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Sunday, August 26, 2012

장마 (Korean Rainy Season)

Monsoon season. Every Korean's least favorite time of the year. It usually begins around the beginning of July and lasts until around the end of August. During these two months, Korea receives about half of its annual rainfall. These are also the two hottest months in Korea and temperatures can reach up into the high 90's (mid 30's in Celsius). These two months are probably the least desirable time to visit Korea, but most days are still fine. I've never lived in a country with a true rainy season and I was expecting that it would rain at just about the same time everyday, but usually what happens is that it always just looks like it's about to rain but most days it doesn't rain. I would guess that it's only rained about one third of the days in July and August so far (it actually just started raining as I wrote that sentence…). When it does rain it often rains hard. A few days ago it rained harder then I'd ever seen it rain before, and it fell in constant sheets for about two days straight. 
The heat mixed with the constant high humidity don't seem to go over well with the people. It seems like the one thing every Korean person does around this time of year is complain. I've noticed that Korean people tend to whine about the weather all the time. If it's not too cold, then it's too hot and heaven forbid if the sun is shinning and it's hot! 
To me, the heat and humidity are nothing new and most days it really don't seem that bad. The temperature can get into the 90's, but the average high for August is only 84 (28 C). Most summer days are a bit warm, but the killer part is the constant gray sky, humidity, and random fits of rain. I don't usually say this, but I'm really excited for fall to begin. It's hard to do things in the summer given the weather, but the fall is more beautiful, cooler, and sunnier. 

Thanks for reading, 

The Han river on typical gray day in Seoul.

 A few days of rain almost overflowed the river.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Nara is just a short train ride from Kyoto and is one of the most highly recommended places to visit in all of Japan. Most people only come to Nara for a day trip because most of the cities big attractions are centrally located. There is, however, a lot to see in Nara and I think the next time I go I will stay the night so I can see more of the less visited sights. 
Nara was the capital of Japan for less than 100 years (710 - 784 AD) but it has an amazing cultural history. When you get off the train station at Nara, things don't look too impressive, but a short walk away from the station and you will be in the historical Japan of your imagination. There are 8 UNESCO sites in the city, which has to be one of the highest concentrations in the world. Most of these sights are due west of the train station and this is the direction that most day travels go. Here are a few of the sights we visited on our second trip to Nara.

One of the first sights we found was the beautiful Shinto Shrine Nan'en-do. It's a great example of a Shinto shrine located at a Buddhist temple. This shrine is located up a small flight of stairs and is actually part of Kofuku-ji, which is a UNESCO temple complex. This has always been one of my favorite shines and I was really excited to be able to see it again!

The second tallest remanning pagoda in Japan is located in Kofuku-ji. It is second only to the pagoda that we visited in Kyoto (by only a few cementers). There were surprisingly few tourist in Nara when we were there. I think it had something to do with the unbearable heat...

The Deer
We had our first experience with the deer of Nara at Kofuku-ji. Legend has it that the god Takemikazuchi (god of thunder and swords, so not a man to be messed with) rode into Nara on a white deer to protect the new capital in the 700's. Since that time, tame but still wild deer roam the city "protecting" it from harm. They've become a bit more lazy recently and seem to have given up their guard detail to lay around and eat cookies all day and occasionally steal/eat maps out of peoples' back pockets.

These deer are found all over the old city. Most of the older and bigger ones will let you walk up and pet them. Watch out if you have food or any thing that is remotely edible. The deer like to gently suggest food by ramming their heads and horns into. It also turns out they don't like it when you touch their horns...

We made our way to what may be the most impressive sight in all of Nara, Todai-ji. This is a massive wooden temple that was built in the 700's, and it was actually the largest wooden building in the world until 1998. This is the outer gate to the temple and I believe it is the largest wooden temple gate in the world.

The temple is guarded by two massive Nio gate guardians who live inside this gate. Agyo who has his mouth open representing "A"and his partner Ungyo who has his mouth closed representing the "Um"sound are located on opposite sides of the gate. When you combine "A" with "Um" you get "Aum" which represents impermanence, the life and death of all things, and "all creation". It is kind of like Alpha and Omega in Christianity. These specific Nio were created by the very famous sculptor Unkei in the 1200's and are regarded as some of the best example of Buddhist art in Japan and are said to be some of the finest sculptures in the whole world. They are really quite massive, but it is impossible to tell how grand they are in these pictures.

And here is the grand temple of Todai-ji. Inside is the largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana. The Buddha is so massive and heavy that its head has fallen off and been replaced a few times. The temple was actually one third larger before it was destroyed by fire some time in the ancient past. 

Here is the great Buddha. The Buddha is actually almost as tall as the building, but you can't tell how big it is in the picture because there was nothing to help give it a sense of scale. All the things in front of the statue are also giant size! Those flowers are easily twice as tall as I am and much further in the fore ground then you would think. Notice that the head of the Buddha is slightly a slightly different color than his body.

Nigatsu-do Hall
And perhaps my favorite place in Nara is Nigatsu-do, which is also part of the Todai-ji complex. This side temple sits up in the hills that are west of the main temple. When Deborah and I were here three years ago we were lucky enough to participate in the torch burning part of the Omizutori festival. That was one of the most memorable experiences of my life, but it was great to revisit the temple and see it in the calm light of day. The view from the balcony is also quite beautiful.

After that we walked around a bit more in an ill fated attempt to find a sword maker. We never found one, but we did find some ice cream which really hit the spot. It was so hot out and everyone was tired so we decided that it was time to go home...

Right after we stopped in another giant arcade and I destroyed a few Japanese people (and my brother) in Tekken. 

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any questions!

My cousin and brother passed out on the train ride home like babies in a back seat...

Thursday, August 9, 2012


You don't get many days off when you're a hagwan teacher in Korea, so when you get those few glorious days you have to make sure you make they count. I knew our week long summer vacation would be spent well because my brother and cousin were traveling half way around the world to come visit us, plus we were traveling to Japan for five nights of sight seeing and sake consumption. Our itinerary for Japan was Kyoto-Nara-Osaka. I figured while in Japan we should put more emphasis on the cultural aspects that make Japan unique while also hitting up the major urban center of Osaka to get a taste of Japanese city life. This is a popular travel itinerary that allows you to easily, quickly, and relatively cheaply get a glimpse of the many sides of Japanese life. Other than that, we didn't have much of a plan...kind of like this blog post. We did so much in such a short amount of time that it is impossible to share or explain everything in writing. Instead I think I'm going to go with the picture/caption blog post option, one post for each city we visited. 
First up is Kyoto. 

We arrived in Kansai airport around noon and hopped a bus to Kyoto. We we arrived we stayed at a nice hostel just north of the train station called Ikoi-no-le. It's located on this beautiful back alley near the historical district, but isn't terribly touristy (the photo above with Deborah in the kimono what at this hostel).

That first night we went out exploring and found this tiny sake bar near the river. There was one old drunk guy there with this older drunk waitress. This was exactly the place we were looking for! They were so nice to us and everyone had a great time trying to communicate with one another. After that place we walked back home looking for another place along the way. Again we stumbled upon a tiny bar, this time a little less tiny and with more people. They fed us the sake and we drank it. There are so many tiny sake bars in Kyoto, all you have to do is gather the courage it poke your head into a few or learn how to read Japanese.

The second day we moved literally across the street to Nagomi-Ryokan Yuu which it turns out is owned by the same people as the first hostel. From there we traveled to the near by temple of Higashi-honganji which is one of the largest wood buildings in the world (number one is coming up in Nara). We relaxed inside for awhile to escape the incredible heat and soak in the peacefulness of the place. 

After the temple we relaxed and headed out to wander and ended up in Otani Mausoleum which is the same school of Buddhism as the first temple we visited. This is a massive and ancient burial site that is covered in over 15,000 tombs. We popped into a few shrines and temples along the way, but we had to turn back because it was getting dark…To the right is a close up of a typical alter in the cemetery.
The sun went down and we went out into the town to see what we could get into. We ate dinner at what turned out to be an OG hibachi place. My cousin had a scare when we thought the noodles had fish in them, but he didn't die or even get sick, so everything was fine. After that we wandered around a bit more and went to a few bars that weren't quite cutting. 
Everyone was getting restless so we just jumped into a bar down one of the many dark alleys of the bar district. I love traveling and I always have dreams or visions of what a country will be like before I get there. Usually these vision are a little too story book and cliche, but every once in a while these weird visions seem to come true. This was one of those times. Here we had stumbled into a tiny sake bar in a dark alley, hand written script on old brown paper covered the walls, cigarette smoke hung in the air from an overly lovey couple in the corner, and the Beatles album "Beatles for Sale" was playing on repeat in the background. As we ordered drinks and some strange omelet concoction I felt as if I had accomplished something great just by being there. This hole in the wall was my dream come true. Not in a hundred years could I have thought up a more perfect place. 

~A neat picture might fit nicely on an album cover but doesn't really belong here~
The next day we moved to Gion, the geisha district and the center of the historical district in Kyoto. Here we stayed at Gion Shinmonso which was quite beautiful and very nice in a rustic and retro kind of awesome way. 

We traveled around Kyoto and visited all the best known sites. It was so hot but beautiful to see all the old wooden buildings and neat back alley way that fill the area. 

We made our way up to Kiyomizu-dera which is probably the most famous temple in Kyoto. The view from the balcony is unbelievable and pictures aren't really going to do it justice. Up at the shrine above the temple we bought some good luck charms, got a fortune (mine was good, my brothers not so good) and successfully completed a walk between two rocks with our eyes closed, which means we'll find true love. 

Not only that, we also drank from a really neat holy spring. We also filled up our water bottles for some holy water to go.

We headed back down from the mountain side temple. We were getting tired and lost and decided to call it in for the day…but on the way back...

We had a Game Panic!!! A gigantic five story arcade that was filled with claw machines, games, coin winning things, and anything else you could think of. It was the perfect place to get out of the heat and gawk at the the Japanese strangeness. 

We also wandered into a giant plachinco gambling parlor. I'll be talking about this more later…

That night we ate conveyer belt sushi and went home to relax. My cousin and I decided to go out a little bit more and dawdled around town for a bit. We couldn't seem a to find a place to hang. We got kicked out of a place or two and we were getting tired of being asked if we wanted a "ma-sa-gee". In a last ditch attempt at not going home defeated, we walked into a sake bar and sat down. We ordered sake and felt somewhat better, the midnight stroll not being a complete waste. The owner asked us if we wanted chicken, so we said yes just to be nice. We ordered a chicken leg. It wasn't very good, not quite cooked the whole way, and was gristly and hard to eat. He asked us if we wanted more sake, but we thought we better check how much it was before we ordered another cup. The sake was 400 (about 4.50 USD) and the chicken leg was 1,700 (about 20 USD)! That bastard got us good and no, we didn't want anymore sake. I forgot the cardinal rule of ordering when places where you can't read the menu: always get the price before you buy…

Phew…that was our Kyoto trip. Thanks for reading.


Yasak-no-to pagoda. Didn't quite make it into the story, but maybe my favorite place in Kyoto..

 Another view of the pagoda.

 A typical looking sinto shrine with the beautiful orange.