Kyoto, Japan

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If you follow me on Instagram, you probably know by now that I absolutely adored my time in Kyoto last weekend. In the week before I left I was feeling really overwhelmed with everything going on – I felt like I didn’t have enough time to keep up with anything, let alone plan a vacation, and I wasn’t sure how my trip was going to turn out. Of course, I needn’t have worried. Japan is a wonderful place, and my time in Kyoto was magic in all kinds of little ways. The city itself was so welcoming. It’s small enough not to be overwhelming but big enough to offer hundreds of beautiful temples, shrines and other attractions. The people are so friendly and helpful. It’s easy to navigate and the whole city is pretty walkable.

I was really only in Japan for four nights, but it really stretched out and felt like so much longer. I had some amazing sushi, and even befriended one of the sushi chefs – before I left, he hand-carved an intricate design into a bamboo leaf using an enormous knife the size of a small sword and gave it to me as a gift. I went on one of the most gorgeous hikes of my life, on one of the hottest days I can remember, through an old, old forest that made me feel tiny and grateful in the best possible way. One day, I spotted a wild monkey eating only ten feet from where I was standing, and the next day I held hands with a monkey (for approximately 1 second while feeding it a banana) at a monkey park. In both cases, the monkeys lived wild in the forests, but at the monkey park there is a bit more supervision, and a cage for humans only (!!) that you can enter to feed the monkeys who otherwise run totally wild. I was lucky enough to see some truly stunning temples and shrines and actually have some pretty spiritual experiences there. I made new friends from all over the world (but funnily enough, mostly from Canada!) and also enjoyed myself so much just wandering around on my own.

It was absolutely the perfect trip, exactly when I needed it. I came home feeling re-energized and excited about living abroad. It was a great reminder of exactly why I chose to come live in Korea in the first place – precisely so that I could do things like go to Japan for a long weekend and a less than 200 dollar flight. It reminded me that I love to travel alone and that I am totally capable of anything I set my mind to. It made me feel inspired and alive, as all good trips should. Most of all, it made me feel calm, which means it was the perfect vacation. There was no pressure and no stress, just lovely sights, a gorgeous river, a cozy downtown, breezy rooftops, friendly people, delicious food, huge old trees, lots of bright orange, and lots of smiles. I hope to go back to Japan and the beautiful Kyoto some time very soon.

Favourites:

  • Ganko Sushi: where I befriended the amazing chefs, right near Sanjo bridge
  • Sitting by the Sanjo bridge on the river bank: lots of locals and ex-pats gather down here by this bridge! I had drinks (bought at the convenience store right around the corner) down here and appreciated the water every night I was in Kyoto.
  • Fushimi-Inari Shrine: probably my favourite part of my trip to Kyoto. I hiked all the way to the top even though I was exhausted and sweating more than I have in recent memory, it was totally worth it just for the hike back down. On my way down the late-afternoon light was filtering perfectly through the trees and I saw barely another living person most of the way. And then I saw a monkey. It was magic.
  • Gion: I stayed at a hostel in this area (called A-Yado Hostel) and I absolutely loved the whole neighbourhood. It’s so quiet and feels so old and mysterious, with lots of tiny little alleys and a river running through it.
  • Arashiyama, for the monkey park and the bamboo grove. I really liked the nearby Tenryu-ji Temple also, but I preferred touring the gardens to the actual temple itself.
  • Tokasaikan: I didn’t actually eat at this Chinese restaurant, but went to it because it’s right on the river and looked like it had a gorgeous rooftop patio. I went for drinks up there twice and fell in love with the atmosphere and the view, as well as the ride up on the oldest elevator in Japan!

Inside My Second Korean Apartment

Korean Apartment Tour

When I first moved to Korea, I shared photos of my apartment for anybody curious back home (hi Grandma! hi Mom!) or anybody curious in general. I remember how nervous I was about moving here in the months leading up to my departure, and I remember how great it was to see pictures of my friend Dylan’s apartment before I left. So if there’s anybody out there about to move to Korea to be a teacher at a hagwon and curious about what your accommodations will be like, perhaps this post can shed some light.

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This is the beautiful wall of windows I’m greeted with every time I step into my apartment. As you can see, I have no furniture apart from my bed (actually a futon) and a couple of little tables left by the previous tenant. I could really use a desk! But I’m making do for now by using my little built in table in my kitchen.

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I really love this table feature. It’s been working out wonderfully so far, but I’ve only lived here for two sleeps so we’ll see what I start using the space for as time goes on. The stools were also left behind and I love them too. My personal motto appears to be: “The more colour, the better!!”

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The Disney decals on the walls were also already there – aren’t they funny? The kitchen is very similar to my last one – it has two gas burners and the washing machine underneath. But my last kitchen didn’t have Winnie the Pooh so I think this apartment is winning.

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I also love this little table directly across from the kitchen. I’ve used it to store all my precious little things – a Ganesh god statuette that was a gift from my mom, a candle from Israel from my best friend, a rubber ducky I took from a fountain outside a love motel in Japan, you know, the usual. I killed off my succulent plant (typical, for me) so I repurposed its pink container to be a change jar. The full length mirror behind this table is also awesome.

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Lots of closet space, which is great, and I hung up my felt bunting across the ceiling because it refused to stick to the wall. I helped make miles of that bunting for Market Day at my last school and took some of the extras home. I love having it in here, it makes every day feel like a party!

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My reading materials and my bedspread and a little inherited table.

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A messy cabinet, with lots of storage!

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The bathroom, featuring a sneak peek of my ajumma pants (which I adore). My shower in this new place has a door (yay!) but the bottom isn’t totally sealed off so the water runs over the floor into the drain near the sink (not so yay!). It’s a good compromise, since some showers have no door or separation and all your stuff gets wet every time! I’m happy that I have an in-between-style shower.

And that’s that! It’s my second day at the new job today and I’m a bit overwhelmed but I’m just trying to work hard and do my best. I’m sure I’ll figure it out eventually!

Dare I say I like this apartment better than my first one? I think it has more personality! And more light! And fewer neighbours across the way! I might need to buy a few more things to make it more homey, but it’s really great.

Lately | June

Lately JuneExcited I was able to see a stunning coastal temple this morning before I had to go to work.

Resolving to get out more in the mornings instead of always saving my excursions for the weekend.

Becoming a regular at a few great restaurants + bars in my neighbourhood (for Busanites: Artista and Thursday Party).

Planning my summer vacation – I’m thinking Japan!

Eating a lot of homemade summer rolls for dinner (I’ll share my recipe on the blog next week), scrambled egg wraps for lunch, and a lot of raw veggies in between.

Drinking the delicious-but-potent Long Island Iced Teas at our local watering hole, and lots of water the rest of the time.

Excited about trying cheesy pajeon, our upcoming trip to Jeju island, all the books I’ve been adding to my to-read list, and getting to teach cute little kids starting from next week.

Running at the local track and slowly increasing my distance – yay!

Brainstorming for a new creative (ad)venture. Stay tuned!

Watching Masterchef and Masterchef Australia because they’re both back on, hallelujah! My favourite time of year.

Daydreaming out loud about plans for after my year in Korea.

Listening to my favourite podcasts most of the time instead of music. Any song recommendations?

Relieved that most of the stress involved with switching schools seems to have passed so that now I can just focus on enjoying my long summer days and nights.

Making use of the open rooftop terraces on nearby buildings for gatherings and late night yoga alike.

Wondering how it’s already Wednesday, and how it’s already the last week of June.

Grateful for emails from family, long talks with good friends, and the fact that I’m back to feeling positive and excited about the rest of my year in Korea after a brief period of negativity and stress.

Observations in Korea / 03

Korean Observations 3

Once again, I’m amazed that two months have gone by since the last one of these observations posts (you can see my first two here and here). That being said, even though I’m coming up on the end of my fourth month, I feel like I’ve lived in Korea for much longer than that. I think that the stress and slight upheaval that came with the announcement about my school closing down took the wind out of my sails a bit because it brought up a lot of the more frustrating and difficult aspects of life in a foreign country. The dust has settled and I’m back to feeling more balanced and positive about life here, but the experience definitely expanded my sense of how long I’ve been in Korea. Fortunately, I’m still really enjoying myself, and I haven’t stopped making observations about the funny and interesting parts of this culture. Here are some more of them:

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In some bathrooms, instead of liquid soap dispensers they have a bar of soap on a stick. It looks exactly like this.

Every time I’ve taken the inter-city train here, it’s always been totally packed. They sell “standing” tickets for trains, so lots of people stand in the aisles, sit on the stairs between train cars, or sprawl out and sleep literally across the entire floor in the dining car. To me, that last one seems like a fire hazard, but it’s totally normal here.

Koreans make excellent ice cream. At your local convenience store you can choose from a huge variety of individual ice cream bars and cones in the freezer that are very cheap and very good. Some tiny convenience stores also have soft-serve ice cream machines! And my absolute favourite part of the pre-packaged ice cream cones is their packaging ingenuity: they have pre-scored lines at every inch or so, meaning you can easily unwrap the cone strip by strip as you eat. It’s so simple but so smart. You can sort of see an example here.

When I opened a new bank account last week, the woman told me to choose a 4 digit PIN number. A few minutes later, she said I needed to make a 6 digit number as a type of security code, but that the security code needed to be my 4-digit PIN plus two zeroes at the end. This struck me as fairly hilarious and ridiculous, because of course if everyone is told to do the same thing, how is it any more secure than the 4-digit code?

In a lot of bathrooms, there is a little button you can press to make a loud “flushing sound”, presumably so you can do your business more discreetly. In some bathroom stalls I’ve also seen an “emergency call” button.

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Some Korean couples dress exactly alike, and I mean that they literally wear the same things from head to toe: same shirt, same pants, same shoes. Everytime I see it, I do a double take and have to laugh. Yesterday my friends and I spent a good deal of time discussing the mechanics of how the couple makes that decision, since most Koreans live with their parents until they’re married and so the younger couples presumably don’t live together and share a closet. Do they text each other about the outfit? Does the girl pick out his outfit or vice versa? You can see a bounty of examples here.

Cellphones seem to be much more common in the workplace here than they are back home. For instance, in addition to the bank phones on their desk, tellers at the bank will also have their cell phones out right in front of you, will use them to check things, and last week the woman who was helping me took a cell phone call right in the middle of our transaction.

In general I have to say that Korean women seem to care not at all about panty lines. This is not to say that I think they should, but it’s just very different from back home. Even young stylish women wearing pencil skirts or pants usually have visible panty lines.

When you walk into big stores (similar to Wal-Marts back home), there is a designated “bower” on every floor who bows to you as you enter and leave. On trains too, the customer service agents who walk between cars often bow as they enter and leave a train car – and this is even on the very cheapest, most run-down train line!

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Koreans have a hilarious preoccupation with “dong” which is Korean for poop. They have these red bean treats that are shaped like piles of poop, and in Seoul we even went to a café that was, for all intents and purposes poop-themed, but in the most cutesy and least-gross possible way. Picture fairy lights strung around a tree that has cartoon, multicoloured piles of poop hanging off it. It’s equal parts funny and totally baffling.

In Busan, foreigners often get “shushed” or asked to stop talking by Koreans on the subway, even when objectively they’re not speaking very loudly. Granted, the subways are often very quiet (sometimes almost freakily silent, with everyone fully absorbed in their phones and not talking to one another) so speaking even quietly is a disruption, and sure, sometimes we foreigners might deserve it when we get a bit too loud, but usually it’s unfair and unpleasant. Especially considering that in a huge number of circumstances (including on quiet trains), Koreans can be extremely loud, especially when speaking to their families or on the phone. We’ve heard from Korean friends that when it does happen, it’s usually because Koreans find our accents and language deeply annoying, moreso than because of the noise level itself. This is just one of those times when you really feel like a minority in a culture different from your own.

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A lot of people, mostly middle-aged and older women, walk around with umbrellas up when it’s sunny outside so that they don’t get any kind of tan, since Koreans think that tans are not beautiful.

Most stores and jobs seem very overstaffed. Tiny kiosks and totally empty stores usually have at least three employees, I’ve seen 5 people on hand “helping” (watching) one guy change a vending machine, and of course there are the aforementioned bowers.

Once at the local track, my friends were annoyed by a woman walking slowly around the track with a huge antenna sticking up from the tablet she was holding, watching a Korean soap opera on full volume.

Korean Baseball GameAt the baseball stadium, everyone is allowed to bring their own food and drinks (yep, even alcoholic ones) in from outside, and there are convenience stores inside the stadium with the exact same prices as outside. At the end of the game, they pass out bright orange plastic bags which everyone ties into big balloons or bows and loops around their ears. The bags are meant to be used for everyone to clean up their garbage at the end of the game, but they’re used for a bit of fun beforehand, ha.

Take out food culture here is really very excellent – it’s usually free delivery, and the food is brought wrapped in plastic but on real plates with real utensils and often with all the side dishes that Koreans eat with their meals. After your meal, you leave the dirty plates and bowls on the floor outside your apartment or in the corner of your office, and the delivery guy comes back to pick it up later. Yes, really.

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It’s funny: the longer I spend living in Korea, the more funny differences I notice between here and home. I thought that this country’s idiosyncrasies would start to fade as I got used to living here, but actually the opposite has happened. I had to hold back on this post because there are still so many things I could add (for instance: elevators don’t have sensors and sometimes eat you alive; I had to open a new account at a different bank for my new job because my boss (inexplicably) refuses to do a transfer to the bank I am already with; dried sweet potato is a popular snack), but I’ll save a few for the next installment. This is a very different culture than the one I grew up in, and while there are some frustrating parts, mostly the differences are just funny and interesting.