavors of standard “American” candy in other countries. I found the all-caramel milky way in Saudi, I found an infinity of Dove flavors in China, I found the hazelnut Snickers here in Korea (omg like nutella and snickers had a baby, whaaaat?), but Japan has outdone everyone on variations of KitKat.
I have seen several in the past, most notably green tea, and white chocolate raspberry. This wall… had…. everything…. I took photos only of the most bizarre flavors, but there were local apple flavors, Hokkaido creme flavors, 2-3 different versions of redbean including regular and ogura toast at least, but the winners of the unique flavor awards go to: sweet potato, rum raisin, sake (yes the rice wine), and (drumroll please)…. Wasabi.
I have no idea what any of them taste like because they were only sold in huge boxes and I could not really justify spending 8-10$ on a giant box of candy just to know what it tasted like. I promise if I ever see them on sale individually packaged, I’ll report back on the flavor.
What I did buy that evening was no less a flavor twist than green tea flavored Khalua liquor. I found a tiny bottle for 6$ and decided that was a very reasonable price to sample this experimental flavor and get an evening cocktail, too! My first time to have green tea and coffee together was a green tea ice cream affogato at the Boseong tea fields last year. Basically green tea ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over it. It was insanely delicious so I had high hopes for the Khalua. We grabbed some milk at the convenience store and settled in to experiment.
The actual liquor is not a color/texture that you really think of for drinking. It’s thick and a mixture of dark green and dark brown… yeah… appetizing. I tasted a little straight for science and it was, unsurprisingly, very sweet and very strong. Once we added ice and milk, the liquid became the appealing green color of a green tea latte and the flavors had more room to play. I think a little vodka would have rounded the whole thing off nicely, as it was still very sweet for my tastes even with the milk, but I liked the play of green tea and coffee together.
One of Nagoya’s other famous foods is kishimen. I had heard there was some near Atsuta Jingu but I didn’t realize that it was inside. Following the signs and my nose I discovered a small kitchen and covered picnic table area where the famous soup could be ordered in several styles.
Side note: It is so important to carry cash in Japan. I don’t even understand how one of the most high tech countries in the world that invented paying for things by tapping your mobile phone on them still has so many places that are cash only, but it does. Temples especially and tourist facilities in general, just about any smaller shop or restaurant (not convenience stores of course, they take cards), and all the machines you use to charge the transit cards also only take cash. It is one of the great mysteries of our age.
I was running low on cash because I’d spend some to make donations earlier in the day, so I was just able to get the basic Miya Kishimen, also the name of the shop, for 650Yen.
Kishimen is similar to udon, but the noodles are wider and flatter than a typical udon noodle. I also found the flavor of the broth to be quite distinct with a very smokey aspect as well as undertones of salty and sour for a very piquant profile. Maybe it was the experience of eating in the picnic pavilion in the middle of the beautiful forest, but I thought the noodles were definitely worth it, far above the average udon eatery. There was a self service tea station with lovely tea, and several signs warning patrons to beware the crows. I assume the greedy little scavengers… I mean clever sacred corvids… will hop over and steal any unattended food. The sign and the crows did little to dispel the vague aura of haunting I was experiencing that day, but I think that just added to the fun.
Dinner Monday night was one more Nagoya specialty, Miso Katsu. Katsu is a panko fried pork cutlet that is pervasive throughout Japan. It is also one of 3 Japanese foods that can reliably found at “Japanese” restaurants in Korea, so while I like it fine, I was not initially excited about going out for katsu. But, all of my local food finds so far had been better than expected so I agreed to give it a whirl. My friend got off work and met me down at one of the famous chains, Yabaton.
Regular katsu is delicious when cooked well. It’s essentially fried pork, so it is hard to go wrong, but the best versions are very tender cuts of meat and crisp flaky fried exteriors. Bad versions are tough and greasy, obviously. What makes Nagoya’s miso katsu so special is that they pour a red miso sauce over the katsu just before you eat it (so as not to make things soggy). Miso is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking, and most foreigners are at least familiar with Miso soup, which is typically made from white miso. White miso is soy beans fermented with mainly rice. The flavor is fairly light and mild. It’s pleasantly tart and goes well with seaweed and green onions. Red miso on the other hand is made of soy beans fermented with barley or other dark grains. The flavor is quite pungent and may be an acquired taste. It’s not like “stinky cheese” pungent or anything, so don’t be scared to try it, but it is a good deal stronger and darker than what you may have experienced in the past with miso soup.
The pork at Yabaton is excellent all by itself. Tender and juicy cuts of pork, fried in fluffy panko breadcrumbs with little to no extra grease. When the waiter brought our bowls to the table, he also brought a container of thick, dark red miso sauce which he poured over the katsu with a flourish. I was impressed at how well the flavors went together and how much I enjoyed the red miso. It may be the most unique katsu experience I’ve ever had and I’m so glad I didn’t skip it just because katsu is “common”.
Japanese convenience stores are called colloquially by the Japanglish word “conbini” short for “convenience” in a language without “v”s. By my friend’s request I popped into the local convenience store on my last night as her guest to get dinner. When I lived in Yokohama for a summer, I often made meals from the conbini. There’s bento (lunch boxes), onigiri (amazing rice triangles stuffed with yum and wrapped in seaweed), and a plethora of random foods to pick and choose from.
Conbini food is almost always fresh. It’s a stark contrast to gas station foods in America that are filled with preservatives and have a shelf life sometime past the nuclear apocalypse. You can actually eat healthy from a Japanese convenience store. After days of dining out, my friend was craving a simple salad, a bag of greens costing about a dollar. I had been grabbing onigiri (one of my fav snacks) for lunches and afternoon pick me ups all through the vacation so far, so I looked to see what else was available for eats and I found a conbini food I had entirely forgotten the existence of!
During my summer stay, I ate these cold noodle bowls ALL THE TIME. It’s in the refrigerated section, and has a plastic bowl with fresh udon noodles and packets of sauces and toppings. Back in 2015 the ones I got had a fresh egg, but the one I found this time had what I think was dehydrated egg? Maybe a new health law? Anyway, I found the flavor that was my favorite and was very excited to get to have it again after almost 3 years. I also got myself a “long day” reward: juice box sake! That’s right, you can buy sake in a cardboard box with a straw. Your inner kindergartner and your outer adult can both be happy as you sip booze from a tiny box.
Travel and food are such a huge part of my life. Although I had previously taken my responsibilities as a food tourist lightly, I’m vowing not to do so in future and thus my summer plans involve ever growing lists of “famous foods” I have to seek out in each place. I’m not turning this into a food blog full time, but I think I’m going to take a cue from Mr. Bourdain and let my belly lead the way in a few more adventures.
In fond memory of Anthony Bourdain, who’s shows about exploration and food contributed to the desire I have to travel and share what I find. Thank you.
Every job overseas I’ve had so far has provided housing. One of them didn’t technically provide, but did everything besides sign the lease and pay the bills. Despite having lived and worked abroad for several years, I’ve never had to deal with this particular aspect of expat life. Moving to Gyeongju was more than a little nervewracking because I didn’t know anyone here, the school was not going to provide an apartment or even help in finding one, and my apartment in Busan would be unavailable by February 25 (2 days after my last day at that job). Not every adventure is a holiday.
In the US, when I had to look for an apartment, I would go online (or in the old days, open a newspaper) and look at ads, then go visit the apartment manager and view the unit. The one time I moved across the country as an adult, I chickened out and signed up for student housing so I could put off apartment hunting until I was in the same city. How did I get to this point in my life without having this skill?
I managed to find some online sources for rentals in Korea and was preparing to try to navigate them despite the language barrier, but reviews online revealed that they were just ads for real estate agents and that the listings and photos shown were almost never real. Housing in Korea is usually brokered with a real estate agent, budongsan. Like every other critical service here, they operate during the same hours I was required to be at work in EPIK. Plus, Gyeongju is an hour away from Busan, making a quick afternoon apartment hunt completely impossible. One of the teachers at the University said her friend who spoke Korean well had volunteered to help me hunt down a place after the staff meeting on Feb 22 (remember, I was getting booted from my existing place on the 25th), and I gratefully accepted, and asked what I could do to prepare because I literally had no idea about the town or about renting apartments in Korea. “No, no, it’s so easy, we’ll just walk into an agent’s office and they’ll find you a place that’s ready to go.” I did some research anyway.
In Korea, most people rent their apartments jeolsei style by paying for a whole year of rent up front at once. Weirdest part? They get it all back when they move out! I still have no idea how this financial arrangement works for the property owners, but by and large, I think it sheds some light on the crazy world that is “money”. Sadly, I had no idea I was going to have to rent my own place so I hadn’t had time to save up that much. Ironically, I was going to get enough in severance pay and contract bonuses to bring me up to enough, but I wouldn’t get the money in time. Which says more things about how the rich stay rich and the poor loose money, because if you have the money to rent a whole year at once, then you don’t actually have to spend it, you just have to let someone else use it for a year. But if you don’t have that lump sum, you’re stuck actually paying a monthly rent.
Monthly rent in Korea, or wolsei, is still miles lower than it is in the US, and my salary includes a housing stipend so it’s not actually something to complain about. I am, however, trying to put aside the cash to change to the lump sum system when I renew the lease next year. If you can’t do jeolsei lump sum, then a large deposit of key money is still required in addition to the monthly rent. The larger the deposit, the smaller your monthly payments, and you get the deposit back at the end (minus damages). That was what I had to do. I read that the key money could range anywhere from 2-5,000 US and I was already worried that the upper range of that could clean me out if I had to pay it before my February payday (which happened to be the same day they were kicking me out).
I tried getting advice about where to live in Gyeongju but as with every Facebook page in the history of Facebook, no two people can agree and at least 60% of the comments will be random, useless, wrong, or cruel. I tried looking at the map to get an idea of where the university was, where the bus routes were and where the good amenities were, but it was really difficult to make sense of the map when I had only been to the bus terminal and university once for the job interview and nowhere else.
Confusion and Disappointment
The day of the staff meeting, I headed out in the afternoon with two other teachers to look for my apartment. First, they went to their own apartments to drop off things and get ready for the march around town. They lived in a more recent development with an elevator and nice view of the river, but as I asked more about what was around them, it turned out to be a whole lot of other apartments. The nearest corner shop was a 5-minute walk and there were no nearby restaurants, cafes or bars. I was trying to be as polite as possible because they clearly liked their neighborhood and thought I would too, but as we walked out looking for the real estate agent, the office of which my guide could not remember the location of, I was getting very disappointed very fast.
The first agent was super confusing. He wrote down a bunch of numbers and my “translator” had no idea what he was saying. Later we realized it was the price difference between the two types of rental agreement, but at the time I didn’t really feel comfortable about it and his price points were a little high. We wandered aimlessly around the neighborhood as they tried to remember ‘that one really helpful lady”. I never want to sound ungrateful when someone has offered to help, but it seemed to me as though they had no plan whatsoever, but neither had they given me any guidance on what I should plan. Agent after agent, we visited. Some had no one rooms apartments, others had only unfurnished units (which in Korea also means no a/c unit, no refrigerator, and no washing machine). We finally found someone who had a furnished apartment in my price range and we headed off on foot to take a look. The day was unseasonably warm for February, and I had been walking a lot already. I was so hopeful about the apartment, but by the time I mounted the stairs between the third and fourth floor, I realized there was no way I could do that every day. (yeah, I’m out of shape, but unless there’s a temple or a stunning view at the top, 3 flights of stairsis my limit). On top of that when the agent opened the door to reveal the room it was so tiny I felt claustrophobic. Trying to stay kind and polite yet be firm, I had to reject it.
Finding an Agent However frustrating it was, it became clear that I had to get really specific with these agents if I didn’t want a top floor shoebox. The list of what I wanted was getting longer with every agent, and predictably, more of them said, no way. Eventually, my guides realized that their neighborhood was really made for families and multi-person housing and that we should go to a different area to find more singles. We called a taxi and while we waited the volunteer apartment finder told me that there were never any taxis on the road in that area but they always showed up quickly when called. As we drove away, I felt intensely grateful that I had escaped that area, bereft of shops, food, and transportation options. It was a lot like the American suburbs, except all apartments and no McMansions. When we arrived in Seonggeon-dong, I instantly felt better. I could see the plethora of tiny shops, and shops stacked on top of shops that I had become accustomed to in Busan. I knew nothing here would compare to Seomyeon, a bustling shopping, party and medical tourism hub, but it was a solid relief to see that not all of Gyeongju was built on the soccer mom model.
We asked the driver to stop as soon as we spotted a real estate agent (the green one) and headed in. She was the very answer to my prayers. With the mild exception that she did not speak any English, she was perfect. Kind, attentive, and very good at explaining in Korean in such a way that us poor waygook (foreigners) could understand. I realize in retrospect that there are a lot of waygook in this area. Most are not native English speakers, but they can speak a modicum of Korean, so that makes more sense as to how she got so good at explaining things to non-Koreans. We rattled off the long list of things I wanted and lowballed the price tag (having had some price issues with every previous agent) and she didn’t look even slightly phased, but instead nodded confidently and opened up her bright pink planner and began flipping pages and texting on her phone. Within a few minutes, she had gotten in touch with a nearby apartment that was fully furnished and on the second floor, close to the bus lines and the university, with internet included in rent, and well within my price range.
Finding a Room
As we walked over, I was pleased to see a wide range of restaurants and cafes. She pointed out the CCTV cameras and the high school at the end of the road. The presence of the all-girls high school meant extra police presence and security cameras so the neighborhood would be safe for me.
The Facebook group of longer-term Gyeongju expats had advised against this particular neighborhood because it was “too dangerous”, so it was clear to see that word was getting around. As far as I can tell, some Thai folks got drunk and had an argument that ended with knives, but it was personal. Additionally, some of the blue-collar expats were creeping on the white-collar expat ladies. Being American, it takes rather more than this for me to be worried, but it was nice to see that the police were taking the issue seriously and I spotted several bright yellow signs about making it a safe alley, as well as plenty of cameras and even some police call buttons on telephone poles. The building was small with a hair salon occupying the ground floor. We headed up, hoping that the apartment itself would not be a grand disappointment. Looking inside I was instantly pleased. Perhaps my standards had been lowered by the other places we’d visited, but I felt like the layout of the room, and the provided furniture was ample for my comfort. Although it is a “one room” the kitchen, bathroom, and balcony/laundry room all have doors. The main room had not only a bed but also a desk, dresser, armoire, and bookshelf. The only odd part was that the refrigerator lived in the main room instead of the kitchen.
moving day, it will never be this clean again
I was fairly sure I was not going to find anything significantly better, and my guides were starting to lose patience with me. I would not have settled for something that had problems just to wrap up earlier, but I didn’t feel the need to go on searching with the evening coming on.
We headed back to the office to draw up the paperwork. In Korea, it’s standard to pay a 10% deposit on the day the contract is signed and then pay the remainder of the key money on the day of move in, which was going to be a huge help to me since I could then get my February paycheck in the bank before having to pay the large deposit. The agent was kind and patient and helpful the whole way through. Even when mistranslations popped up, she worked at it until we were all on the same page. Then she had myself and the building owner sign three copies of the lease (one for each of the three of us) and I transferred the deposit and her agent’s fee via my mobile app. No sooner were we back out on the street than my guides departed in a rush. I was left with the impression that they had expected this chore to take an hour or so at most and that they somewhat regretted having made the offer of help.
If I had to do this kind of thing again, knowing what I know now, I would have hired one of the professional expat aides. There are bilingual people here who hire out services not only as translators but to find things too. I think I would have been more comfortable discussing my exact needs with someone who was being paid to help me that I had been with someone who volunteered to help. Additionally, she might have been able to have a list of agents and apartments ready for me on the day we met in Gyeongju so there was less aimless wandering involved. Live and learn. This isn’t an ad. It’s the person I wish I’d called. In case you live here and need her, too.
Here to There The only thing that remained was to get my crap from Busan to Gyeongju, about an hour away. I had not done any packing prior to getting the job offer because I didn’t know if I was going to be moving to a new place in Korea (taking most of my stuff with me) or moving to another country (reducing life to a maximum of 3 suitcases and a carry on). Once I knew I was going to Gyeongju, I thought of the idea of spending a day going back and forth with my 2 existing suitcases until everything was moved, but that would not work for my toaster oven and small shelves. My next choice was to hire a moving company. I knew that one of the other teachers had recently moved from Busan to Gyeongju and asked who she had used. It turned out not to be a company or anything, but just some guy with a van. She called him while we were waiting for the lease to be ready to sign and made arrangements for him to come and collect me and my things that Saturday.
Moving out of my place in Seomyeon wasn’t too hard. There was a garage so he was able to pull in and be quite near the elevator. We loaded my awkwardly packed boxes (which I had scavenged from the cardboard recycling piles of nearby apartment buildings) and headed off. It strikes me now that the things we take as normal are constantly changing, because I’m reasonably sure that if someone told me I would be in a minivan with a Korean guy I was paying in cash to move me and all my worldly possessions (pictured here) I would have at very least felt that was a sketchy situation, and yet, there I was, half listening to music in one earbud and half conversing with the mover in broken English. Totally normal.
He was a bit flustered that we had to stop off at the agent’s office first, but I had no access to the building yet. I had to make the final payment and get the door codes before we could unload the van. The agent was with another couple at the time we arrived so she offered us tea and we waited in the office while looking at a wall-sized map of the town and discussed the various historical parks. Finally we bustled over to the apartment where I had a rollicking rush of a time trying to get all the information about door codes, gas, electricity, heating, a/c, hot water, and other apartment amenities while trying to haul my boxes and suitcases from the main entryway and up the stairs to my new place. There was no one at all to help me translate that day, and while the driver did speak some English, he took off as soon as the van was empty.
Haphazards of Not Being Fluent
I noticed at once that there didn’t seem to be any internet. As this was meant to be included in the price of rent, I was understandably concerned. Additionally, I could not seem to get the heater panel to work properly. It was decently warm that day, and I had a heating pad for the bed, but I knew I would need more than that. They tried to tell me that the phone jack was the internet port and I should simply plug my computer into it, and I’m like, no that’s the wrong kind of port. I know that ethernet cables and phone jacks look similar, but they are really not interchangeable. I had to show them an ethernet cable and the port on my computer before they got the point.
The agent wasn’t able to get the internet figured out, but I was told if I needed it urgently I could use the computer in the hair salon… which was… very… kind? But ultimately didn’t solve my desire to get online and stream shows. My phone kept me connected to email and social media, but a girl wants to unwind with some Netflix after a long stressful move. The agent did manage to get the heat on, but then we couldn’t seem to change the temperature at all. The apartment manager was busy and would be for several hours, so I was left on my own until then. A bit later, the manager (the owner’s wife I think) came by and tried to call her daughter to translate for us, but her daughter didn’t really speak English either, so things just got more confusing. Eventually, it came down to the fact that they had not installed a router prior to my arrival even though we had agreed on a move-in day, and that it was too late to do anything about it until Monday. I wondered idly if I would have been better off going a block up the road to the nearest mobile shop and buying a wifi egg, but I decided to try and stick it out. She fiddled some with the heater and it became obvious she had no idea how it worked either, and then she left.
I should be clear, I don’t expect the people here to speak English well (ok, maybe I expect my students to, but that’s my job). I know I live in a country where English is not the norm and I am ok with that. I was able to make my issues clear enough with my broken Korean and simply showing the agent and manager the problem. I don’t expect the world to cater to me in English, but I DO expect to have functional heating and other utilities included in my lease (and this one included internet). The language barrier just made that one step further into the absurd and frustrating.
The Internet of Life
I did get internet on Monday, sort of. Some dudes showed up and plugged in a router. The whole internet thing works differently in the US than really anywhere else. In the US, cable guys show up and plug the router into a special cable port in the wall and then activate your internet through that, but the router is just a way to route info from the cable port to Ethernet or WiFi. In Saudi, it was literally just a box you plugged into the power outlet only. I could take the router from my office at school home on the weekends and use it to connect to the internet. In my apartment in Busan, it was wired directly into the wall in a very flimsy connection, but there was no port. Here, the router is apparently plugged into that phone jack they wanted me to plug my computer into in the first place. Maybe that’s why it’s crappy internet? I don’t really know.
I spent several hours fighting with it that Monday, however, trying to first set up the WiFi and a WiFi password since I did NOT want everyone in the building all up in my WiFi and the dudes who “installed” (took it out of the box and plugged it into the wall) also had no idea how to do that part. I was using my phone to look up expat blogs about the WiFi router to see if anyone could explain it in English. Finally, I found one, but I ended up having to go through the steps multiple times because the connection was so shabby and the websites kept timing out.
Again, it’s not so much that I expect my Korean router to come with English instructions as it is that I expect the two experts who came into my home to install it would know how to set up the wi-fi and password. That’s set-up guy stuff, right? Otherwise, why are there two of you in my house? I also read the Korean instructions and they did NOT contain the necessary information either. I suspect this is the cheapest company on the market.
Eventually, I got it set up and was all ready to go with my security and passwords and wifi, but then I realized it wasn’t strong enough to stream, which is about 90% of what I do with my computer at home. (I write at the office or in cafes). Thankfully, I purchased a loooong ethernet cable back in Japan when I was living in an apartment that only had wifi in the public rooms, but needed wires for the bedrooms. It’s a little awkward, but it works more often than not and I haven’t felt the need to throw the router out the window since that first day (at least, not more than once or twice).
The Mystery of Ondol Heating
The heater is still a bit of a mystery. I think there are some loose wires and that the reason we couldn’t move the temperature is simply that sometimes you have to push the button 10-20 times before it registers you’re trying to do something. I’ve thought about trying to take this up with the management to see if they’ll replace the panel, but I just haven’t had that much energy. I’m also working on understanding the mode which turns the hot water on without heating the whole room.
In Korea, apartments are heated by hot water in the floor (ondol). If you look that up, you get these great old images of fire heated homes. However, modern Korean homes do not rely on open flames for heating, and instead make the floor warm by means of pipes filled with hot water. The same hot water you use to bathe or wash dishes in. If you want a hot shower, you have to turn on the water heater, but if it’s not winter, you may not want to turn on the floor. Of course, all the buttons are done up in some kind of shorthand, so Translate is no help, and thus I’m back to exploring the wide world of longterm Korean expat blogs to see who was helpful enough to post the meanings.
Why am I not posting the meanings here, you ask? Because I’m less than 40% sure of my interpretation and I just can’t put out information that sketchy. Plus, every place has a different dang way of doing it. I left detailed instructions for the next person in my old apartment because I knew what all those buttons did after 2 years of living there. I still have no idea what the words next to the buttons were saying because of the whole shorthand issue, but at least I knew what they DID.
There are three lights on my new heating panel. I have so far figured out that one of them is everything is hot (floor, water, etc), and that one of them is hot water only, but I still have no idea what the third light is for. It seems to be an “away mode” that is designed to keep pipes from freezing in the winter if you’re gone, but I don’t know how that’s different from doing either of the other 2 modes and just setting the temp at something low. Hopefully, I’ll figure it out before I go on holiday next winter.
Home Sweet Home However much I miss my floor to ceiling windows and two different places to sit in my last apartment, I am happy beyond reason to have a shower that is capable of both pressure and heat simultaneously and understands that there is a temperature range between scalding and freezing.
There isn’t a security guy downstairs 24/7, but the salon ladies are nice and there’s a code access to the stairwell and garage, so people can’t just wander in. I’ve had a few packages delivered and the postman has no trouble leaving them at my door, safe from the weather and the traffic.
In the meantime, I’ve visited Daiso to get a few extra doodads for the kitchen, I’ve moved the old tube style tv out to the balcony and converted the tv stand to a nightstand. It took a couple of weeks for me to make it all the way through the final boxes, but I have managed to decorate the room with all my little pretties so it feels more like “home” every day.
Have some more spring flowers from campus 🙂 And, as always, thanks for reading ❤