Hanging out in Hongdae, Seoul

This July I added another notch to my world-traveller belt by visiting Seoul, South Korea. Now, I have to admit something: since I’ve come to Japan I’ve pretty much had zero interest in visiting South Korea. One reason is, and this is putting it mildly, there is some bad blood between Japan and Korea, and I’m

Bubble Sistersashamed to say I bought into the bias against Koreans. Another reason was the Bubble Sisters–a Korean pop group who were told they weren’t pretty enough and needed a gimmick. Since they couldn’t be pretty, their gimmick was to make themselves look as ugly as possible. They decided to accomplish this by performing in blackface.

But if there’s one thing I find hard to resist, it’s the chance to visit a new country. Plus, flights from Japan to Korea are cheaper than the price of snow in Antarctica. So with four days of vacation spread out before me I decided it was time to grab a friend and head to the land of kimchi and see what was up for myself. And I’m glad I did.

Hongdae

Boutique in Hongdae

Boutique in Hongdae

I. Love. Hongdae. It’s just the place for the artsy type like me. The playground of indie entertainers, Hongdae is colorful, musical and fun. The main streets are loud with the sound of traffic and glittering with lights and signs from big commercial stores, but make your way into the side streets and it becomes more intimate. The atmosphere that of a perpetual festival. You can hardly turn a street corner without running into a crowd surrounding a crooner and his guitar, or a breaker and his funky fresh beats. There are also a lot of independent boutiques selling clothes and accessories, and about about 20 shops selling smart phone cases for some reason. And prices are low. I got a pretty swanky case for about $7 CDN. Plus there are vendors selling Korean food on every street corner.

Cafe in Hongdae

Cafe in Hongdae

And don’t get me started on the cafes. If you have a sweet tooth, welcome to your heaven. Hongdae is where I had what I’ve dubbed the best French toast of my life. It was fluffy and sugary and had slivered almonds on top. I think the secret ingredient was love. That or MSG. Anyway, the cafes are chic and beautiful. It was so hard to choose just one to stop into, which resulted in me eating about once an hour. Walking along the street it was all, “Oh! Look at that one it’s got big glass windows. No wait let’s go there look at the lamps outside I want to sit on the patio. Woah! That one looks like it was transplanted from Paris!” I wanted to grab a laptop, sit and eat French toast and write for hours. Best of all, there’s always space. One of the downsides of living in Tokyo is that although there are a lot of interesting bars, cafes and restaurants to visit, they’re often crowded or even full. Not so in Hongdae.

Nightlife

Walking back to our hotel one night, my friend and I ran into some young Koreans all dressed up like they had somewhere to go. One girl topped off her perfect blond bob with a black cap with leather studs. Another guy was in skinny jeans and red high-tops. They were the perfect example of Korean fashion. They actually called out to us in English! My friend is a schmoozer, and he asked where they were going. The answer? Ho Bar, a popular bar/club chain. I saw at least 10 of them sprinkled around the city. Long story short we stayed out with them until 3am dancing and doing shots. This branch was about five minutes from our hotel. Hongdae is the place to stay if you want to be in the centre of the club scene. Later on, as we were stumbling home through the deserted streets, who should we encounter but the two most dedicated street performers in Asia, singing and playing guitar into the early hours of the morning. And they were really good! It was like a private street concert.

Korean Food

Ginseng Chicken

Ginseng Chicken

The first thing I ate in Korea was their famous ginseng chicken. This is a bowl of soup, and sitting in the middle is a whole chicken, stuffed with rice, and there are big pieces of ginseng root in there. The flavour is pretty mild. I liked it because of the sense of accomplishment I got from eating a whole chicken. It was a small chicken, but still. Really makes me feel like I’ve become a success in life, that I’m able to do that.

Speaking of chicken, Korean fried chicken (KFC– that acronym’s up for grabs right?) is just as addictive as everyone said it would be. My friend and I found this place down within one of Hongdae’s side streets that had about twenty different kinds: spicy, saucy, seasoned, honey garlic you name it, I wanted to eat it. But remember, we had been eating all day so we could only manage one order. We got some chicken covered in red sauce number 5. It was a spicy taste sensation. It was so delicious that even though we couldn’t finish it all, and we took it back to the hotel and ate it the next morning, cold, it was still good.

Hongdae-BBQBut the highlight for me was Korean BBQ. We ended up going to two different places in one night. The first place was so-so, but the second place was really great. At a Korean BBQ place, first you grill up the meat, and then wrap it up in lettuce like some kind of healthy-alternative fajita, but it’s sooo delicious. At the second place the man who worked there was flirting with me and I got some extra lettuce out of him, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it Bubble Sisters. I’d recommend the beef and pork belly.

Even though I’ve always had some apprehension about visiting Korea, I was pleasantly surprised by Hongdae, a place full of art and fashion, friendly people and fantastic food. I would visit again in a heartbeat.

 

Okinawa: Japan’s Offbeat Islands

Okinawa

One place I’ve been itching to visit since I came here is Okinawa, which is a chain of islands to the south of Japan’s mainland. Descriptions of a place with a chill island vibe, chatty people, and palm trees waving under clear blue skies on picturesque beaches had me anxious to explore. If you ask someone Japanese about Okinawa they’ll say something like, “It’s nothing like the rest of Japan.”

And I have to agree. Naha, Okinawa’s capital, is home to military bases, America town and the famous Churaumi Aquarium. But even here the tempo and style is more like somewhere in south-east Asia, the opposite of Tokyo’s break-neck pace.

Kokusai Street

Walking along the famous shopping district, Kokusai street I wandered into many stores, lured by the slow, relaxing twang of Okinawa shamisen music. Inside I found island-y things, like fifty different colors of flip flops, or traditional Okinawan souvenirs such as pineapple and mango cakes, or the benimo (sweet potato) tarts Okinawa is known for.

The people are pretty friendly and likely to try to start up a conversation. It’s true, they’re also trying to get you into their restaurant or to buy something, but it’s still nice. And though Kokusai is a well-known tourist spot, it’s still not as crowded as Tokyo, and there’s something to be said for being able to walk without getting body checked by someone every five minutes.

Okinawa-Goya-Chanpuru

Goya Chanpuru

But the highlight of Kokousai street was the food. Okinawa is famous for goya—a really bitter gourd type thing that’s actually pretty gross on its own, but mixed up with pork, egg and tofu in goya chanpuru it somehow becomes amazing. The benimo tarts I mentioned before are crusty and buttery on the outside, and pure, purple goodness on the inside. Soki soba is one of the reasons I wanted to visit in the first place.  It’s noodles in broth with this big slab of the juiciest, most flavourful pork I’ve ever had. Tacos and taco rice are also really popular in Naha, likely due to the American influence.

Bouldering on the Beach

Okinawa-Beach-Forest

I went with a group of friends, and the five of us ended up at a beach way off the beaten path. The taxi pulled up, (quick note, taxis are much cheaper than Tokyo, especially if split five ways) dropped us off at the beginning of a gravely road leading into some dense trees and we were on our own. The trees shut out all noise, surrounding us in a world of green. There was something magical about it. Squint and an old, dirty bathroom could become an ancient ruin caressed by encroaching leaves. The air smelled like earth and plants and the ocean.

Okinawa-Beach-1It was only about a ten minute walk through this wonderland before the trees opened up and the beach spread out in front of us. It was deserted: there was literally no one else in sight. This wasn’t the usual sand and surf beach for swimming though. We’re all into bouldering, and my friend found this place because of the big rocks that thrust out of the sand, perfect for climbing. Even the coast was a jagged, broken line of rock bordering the ocean. It should have been ugly, but was somehow majestic, a reminder of the wonders nature can create. Plus it was kind of fun to hop and stumble over the rocks while trying to get to a pier a few yards away. The surface sometimes opened up into little pools, where tiny, electric blue fish darted around.

A walk down the beach finally turned up some other people, a few who were sitting on the steps to…an abandoned beach shack! I went all around, trying every door and window to get inside but it was no good. Everything was locked up tight. It’s probably for the best. I might have run into some surfer ghost, eternally waiting on his reggae punch.

Okinawan History

Okinawa-Shuri-CastleShuri castle is easy enough to get to. Just take the monorail and walk a while. This castle is unlike the other castles in Japan, in fact it looks more Chinese with its snaking wall surrounding the interior. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and is most famous for being used by the Ryukyu royals. The Ryukyus are the indigenous people of Okinawa. The style of the castle shows distinct Chinese influence, from the shape of the roofs, to the red colour and swirling dragon motifs done in gold. It seems the Ryukyus have had a close relationship with China, and the theory is that the first immigrants to Okinawa descended from China.

While Shuri Castle and the Shikina-en garden nearby were beautiful, the must enlightening part of this whole trip was visiting the Peace Memorial Park, which is a museum and monument to those who died in World War II. This one was harder to get to. It took an hour and a half long bus ride, but it was worth it. The curators held no punches, being frank about the devastation caused to Okinawans by both Americans and Japanese. I will never forget one room, where there were rows upon rows of books with accounts from civilians in the war. During the war, people often hid out in caves, listening to the sounds of constant bombing from American planes, the clatter of bullets from American guns and the rumbling of American tanks. At times Japanese soldiers stumbled upon a cave and, finding civilians already inside, kicked them out into the line of fire so they could hide instead. If they were kind enough to allow the civilian’s to hide with them, the situation was terse.

One woman recounted hiding with soldiers, who were irritated by the cries of another woman’s baby. Fearing the baby would give them away, a soldier told her to leave. The woman went outside for a while, and then came back without the child. No one dared to ask her any questions.

Another account was of people running during an attack. One girl saw a woman running frantically with a baby bouncing on her back. The baby had no head, but the woman didn’t seem to notice.

Okinawa has seen very dark times in its history, but it continues to bounce back and thrive, and has become one of Japan’s most sought out vacation spots for its luxury resorts, clear oceans perfect for scuba diving, world-class food and island philosophy. I hope to visit another one of Okinawa’s islands sometime soon.

Golden Week 2012: Kickin’ it in Kyoto

I know, I know, it’s been  like a month since I went to Kyoto and I’m now posting this, but here’s the thing…I think I did Kyoto wrong. Yeah, I visited temples, petted the deer in Nara, drank from a magic waterfall that’s supposed to give me luck in love (and I think it worked ;) ), but maybe I built Kyoto up too much in my head. Maybe it was the constant gloominess and rain while I was there, or maybe I was just all templed out, but though I had some novel experiences, Kyoto wasn’t *ALL* I expected. I think I need to go back…when it’s sunny. I will not give up on you Kyoto!

However there was one outstanding stand out: I got to see a Maiko Show. I couldn’t understand a thing but I was still enthralled, enchanted enticed and other words that start with “E”. At first there was some kind of Romeo and Juliet-ish star-crossed lovers’ story, then individual and group Maiko dances. I am a fan of the arts and this show was very artistic. Yep.  I loved the dancing, the shamisen music, the singing, the costumes, all of it. I couldn’t take any pictures though. I really, really, wanted to just sneak and do it anyway but I had this horrible vision of the noise or flash stopping the whole show. Imagine: everyone goes silent — the actresses, the narrator, the audience, and turns to look at me in pure disgust while I’m holding up my iPhone. I wouldn’t even be able to play the gaijin card ‘cause there were signs in English everywhere that said no video or photography…or else you will be subjected to a humiliation so thorough it will drive you mad. You will never be the same. At least I think that’s what they said, I can’t remember exactly.

I did of course have lots of fun taking pictures elsewhere, as always. Would you like to see?

Kinkakji, the "golden temple"

The View from Kiyomizu temple

Giant Buddhas at Todaiji Temple in Nara

Capsule Ryokan

Above is my little capsule at the hostel I stayed it. I really liked it. See, I am the opposite of claustrophobic, so I loved having my own little screened off space including my own T.V. that had Fox network. I watched House. You heard me, I went to Kyoto to watch House.

Thailand and the Fish that Ate My Feet

 

So back when I was in Thailand last month, some fish ate my feet.

It happened when my room mate, her good friend and me went to one of the famous “fish spas”, where a bunch of little fish with an inexplicable jonesing for dead human flesh will eat it all off of your feet if you give them a chance…which I did.

Dinner Time

First you have to wash your feet, and then you dunk them into a tub where hundreds of fish are swimming around. At the place I went to, there was a tub with small fish, and then you could work your way up to the tub with the bigger fish — although even the “bigger” fish weren’t that big. We’re not talking catch of the day or anything… that would be terrifying.

No, these are tiny little fish with tiny little sucker mouths, and the second I put my feet in the tub they were all over me like my feet were a cheesecake on the set of “The View”. Have you ever had your feet tickled? Oh my Lord I thought I would go mad from the sensation. I wanted to pull my feet out, but then they wouldn’t be baby soft, and my room mate said I would get used to it.

Sure enough, after a few minutes I was able to relax and enjoy being slowly but surely devoured. Until another customer showed up. The man walked in, said a few words to the dude at the door, then took off his shoes and socks. The three of us stared at his feet, then stared at each other in horror. He was going to put these discoloured, diseased-looking things into the tub with us. Oh no, Oh no no no….

The guy running the place must have seen the panic on our faces because he basically told the guy to get lost. I felt bad for old fungus-foot, but I also really did not want to catch whatever it was he had going on there. This story has a happy ending because I walked away on baby-soft feet sans horrible foot disease.

 

Thailand and the Belch Therapy Massage

On my second night in Bangkok I went to get one of the Thai massages my room mate kept raving about.

“They’re only like, 200 baht ($6 dollars or 600 yen),” she’d say, “and it’s an hour long and they do such a good job.”

You’d think she worked for the Thai Tourism commission with all that endorsement, but I was curious, and the price was right. So that night we walked the strip of massage parlours, nail salons and Indian restaurants that led up to our hotel. We stopped at one where a delightfully friendly and obviously gay man waved us in.

“Come massage, it’s good! What kind massage you want?”

There was a good selection: Head and shoulder massage, foot massage, leg massage, aromatherapy…all for under 10 dollars –  both Canadian and U.S. We both went with the full body “Thai” massage. We were led inside, told to take off our shoes and given questionable plastic flip flops. It took us like five minutes to climb the stairs to the massage room because my room mate was trying to make as little contact with the flip flops as possible, walking like a cat whose claws had grown too long or something.

When we did finally get upstairs we were taken to the massage beds, separated by curtains. We had to undress and put on some flowy pajamas, which were comfortable. Then I lied down to wait for the masseuse. By this time I was really getting into it. The atmosphere was relaxing: the lights were low, and there was some soothing Dido playing in the background. My masseuse came and told me to relax, and began expertly massaging my calves, really working out all the kinks with just the right amount of pressure. When she worked her way up to my back I started to drift off. How could I not? The massage was soothing, the music soft and calm…I was experiencing extreme chill factor. So my eyes drifted closed, and then I heard it.

“BRAAAAP!”

My eyes snapped open. Was that…was that a belch? Everyone stated giggling. Apparently the back massage helps relieve gas, as someone on the other side of the room was demonstrating. We all had a good laugh and I got back to relaxing, but not long after my eyes closed again,

“BRAAAAP!”

Um, OK, that’s kinda nasty and distracting. I’m trying to relax over here. But I guess it can’t be helped. I’ll try to ignore it.

“BRAAP! BRAAP! BRAAAAAAAAP!

What is wrong with this person? Did they drink a whole two litre bottle of coke before coming here? Or maybe they have some kind of horrible gastrointestinal problem.  Dammit!

Yeah. The loud belching ruined to mood to say the least. But it was OK, since I went back a few more times after that and thankfully Belchy MacBelcherson wasn’t there.

 

 

 

 

Thailand and the Worst Toilet in the World

Bangkok and Tokyo are about as different as two cities can get, and yet when I arrived I felt a distinct sense of Deja Vu. It was culture shock again, it was the sense of embarking on a whole new adventure.

As soon as I exited the train station delicious smells drifted to my nose. There are so many food stalls and street restaurants lining the roads of Bangkok it’s like the whole city is one big wonderful buffet with an endless selection. I really love Thai food, so when I got a whiff of that sweet/sour/spicy aroma I had to smile, imaging the pigging-out that was to come. And pig out I did, but the funny thing is eating a concentrated amount of chilli peppers in a short amount of time has consequences, dire consequences…

But I’ll tell you more about that another time. First, gather ’round and I shall tell you a tale, of the worst toilet in the world (probably). I encountered this masterpiece of waste management engineering after a great meal at a street restaurant on what my room mate called “the food street”.  I ordered beer with dinner and instead of the usual bottle they brought this huge bottle that I had to drink on my own, because my room mate doesn’t like beer. So I chugged it back and not long after I felt “the need”.  When I asked for the bathroom the waitress led me to a dingy little alcove where a man was washing dishes — that was when my misgivings began.

Thai Street Food

The food that led to the beer that led to...the toilet...

“Sorry, sorry,” he said as he scurried out  and I walked through the puddles of water on the floor to a door in the corner, opened it, and froze. In the middle of a soppy floor made of dingy blue tiles was a little hole. The room had that gas-station-piss scent and there was no flush in sight. God, this was going to be just horrible but I really, really had to go. So I prayed to the gods of sanitation, dropped my pants and got into squat formation. A little white lizard peeped at me from the wall while I went and I nervously eyed a big spider web. Finally, the longest pee in history was over and I got out of the as quick as possible, only stopping to furtively wash my hands.  And toilet paper? What do you think this is? No, that was one luxury I  had to do without. On the bright side, using the squat toilets in Tokyo is now a walk in the park.

Look out for more posts about my exciting and enlightening trip to Thailand.