Snow BEST – Sapporo Snow Festival 2010 (part deux)

•June 14, 2010 • Leave a Comment

J-Fans drinking in their – pop

boys are jumping –

the Eiffel Tower

is so blue – in Sapporo,

1950s  ice skates swirl

like the snowflakes splashing my tongue-

Ikimashou!

Snow Fest 2010 has just begun.

Gosh. Well, I fell in love with winter at Yuki Matsuri, the Sapporo Snow Festival. It was negative 10 and 15 degrees, but I felt warm wrapped in my blanket of winter. There were nine of us – I call us the Yamaballas – a name so glib it has stuck. There were nine of us – and we filled Sapporo as fully as did Jimmy’s Backpackers, on the edge of Odori Park.

Tiff and I join forces to become the newest villain around: the Two-Headed Giant Snowman!

I’ve tried for three weeks to write about our trip, but all I have is strikethrough marks and discarded pages. You see, Snow Fest was so brilliant and so charmed with the purity of a new snow and all the forgiveness it brings that it seems the memory has burrowed its way into a very cavernous, visceral place in my heart. I can’t think about it without smiling, and I can’t smile about it without missing it, and I can’t miss it without getting misty-eyed about it,  and I can’t do any of that without tasting supernaturally sized Hokkaido snowflakes on my tongue and hearing the Hawaiian Tiff Yoshi say, “But I thought snowflakes were as big as the ones we made in school out of paper.”

sigh

These snowflakes were just about that magical.

Callie and I chug alongside Thomas the Tank

There’s a freshness in the air there that made me laugh every time I tumbled on the ice-coated streets and gave me the giggles when I frolicked my way through a foot of snow to pose with a bigger than life-sized snowcature of Thomas the Tank Engine. I swear there’s a certain city-sized good karma that runs through Sapporo’s streets: the ramen makes you close your eyes and moan it’s that good; the karaoke sells itself with a kitschy “Dr. Horrible”-esque monster front; the chapel is so monstrously disappointing that it charms your frown right off.

The ever-popular Michael Jackson sculpture.

It coats you, this winter wonderland. And when you’ve seen the stories-high ice sculpted temple and grabbed your crotch in a classic MJ pose beside his face carved out of powder and drank kahlua hot chocolate while watching a traditional dance on a shrine of ice, it’s hard to think there’s anything you haven’t seen.

Then you’re on a train and a bus and standing at the top of the not-so-beginner slope at Teine, the site of 1972 winter Olympics, and the world just. stops. moving.

This slope was NOT a bunny trail, but the view was worth all the tumbles!

There are snowflakes dancing on your cheeks, and if you’re me you’ve lost your hat riding up the ski lift, but all you can see is the ocean spreading out so far in front of you like a baby blue sky on land. It’s framing the endless snow-capped peaks in front of you, and all you can think is that something, someone, sometime, somewhere happens just right and this was the result. So you do the only thing you can – you stare without blinking and swear you’ll always keep this picture alive because not much else in this life can possibly be karmically gifted enough to be this damn perfect.

Then, if you’re me, you tumble down the slop and land face first in a snowdrift.

So, you see, Hokkaido was perfection. Sapporo Snow Fest, this trip as we experienced it, was once in a lifetime. How do you tell that story?

Performers (very, very cold performers I imagine!) dance on a shrine made of ice. (Disclaimer – the video is really loud – you may want to turn down your volume before starting it!)

Mad powder! (Did I sound like a real snowboarder just then?) I only look so... right up because the trail was mostly flat. Now that's my kind of bunny slope!

The festival is divided between two sites. This one is much smaller and houses the ice sculptures.

Rawr.

Young girls singing on a giant Mickey and Minnie snowlpture

After a day of snowboarding, we somehow managed to conjure up the energy for karaoke.Callie and I rap to Eminem's "Lose Yourself"

In the giant ferris wheel that looks over Sapporo. You know, a lot of Japanese cities have these. It's like a thing.

DANPA. Which is panda, spelled inside out. There is more danpa stuff in Hokkaido than snow. Sapporo is covered in it. Every time we saw/heard merchandise, banners, whispered nothings about it - I burst out with, "WHAT IS DANPA?" I got my answer. It eventually becomes a part of you, and you just get it. Danpa is Sapporo. Sapporo is Danpa.

Yeehaw! A Yamaguchi Hoedown

•June 11, 2010 • 3 Comments

I write about my travels a lot… I’ve been to four countries this year, explored Japan more than I could have ever imagined possible, seen things I thought I might only ever dream about (ie – the North Korea border Great Wall). I’ve done a lot of very cool things this year. I don’t take any of them for granted, but in between all those big trips and big sights, I stay grounded by making rural Yamaguchi one of my favorite places to be. I don’t write about those times enough.

It has taken me the better part of this year to associate “grounded” with having every weekend free. I haven’t had my weekends completely free since I was 16 and started serving tables. Sometimes, I feel like I have too much time. And even when I don’t feel guilty for having so much time, I feel guilty for spending so much money. Weekends are for earning money, not spending it! That’s what I always learned. But here in the Guch, I do have free time, and I do have more money and more of a social life than I’ve ever had before. I know it’s going to end abruptly and painfully when I’m back, jobless, in the States in less than two months (!!), so I’m living it up and enjoying every single second.

One of my favorites of these weekends happened less than a month ago at the first ever Yamaguchi AJET Hoedown party. The theme was somewhere between White Trash Bash (yes, yes, I’ve heard all the “racist” and “classist” arguments – but I figure my lack of offense to this? It’s probably an in-group thing…..), country/western and hoedown. It turned into – anything that will fly in America’s Deep South – would fly at this party.

And the Deep South – well, that hits home (har har). In the past couple of months, I’ve been told that I’ve suddenly started sounding more southern than I ever have before. I’ve also started cooking southern food for my friends, and I went on a country music kick and burned myself a cd of all my old favorite country songs that I’ve about worn out. I don’t know what’s happening to me – it’s like a South Will Rise Again party inside me. It has to do with identity and me trying to find mine again after a year so far from my ‘normal’ life that I feel I’ve lost touch somehow. Whatever the psychology – it has been fun to reconnect in some serious and not-so-serious ways.

This party was the ultimate throwback to all the things I love to lovingly mock about the most about the south: classless fun, cheap beer, carefree dancing and, of course, all things red, white and blue.

And as the old saying goes, that my friends here love to tell me (and these pictures prove): you can take the girl out of the south, but you can’t take the south out of the girl!

Enjoy!

Before the Hoedown, some of us got together for a dinner of MEAT. Just like a night back in Georgia! From the left going around - Mack, Chris, Callie, Tiff, Hozumi, Ryan, Seb, Brent, Mike, me

In this country world, grillin' is a womansss job! Kiwi Mike to my left and Kentucky Eric to my right. Wait for the costume Eric has in store for the night...

Jamie's and my new house.

Cyndi's top features red, white and blue stars and stripes, representative of the American flag. It's from Zara, a steal at only 3000yen. Callie's shirt comes straight off the arms of a country man himself. Her hat, spelling, "JELLS" can be found in Shimonoseki seamall for a bargain price of under 2000yen. Their bandanas are handmade from cut off jeans by designer Jamie Smith.

In Japan, it's just assumed all Americans carry guns. If you don't have a lighter, just pull out your .9!

Another southerner!! We've taken over the ken this year! Hozumi is from North Carolina.

Charles, in what distinctly reminds me of my 2003 mechanic's jumpsuit, is attacked by dancers.

And then came the dancing. I blame the results on Jack Daniels and Budweiser!

(Seriously, do I have no shame?!)

It’s called the Tush Push, y’all!

I love that the Brit, Jamie, boot scoots us under the table. He was born in the wrong country!

…and then there’s this. The dance-off at the end of the night. It was the last moment of the competition, and I had to put in something extra special to try to win it, so I did the classiest thing I could think of…

...this.

After that shining moment, I waited in anticipation for the awards results.

(drum roll please)

I didn’t win best dancer (HOW WITH CHOO CHOO TRAIN ARMS COULD I LOSE?), but I DID win…..

BEST DRESSED GAL! Eric, in his AMAZING Wal-Mart vest, took best dressed guy, and Monica took best dancer.

Best Dressed goes to the Kentuckian and the Georgian. What can I say? We know howta git 'er done!

Fantastic party. Fantastic friends. Fantastic food.

This party was so silly and the pictures are even more so, but they’re the ones I’m going to look back at in six months, a year, five years, and laugh so hard my stomach aches. And then probably cry – because I miss these people and this place so much. Yamaguchi and the Yamaguchians have become my home and my family, respectively. And THAT gets the biggest YEEHAW! 😉

Yuki Matsuri! Sapporo Snow Festival 2010

•June 7, 2010 • 1 Comment

Meet my friends!! This post is only about, oh, 3.5 months late, but better late than never? The next post will be my take on the Sapporo Snow Fest (easily one of my favorite memories from this year!) with even more pics. In this post – meet the group of people that have become the reason I can’t even bear to think about leaving Japan: the Yamaballas! (yeah…. we really do call ourselves that…… forgive us, please?!)

Courtesy of Kris Nand, Pretty Person and Nihongo Speaker Extraordinaire

(these are excerpts from a collaboration piece for the AJET Yamaguchi-ken magazine – ZenZen – about our collective trip to Sapporo, Hokkaido in February for the annual Snow Festival. ‘KNand’ wrote the majority of the descriptions. The rest comes from the speakers listed by their first names. Enjoy!)

King Kong in snow. This was one of the snow sculpture highlights!

BRR! It’s cold in here! I said there must be some Yamaguchers in the at-mos-phere!

…Or we could just be in Sapporo, Hokkaido.

In February, a large troupe of us (9 in total) headed up to Sapporo to see Yuki Matsuri, the snow festival held annually in Sapporo. There were massive displays of snow and ice sculptures, some large enough to take on actual buildings, and all were made with intricate attention to detail. Despite the frigid temperatures, people bundled up (we were quick to realize that one layer of socks was not enough) and admired the beautiful snow creations, while scarfing down delectable, hot festival food such as crab soup and ramen.

Callie: Yay, Sapporo!

Kris: Sapporo was COLD. This is coming from a Canadian. It reminded me of home!

Sebastian: I agree with Knand, it really did remind me of home, especially the crisp cold air, pretty refreshing.

(this included wearing more than two pairs of socks, カイロ in the boots and more than one sweater)

Tiffany Y.: Hey guys, remember when America conquered Canada? I believe you are called the Northern United States now…

Callie and I prepare for battle in an igloo outside of the Bier Garden at the site of the Great Canadian-American War of 2010.

Snowball fights are fun!

Sebastian: Truth. And remember how Canada snow-job-ed America?

(after a peaceful feast of mouth-watering lamb yakiniku, a certain Hawaiian [tTiff] opened fire on an innocent Canadian [Kris], pummeling her with snowballs. Tired of being the passive country, Canada retaliated, thus beginning a war of epic proportions between America and Canada. Despite being outnumbered (two against four), Canada fought valiantly but in the end, forfeited. Days later, Canada would dominate America at ice hockey in the Winter Olympics and win the most gold medals, fully “serving” the red, white and blue nation)

Sebastian: Eric’s ribs should be mentioned, as should Tiff’s wheelchair and 80s karaoke night…

(there were a notable number of fatalities (okay, fine, injuries), but not to worry, all of these stemmed from being injured in the Guch. Eric decided to try snowboarding for the first time on what probably is some of the best powder in the world. Unfortunately, his first fall turned out to be his last fall after landing on a previously broken rib. He never made it to the bottom.)

Eric: Hey, I think it’s only one rib, thank you. Thriller karaoke. That was pretty ballin’. And the crab. The crab was amazing. Remember Christina’s crab that she wanted to eat from the trash can?

Trash can crab. YUMMM!!

Kris: I think that shows how amazing the crab was in Hokkaido. Christina even wanted the puke-like remains.

(At the festival, there was a trashcan with the remnants of a massive crab in it. For some reason, Christina commented on how delicious it looked, unbeknownst that moments before, everyone was gagging at how disgusting it looked)

Christina: To defend myself, I was commenting on the fact that it was the biggest crab I’d seen, and THUSLY it looked “amazing”. I have not, and will not, ever eat crab from a garbage can. For the record, the crab that wasn’t in a trash can looked even more delicious.

Thriller Karaoke. Seb and I took it over with Meatloaf and Billy Joel.

Ryan: Oh yeah, Thriller karaoke! I don’t know what was better, the guys synchronized dancing, Eric’s rendition of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” all that alcohol, or Eric and Perry’s (Kris’s Canadian JET friend in Hokkaido) crab vs monkey walk afterward.  It was probably the alcohol.

Cyndi: 2 thumbs up for hot cocoa with Kahlua. Best festival stall of all time.

Callie: Shout-out to Jimmy! Our very awesome hostel owner and new bff.

Ryan: Holy crap, Jimmy’z hostel was awesome! So clean, small, cheap, best location…amazing! Not bad for my first experience in a hostel. I would have been happy so long as I didn’t have to crap in a bucket.

Kris: It was surprisingly really warm! Then again, they should know how to keep

Callie and me with Jimmy, the owner of our great hostel, Jimmy's Backpackers. Our group nearly took up the entire place!

warm up there. They take after Canadians. 😉

Eric: “Wao. Gaijinsanda.” I didn’t see as many gaijin as I thought I would. I think I liked that, though.

(when we were leaving a restaurant, a little boy piped, “Wow, gaijinsanda!”. Apparently seeing so many of us rocked his world)

Callie: Though there weren’t as many gaijin as we expected, there were enough that Cyndi almost punched me for playing the “There’s a gaijin!” game everytime I saw one.

Cyndi: Omg, and then to make fun of Callie, I started pointing out all the really unique gaijin (“there’s a gaijin wearing a green shirt!” “there’s a black gaijin!” ((really really rare)))–until finally I said, “Hey Callie –there’s a GAY gaijin!” and all his friends heard, turned and glared at me like I’m homophobic. Oops! Swear, I’m not, friends! I felt awful!

Ryan: I was a witness to that whole incident. I saw it coming right before Cyndi finished her sentence (because I was thinking the exact same thing). Those guys were pissed! I was waiting for shoes and pink scarfs to start flying. It was like watching a person get hit by a car while crossing the street: you don’t know if you should yell out a warning or sit back and watch what happens. I guess I chose the later.

Hozumi: Soup curry with broccoli and natto! ❤ And green onions –can’t forget that. And all the ramen we ate!

Ryan: No joke! I ate ramen 4 times in like 24 hours and it was amazing every time

Tiff, Seb and chocolate bananas. Sadly, they looked better than they tasted.

Tiffany Y: I ate a chocolate covered banana on a stick. In a wheelchair. During the coldest month of the year. In Sapporo. Twas delicious.

(You gotta eat to stay warm! Tiff was subjected to 2 hours in a wheelchair at the festival after her ankle was destroyed during her Oshima marathon. She was our little cripple.<3)

Ryan: Let’s recap all the things Cyndi lost or almost lost on this short trip, shall we? First, her brand new snow hat while riding on the ski lift. Second, her cellphone while attempting to conquer the mountain (later recovered at lost and found). Third, her bus ticket back to the station from the mountain (later recovered in her bag). Fourth, her cellphone, again!!! (almost left on the bus seat)

Cyndi: bahahaha The best part is that after all that, I waited at the bus station with Callie for 30 minutes for the next bus to Shimonoseki. When the bus arrived, I realized that I had lost my bus ticket!

Eric: I can’t get over how pretty that place was at night. I didn’t get any good pictures of it but walking through Hokkaido University’s campus was really pretty.

Coming down the snow slide!! SO much fun!

Christina: One of my favorite memories is the time where everyone else was incredibly excited to go tubing down a giant man-made hill of snow while I spent the entire hour in line imagining all the ways in which I could die during the 7-second ride.  It turns out that I am kind of a wimp!

Hozumi: Tubing in a winter wonderland! Knand lost her hat on the way down.

Kris: Yeah, we got to go down a massive snow slide in a black tube!!! Totally awesome. When my hat came off, someone had to climb up the slide to get it…

Ryan: I wish we could have ridden on that gigantic snow slide more! Too bad there were so many people waiting in line. Though, it was amusing watching people bust their ass on the ice as they joined the line. It was like a funny intermission to a show before the grand finale. I can say this because our whole group busted ass in the same spot.

Hozumi: The guy who put me in the line was like, “Are you scared? Ok, awesome! Let’s put you in the scary one [on the steepest slide].” I’m glad that Eric didn’t fall on his rib (or his face) while sliding down on the tube.

Eric: I am glad I could keep my face, all things considered.

Sapporo Clock Tower. Awesomely disappointing!

Cyndi: Personally, I’ll never forget the joy of my own disappointment at seeing the Sapporo Clock Tower – voted “Japan’s Third Most Disappointing Attraction.”

Callie: It lived up to its name!

Cyndi: It’s pretty… in a very, “That’s it?” kind of way. The ferris wheel was also pretty cool. We searched for over an hour to find it – it’s on top of a building, but the view of the entire city, with the mountains in the distance, is sick.

Callie: Which reminds me of the view from the top of the first run we did at Teine. I’ve seen some beautiful mountains in Colorado, but I’ve never stood on top of a mountain and seen both mountains and ocean for as far as I can see.

Kris: It was really breathtaking. Snowboarding was definitely a highlight! I can’t wait to go again next year! 😀

So this concludes our random reflection on Sapporo. It may seem like not much went down, but the food, the snow, the lights and the friends (of course) made it an amazing trip!

Ferris wheel view

Preparing to take on the slopes. From the left: Ryan, Kris, Christina, Hozumi, Callie; in back - Eric and me (Tiff was out injured and Seb stayed with her)

On snowboarding days, we call ourselves the Yamafallassss. (Well, Christina and I do, anyway!)

The view from the top of Teine, a former winter Olympics site.

Beer garden!! Callie and I ate here twice it was so good! It's tabihodai/nomihodai for 90 minutes (all you can eat and drink) lamb yakiniku (grill-it-yourself meat). DELICIOUS.

The girls, with fun-happy-smiley-care-bear-type-snow-sculpture-thing (from the left: Callie, Kris, Hozumi, me, Christina)

Come Grocery Shopping with Me in Rural Yamaguchi?

•May 21, 2010 • 4 Comments

My first vlog! I recorded this months ago – probably six months or more. I’ve never posted it because it takes forever to upload videos to youtube… and because, to my ears, I sound wildly uncomfortable talking to the camera. I’m much more at home talking with my fingers on this keyboard. But since I’ve returned from China, my head has felt a little dead. I’m unfocused and distracted… and my writing is non-existent. China was an all-consuming, full-immersion experience, and I’m still dazed. The fuzzy haze around my thoughts is starting to clear, though, and by next week I should be doing some real updates on here. For now, this is a great excuse to unveil my first (and maybe only) vlog. So… come grocery shopping with me!

This is a video blog tour of my local grocery store, called Pikurosu (pee-koo-row-ss). I can walk there in less than a minute. In a strange way that’s probably not strange at all, my grocery store is one of my favorite things about where I live. I can’t speak very well to the (mostly) women that work there, but I know all of their faces and they all know mine. They even know what I normally buy. The first time I tried to ask if something had seafood in it (I don’t eat seafood), I stumbled on the new, still strange on my tongue Japanese so badly that the cashier had no clue what I was saying. It took me three or four times to not say exactly what I say in this vlog about beef (gyu – nan desu ka? = What is beef?) but instead ask is this seafood? Does this have seafood in it? Ever since that day, though, if I ever bring a bento to the front that has fish in it on accident, the person checking me out lets me know.

Sometimes I want to ask how his or her day has been, make small talk. Sometimes it frustrates me that I can’t. But most days I go in (I’m there 3 or 4 times a week), I’m okay with our limited conversation. They say the name of everything I purchase as they scan it, even though they know I don’t understand. They tell me the total, that usually I understand now. I pay, and I always politely decline the receipt and a bag – I’m okay, thank you. We smile at each other, and as I leave, there is the normal chorus of Thank You from every cashier. I always thank them back and head home.

There’s an infinite amount of comfort in this gentle routine, and I’ll miss it when I’m gone.

However, this vlog isn’t about my sentimentality with my store at all – it’s about how bizarre and overwhelmingly different a Japanese grocery store experience can be for a newcomer! Enjoy!

Side note: my car is there only because I had just come back from a run. I swear I’m not that lazy! …..most times. 🙂

MIA – The Commies Got Me!

•April 28, 2010 • 1 Comment

Just kidding… sort of. I’m going to be MIA for the next 2 weeks or so because I will be in CHINA!!!

I leave today (5 minutes… err, type fast!) for Shimonoseki, where I’ll take an overnight ferry with 5 of my friends to Bhusan, South Korea. From there we fly out tomorrow morning to Beijing. I’ll spend three days in Beijing, take an overnight train to Datong to see some famous awesome caves (no time to hyperlink sorrryyy). Then I’ll take another overnight train to Pingyao – the best preserved walled city in all of China (that also has an underground castle near it!). I’ll be there for a night, then I’ll take a day bus to Xi’An, home of the famous Terracotta Warriors. I’ll be in Xi’An for a night. Then I’ll take another overnight train (phew. I’m exhausted typing this!) to Shanghai, where I’ll meet up again with Tiffany and Alex (the other days I’m traveling alone after Beijing) for the WORLD EXPO!!!! I’ll do the expo for a day (definitely visiting the US building for American FOOD!), and I’ll spend a second day in Shanghai seeing the city. I fly back here on May 9. It’s going to be an INSANE trip and I can’t wait! It’s finally here!

May 9 reminds me – MOTHER’S DAY! Happy early mother’s day to my mom, the best mom of all the moms. Love you and miss you and wish I could send you myself!

Korea is my Seoulmate

•April 27, 2010 • 3 Comments

3.25.10

Five friends, four days, three-hundred feet from North Korea, two galbi dinners and one nude, spread eagle massage later, I am back from South Korea!

Korea is the Promised Land, at least after 8 months in (rural) Japan. It has more foreign food than I’ve seen in the last eight months combined. We left Friday night and came back on Tuesday. It’s a cheap flight from Fukuoka – about $250 roundtrip.

Here’s how it happened:

We step off the hour-long bus ride from Seoul’s International Incheon Airport into the heart of the city and see Dunkin Donuts, The Coffee Bean and Papa John’s Pizza all in the same 360 degree circle. It’s going to be a good, good trip.

…too bad we will eat virtually none of it.

A 10-minute walk later from Hongdae Station, we arrive at Hong Guesthouse, in the Hongik University neighborhood in Seoul. It’s midnight.

Hong Guesthouse in Seoul

The hostel is as young and hip (and clean!) as the Korean man who owns it (we think he owns it). His English is perfect, and he’s kind enough to wait up for us, give us a tour and get us acquainted with the area before leaving to hit a few clubs with other backpackers at the hostel.

Kris, Callie and I drop our stuff on our bunkbeds and convene around the computers in the homey “lobby,” which is more like a living room – with a tv, stacks of board games and cards, couches and two communal computers with free internet. We begin planning our weekend then, at nearly 1am, and by 2:30am, we have to do a DMZ tour.

Because Korea is the Promised Land, the reservation line for the tour company is open 24 hours. What we didn’t bargain on was the agent laughing at our polite request for the 8am tour.

“You do know pick us is in,” pause, “Five hours?” He’s incredulous.

We are pretty sure he thinks we are drunk, which if we were, is the only way booking a tour to the North Korean border at 2:30 in the morning could be any more ridiculous.

“Yes, we do realize… we still want that tour.”

We can sleep when we die, right? Or… after the tour.

The full-day tour we want, which goes to the village of Panmunjom and lets you step foot into North Korea by way of walking around a peace table, is booked. We settle for a half-day one that promises an exhilarating amethyst factory tour! *facepalm*

Five hours later, we are on the bus. We go into the tour with limited expectations and by the end are rewarded with a contented lack of disappointment.

Freedom Bridge - notes for reunification line the end of it

The first stop is at Freedom Bridge, a symbolic structure that will be crossed by both sides if when a peace agreement is reached. The day is drizzly and gray, a perfect backdrop for taking in miles of barbed-wire border fences and slightly terrifying guards.

The second stop, the highlight, is at the Third Infiltration Tunnel, allegedly excavated by North Koreans as an attack route to the South Korea’s capital. My favorite part of the story is that the guilty party (I’m holding out for a giant South Korean government cover-up – “No one will ever suspect us with the crazy North Koreans right there!”) covered the tunnel walls in coal soot, as evidence to their explanation if caught that they were simply searching for coal and oops! did we cross the border?! But turns out there’s not coal anywhere near that part of either country. Good one, Kim!

Walking the length of the tunnel is surreal. I can imagine the blasts, hear the sounds and see the soldiers that could have walked its length. We wear hard hats. We mock them as a fashion statement, but I’m glad I have it considering how many times I’ve banged my head on the low passageways (at least 12). South Korea (allegedly…..) discovered the tunnels (the first, second & others) using water pipes. I’m a little iffy on the “how,” but they’ve shown us the remaining PVC. When North Korea blew shit up, it would have burst the pipes… I think.

The third tunnel is the most notorious because of its proximity to vulnerable South Korean political bases. It’s also the tunnel that came closest to its goal. If a full-scale attack had ever been launched, a full division and its weapons could have traversed it at once (the second tunnel could hold even more – over 30,000 troops per hour!).

The tunnel path for tourists stops somewhere between 300-500 feet from the border. That’s where I am. I’m tempted to “accidentally get lost,” but there are locks and danger signs and maybe that’s one adventure I’d best forego.

Kris, Callie and me doing some inappropriately joyful posing at the DMZ!

We exit the tunnel, through the passageway and up a hill, and come out into the DMZ… gift shop. There’s omiyage (foodstuffs for co-workers) and snacks and souveneirs. To add to the glaringly  inappropriate response to the DMZ, we take awkward, we-shouldn’t-be-smiling-but-we-are pictures and head to the next stop: the observation deck.

I am most excited for this – peering through binoculars into North Korea and having angry guards yell, “BEHIND THE LINE!” I’ve always wanted to be a peeping Tammy on an entire country. But alas – the rain and fog have decreased visibility so much we can’t go. So it’s onwards to the Dorason Train Station.

This is cooler than I anticipated. Like the bridge, it currently exists as a symbol. But it is built to be and is capable of being fully functional. As soon as peace is reached, it will open and become part of the transcontinental railway; it will be the first land access from Russia/China to the Koreas.

After, Callie, Kris and I skip the amethyst tour (we aren’t in the mood to pad tour company pockets) and opt for coffee and a bagel (!!!!) at a cute shop next door.

All in all, we learned a lot about the history and current relationship between the Koreas and found the tunnel fascinating, but if you ever find yourself headed to SK, plan in advance and book the USO Panmunjom Tour. We’ve heard it’s worth the extra money and time.

Bibimbap and delicious, spicy soup

We are dropped off in Incheon, the most foreigner-friendly neighborhood in all of Asia I think. If we thought Hongik was paradise, this is blowing our minds. Coldstone, Quiznos, Subway and Outback and “big sizes” stores are only the first places we spot.

We eat bibimbap (rice with meat, a raw egg, kimichi, bean sprouts, veggies in a hot, hot pot).

Now here’s the difference between Seoul and Japan: Koean food and culture is so good you don’t need the foreign stuff. (And yet it’s the place that has it. 😦 )

My favorite thing about Korean meals is that they come with 800 side dishes – chili paste, tofu, bean sprouts, greens (etc etc) and kimichi – spicy, fermented cabbage. It sounds awful, but it is – well, I could write country songs and poetry for the kimichi. It is poetry.

Can you spot MJ and Whoopi?!

After lunch, it’s nap time and then dinner. My friend Lindsey, a fellow Ms. magazine intern and wilderness adventurer extraordinaire, lives and teaches English in Seoul with her boyfriend Peter. They direct us to Hongik Sutbul Galbi, a galbi restarant – Korea’s famed self-bbqd meat. In Japan, it’s called yakiniku and it couldn’t be more different (it’s clean, galbis not).

Sutbul is a locals joint, complete with plastic tables and chairs, a menu on the wall and a painted mural starring Michael Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg on another. It’s a complete gem and always packed with regulars, it seems.

Lindsey and Peter meet us 30 minutes into the meal, so it’s up to us to order. Fortunately, a couple of British guys are at the table next to us and help (it seems there’s only one dish – galbi – and one drink – soju –somewhere between vodka and sake) us, before we could let the harsh, fast-talking, older Korean owner/waiter scare us away.

"This is how you cut the meat!"

The food comes out approximately 2 minutes after we order and we can’t fit it all on the table. There are dishes in chairs and pans on the floor. The old waiter gets our grill going with a fresh burning pot of coals and places a grill cover on top.

In Korean galbi, you bbq huge slabs of pork, then cut them into small pieces with shears before building lettuce wraps with them. The busy waiter learns we speak Japanese (er, that Kris and Callie speak Japanese) and turns from gruff to grandfatherly in an instant. As he speaks to us in nihongo, he skillfully cuts our meat and changes the grill in nearly a single motion – and shows us how to make the wraps: Lettuce first – make a boat – then meat, grilled onions, chili paste, kimichi, bean sprouts, greens – and then, try to fit it in your mouth. We are covered in meat juice and the smell of the grill and the entire experience is delectable. (It’s so good we bring our friends back the last night of the trip!)

The Yamaguchians + Grace and a new Korean friend, after we left MP2 in Seoul at 3:30am. We are throwing the "Yamaguchi" kanji 'gang sign'. We are nerds.

Linds and Peter arrive, and catching up with her is a highlight. After dinner, the five of us meet up with the rest of our group – Ryan, Hozumi, Christina and Grace, at MP2, one of Seoul’s hippest clubs. Around 3am the packed club quiets to listen to a man sing Brian McKnight’s “Keys to My Heart.” I decide I need to dance with him (I thought it was a good idea?). His bodyguard prevents this, and that’s when we decide he’s a Korean celebrity.

Kris makes best friend’s with our taxi driver on the way back, and I break a man’s heart when I don’t return his love after a few hours on the dance floor. It’s 4am when we get to the hostel, and as the Peas say, we’ve painted the town and shut it down.

Mystery, delicious pork dish

By noon, we are awake enough to meet up with Hozumi for lunch. We stumble into a restaruant that specializes in a dish we’ve never heard of or tried (or since found the name of). As I’m writing this, the dish – simply pork, bean sprouts and chili paste – cooked by servers on our table grill – is like Atlantis: probably the best, most precious thing of all time and now completely lost. I’ve searched for it for at least 20 minutes online, and not even google knows what it is.

Our server, a nice woman with great English, warns us it’s spicy, and that is an understatement. We should have brought a gallon of milk to calm the fires in our mouths. But it’s delicious and worth the pain. If I ever figure out what it was we ate, I will do everything in my power to recreate the magic.

palace

Lindsey meets us after lunch and takes us to Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest and most famous in Seoul, dating back to the Jyseon Dynasty (I don’t know what that means either). It was the seat of power for centuries before 1592, when the Japanese (damn Japanese) destroyed it.

Speaking of Japanese-Korean relations, they’re strained (::understatement::). Besides a familiar language bond for some of the Koreans we have met (like the man at the restaurant), it’s a touchy subject. The Japanese have yet to formally acknowledge and apologize for their long occupation of Korea and mistreatment of Koreans, and Koreans understandably don’t take well to that.

Because Korea is the Promised Land, we arrive at the castle right as the ceremonial switching of the guards begins. After 8 months of living in Japan’s fetish world of gray, white and black, I am mesmerized by the bright, vast array of hues and patterns on the outfits and flags. Korean history is colorful, literally and figuratively. The guards march, drummers drum, flags wave, and we hungrily take it all in.

16th century, meet 21st

The Palace is restored but still reminiscent of its former glory. Most notably, a pagoda, unrestored in all its fading, transcendent appeal, rests on the grounds. It’s inaccessible on the tourist paths, making it all the more alluring. Then again, I have a thing for pagodas.

The Palace grounds are framed by rocky mountains to the north and a high-rise dotted skyline to the south. It’s a picture-perfect juxtaposition of past and present, traditionality and modern innovation.

From there, we step out of 16th century Korea and into 21st century, newly opened and highly lauded H&M in Myeong-dong, the premiere shopping district of Seoul. There is a line to get in and a man in a suit, nothing short of a bouncer, granting entrance. I shop like a holic, like it’s my first time in a store with clothes my size (it feels like it). I can’t find jeans – the sizes fit but the trendy, LA backstreets meets Asian fusion doesn’t, but I find enough skirts and tops to (over)compensate.

In the vein of our jam-packed traveling style, Callie and I have to run to meet one of her friend’s dads that lives in the city for dinner. He, along with his Russian, concert violinist friend, innocuously ask, “Is Italian okay?” and I have no idea for what I’m in store.

Antonio on the piano. (used from casAntonio Ristorante Italiano's website)

casAntonio Ristorante Italiano is as authentic as Antonio himself, which is to say – very. He quickly woos me with his thick accent, penchant for fine wine and expressive hands – that touch his lips and reach for the air every time he calls me “bella.”

“Go on…”

I should move to Italy.

Fine wine, a ham and cheese appetizer that would be offended by being called “ham and cheese”, a homemade buffalo mozzerrella pizza appetizer, fresh baked bread and real olive oil later – it is clear that I am Julia Roberts in the scene in Pretty Woman when she goes to the fancy business dinner and feels utterly out of place and enchanted at the same time. (Where’s my Richard Gere?)

Callie’s friend’s dad, the Russian and Antonio know each other well, judging by their banter and Antonio’s chair pulled up at the table. There is a pristine grand piano in the center of the restaurant and Italian music playing softly overhead.

Antonio does not approve of us pouring over the menu – we simply must try the crab linguini and the ribeye wrapped in bacon dipped in expensive something or other. So we do, and it’s as decadent tasting as his pronunciation of their names sounded. He tops it off by sending over a tirimasu for each of us – the single richest, most divine thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. I now literally understand the correlation between sex and food.

More of their friends arrive. Jong is a Korean-born, nationalized American who, we have heard, wins over young women at Antonio’s by playing the piano – because he’s a concert pianist. The night is drawing to a close, but before we leave, it seems Callie and I have passed Jong’s test, and he plays for us his favorite Russian classical piece. This inspires the Russian to dance a folk dance. She convinces the friend’s dad to join her and Antonio tops it off with an inspiring Italian vibrato.

It seems I’ve traveled the world in a single, delicious evening.

Kris, Grace, Callie and me outside the spa

Monday is our last full day, and it has been reserved as “girl spa day.” I’m… iffy… about this, but I’m in Korea, so why not? This decision is nothing short of the best I’ve ever made.

Dragon Hill Spa is the best in Seoul, the Russian told us last night. We’re here and struggle five minutes in with where to get naked.

“Maybe we leave all our clothes in these lockers.”

“Maybe we leave our shoes here and take off our clothes upstairs.”

The latter is correct and fortunately we realize it befor we commit to the former and walk through the public area of the spa disrobed.

We get nude upstairs, grab our towels and head to the bath room. There are dozens of different baths – massaging, sea water, hot, cold, long, short, big, small. We bath hop and then head for a massage.

“Full body Korean massage, please,” we point at our choice on the sign.

The masseuse, an older Korean woman who speaks no English, nods and grabs the bottom of her dress with both hands and

We thought these sweet outfits were to walk around the spa. We quickly learned they are for the sports courts.

throws it over her head. The other masseuses are brushing their teeth nude behind her and watching us. They spit, rinse and almost simultaneously pull on sheer bras and panties. They’re ready for us.

They direct us onto massage tables next to each other that heavily resemble pap smear ones – or maybe that’s the de ja vu of the last time I had my legs spread eagle with someone’s hands near my thighs.

First there is a scrub down. It’s exfoliating… and excruciating! I’m “OUCH!”ing at every scrape, and the masseuse is laughing equally loudly. Kris is to my right, Callie my left, and we can’t help but laugh as they spin, twirl, flip and rub us. Soon we are as familiar with each others bodies as we are our own.

The massage begins with the masseuses hoisting themselves onto the tables and walking the length of our bodies while holding the poles in the ceiling for balance. She moves my skin like she wants to remove it, and she doesn’t miss a single spot. She’s very thorough. It’s an oil massage, and I feel lubed from head to toe.

The shampoo is next, and it’s a nice scalp massage, but I fear they use the same body oil as shampoo, and it may be stuck in my pores and follicles as a permanent souvenir. And then there’s the slapping. We are getting spanked. I don’t know what we did wrong, but our asses, thighs, backs and arms are paying for it.

For all the pain, it’s a wild experience that I wouldn’t trade. If you’re ever in Seoul and need a massage – Dragon Spa is the place to go!

Callie and me with our new best friend at the galbi restaurant! I'm not sure why I look so... intense...

As we leave the Spa, entertained if not relaxed, it is snowing. The city is beautiful covered in white. We make our way to Namdaemun, the traditional Korean market and spend the afternoon shopping… and freezing.

After, we retreat back to Hongik for a second dinner of galbi, this time with the whole group, and call it a trip. Of course, Callie, Kris and I make sure to get a picture with our new best friend – the waiter. This time he’s happy to see us.

In the four days we have been in Seoul, the only foreign food we have eaten were bagels for breakfast at Dunkin Donuts. That’s how great Seoul is. Throughout the trip, we played the “how many puns on ‘Seoul’ can you make?” game, and Callie won with the last pun in this entry.

Korea is my Seoulmate and I hope I’ve Seould you on making your next trip there!

Lindsey, Callie and me at the Palace. I went into this trip imagining it was summer already in Korea. When it started snowing and all I had was a hoodie, I regretted that wishful thinking :/

Changing of the guards ceremony at the Palace

Modeling with one of the guards after the ceremony

We are the guards! I'm the smallest and Kris (who is like 3 feet tall) is the biggest.

The unreachable pagoda

Leave it to Kris, Callie and me to restore peace to an unstable region! (In the DMZ)

Getting the hang of galbi! Yummm!

Sakura: Japan is Pretty in Pink

•April 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

“I wish the cherry blossoms lived longer than a week.”

“No,” she’s shaking her head, her brow furrowed in concentration. “Japanese people – we like them to fall as fast as they bloom.”

There’s food for thought.

“Why?”

She can’t explain it to me in English, but when she gestures towards the trees, lit up now by the lanterns hanging above, I think I might understand.

It’s late – 10:30 – and the Kudamatsu Park is nearly deserted. Nearly, but there are still 2 or 3 couples, holding hands and walking under the blossoms along the riverbank or picking up the remnants of a leisurely hanami. The sky is starless, but I only know that once we’ve driven away; the white-pink petals light up the night just the same.

Yesterday I hanami‘d in Iwakuni, at the Kintaikyo Bridge. I hear it’s the best place in all of Yamaguchi for cherry blossoms. I marveled at the crowds of people, Yamaguchi-residents, no doubt – but they took as many pictures as me. They see this every year, isn’t it average now? Not here, not for Japanese.

They call sakura a season, although it only lasts a little over a week. It always falls during spring vacation, and I doubt that’s a coincidence. Just like calligraphy, tea ceremony and flower arrangement, Japanese treat the blossoms as sacred – a traditional art. They revel in the beauty of spring’s pronouncement and take their time enjoying it.

Hanami, cherry blossom viewing, is its own word – a verb, a noun, a time, an event. On the lone weekend in a year when all the buds have burst and the country is sprinkled pink, everyone, it seems, pauses their busy lives, grabs a tarp and their favorite Japanese foods and drinks and sits under the trees. They celebrate beauty and nature with their time. Hanami is an homage to the  blossoms and to life, perhaps; it’s just as fleeting as the petals.

We are driving slowly out of the park. There are 2 more couples, both laughing and looking up into the snaking sakura trees. It’s rare to see such displays of affection and emotion here, especially by young people. It’s so relatable – their joy in the blossoms and each other, and that’s as refreshing as the spring air the blossoms welcome home.

Iwamoto-san is still lost in concentration, her face reflecting the inner battle with English words.

“I think I understand, Iwamoto-san. If something so beautiful lived any longer, it wouldn’t be as special. Hanami could be every day, and that’s not the essence of hanami at all.”

She nods.

There’s so much more to it that my simple explanation and understanding misses. The language and cultural barriers will probably always stand in the way of me knowing exactly what she meant. Japanese people – we like them to fall as fast as they bloom.

But the beauty of the petals, fluttering down as we drive like satin raindrops from a cloudless sky – that doesn’t need translation. If I had this magical week to look forward to every spring, maybe I’d only want it to last for an instant, too. But for now, when my time here is so short, I want sakura season to last all year long.

Iwamoto-san under the blossoms at Kudamatsu Park. She used to live right by the park and took me to her favorite sakura-viewing spot.

Callie, Tiffany, Alex and I joined the hanami'ing masses in Iwakuni at the famous Kintaikyo Bridge.

Tiffany, Callie and me

My Boulevard of Cherry Blossoms

We paid 300yen ($4ish) to cross the bridge - a small price for such beautiful views and photo-ops!

How the sakura see the bridge.

...and then Callie got shat on by a bird!

There was something majestic about this scene. The sakura are as transient as the temple is permanent, and yet both are inextricably linked to religion. Like the flowers, a Buddhist soul is regenerative. Beautiful.

At twilight, the lanterns light the path,.