Thursday, June 5, 2008
On my second day in Tokyo in rained all day so I decided to go to see some museums. I headed to Ueno where most of the major museums and the zoo are. I went to the Tokyo National Museum Main Hall and the Hyokei-kan which had a special exhibit on national treasures from the Yakushi-ji Temple. The special exhibit was very popular I had to wait an hour in line to see it. It was like being at Disneyland. The exhibit was cool but it really wasn't worth the wait,it has some cool Buddha statues and some pieces of an ancient pagoda along with other artifacts. The main hall was great it showed art and artifacts in historical order starting from some pieces that were over 5000 years old all the way to modern ones. The coolest parts for me were the samurai armor and swords. I decided to check into a business hotel for my last night in Tokyo, I needed to organize my bag and I was also tired of only having communal space. I found a hotel about 200 feet from the capsule hotel that was owned by the same company. It had a really good Internet special, I paid $70 and it included high speed Internet,it was nice.
My last day in Tokyo I went back to Ueno to see the things that I didn't have time to do the first day and the outdoor ones that I couldn't do in the rain. The first thing I did was to walk Ueno Park which has a great lake with lily pads and other Asian water plants growing all over it. There is also a paddle boat rental and many other gardens and fountains. Then I went and got some sushi, I was lucky enough to find what ended up being a great place. It was a conveyor belt sushi restaurant where all the pastel are the same price and you grab the plates you want off the belt and they go around the guys who are making them and you sit in a big circle around them. I have eaten at this style of sushi restaurant in hong Kong too. I choose this one because it was crowded with lots of locals,always a good sign. When I was eating I was lucky enough to have a professor from a local university sit down next to me. He was originally from the U.S. And has been living in Tokyo for 8 years. He said this was the best Sushi place in Ueno and the best for the price in all of Tokyo. He also told me of a dollar store to visit,which I thought was strange but he was very convincing so I eventually checked it out since it was right next to my train station to the airport.
The thing I really wanted to see was the five story pagoda, a pagoda is an ancient Japanese style building.Pictured above. I also need to mention that I hate zoo's, I think there horrible prisons for animals, I would personally rather be dead than spend my entire life in a cage and I think that animals feel the same way so I try to never support them. I don't ave a problem with wildlife parks or places where animals have a large area to roam,which some zoo's provide but very few and never Asian zoo's,there the worst! Having said that I really wanted to see the five story pagoda and after having walked around the zoo for an hour I realized that it was only possible to see it from inside the zoo so I reluctantly paid $6 to enter so I could see it....
After the zoo I went to the National Museum of Western Art,it only had one floor open but it had a lot of great pieces there was one wall of Monet's,there must have been a dozen of them. It was an impressive collection for it's size. The rest of the museum was being renovated until 2009. After this I only had about half an hour until I needed to head to the train station to get my train for Narita Airport which is 75 minutes away so I checked out the 100yen(dollar) store the professor was talking about. It really was quite impressive,it was big but I have seen bigger but the quality of the things you could get for dollar was unbelievable. You could even get 12aa batteries for a dollar or really nice laptop sleeves or camera cases and much more. I was impressed the professor was right....
I then got on my train to Narita,my flight left at 8:30pm and arrived in Sydney at 7:20am with a 1 hour time change so it was just under 10 hours. Narita airport had a free yahoo sponsored Internet cafe and a lot of shops but only a few restaurants. The Sydney airport sucks, I had to pay $5 to get to the domestic terminal from the international and there is very little to do here and the wireless site wont even let me pay for Internet,I'm not impressed. My flight leaves at 3:20,so I have a very long layover. I was at least able to plug in my laptop at the kiosk style coffee shop and have been able to watch some TV programs I downloaded and type this blog...Once you go past security there is more places to eat and it's not bad,the only problem is Jetstar wouldn't let me check in until 2 hours before my flight departed,but there dirt cheap so I still think they are a great airline!
I finally got to Cairns after a 3-4 flight. My hostel, the Dreamtime Hostel picked me up for free at the airport,there employees are very friendly and so are the people who are staying here,its nice but I need to crash because I start my SCUBA certification class at 8:30am tomorrow. Cairns weather is great its hot enough to wear shorts and a t-shirt at night....
Monday, June 2, 2008
I got to Tokyo's Narita airport at noon; I slept a few hours on the 4 hour bus ride and 2 hour plane ride to Tokyo. then after getting my bag and clearing customs and the 1 hour train ride into Tokyo($10 on the regular train), the subway transfer to the correct stop, etc., it was 2:30pm. I then got some Subway, a guacamole/Japanese grassy straw type vegetable sub on wheat and watched the traffic for 1 hour.
I then started to look for one of the 2 capsule hotels in the area, I am staying in Akasaka, it’s a foreigner friendly area within walking distance of Roppongi where all the night life is. Cabs are very expensive so its best to sleep in an area that you plan to be in after 10pm when the subways close. It took me 2 hours to locate one as the first one was no longer open( a regular problem when you don't call ahead and rely on lonely planet) and the area is confusing because most of the street signs are in Japanese, After the first hour I started asking for help, which I should have done in the first place, but since the capsule hotel check ins aren't until 5pm,it didn't matter anyway.
I then got to my capsule watched 2 episodes of Entourage on my laptop and crashed for 13 hours, I was exhausted from drinking all night and traveling and that brings me to now its the second morning in Tokyo and I am at a coffee shop typing this I'm still not sure exactly what I'm doing to day but I'm about to head off on the subway and figure it out.... (Wrote this earlier)
I decided to go to Ginza to see the Sony building and whatever else was nearby. It is only a few subway stops away on the same line my hotel is on so that was nice. I loved all the gadgets they had there. It was 4 floors of stuff I wanted to buy. Joe if your reading this don't ever go there you’ll have to mortgage your house. They had all sorts of cool new gadgets, some where literally just created this week and they were prototypes so you couldn't even buy them yet. I think the most amazing thing was a little regular sized square battery, it didn't say what it was called or how powerful it was, but it was a standard 1 inch by 2 inch by ½ inch square battery. It was powerful it could run 3 processors by itself at once. I'm sure they were mobile low power processors but this is still amazing, you weren't even allowed to take pictures of it. The coolest gadget for sale was the Rolly, its a small cylindrical speaker system about 2/3 the size of an American pop can or jut slightly larger than an Asian pop can. It played music loudly and could spin and twist so it danced to the music, it even had a few moving parts that opened in closed in sync with the music, it was amazing. They also had some really sweet and ultra tiny laptops for sale that had only been out a few days. After the Sony building I walked around Ginza and looked at all the designer shops and the Kubuki-za Theater. Ginza is the oldest and most famous shopping district in Japan there was every designer I have ever heard of there and tons of electronics stores.
After Ginza I walked around the Imperial Palace grounds and gardens. The palace itself was closed, it always is except for 2 days a year, but it took me almost two hours to walk around it and see all the sights it's huge. I then went to the Yasukuni-Jinja which is a shrine and a few museums that are there to celebrate the 2.4 million Japanese who have died in wars since 1853. There are statues and memorials for several well known war criminals there so there are usually protesters there but I didn't see any. I can't really say anything anyway as these days we Americans regularly commit war crimes and we don't arrest our leaders who do this. The coolest things I saw here were a real Japanese Zero airplane just like the ones that bombed Pearl Harbor and were famous for the Kamikaze pilots. They also has a WWII era artillery gun that had tons of battle damage on it, there were at least 20 places were it was hit with gunfire or worse. This is what I did on my Monday. I just got down soaking in the sauna and cold pool in my hotel, I think I'm going to go out for a little bit tonight but not to late I want to get an early start tomorrow.
Leaving Korea was an experience all in it own. I had about 35 people show up to one or both parts of my going away party, we had 28 people at the Tomato Brau and a few more who just came to the Psycho Bar. It was great to see everybody for one last time but also surreal. We started the party at 7pm, I finished all my last minute packing around 6 and then facebooked for the last 40 minutes that I had high speed Internet. (I'm addicted to Internet...) We were at the Tomato Brau until after 11pm eating but mostly drinking the all u can drink/eat buffet/micro-brewed beers. Then I went back to my apartment and picked up my bags. I managed to get everything in my 5400 cubic inch backpack with a decent amount of room but not weight to spare, in Australia you can only have 20kg of bag weight, mine is 20kg exactly. I also have a small carry on backpack with a few books and electronics in it for the plane ride plus I need it to carry around while traveling. I walked in and walked out with the bags leaving the keys in the mailbox. We then went to Psycho Bar and had a great time at my regular hangout until 3am when I drunkenly got on the bus and headed of to airport in Incheon near Seoul.
At Incheon Airport I got flagged by customs because my foreigner card was expired by two weeks and it took me an hour to get it settled, it didn't cost me anything but in normal Korean inefficiency I had to have 4 different people stamp my ticket or passport and none of them were anywhere near each other, but at least it was all free and as usual they were polite enough to have a young English speaking Korean help me and since he was younger than me he was ultra respectful. If you card is expired make sure your at least 3 hours early for your flight, you'll get through but the line at immigration which I skipped thanks to my Korean escort had a 2 hour wait, so make sure you are respectful, bow and smile to the customs guys and they will let you go ahead as long as you have a white face or a English speaking country's passport. This brings up another important thing to remember in Korea, always smile, bow and wait and you will get what you want, it just takes patience. If your rude or or making a rude face they will not receive you well, lucky for me I was blessed with a smile that can open almost any door. Also when possible deal with a person who is younger than you as they are required to treat you better. Goodbye Korea!
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
I leave Korea in 4 days. The last few weeks have been crazy and surreal. It is strange when you are seeing people that you know you will never see again. Don't get me wrong I may see a few of them again but I will never see most of the people I have met again. Thats one of the strangest things about teaching English in a foreign country,there is a constant flow of old people leaving and new ones coming, nothing is permanent its a constant state of flux.
There is a lot to do before you leave, you have to pack,sell things,give things away,ship boxes home, fill out lots of paperwork for pensions,plan for your next job,schedule your travel plans, attend many going away events and say goodbye to a lot of people and places.
I am mostly packed at this point, I haven't actually put my things in my bag because I'm wearing the clothes I have left at this point,there the same ones I'm taking on my trip home,which is 25 days long.(I'll talk about that later) I have sold all the things I need to sell except my scooter,which was sold but the guy who was going to buy it just backed out at the last minute,so I'm a little stressed about that,but I should be able to sell it to the dealer or maybe someone else. The problem with selling it to the dealer is that changing a title over in a foreign country isn't easy and it may require me to have to buy a name stamp,which I might not have time to get before I leave. I have also given most of my things away already. I have already shipped boxes home to the States,I have 2 more boxes left which are already packed which I will send to Taiwan where I'm teaching next year. It costs about $30 a box if you ship them by boat which takes 5-6 weeks or more to get there. I had to ship almost everything I own because I don't want to lug extra things with me on my trip home.
In order to get your pension money,which is around $2000 you have to go to the pension office and fill out paperwork and give them your bank account info so they can wire the money to your account in your home country,the money takes about 6 weeks to get after you apply and you cant apply until after your second to last paycheck has been processed by the office,so if your on top of it the soonest you can get it is about 3 weeks after your contract is finished. Only Americans and Canadians can get the pension, Brits and Australians can only apply to have it count as a year on their national pension plans in their home country. But my director said Australians might be eligible to get the money in the future so check on this if it applies to you. I also have had to fill out paperwork to obtain my Taiwan visa which was extensive.
As far as my travel plans go I have been planning these for months now. My sister, our friend Rachael and I are going to Australia,New Zealand and Hawaii. I'm also going to Tokyo on my own before I meet them in Cairns, Australia.(the great barrier reef) The trip is 25 days and has required a lot of planning for flights, accommodations and activities. In Tokyo I'm going to staying a capsule hotel which I have always wanted to do it's a 1x1x3 meter room with a bed that has a TV,Stereo and a phone in it. It costs $40-50 which is a bargain in Tokyo. In Cairns I'm spending my first 3 nights at a highly rated hostel,which I prefer to hotels as you meet a lot more people that way. I did book my own room there. It is $50 a night. Then I am doing 2 nights and 3 days diving on a boat on the great barrier reef, I'm getting my Padi SCUBA certification. My sister and Rachael arrive the same day I board the boat but I won't join them until there 3rd day in Cairns. One I join them then it's 4 star hotels the last 2 nights in Cairns and in Christchurch, Queenstown, Sydney and Honolulu.
I have already had 2 going away parties(work and a small one for some Korean friends and a co-worker who is leaving for vacation before i leave) and my main one for my friends is Saturday night at the Tomato Brau an all the micro-brewed beer you can drink and all the food you can eat buffet. It's $19 and its from 6:30-10:30. There are 3 beers and there all delicious. Also the buffet has sushi, steak, shrimp, pasta, salad and many more things. After that were going to the bar we always hang out at called Psycho then I get on a bus at 3:30am and go to Seoul to fly out at 10:15am.
I also managed to win at my last poker night,its always good to go out with a win...
Sunday, May 4, 2008
Back in February for the Chinese new year I spent 10 days in Thailand. It was my second time to Thailand, the first time I went to Bangkok and up north to Chang Mai. This time I went down south to 3 islands on the eastern side of Thailand. I flew into Ko Samui international airport after a 4 hour layover in Bangkok's airport. Then I went to Ko Pha Ngan by ferry,this island is famous for its full moon beach parties. Finally I went to Ko Tao which is famous for its diving.
I left Korea with my friend Michael who had just finished his contract and was traveling home. We had originally planned to travel together but we decided on the bus ride to the airport that we each had different plans, he decided to go to Nepal and hike to the base camp of Mount Everest before heading to Australia and then back home to the States. I decided I wanted a relaxing island vacation with little adventure and lot's of R & R.
Flying into Ko Samui is one of the best parts of the trip, I have traveled to many airports in the world, my best guess is around 50 of them. I have to say that the Ko Samui airport is by far the best in the world. The landscape and vies are perfect but the airport itself is more like a 5 star resort than an airport. There are ponds,gardens, and lazy boy like shaded recliners everywhere. Also when you are waiting for your flight they have free food,drinks,Internet and enough couches,chairs and gardens for everyone waiting to have a seat and a great view. There also in the process of building a large shopping area between the arrival and departure gates. The airport is a great place to spend a few hours,which you might have to while waiting for cheap bus transport.
On my bus I met a guy from Norway and he had been to Samui before, so he said he would show me around and I ended up hanging out with him and his group of about 10 friends for my first 3 days. We stayed in Hat Chaweng which is the busiest beach on Ko Samui. We stayed at some bungalows which where about 150 feet from the ocean. They were not the nicest places but they were in a great location,they were very clean,had AC and satellite TV and they were only $25 a night, it was a great deal. We were located about a 5 minute walk from the main night club area,just far enough away that you couldn't hear anything except the ocean. He knew a Thai girl and it turned out that her 2 best friends were working at a beach front office selling tours and jet ski rentals in the building next to our resort. When we were eating breakfast on the beach deck we could knock on the window of their office. So we hung out with the three of them a lot. It was fun but it was a touristy location so after 3 days I decided to go check out Koh Pha Ngan.
I took a ferry to Koh Pha Ngan and I lucked out because it docked in Hat Rin, which is not a very big dock but it is considered the backpackers party town. It's where the full moon party beach is and it has a lot of hotel,bungalows and entertainment options. On the ferry over I met to American girls(the first Americans I had met on my trip),most of the people there are European or Australian. They found a really good deal for a luxury hotel, called the Drop In Resort. Drop In has a resort and several bars and spa's on these islands. We got a really good deal,this place was 4 star,it had everything and we got a buy 2 nights get the 3rd free deal,plus a discount. It was only $31 a night and this resort had a pool, spa, concierge, rentals, Internet, satellite TV, AC, free breakfast buffet (which i only got up in time for once,but it was delicious) and luxury accommodations.
Hat Rin was great it had so many western and middle eastern style restaurants that I finally got to eat some real western food, Korea is lacking in this and where you can get it,you pay a lot for it. I ate falafel, humus, pizza and subs for every meal. They also had really good Thai food vendors on the street and fruit smoothie stands. There was also easily 100 bars in this town,so the night life was fun. It was very laid back here,not crowded but I also wasn't here for one of the full moon parties,which apparently turns this peaceful little town into a New Orleans style party atmosphere. I rented a scooter here and drove all around the Island. I saw a lot of beautiful and secluded beaches and inland waterfalls. There was a black moon party while I was on the Island. It was fun and held on a different beach. they celebrate all 4 cycles of the moon here,but the party I went to is nothing like a full moon bash. After 3 days here I decided to head of to Koh Tao which is the smallest and least developed of these 3 islands. I got a ferry out of Thong Sala,the capital of the Island and also the main peer for boats.
While waiting for my boat I met a scuba instructor who convinced me to stay at his resort and go SCUBA diving with his company called Asia Divers. I had seen many advertisements for Asia divers on my trip already and I considered the fact that they had an office at the peer an omen. So I booked a 1 day experience diving trip with them,this also got me a discounted room at the resort. I got a room for $31 a night again,there were rooms for $15 w/o air con. But my room was a sweet,it had a balcony overlooking the pool and it was huge with aircon and satellite TV, it was nice, but not as nice as my room at the Drop In. Asia Divers is one of the largest dive resorts on Koh Tao. They had a really professional operation and a great location. Just a few minutes walk from the downtown party area. Koh Tao is by far the least developed of the 3 islands but it still had everything one could want. I had the best time here out of all 3 of the islands. It was the most relaxed atmosphere and the people here were the friendliest,tourists included. I stayed in Mae Haad Bay,the busiest location on the island.
The diving was great and I can't wait to do it again, I was only able to dive for one day because you cant dive 24 hours before you fly. I went on 2 dives. The first was in the Japanese Garden and the Twin Rocks there was a lot of brain coral there and one of those striped fish from Finding Nemo. My instructor was British and he was fun. A good sense of humor and he spoke English, I was afraid I might get a Thai instructor,but at Asia Divers you get an English one every time,that's why there so good. I really loved diving I plan to get my certification soon.
The night life in Mae Haad was fun,it wasn't too big or busy but there was a lot to do. I met some Canadians here and I hung out with them. There were 3 of them a couple who was traveling the world and there friend,she flew into Thailand to travel with them for 2 weeks. We went to a burlesque show,ate a seafood dinner on the beach, danced on the beach and went for a late night swim. It was a blast. Unfortunately, I was up drinking until about 6 am and I had to catch 8:30am ferry to Koh Samui to get my plane home. I slept for an hour then decided to go wait at the dock because I knew if I fell asleep I wouldn't make it. The only problem was the high speed catamaran boats are a bit bumpy and I must have thrown up 15 times in the 2 hour ferry ride, I filled up a 10 liter bag with beer vile puke. It wasn't a good ride.
This was a great trip and it was the first time I really ever traveled by myself. I loved it,it was very peaceful to be able to do whatever you want and I met a lot more people being solo than I would have otherwise.
Saturday, May 3, 2008
In Korea it is legal to have open containers. You are allowed to drink alcohol anywhere you want at any time. It always seemed a bit oppressive to me that you weren't allowed to do this in most places in the States. We are told that this would lead to drunken chaos and led to believe that this is for public safety,but really it's just another way for us to be controlled by the system. Think about it,how much less would you have to drive drunk if you could drink outside of a store, in a park near your house,or just while you enjoy your walk to or home from your destination. It is very relaxing to do these things,drinking in parks is one of my favorite activities in Korea and it is much cheaper and healthier.(no smoke,although this isn't an issue in many places in the States anymore and no deafening loud noise)
Another of my favorite places to drink and one of the more popular places to drink outside in Korea is outside of the local Mart or convenient store. Most of these stores have tables outside for you to sit and enjoy your purchase whatever it may be. It has become a favorite activity of my friends and I. We will sit outside for hours and talk and drink. It saves so much money and it is much more peaceful than a noisy crowded bar. There have been times were I have been sitting around with 20 friends,singing,playing guitars and talking until the sun comes up. It's really a shame we have outlawed this in the States. But I guess it is our patriotic duty as Americans to make everything sensible and fun illegal....
Friday, April 25, 2008
A few weekends ago I went to a bull fighting festival in Cheongdo. It wasn't Spanish bullfighting with matadors. At this festival the bulls fight each other in head to head combat. What I mean by that is they push at each other with their heads and sometimes their horns. The fighting wasn't all that exciting or dangerous. The bulls usually just butted head,locked horns and pushed for about 5 minutes until one managed to either scare his opponent or get a lucky poke in with his horn,then the other bull would run away and that was it. There were a few good moves made,but for the most part you sat their for 10 minutes and then there was 5 seconds of excitement.
We had a good group of foreigner's with us, about 12 of us. We sat in the stands and drank and had a good ol time. The crowds were the best part. Old Korean ladies (Ajumas) and old Korean men (Ajacees) were there and a few even fell over from being old or drunk, not sure which. there were also a lot of young Koreans and many families. It attracted people of all ages and economic backgrounds.
The festival itself had some cool and disturbing things in it. There were a lot of tent restaurants with food and drinks. There were two tents zoos,were animals like bear cubs,snakes,baby monkey's,cats and lizards were kept in very small cages and many of them were doped up. It was pretty sad but not unusual for animal treatment in Asia. There was a bull art tent, it had paintings and statues and many other bull artworks,it was actually really cool. There were places to stick your head in photos that made it look like you were in the bull fighting ring. There were large statues of decorated bulls and bull deities. Their were bands and performers and mascots and all the usual festival stuff like that.
I think the most disturbing and interesting part was the row of bull pens.(pictured above is one of the bulls in his pen) It was quite sad to see these huge beasts kept in such small spaces and it was also amazing how there was just a rope between you and them,of course they were all chained together through there nose rings which I guess would have made a stampede very unlikely,but I was still hesitant to stand in front of them for long. Many of the Koreans seemed to enjoy taunting them which seemed cruel and foolish considering that if they did decide to charge I'm sure it would have led to a all out stampede and may deaths and injuries. The bulls were taken from this area one at a time by some handlers. Many of the bulls in this area were noticeably upset and were doing the hoof in the dirt charge signal they do before charging at something. I found this part of the festival to be very inhumane while the actual fighting seemed very natural and the bulls seemed to enjoy it, but they do the same thing in the wild when they are fighting for mates.
I would recommend this festival to anyone in Korea it happens in Cheongdo around the end of March and the beginning of April every year. Cheongdo is a a train stop between Daegu and Busan. I also wanted to mention one last thing I thought was interesting. The US Army had a bull they enter every year and it was the only white bull in the whole festival...