Visiting the DMZ

Korea’s Thanksgiving, called Chuseok ( 추석 in Hangul) is a great opportunity for a wonderful, relaxing, five-day weekend. Jordan and I took advantage of that by traveling to Seoul (unfortunately our last time) and visiting the Demilitarized Zone.

We showed up, bright and early, for Koridoor’s DMZ tour at USO Camp Kim. Because this is run through the U.S. military, we were told it’s the best one out there, and it gives people a chance to go to the JSA (Joint Security Area).

We hadn’t been around so many Americans in probably a year–it was a little disorienting, actually. We left Seoul in a big tour bus surrounded by American, European, and Singaporean tourists and drove about 50 minutes into the northern countryside.

The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, isn’t just a line in the dirt. It’s a strip of earth, a ribbon running from one end of the peninsula to the other, about 160 miles long and 2.5 wide. Because few humans have walked withing the DMZ, much of it is teeming with wildlife and actually quite pretty, despite the barbed wire and landmines still present. There are a few roads, however, that go to the actual border within the DMZ, the real line between the two countries. That’s called the Demarcation Line.

Along the way, we passed Daeseongdong, a small farming community also known as Freedom Village. It’s one of two villages within the DMZ, the other, Kijong-dong, is called “Propaganda Village” by American soldiers. Built by the North Korean regime, it has one of the largest flags and flag towers in the world, but based on surveillance through binoculars, no one’s really convinced that anyone actually lives there, and it’s all just empty buildings. Sometimes South Korea blares KPop music over the propaganda loudspeakers.

Although farmers in Freedom Village lead a somewhat dangerous life so near North Korea, have lots of rules to follow, and have a fractured history of the 1950s, they’re actually quite well off–they don’t pay rent, tax, or do military service.

We stopped at Camp Bonifas, which is jointly run by Americans and Korean soldiers. An American usually stays for about one year, Koreans about two. Korea has compulsory two-year military service for all males. They usually do it in between high school and college. The camp is named for an American captain who was killed in the Axe Murder event by North Korean soldiers. There, we disembarked, filed into a tourist building, watched a very fast slideshow of the history, and were put on different, UN buses. Camp Bonifas is the last stop until the JSA, or Joint Security Area, which is along the real border between the two countries. It’s where the UN hangs out when they have conferences.

_mg_0965At this point, to be honest, I was getting a bit frustrated. Our military tour guide for the JSA was a young American soldier who seemed like he’d drawn the short straw and had to babysit a bunch of tourists. He wasn’t enthusiastic, and I had a hard time hearing him. I think I also may have had higher expectations. I expected, because this was a hostile border area, more history and a serious look at the political and social forces at play. But the soldiers really weren’t interested in telling us much of that.

We walked quickly and quietly through a courtyard area, into the the Peace Pagoda which was built to house separated families when they hosted reunions. There have only been a handful of reunions, primarily because North Korea’s government is wary of contact with the outside world. The Peace Pagoda has never been used to house families.

We walked, double file, out onto a back deck of the Pagoda.

“Do not move quickly. Do not wave at the North Korean soldiers. Do not walk over the lines. Do you see that water tower? Do not take pictures of it. Only take photos of North Korean buildings. Do not touch the South Korean soldiers. Do no make sudden movements. Do not stand on that part of the deck.” And on the list went. I couldn’t hear the soldiers very well, and was pretty nervous about making a mistakes.

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We took photos for a few moments, and then another American soldier said, “that’s enough. Put your cameras down.” We obeyed, and led down the steps to one of the blue buildings.

Built for treaty meetings and UN conferences, the building straddles to demarcation line. One half of the building is in South Korea, the other in the North. It’s the only place tourists get the chance to step into North Korea.

White stones now mark the demarcation line, but back in the 60s and 70s soldiers of both sides could freely move around, and guard towers were built on both sides of the demarcation line. However, one American/ROK tower was surrounded by three North Korean towers, and the line of sight to the headquarters was blocked by a tree. After a lengthy discussion and agreement, American soldiers went to prune the tree, to allow for better eyesight to their lone guard tower in 1976. However, several North Korean soldiers grew anxious, and things disintegrated. Two American soldiers, Bonifas and Barrett, were killed in the attack. You can learn more about the Axe Murder Incident here.

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Once we finished taking our photos, we were instructed to calmly leave, walk back through the Peace Pagoda, and get on the bus. The bus drove us back to Camp Bonifas, where we toured a small museum (finally, I got to learn some of the history), and purchase North Korean trinkets. I admit, I bought some North Korean money. I thought it was fascinating.

Our Koridoor tour guide and bus driver took us to Dora Observatory, which is exactly what it sounds like–an observatory tower with binoculars to peer into North Korea. We got to see Gaesong Industrial Complex, a rare example of North and South working together. Unfortunately, it’s being shut down. While South Korea will suffer the loss of cheap gadgets made there and shipped into the country, North Korea will lose up to 20% of it’s GDP.

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Another stop was the Dorasan train station. The northernmost train stop in Korea, it’s tracks run to the Gaesong industrial complex, though freight trains on ran between them in 2007 and 2008. However, rails are in place to link Seoul to Pyeongyang, on to Beijing.

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“Just think!” we were told. “After reunification, you could travel from Seoul to Paris by train!” It is a pretty crazy thought.

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Because the train station is only used a couple times a day, coming from Seoul, it’s mostly set up as a museum to “what could be.”

Our final stop (after traditional Korean lunch) was the third infiltration tunnel. Long story short, there was a North Korean defector who told the South Korean government the military was digging it’s way to Seoul to invade, in at least 20 tunnels. The South Korean military, ever vigilant, began drilling holes and filling them with water to detect for tunnels. And they found four, from 1974-1990. The North Koreans denied that they’d dug the tunnels, claiming they were old coal mines.

Now, South Korea has opened the tunnels up as tourist destinations, which now that I think about it, is pretty weird. But I think it’s a calculated attempt to publicize to the world how crazy their neighbors are, as well as a show of strength, like, “your attempts at infiltration is so pathetic we entertain ourselves with the efforts.”

That tunnel, though, is pretty deep, and pretty narrow. Supposedly, it could get 30,000 soldiers through in an hour, but I just don’t see how. I was bent over half the time, trying to avoid hitting my head on the low ceiling, and returning, I huffed and puffed up the 11% grade incline. Anyway, that was our last visit of the day.

I found it really enlightening (after a bit of wikipedia searches), and would recommend it to people–as long as they do a little research beforehand so they’re not frustrated and confused like I was. I did learn a lot, and have a much better understanding of North Korean relations now. I had really wanted to visit Pyeongyang on a 4- or 5-day tour through Pioneer Tours, but we’re running out of time and money. So the DMZ tour was kind of our one shot at getting to see North Korea. And it’s highly educational and worth going to understand the South Korean perspective as well.

 

 

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Grocery shopping in Changnyeong

Grocery shopping isn’t something most people find entertaining or even very interesting. But when you’re thrown into a foreign country with foreign foods, prices, and language, suddenly it becomes a lot more time-consuming and interesting!

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Although we live in a village called Gyeseong, we don’t have a grocery store. There’s a 7-11 and a GS25, both small convenience stores, but that’s about it. So on Monday nights our boss, Richard, drives us into Changnyeong so we can do proper grocery shopping.

Changyeong has it’s own mini supermarkets and convenience stores, but the three main stores in town are Jin-Mart, I-Mart, and Topmart. We hardly ever go to Jin-Mart (I don’t know why Richard won’t drive us there).

I-Mart offers great deals on bread, while Topmart has good prices on frozen chicken breasts, so we normally rotate between the two every other week.

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The biggest surprise I had when shopping was the price of the food–everything was so much more expensive than I was used to! I think it’s because Korea is a peninsula and very mountainous–most of it’s farmland is used for rice, garlic, onion, and cabbage. Many other foods, especially fresh fruit, must be imported.

I’ve gotta say, though, my eyes bulged when I saw that a small carton of strawberries would cost me 8 USD.

It’s been almost 10 months, though, so I’ve adjusted to the price. I buy a few vegetables every week and one type of fruit, usually one on sale. A lot of the produce is seasonal, so we get strawberries in the spring, nectarines in November/December, and grapefruit in August. Apples, lemons, and oranges are pretty regular, thankfully.

Beef is very expensive in Korea, so we normally buy chicken and pork. Most grocery stores have aquariums of live fish, eel, and octopus ready for sale, but I have no idea how to prepare those dishes, so we just cruise right past that aisle.

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Soy, teriyaki, and sukiyaki sauce all comes in large containers, and we regularly buy it along with pounds and pounds of rice. Ramen is practically considered a food group in East Asia, and many stores have an entire aisle dedicated to the flavors, spices, and types of Ramen they sell.

We don’t know what half of the store’s goods are, nor do we know how to cook with it. So our diet is pretty limited to the stuff we can recognize. Thankfully, gmarket is basically Korea’s version of Amazon, and it delivers real cheddar cheese (as well as other non-perishable goods). iHerb, also, is a California company that ship organic and all-natural non-perishables overseas, so we make an order from them once a month.

Also once a month we visit Daegu’s eMart, a much larger department store that carries all the fruits, vegetables, dairy, and seasonings we could want. They have a great foreign foods section, which doesn’t have much American, but it does have a little Mexican, Thai, and Italian. Between eMart, gmarket, and iHerb, we’re able to fill in most of the gaps that our small town grocery store doesn’t provide for.

At checkout we buy our monthly allotment of garbage bags (pink bags by local law) and pack our groceries in our shopping bag we bring or a cardboard box the store allows us to take.

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Shopping in Korea was definitely an adjustment process–even greater than the adjustment I made when in South America. But after 10 months we’ve made our peace with the missing things in our diet (don’t get me started on how much I miss American Chinese food, Chik Fil A, or Sonic though) and had filled the gaps as best we can. It’s a good chance to assimilate into the local culture, and while we haven’t done it perfectly, we’ve certainly tried!

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Sacred deer of Nara

About 45 minutes from Osaka is a town called Nara, famous for their temples and deer.

It was Japan’s first permanent capital (710 to 794 AD), and houses beautiful temples and some of the world’s oldest wooden buildings.

We didn’t get to see the wooden buildings, but we did hang out with the deer!

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In the 8th century, when the people of Nara were interested in building a temple, myth says that the god Takemikazuchi arrived, riding a white deer. Since then, deer have been protected in the city of Nara. Sometimes they stroll through the center of town, though usually they just stick to Nara Park.

 

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Above is a bell tower from one of the UNESCO temples in Nara Park. The park is really lovely, and a mile or two away, on the far side of a lookout mound, is the Kasagayama Primeval Forest. I really wanted to visit that, but it was too far to walk in the heat.

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This wooden statue is in the gateway of Todai-ji Temple. I’m not sure which shinto god he’s supposed to be, but he looks fearsome! I was very impressed with how much has been preserved and taken care of. This park housed some of the oldest things we saw in Japan. Between fires, earthquakes, and WWII, few ancient things have survived into the 21st century.

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This is the gate into the temple which houses the wooden carvings. It was so much fun to mill about with the deer. They’re pesky little things, too! We watched and laughed as deer nosed into women’s purses and men’s camera bags, ready to but their way to some food. They’re called Japanese Deer or Spotted Deer, and their antlers are cut every October so they don’t overgrow and accidentally stab tourists.

Beyond this gate is Todai-ji Temple, the largest wooden building in the world. It hosues a 15-meter tall Buddha.

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History is a big draw  to Nara and it’s park. Above you can see a rebuilt fishing vessel that Nara people used in the 16th century.

We were staying in Osaka, which is an easy distance from Nara. This daytrip was kind of a last minute addition, based on a friend’s recommendation that the deer are cool. We’re pretty glad we went! Scratching deer and admiring old Japanese trees and temples was a lot of fun.

And that (besides a visit to Osaka Castle) pretty much finished our trip in Japan. We were so sad to leave–Japan is a fascinating country that deserves at least a month to travel and enjoy the sights.

If you’ve visited Japan, what was your favorite part of your trip?

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Hiroshima

So we went to Hiroshima.

Yeah, the place where the A-bomb struck. That’s pretty much the only reason anyone knows about this city. Which is really sad, when you think about it.

We took a bullet train south, from Odawara to Osaka to Hiroshima (it wasn’t be choice, it was very expensive and we weren’t pleased) and marveled at the smooth ride and flashing scenery.

The next morning we went out to see the sights. The two biggest things to see in Hiroshima are Hiroshima Castle and the Peace Park and Memorial. We easily did both of those in one day.

As we walked through the city, I was slightly nervous at the reception we might get as Americans. A year ago we talked to an Australian couple who stayed in Nagasaki and said they once had to pull out their passports to prove they weren’t American before the restaurant would serve them lunch. To be honest, I can’t really blame the restaurant.

So far, our trip through Japan had been wonderful (transportation issues aside), and we’d met some of the kindest, friendliest people. I talked with a Japanese girl who’d just returned form a three-month stint of travel in the States and mentioned how much it meant to her when Obama visited Hiroshima. “It made my heart move,” she said. Japan and the US have great foreign relations, and that extends to the everyday people, not just the government. Frankly, it’s amazing how much brutal history we’ve both been able to set aside in the past 70 years.

But in Hiroshima, no one batted an eye when learning we were American. I think Obama’s visit in May smoothed our way through the city, which I was grateful for. Still, as we walked, I wondered what it was like to live in a city known for tragedy. It’s only been 71 years. As beautiful as this thriving city is (and it really is a great city), 71 years is no time at all when you consider collective history and shared narratives of people groups. For example: one of their bus stops is called “the A-bomb dome.” What a burden that must be.

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The peace park, museum, and memorial are set up just a few hundred meters from the hypocenter of where the bomb struck. At one end is the museum (200 yen per person), at the other, the one building that survived the nuclear weapon. In between is the ever-burning flame of peace, which will burn until nuclear weapons have been banned, the children’s memorial with a statue of Sadako and her cranes, a Korean memorial, and more.

The A-bomb was dropped at 8:15 on August 6, 1945. It instantly killed 80,000 people. Over 6,000 of those where middle school children in the city center working to create firebreaks. About 20,000 were Korean slave laborers the Japanese had brought over to work in factories for the war effort. Twelve were American prisoners of war. It is very difficult to gauge the death toll, but the museum estimated about 350,000 people died from the bombs and radiation afterward.

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The bomb was detonated a little more than 600 meters above ground for maximum damage. While the city was used to air raids and bombers coming through, they stood still when the atom bomb was dropped. Three airplanes went past, dropping the bomb and two parachutes. Curious, people watched instead of fleeing for shelter.

The heat of the bomb was around 1 million degrees centigrade at its center. The heat of the explosion twisted steel, melted concrete, incinerated flesh and bones, and left only shadows of people behind. The few that survived were mostly 1km away from the hypocenter. They stumbled through the streets, some diving into the river, with their skin melting off their body. A few made it home, only to find their homes destroyed by fire and wind, even up to 4 kms away from the hypocenter. Others died, trapped in burning buildings.

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Children ringing the peace bell together.

Those that survived the initial blast died 1-20 days later from radiation. No one knew what was happening. No one understood radiation, and many hospitals were destroyed in the blast. Few images exist of the first day after the bomb. One photographer went into the city to document, but was shocked by the thousands of corpses amidst the rubble, and could only take five photos before leaving. He later died of radiation poisoning.

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This dome building, the peace memorial, was the closest surviving building to the epicenter. It was left just as the bomb ravaged it, with twisted steel rebar running through the interior.Known as the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, it was only 160 meters from the hypocenter. Everyone inside died instantly.

Hiroshima was a military city–it had been for many years before WWII, and the 5th division of the army was stationed there. That, coupled with the fact that there was nothing left of Tokyo to destroy, was why the American military chose Hiroshima as its target.

We wandered through the museum, looking a couple of gruesome mannequins and the few remains of a few of the people who died. A charred lunchbox sat on one end, the only thing that a mother found after combing through her the rubble of her son’s school  for three days. There wasn’t enough of a body left to bury, let alone identify. A burnt and twisted tricycle was displayed in another corner, evidence of a four-year-old’s death. Artwork adorned the walls, showing women covered in black rain, digging through their burning homes to pull their children to safety. There is so much more I could tell you.

It was horrific. I had an audio guide which gave the testimonies of these things, and I had to skip through it. After two narratives I almost broke down in the middle of the exhibit, and I didn’t think that would be respectful of the Japanese’ story. “White tears” wasn’t something I wanted to cry when faced with the overwhelming, incomprehensible violence and loss of this city.

After the bombing, people believed nothing could grow there again for 75 years. It’s only been 71, to put that into perspective.

At the end of the exhibit was a display of photos of world leaders who had visited the museum and center. Front and center was Pres. Obama’s visit in May. It was obvious how special and healing the visit was for the Japanese people.

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At the end were discussion books, places for people to express their thoughts and feelings. I thought this was very touching, since going through an intense experience of the museum really does churn a lot of emotions and concerns up. You can see what I wrote in the bottom right of the page.

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Elsewhere in the park, a memorial was erected to remember the lives of Koreans who died far from their home in the atomic blast.

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Once out in the park, we were approached by several groups of middle schoolers who were there on assignment.

“We have studied English for five years and have questions for you. Can we ask you questions?” Five inquired, blushing and giggling behind their notebooks.

“Of course,” Jordan and I responded.

“Where are you from?”

“The United States,” we said, a little uncomfortable with that fact.

“Oh, wow!” They grinned at one another, excited. “So why are you here?”

“To learn. It is important we learn about bad things in the past so we don’t repeat them. Especially the Japanese and the Americans,” I said.

“What do you think of a bombs?”

“They are bad,” Jordan answered.

“And of Hiroshima?”

“Very, very, very sad.” I said, trying to keep words simple for them. “So many people. So sad.”

“Thank you for your time,” the oldest said. “Here are two cranes. You know about the cranes?”

We nodded and accepted beautiful origami cranes from them.

After they left, we wandered around the park some more. Although the mood was a little somber, most people seemed stoic. We passed one or two people were were crying on the steps (I felt like joining them).

I’ve been to difficult places before–not Auswitz, but the Killing Fields in Cambodia and a museum on human rights in Chile. I’ve been to Pearl Harbor. Those were difficult. But this was different. It was much harder to walk through the park knowing my country caused these deaths. And yes, it was war, and by definition war is terrible and brutal and deadly, but these were innocents.

The visit was difficult and uncomfortable at times and absolutely heartbreaking, but I strongly suggest everyone visit Hiroshima if they get the chance. Especially Americans.

To end on a lighter note, here’s a photo of Hiroshima castle. It was originally built in the late 16th century, destroyed by the bombing, and rebuilt.

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A tree in the courtyard, less than 1 km away from the hypocenter, survived the bomb. That tree gave the Japanese hope that one day, they could rebuild, that Hiroshima would be a city of peace once again. And they did.

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Little mountain town Hakone

After leaving Tokyo and the typhoon behind, we traveled a little way south to a mountain town in the Hakone district.

Because the tyhpoon disrupted train and bus schedules, it was very difficult to get to Hakone-Yumoto (the town we stayed in). I’ll just bypass that stressful evening of buses, trains, walking, etc., and get to the good part.

Hakone-Yumoto is a quaint tourist village with gorgeous nature surrounding it. Mt. Fuji can be seen in the distance, beyond a few lakes, and is very popular with Japanese travelers. Hot springs abound in Hakone-Yumoto, so many hotels have onsens, or public baths. I had been to a jjimjilbang before, so I wanted to check out Japanese baths and see how it compared.

But first: Lake Ashi and Mt. Fuji!

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We took a winding path up and over a mountain on a public bus to get from our airbnb to the lakeside village of Hakone-Mori. It was very cloudy that day, so we strolled along the shoreline just hoping Mt. Fuji would burst through the clouds. Many tourists drive to Hakone-Mori, take a boat across the lake, ride a cablecar up a mountain, and return to Yumoto village after about four or five hours. We didn’t want to spend that much money, so Jordan just went on a quick sightseeing boat ride._MG_0586

Although we didn’t go at a great time–the typhoon made everything difficult, from transportation to photos, the area is really beautiful. I’d happily go back and spend a long weekend there._MG_0568

Japan has beautiful cedar trees! I had no idea how much I loved cedar trees until we saw groves of them here. Although the Japanese are known for being tech-savvy and city-dwellers, they love their nature and have many parks, trails, and lakes dedicated to resting in the great outdoors._MG_0534

And there she is! Mt. Fuji herself! A beloved landmark, Fuji represents the pride, beauty, and determination of Japanese culture. We were so pleased that the clodus cleared long enough for a photo.

I know I haven’t included a lot of transportation information of coming and going, but if anyone planning a trip has questions, let me know. We made a few mistakes along the way (as helpful and friendly as Tokyo folks are, they don’t know how to leave their city very well and offer odd advice). After a time sightseeing, we hopped on the bullet train and went far, far south to Hiroshima.

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Seeing friends

We had the awesome opportunity while in Tokyo to see some family friends!

Ralph and Miho, missionaries with OMF in Tokyo, have stayed with my family when on home leave in the past. This time we got to see their hometown!

But before we did that, we rushed through the largest fish market in the world–Tsukiji Market. Normally at 9 am the place is massive, bustling, and full of fresh catches from the night before. But a typhoon had hit the coast, so few fishermen went out early that morning, and the market was much smaller than normal. It was also raining, so we kind of rushed from awning to awning rather than taking our time and sniffing tuna.

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Still, if you get the chance, definitely go!

We had originally planned a lovely trip along the coast with Ralph and Miho, but the rain made sure that didn’t happen. Instead, they took us to the church they volunteer at and showed us. I had seen photos before, when they were in the States and telling us about their mission, but it was a lot of fun seeing it in person.

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They took us to a local sushi joint, and Ralph kindly told me what to order and how to eat it.

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That’s my face before I tried the squid, I believe.

Visiting with friends was a wonderful experience, and it was so nice to be around people that spoke Japanese and could navigate the suburbs of Tokyo like a native (because they are natives!).

Jordan and I were a little sad to leave them so early, but we had to catch a bus to Hakone before the weather got worse.

 

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Historic Tokyo

On a lark, we decided to visit the Tokyo Edo Museum. We were glad we did!

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It cost 620 yen a person to get in, but the museum was huge and had tons of information about Tokyo during the Edo period, which ran from the 16th century to 1868. In the words of the museum, “In 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu entered the Kanto area and made Edo his power base. In 1603, he was rising to the rank of seii tai shogun (literally meaning “barbarian-subduing generalissimo,” commonly known as shogun) and established his shogunate in Edo. Ieyasu worked to develop Edo into a capital suitable as the home of the shogunate.”

The shogun and emperor are two separate people. If you want a crash course on the history of Japan (which explains who the offices are for and how they got mixed up), click here.

Anyway. Edo was a little fishing village in 1457 and became a booming metropolis of over 1 million people by 1721. In comparison, London was about 650,000 people at this time. New York City had about 8,000 people. Once the shogun made it his home, commerce took off. Buddhist temples and brothels and theaters were built side by side, samurai built their city manors near the shogun’s residence, and common people lived in tiny, barracks-like homes strung together.

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In the 1850s the United States pretty much forced Japan to end their isolationist policy (which was good for trade but bad for public health–many died of cholera and smallpox). Nationalism was stirring at this point (think The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise), and amidst the nationalist vs. American/modernist views, there was also political upheaval between the emperor and the shogunate/military factions. In 1868 the Meiji Restoration. The emperor abolished the office of Shogun and the Tokugawa family that hadh eld the office for around 300 years. The emperor welcomed westernization with open arms. As you can imagine, it was a very difficult time in Japan. This was when he moved the capital to Edo and renamed the city to “Tokyo.”

The museum depicted this in practically living technicolor, with moving models and beautiful panoramas. We were particularly impressed with how much information the graphs and charts gave. I’ve never seen such detailed info at a museum. It gave specific demographic statistics about many men, women, and children lived in a neighborhood at a certain decade and how many craftsmen were employed along specific streets. I was amazed.

After Edo Museum we strolled to Ueno Park, which is a must-see. Multiple museums, libraries, and gardens converge on this part of the city. We wandered through trees and walked by fountains, admiring signs that proudly displayed “TOKYO 2020!!” At the National Museum (which is primarily artwork–don’t go unless you love art) we snapped a few photos of old teahouses.

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Nearby are also old, famous shrines.

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We ended the day by walking through Yanaka Cemetery. Many famous people are buried here, from poets and novelists to the last shogun. Over 7,000 people are laid to rest here, and from the gravestone we could see some were Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian.

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It’s a great way to get a feel for old Japan, something more traditional and cherished in their culture. It’s also a lovely, quiet place for a walk.

We had walked about nine miles at that point, so we were tired and went back to our hostel to collapse in bed. Good thing, too, because it began to rain. We weathered the beginning of our very first typhoon that night!

 

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Imperial Tokyo

Tokyo has many gardens, botanical exhibits, and parks. I had no idea there were so many green places in the city!

The most famous, of course, are the Imperial gardens by the Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo. (Note: While you can visit the Imperial Palace, reservations must be made at least four days in advance. And they have a weird schedule. We weren’t able to go because they don’t give tours in afternoons in August).

_MG_0438Although the emperor still lives in the palace, the gardens are free and open to the public. While they are loveliest in spring during the cherry blossom season, it was nice to see wide, green spaces and trees surrounding medieval moats.

Built on the old Edo castle, the gardens were once considered some of the most expensive real estate in the world (circa 1980s).

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Between the East Gardens, peeking through the trees to get a view of the palace, strolling through the National Archives, and exploring the Science Museum, this part of Tokyo took up most of our day. I also got a sunburn._MG_0462

A famous watchtower–all we could see of the Imperial Palace.

The gardens host various types of fruit trees, irises, and cherry trees. It’s a great place to enjoy good weather and take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city.

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Land of the Rising Sun

We arrived in Tokyo midmorning without much planned except a hotel to drop our bags off. Although people had warned us that transportation in Japan would be difficult because they speak little English, we didn’t have a problem communicating to the train ticket agents about where we needed to go and how to get there.

What we should have done: purchase a suica card while at the Narita airport. But we didn’t, because we weren’t thinking about how complicated public transport is in Tokyo.

Tokyo is the largest city in the world. Including the surrounding area, Tokyo has upwards of 3o million people. Because of that, we had a hard time settling on a district to stay in. We finally picked Asakusa.

A historic district, much of the older buildings were either destroyed in an earthquake in 1923 or American bombings in WWII. However, there are still nice cultural pockets in the neighborhood to enjoy. Jordan learned that this is one of the few places in Japan left that we could spy a real-life geisha in. Sadly, we didn’t see one, but we did see lots of girls in traditional dress.

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There’s also a pretty cool temple/shrine in the neighborhood.

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Senso-ji is the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. The two statues in the gate behind Jordan are the god of wind and the god of thunder. During the Edo period of Tokyo, brothels and theaters cropped up in the neighborhood, beside shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Today it’s a great place for souvenirs, Japanese food, and enjoying a beer.

Across the river is SkyTree, a massive tower/mall opened in 2012. At 634 meters tall, it’s one of the highest structures in the city. Inside is an aquarium, planetarium, gardens, and many restaurants.

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Everyone here plays Pokemon Go, and SkyTree has an amazing pokemon center. Jordan had to have his photo taken with it, as you can see.

Behold, the tower:

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We had a lovely view of the city. Towers and buildings stretched as far as the eyes could see. By the time we’d explored Asakusa and Sumida City, it was night and we decided to save the rest of Tokyo for tomorrow.

Tokyo Sky small

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Boracay

One of the most popular islands in the country is Boracay, a small beach paradise nestled in the south. It’s blue waters and white sands call all types of tourists and travelers year-round.

Sheltered by other, larger islands, Boracay doesn’t receive as much of the rain and wind, which makes it a great place to visit even during monsoon season.

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We hopped on a plane in Manila to Kalibo airport. Although the flight took only an hour, the small island airport had us hold in the air for about 30 minutes because there was too much traffic on the runway. While there’s another, closer airport to Boracay, Kalibo is cheaper to get to.

After landing, we hopped off the plane and looked for transport. Taxis and buses all wait around the arrivals doors, shouting prices and places. A taxi driver approached us and offered to take us to Caticlan, the town where we needed to go, for 1,000 pesos. This is extravagantly overmuch, so we ignored him and went for small, white buses.

“250 pesos for bus ride and ferry ticket,” another man called to us.

“200 pesos and no ferry ticket,” I bargained.

“Okay,” he said happily, and took us to his white van.

We waited about20 minutes, until he found other passengers, and we were off. Traffic is still a problem, even on smaller islands, and I watched as he weaved between cement trucks, tuktuks, and other vans through the middle of town. The trip to Caticlan is normally two hours, but he made it in an hour and a half.

The ferry port was a madhouse. People streamed around, looking for proper lines and down the pier tourists hopped on ferry after ferry.

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In one line, we paid the environmental fee, which was 100 pesos a person. In the next line we bought our actual tickets for 25 pesos apiece. The third line was registering our passage and validating our ticket. And then, finally, we walked down the pier and hopped on a ferry. (On the way back, we had to pay an environmental/terminal fee AGAIN, but this time it was just 30 pesos a person).

The ride itself was short, but it took us to a different port on Boracay than we had anticipated. So our walk across the island to our hostel was long.

But the beaches are worth it!

We stayed at a small hostel about a 12 minute walk from the beach, far from drunk partiers and expensive resorts. Although there’s lots to do on Boracay, we mainly rested on the beach and enjoyed the palm trees.

I went scuba diving(!) and later we built a sandcastle.

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It was my first time diving, and I was very nervous about the water pressure and my ears, but it ended up not being a problem. My instructor/guide was patient and let me take all the time I needed to pop my ears and equalize as we went. We went only about six meters deep, but that was plenty for me.

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Jordan stayed on the boat and sketched, not wanting to spend the extra money. Still, it was a great price– I paid 2,000 pesos for a dive and a CD full of photos and videos. I really loved exploring underwater, especially at such an affordable price.

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The sandcastle was my idea, but Jordan really ran with it. After about two or three hours’ work, one shovel, and one small bucket, this is what we got:

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Unfortunately, our time in the Philippines is almost at an end. This country deserves so much more of our time, but we’re leaving today and heading for Japan.

Categories: Philippines | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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