Friday, July 24, 2009

Hello from the Turkish Mediterranean

Factoid of the day: Men and women who don't know each other can't be seated together on Turkish public buses. Makes for quite a logic puzzle for the conductors as passengers get on and off. Also: Turkish buses serve you ice cream.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Continuing my recent blogging vein with a tantalizing taste of my Japan adventures.... Some highlights:

*I was lucky enough to have a university friend, JJ, to stay with during my time in Japan. JJ even trekked out from Tottori (a small city where he was teaching English) to Osaka to meet me at the airport and spend the weekend in Osaka. That meant that instead of affording a sense of deep, overwhelming anxiety, jumping head first into Japanese society was exciting, fascinating, and generally great.

The Osaka skyline
*To start with, we had a fantastic night out, trying all sorts of delicious Osakan foods, wandering the streets of the city's ultra-trendy neighborhoods, stopping in a British-themed bar where I had my first umeshu (totally delicious plum wine), admiring the crazy out-there Japanese fashions at a particularly notorious intersection, and capping the evening with--what else--karaoke

*JJ convinced me that I had to experience a "capsule hotel," a unique Japanese experience where in a hotel-goer stays in what is essentially an enclosed train berth (but much more high-tech and futuristic feeling) in a huge hall full of said berths. The hotel had an extraordinary otherworldly feel to it (more on this in my later post on Osaka), replete with super-high tech gadgets (don't get me started on Japanese toilets...). In the women's bath I met Violetta, a Romanian mathematician with a Japanese husband who invited me to come see her in Matsue, a small city near Tottori

An awkward photo of my capsule* JJ and I splashed out on tickets for the semi-annual sumo wrestling tournament (which is held only once a year in southern Japan.) It was spectacular, a complete cultural immersion, an event which in many ways felt like it could have been taking place centuries in the past. Completely worth the money.

At the sumo tournament

*JJ and I took a day trip to Nara, where there are some temples and lots of tame deer walking around. The temples include both the oldest and largest standing wooden structures in the world. They are soberly gorgeous examples of Buddhist architecture (and, thanks to a course on the topic, JJ was able to regale me with the wonders of that architecture)

The largest wooden structure in the world (the dots are people)

JJ feeding a deer
The one on the left is the oldest standing wooden structure in the world


*Tottori is a little city about 2.5 hours northwest of Osaka. To say it doesn't get much in the way of tourism is an understatement. In fact, I met a Tottori-ite in Australia and told him I was planning to visit in March. He looked at me and said, "Why?!" Nevertheless, I spent more than a week with JJ just soaking in everyday Japanese life. I met his fellow teachers, tried lots of delicious Japanese food (including sushi, for the first time!), went to a local onsen (Japanese bath), explored the fabulous local toy museum, and relished the feeling of being in one place for awhile.

Going to "kaiten sushi" ("conveyor belt" sushi)
Octopus at a fish market in Tottori
At the fantastic toy museum in Tottori
*When JJ wasn't working, we went sightseeing together. He showed me his favorite tea house/garden, and we went together to the 'famous' Tottori dunes and on a lovely boat ride on the coast. I also got to see his taiko (traditional Japanese drumming) troupe preparing for a big performance.

The coast near Tottori
JJ practices with his taiko troupe

*JJ had long-standing plans to go to South Korea for a long weekend, so I made good on Violetta's invitation and took the train to Matsue, a city a few hours from Tottori. I stayed in a ryokan, or old-fashioned Japanese inn, and during the days Violetta showed me around her favorite Matsue sights. We took a walk around the lake, visited the castle (one of the largest in Japan), went to a beautiful temple complex/tea garden, ate at an incredibly charming 9-seat restaurant and splurged on a pre-set menu with all the delicacies from the lake, and went for a drive with her husband to the stunning Sakaiminato coast.

The most adorable restaurant

Mother and daughter who work at the restaurant
Sunset on the Sakaiminato coast
Matsue castle by night, complete with cherry blossoms and people having celebratory drinking parties (called "hanami") underneath them
*I was lucky enough to have a few chances to visit Mochigase, a picture-perfect where JJ taught part of the time. The first time I visited the school to watch JJ teach, the second time for the Mochigase doll festival, and the third time to give back to the school and help JJ make a giant English-language poster including several of my travel photos from the trip thus far.

*Visiting JJ's school was great fun. In each class he introduced me and had me tell the students a little bit about my trip. Then I helped them play a game of English grammar battle ship. During free periods we chatted with the other teachers and sat in on a music lesson.

Walking back from school through the adorable streets of Mochigase
*Happily, the annual Mochigase doll festival, a spring fertility festival which celebrates women's strength, took place about half way through my time in Japan. During the festival, all the houses in town put out beautiful displays of traditional dolls, people float similar dolls down the river to pray for their daughters' growth, and those daughters dress up in their best kimono for the same purpose. The day itself was beautiful and warm, and I was maybe the only Westerner in all of the proceedings. I wandered through the scene taking pictures, ate some delicious homemade mochi (pounded potato-flour candy), and set my own doll off down the river to pray for strength for me and any daughters to come.

A beautiful example of the traditional doll displays

Everywhere I looked there were little Japanese girls wearing kimono and having a cute-off contest. (They all won.)

Floating the dolls down the river

*I spent my last long weekend in Japan exploring the wonders of Kyoto. First I met up with a fellow Boston couchsurfer, Mike, and we explored the fantastic Shinto shrine-filled mountain of Fushimi Inari and walking the geisha district in awe of the beautiful tea houses.

Shinto gates at Fushimi Inari
The stunning beauty of Gion geisha district tea houses in cherry blossom season
*For a couple of days after that I stayed with Mami, the Japanese girlfriend of one of JJ's co-teachers, and we spent an exhausting and amazing 11-hour day walking all over the city exploring temples, a Zen garden, and the Temple; celebrating the sakura (cherry blossom festival) with harp music and traditional food; and capping the evening off with a mountain temple complex, the Kyoto castle, and an exquisite (if expensive) meal in the Pontocho bar district.

The golden temple

A shinto shrine complex with its sakura in full bloom and its festival booths up to celebrate
The mountain-top temple by night
*Finally, JJ arrived in Kyoto, and we spent a couple of days exploring his former home (he had studied in the city for a year during University), going to a traditional fan dance performance, having our own hanami with some other Wesleyan students on the same program, and splurging on tickets for the miyako odori, the semi-annual dance performance put on by competing geisha houses in the city to showcase the talent of their new students.

The fan dance performance

Our very own hanami
A scene from the miyako odori
A geisha spotted on the street near Gion

Thursday, July 9, 2009

REWIND: Taiwan

In keeping with my new blogging feature, here is a quickie-rewind version of my adventures in Taiwan, a whirlwind recounting that will hopefully whet your appetite for more detailed posts in the future.

Taipei, part 1
*Joined by my university friend, Mel, I spent a few days exploring Taipei's old neighborhoods, many temples, and hotsprings. We spent a lovely evening in Danshui in the northern part of the city, a community resting on a riverbank where fishing boats ply the waters and a carnival-like atmosphere rules the open-air shops that line the shore.

*No trip to Taipei would be complete without a visit to the t night market, where a multitude of delicious food and cheap fashions await your discovery. My favorite part of the night market: very real looking rolls (the bread kind) made out of foam rubber, sold at virtually every stand. Neither Mel nor I could divine their purpose-- they all had silly faces piped onto them with brown ink, so they couldn't be for tricking your friends. Maybe, we thought, they're like pet rocks?

Worshipping at a temple in Taipei

A man fishing at Danshui
Some of the wonders at the night market
Sun Moon Lake
*Coincidentally, I have several friends who ended up in Taiwan this year, either teaching English or returning to their families to plot their next post-university move. So my next step moving south from Taipei was to meet up with Sam, a very old friend from middle school. He showed me around his neighborhood, Jhubei, and then we took a brief weekend trip to SunMoon Lake, one of the foremost tourist attractions in Taiwan. The lake featured an interesting aboriginal population, several beautiful lakeside temples, and a good deal of the misty-mountain scenery that one associates with Taiwan. On Sunday before parting ways we took a boatride along the lake. Very pleasant, indeed.

Beautiful masks hanging in one of the aboriginal villages lining the lake
A ferocious lion guards a temple

Lake scenery
*From Sun Moon lake I took the train south to visit another university friend, Maya, where she was teaching in Kaohsiung, an industrial city in the southwest. I got to go to school with her for a day to see her teach, and I also spent a lovely day roaming the city with a couchsurfer who took me to the top of the highest hill in the area for a beautiful view of the city and also introduced me to PigDog Cafe, a haven for the city's independent thinkers, half art-gallery half cafe. It was a day of great conversation and scenery. On the last day before I left Kaohsiung, Maya and I went to Lotus Lake, which is famous for its temple- and shrine-lined shores. There we stumbled on the birthday of a local god, and were treated to a live orchestral performance, after which we were made to eat many delicious bean-paste sweets and other goodies.

My new Kaohsiung-native friend, Jolie

Along the shores of Lotus Lake

*While in Kaohsiung, I took a day trip to Tainan, a city filled with temples. I spent the day wandering among a variety of fascinating, beautiful temples, a day tempered only by the fact that my cell phone was stolen in the afternoon as I was preparing to return to Kaohsiung.

*The highlight of my time in Taitung was the opportunity to attend an Aboriginal Taiwanese wedding. Through a series of convoluted connections originating with people I met on couch surfing, I was invited into the hills to a wedding celebrating of the Bunun people. A German couchsurfer picked me up on an old-fashioned Kawasaki motorbike (the first motorcycle I'd ever ridden) and sped me into the hills, where we feasted with a cast of hundreds, eventually retiring to the bride's family's house and then to an unlikely karaoke location. It was in this way that I found myself huddled, freezing in the chill of a Taiwanese spring night in a tiny house/shack that passed for a karaoke club, perched on the edge of a deep gorge that divides southern Taiwan in half

Wedding festivities
The East Coast-- Hualien and Taroko
*On the recommendation of friends, fellow travelers, and guidebooks I took an extremely scenic bus trip up the eastern coast of Taiwan, where I couchsurfed with a very friendly Taiwanese med student who came out to me, locked her keys in her sixth-floor apartment, and engaged in an extremely daring/foolhardy caper to get back in (which included swinging briefly off the roof of her building, much to my terror)-- all in one night. Then I taught her the word "badass" and we went to another of Taiwan's fabulous night markets.

*Taroko Gorge has got to be one of the most impressive and stunning places I've been. Short on time and independent transport, I joined a small tour for a day and soaked in the remarkable scenery, which I utterly failed to capture with my little point-and-shoot camera.

From the Hualien night market

Not doing Taroko Gorge any justice

*Given my interest in aboriginal culture, Maya agreed to help me get in touch with one of her fellow Fulbrighters who was working in an aboriginal school in Nan'ao, a little southeast of Taipei. I stayed with Julia for a few days, and she was an amazing host. On the first night we took her scooter out to the beach and made a fire, eating dumplings and roasting tiny, sugary marshmallows among the dunes. The second day I wandered the town and visited the school where Julia taught. And on the last day we took her scooter into the countryside, where we climbed up a river valley to a beautiful waterfall and then road to a hotspring.

Language learning at the Nan'ao school

If you look really closely you can see Julia on top of the waterfall, on the left side
Taipei, again
*I returned to Taipei, and to Mel, for another few days at the end of my Taiwan sojourn. This time we visited several museums and went to the top of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world. Nothing quite like that feeling, being higher than pretty much everybody. That soaring feeling gave me a good push, energy that would last me until I had landed in my next destination-- Osaka, Japan.

The tallest building in the world, modeled after a bamboo shoot

View from the top

Sunday, July 5, 2009

REWIND: New Zealand Wrap-Up

In line with my new blogging policy, here is what you missed at the tail end of my month in New Zealand:

Around East Cape

* I spent 5 days driving around New Zealand's East Cape in a camper van with a recovering paraplegic Finnish ex-pat named Henry. Henry was definitely a character-- opinionated, fiercely independent, mildly homophobic and anti-Semitic, but not the worst travel companion a girl could end up with for 5 days. And his camper van took me to some damn beautiful places!

-I couchsurfed in Gisborne (where the movie "Whalerider" was filmed) with a lovely mother-and-daughter duo in their beautiful half-finished farm house, enjoyed dinner outside in the vegetable patch and one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever had the privilege to see
-I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wade out onto a coral reef and feed enormous wild stingrays. I swear, stingrays nudging your knees looking for food feel exactly like attention-seeking cats. One was so excited that when I stuck my hand in the water he sucked on my forearm and gave me a stingray hickey

The hickey perpetrator
-The next day we drove through some beautiful scenery-- Tolaga Bay, with its gorgeous white cliffs; a blighted, virtually abandoned town that was also the home of a gorgeous Maori church, every inch of the walls and ceiling completely carved, inlaid, and woven

Tolaga Bay

The beautiful Maori church
-The day after that I woke early and climbed a small mountain to the East Cape lighthouse, the easternmost point on land (meaning: not counting Tonga) where I was one of the first 8 people in the entire world to witness February 29, 2009


More East Cape scenery-- Maori culture and beautiful views

*As a parting gift to finish my time in New Zealand, I decided to treat myself to a trail ride in Whakatane, a Maori-rich area on a turquoise bay. Half way through the ride, however, I was thrown from my horse and experienced temporary amnesia. I could remember who I was, that I was in New Zealand, but not much else. Not the name of the town, not where I was staying, not how I had gotten to the horse farm that morning. Slowly the facts came trickling back, although I still don't remember falling off the horse. I spent a distressing evening at the ER to make sure there was nothing more serious than a light concussion. But: it was all covered by New Zealand's lovely socialist accident insurance!

*I treated myself to a private hotel room in Auckland to rest, lay low, and nurse a very sore back. And after a few days I packed up my things and headed to the next stop: Taiwan!