Winter Vacation Part 2 – Tokyo, Japan

Nicole and I spent the last few days in Osaka winning Pachinko games and seeing temples in Osaka. However, now it was on to Tokyo.

The train into Tokyo
The train into Tokyo

For both Nicole and I, we’d always dreamed of visiting Tokyo. It’s considered one of the largest cities in the world, but outside of Shibuya it never really felt like it. The city is so clean and everything is so well organized you never really feel lost in the crowd. All of the subways have marked lanes for which direction people should walk. If you are going up the stairs walk here. If you are going downstairs walk here. It was amazing that everything just worked. The trains come every 3 minutes if not sooner. They shuttle 10 million people around the city everyday and if the train is more than a few minutes late they hand out apology letters you can give to your employer as an excuse for why you were late to work. Here’s a great article on the subject. It’s remarkable. Enough about that. Let’s start at the beginning of our time in Tokyo. But first, here’s a GoPro video of Tokyo.

Arriving in Tokyo

Nicole and I arrived at Narita airport, nearly 1.5 hours from Tokyo and our AirBnB. Tokyo is a massive city, and while it doesn’t feel large walking around inside the city, it feels enormous trying to take a train from one side to the other. We took a train from the airport into the city then transferred subways twice before arriving in our neighborhood. It was in a small neighborhood just Southeast of the city, and one of the cleanest places I’ve ever been.

The neighborhood we stayed in was immaculate. I felt like I was walking around on a film set. It didn’t feel real. The streets were spotless. There were almost no cars and only the occasional bicyclist. I was surprised to find a sleepy little neighborhood inside of Tokyo. I thought for sure the most populous city on the planet would be bustling at all times in all areas.

The walk to our guesthouse was short. We checked in and met out AirBnb host. He was very friendly and spoke excellent English. He’d gone through a great deal of trouble to be a great host. He handed us a binder filled with everything we could possibly want to know about the neighborhood. He had directions to the local laundromat, bars, restaurants, a list of medicine in the bathroom, instructions for working the washing machine, everything. If you’re visiting Tokyo, I recommend staying here.

Our first Day in Tokyo

Espresso from a shipping container
Espresso from a shipping container

Our first day in Tokyo we visited Harajuku. Harajuku is a popular neighborhood for the fashion forward and trendy youths of Tokyo. We saw brightly colored outfits and wild clothes everywhere we looked. I got a few pictures of the denizens of Harajuku about town while Nicole shopped. When we’d had our fill of fashion, we stopped for some espresso at a coffeeshop made of shipping containers then made our way to what we thought was Meiji Shrine. However, what we did not know was there’s a fence separating Meiji Shrine from Yoyogi Park.

Yoyogi Park and Tandem Bikes

Riding Tandem Bikes
Riding Tandem Bikes

We walked around beautiful Yoyogi Park trying, in vain, to locate the shrine to no avail. We discovered instead a tandem bike rental place and I got to ride a tandem bike for the first time ever. I rode in the front and steered while Nicole yelled “WHEEE” behind me. It was great. Everyone should go tandem bike riding. I can’t imagine ever returning to a single bicycle. I would feel so lonely.

Shibuya

Shibuya
Shibuya

After our bike ride we walked a few minutes up the road from Harajuku to Shibuya. It’s one subway stop down and a very manageable walk for anyone interested. Shibuya is a lot like Time Square in New York. It’s mostly tourists, there are tons of bright lights and if you’re visiting the city, it’s something you have to do. Nicole and I walked through the congested streets stopping into stores, getting bumped into (watch the video), and playing arcade games. Last time Nicole and I were in Japan, we played a ton of arcade games because, one, they’re awesome, and, two, they’re everywhere. Our favorite game is this drumming game similar to DDR where you drum along to the song and math the targets on the screen. Good fun.

Dinner

After some arcading we met up with two of our teacher friends from Korea, Connie and David. They’d been in Tokyo for a week already exploring the city. We all got sushi together at a little place in Harajuku. It was a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with a twist. Instead of serving a continuous stream of sushi plates to choose from, you ordered your food from a touchpad at the end of the table. Once your food was ready, a little cart on a conveyor belt would zip right to your table. It was fast and efficient. Like tandem bikes it made the normal alternative feel bland. I was hooked.

To cap off the night we got crepes down the road. I don’t know how long Japan’s crepe craze has been going on, but it’s in full swing. There were delicious crepe places everywhere. I don’t get it, but I’m fully supportive of it.

Our Second Day in Tokyo – Disney Sea

DisneySea MapNicole and I love Disney. Back when we lived in Florida we got a 4 park Florida resident pass and visited all the parks in February when they were empty. Seeing as Tokyo also has a Disney, several in fact, Nicole and I had to go. We booked tickets for Disney Sea and made our way out to the park. Disney Sea is perhaps the most unique, and one of the newest Disney parks. If you can only visit one Disney park in Japan, make sure you see Disney Sea over Disneyland. The whole park is laid out around a giant lagoon and has many different areas. There’s a Mediterranean Harbor, Port Discovery, Mysterious Island, and Mermaid Lagoon, and several other really cool spots.

We met up with my grandpa’s friend Robin. He works for Disney in Japan. We had lunch together and he showed us around the park a little bit before returning to work. Disney was a lot of fun, especially visiting a new park I’d never been to. One of the things I was most excited about was riding the “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” ride. It used to be at Magic Kingdom in Florida. However, it was shut down and replaced with some sort of Little Mermaid photo-op. The ride definitely lived up to my childhood memories of it.

More Tokyo Awaits!

I’d hoped to write just one post for all of Tokyo but this post is running absurdly long so I’m splitting it into two posts. To read about the Ghibli museum, the Gundam Cafe, and Sensoji shrine read More Tokyo.

Winter Vacation Part 1 – Osaka

As part of our teaching contract, Nicole and I get 3-4 weeks off for Winter Vacation. This year our vacation was January 24th to February 22nd. We visited Osaka, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bali, and Kuala Lumpur. Here’s the first entry, on Osaka. I should also mention, my amazing girlfriend, Nicole, bought me a GoPro for Christmas and I’ve made GoPro videos of each destination on our trip. Take a look at the video below before reading the post.

Visiting Osaka

Nicole subway OsakaNicole and I visited Osaka once before during our first year teaching in Korea. We had such a great time that we decided to visit a second time since our flight would have to fly through there anyways. This time around we only stayed for the weekend.[divider_flat]

Our Neighborhood

Riding bikes around our neighborhood
Riding bikes around our neighborhood

We stayed in a little neighborhood outside of town called Deto. The neighborhood was mostly small apartment buildings and warehouses. One thing I noticed about Japan is there are drink vending machines everywhere. Literally every block had some kind of drink vending machine selling all manner of drinks from coffees to fruit juices.

Our AirBnb accommodations were in a first floor studio apartment with free bikes out front for our use. Nicole was feeling sick when we arrived so she stayed in the apartment and I ventured out to the nearest convenience store (a 7-11) for snacks and drinks to tide her over. The selection at Japanese convenience stores is really impressive. They have sushi, baked goods, coffees, entire meals. Their convenience stores offer various other services as well including package delivery, ticket purchasing and sometimes banking.

Exploring Dotonbori Solo

We got into Osaka pretty late so we called it a night after I returned with a bounty of snacks. The next day I stocked up on snacks for Nicole for the day then ventured into Dotonbori, Osaka’s downtown market and entertainment district. I made a simple day of it with conveyor belt sushi, some souvenir shopping and general exploring. The whole of Dotonbori is a maze of narrow lanes, some covered and some exposed to the elements, packed with shops on either side.

Pachinko!

After lunch but before I headed back to see Nicole, sick in bed, I stopped in at a Pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a kind of gambling in Japan. It’s a cross between pinball and plinko, that Price is Right game. You’re given maybe 1000 small metal ball bearings and you use a pinballesque launcher to fire these balls up to the top of a plinko game. The amount of points you earn varies based on where the balls land.

The Pachinko parlors are loud and smokey like a casino. Experiences Pachinko players will often sit down at a machine and play for hours with ear plugs in because they’re so loud. I found the one empty machine at the end of a row and sat down with some money. I put in about $8.50USD and tried to play. I wasn’t too sure what I was doing so one of the workers showed me where to aim to get the best odds. My $8.50 lasted a long time. At one point the same worker who helped me in the beginning walked past and said “amazing”.

The Secret Prize Handoff

I was there about 30 minutes and I would have been happy to leave earlier. Eventually I ran out of balls and a worker came over and swiped a card at my machine. Next they led me to the prize counter where I was given what appeared to be several fishing weights and allowed to choose a piece of candy. After I made my selection I was led out a side entrance and told to wait at a little opening in a wall. I watched as the person in front of me slid their fishing weights and candy through the slot in the wall and received some money in return. I did as I saw the man in front of me do and was pleasantly surprised to find I received $70. All in all I’d won about $60 and I hadn’t even spent that much since being in Osaka. For my second day in Japan, I’d actually made money on vacation.

Takoyaki

Takoyaki!It was getting late so I hopped on the subway and returned to Nicole and the apartment. She was feeling better but still a bit sick. We ended the night with some takoyaki, fried quid balls with mayo. Despite the description, they’re quite delicious. [divider_flat]

Japan’s Oldest Established Temple

Our last day in Osaka we visited Shitennoji temple. It’s Japan’s oldest officially administered temple, built in 593. I took some photos and we walked around the grounds. In total the land it sits on is the size of several city blocks and includes numerous buildings. What I find interesting about so many temples in Japan is that they are still in use. Often you will come across areas or buildings that you cannot enter because people are using them. It’s fascinating to see temples used currently and not regarded as some relic of the past.

Leaving for Tokyo

Our few days in Osaka were coming to an end. Nicole was starting to feel better and we were off to Tokyo for the next leg of our winter vacation adventure.

Visiting Jeju Island Day 1 – Loveland, Lava, and Beaches

Seoul to Wando
Seoul to Wando

To celebrate National Foundation Day in Korea, and no work Friday, Nicole and I booked a trip to Jeju Island, Korea’s Hawaii. Jeju had been on our radar for quite some time. We were both very interested in visiting Jeju, but everyone we spoke with seemed to have just an alright time. Some people complained about having to take taxis everywhere. Some people ended up paying an arm and a leg to visit Jeju. Other people almost missed work after their trip because the ferry or flight back from Jeju sold out. So for a whole year, Nicole and I avoided Jeju, not because we didn’t want to go, but because it was such a logistical challenge to visit.

The Night Bus

However, fortune smiled upon us this National Foundation day and we found a foreign travel group offering trips to Jeju. We jumped at the opportunity and booked two spots for ourselves on the trip. The tour group was based in Seoul taking a bus Thursday night in time to catch a ferry from Wando at 6am Friday morning, in the far south of Korea. This meant that Nicole and I had to intercept the bus somewhere along its path in the middle of the night. Luckily the bus was making a stop in Gwangju at 3am. Thursday night we took a bus to Gwangju, caught up with some old friends, and then met the rest of our tour group a little after 3am at the Gwangju bus terminal. [divider_flat]

The Slow Boat to Jeju

Our ferry
Our ferry

Nicole and I slept most of the drive from Gwangju to Wando and woke up just in time for free muffins before boarding the ferry to Jeju. I had a chocolate chip muffin. Nicole had a different flavor. Our ferry boat ride took 5 hours and because we arrived late, all of the spots in the 3rd class section (yes, 3rd class) were full, so we sat outside on the deck chairs. Nicole and I discussed the outcome of the ferry sinking. Would we be safe in 3rd class? Would we be locked below while the ritzy first class passengers disembarked on nearly empty lifeboats? Would there be an Irish dance celebration below deck where we could meet other drifters and vagabonds?

Fortunately for us, the boat never sank so we never found answers to our questions. There was never an Irish dance celebration below deck either. I read a bit, watched some Brooklyn Nine Nine, and had cup noodles with Nicole to keep warm. About halfway through our voyage we made a stop at a smaller island for some people to get off. I couldn’t find it on google maps, but I swear it exists. Anyways, we took this opportunity to move from the outside of the ship to the inside where it was much warmer.

Loveland

Early in the afternoon, we arrived in Jeju. There was a bus at the ferry terminal waiting to take us to our first stop: Loveland. Loveland is a park filled with erotic statues of people in various stages of coitus. According to its website it’s “the only sexual theme park in Korea”. I found the claim somewhat dubious. It’s not really a theme park, although I suppose it could be considered one in a very literal sense. It is a park…with a theme. However, there aren’t any rides, or entertainment shows. I don’t even want to think about what they would be if they did exist.

Manjanggul Cave

After Loveland we took our tour bus another 20 minutes up the road to Manjanggul Cave, Jeju’s underground network of lava tubes. The tubes were formed between 200 and 300,000 years ago and they’re in relatively good condition. The tube system is also one of the top ten largest in the world. The caves were really cool, both literally and figuratively. There were a few lights and some walkways, but it wasn’t overly commercialized. I got a few pictures down there with Nicole and myself before it was time to hop back on the bus and visit the motel.

Yusong Motel

Our Motel
Our Motel

I remember the name because our group leader made us memorize it in case we got lost and needed to get back. I can tell you that its near Hamdeok Beach as well. I can also tell you that there isn’t a lobby, just a big messy dining room covered in all kinds of various boxes, the pillows are filled with almonds (or something), and the family that owns it sleeps under the stairs like Harry Potter. Don’t let its ordinary appearance fool you. Its an odd place. The location was nice though. We were right across from the beach and only a few minutes away from several restaurants.

After we checked into the motel, we had 30 minutes to shower and change before dinner. I unpacked, took a quick shower, and tried to relax on the bed. Although, as I mentioned before, the pillow was filled with almonds or something. I never opened it to find out, but it certainly wasn’t soft or fluffy, just very….firm.

Everybody We’re Going Streaking!

Dinner was…interesting. We walked from the hotel to a nice Korean barbecue place on the beach only a few minutes away. The meal was delicious Jeju black pig and it really was delicious. Jeju black pig has a unique taste and origin story compared with traditional Korea pork. Originally, Jeju black pigs were fed human feces in special pig sties located below outhouses. However, that practice was outlawed in the 1960s so now the pigs just eat whatever it is that pigs eat these days. Supposedly feeding the pigs anything other than human poop has adversely affected the taste. However, I felt much better eating pigs that weren’t eating my poop.

During dinner, we were all given a bottle of soju and some beer as part of our meal. Nicole and I had a bit of each but not much. It was dinner and we were coming to the end of a long day, or rather two days since we didn’t sleep much on the bus. Our group leader felt otherwise. By the time we finished dinner, he had finished several bottles of Soju and was pretty drunk. Somehow he wagered a bet between him and his Korean coleader as to who could drink a full glass of Soju faster. He won the bet but still opted to strip down and run naked out of the restaurant into the ocean. No one followed him. In fact, no one seemed to bat an eye after he left. I think he was a bit disappointed that he didn’t get much of a reaction. Most people just returned to their meal.

Since there’s no topping a performance like that, especially in front of a room full of strangers, Nicole and I decided to call it a night and walk back along the beach to our motel. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s adventures when we visit the beach, see beautiful rocks, waterfalls, wooden sailing ships, and temples.

Day 2 in Taiwan – massages, night markets, and toilet restaurants Part Two

This is a continuation of the very long second day in Taiwan. Part one is about Zhinan temple and pandas. Read it first.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall

From the Zhinan temple, Nicole and I took the gondola back down the mountain and transferred to the MRT. We rode it all the way back into central Taipei and visited the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, National Theater, and the National Concert Hall. The three of them form a beautiful plaza in central Taipei and are definitely worth a visit while you are in Taiwan. Chiang Kai Shek was a military leader closely allied with Sun Yat Sen and was an influential member of the Chinese national party. We arrived on the hour so we were just in time to see the changing of the guard. It was a big production and took close to 15 minutes.

Renting Bikes

From just outside the plaza, we rented bikes for only about 30 cents and rode through town like a band of hoodlums recruiting members into our underground bike gang. Just kidding. We rode to Xiemending, Taipei’s hip downtown area home to massages and toilet restaurants. That’s right, restaurants themed like toilets.

Modern Toilet

We returned our bikes in central Xiemending and wandered around for a bit before our reservation at Modern toilet. We got massages, I played around with some vintage lenses at an outdoor market, and we soaked up the downtown atmosphere. It’s interesting, based on my  limited experiences in Japan, China, and Thailand, I feel like Taiwan is a perfect mashup of all three. It has China’s commerce and availability of products. It’s still somewhat conservative and bizarre in unexpected ways like Korea and Japan, and its a bit tropical like Thailand.

Now to the part that you’ve all been waiting for, Modern Toilet. If you visit one toilet themed restaurant, I encourage you to visit this one. It’s apparently part of a chain and there are several around Asia so you’ll have a few opportunities. The restaurant is off the beaten path and up on the second story off the main road. You really have to search for it to find it.

Inside you’re greeted at a small counter and led to your table. All the tables are bathtubs filled with plastic balls (think McDonalds ball pit) and covered with a sheet of glass. The seats are toilets, with the lid closed. They are not to be used as real toilets. The food is pretty good. Not fantastic, just good, but then again, you’re not going for the food. I ordered the chicken curry, Nicole ordered something else. Both entrees came in small ceramic toilets. Dessert was chocolate ice cream, of course. It was served in a traditional squat toilet.

Modern Toilet
Modern Toilet

Longshan Temple Night Market

After diner we visited some shops in the Longshan Temple Night Market. We bought some incense and an incense holder which I am convinced is actually a back scratcher but we are using it as an incense holder anyways.

It was an amazing, yet incredibly tiring day. We saw pandas and rode gondolas. We ate at toilet restaurants and rented bikes. We did everything.

Day 2 in Taiwan – Pandas and Gondolas Part One

To read about our first day in Taipei, Taiwan, click here.

Pandamonium

On our second day in Taipei, Taiwan, Nicole and I took the subway, or MRT, across town to the Taipei zoo to see pandas, Nicole’s favorite animal. Taipei is one of the few zoos in the world that has pandas so it was a must for our trip. On our way in Nicole bought a really cool panda hat and we also stopped to take this neat picture of Mother Nature having her breast licked by a deer. Nicole was not a fan.

Mother Nature in the background with a deer
Mother Nature in the background with a deer

When you arrive at the zoo, you’re given two things: a ticket for the zoo, and a ticket for the panda viewing area. The panda tickets are scheduled for an hour sometime during the day. Fortunately, we arrived early so our panda ticket was for shortly after we arrived.

We had some breakfast and walked over to the panda pavilion. You wait outside until your number is called, just like at Neuschwanstein. When your number is called, you enter the pavilion and slowly queue past the pandas in their habitat. The pandas were waiting by the back door of their habitats because it was almost feeding time. This meant the first few pictures I could take were only of panda butts. However, after they ate they became a little more sociable and I was able to get pictures of more than just their butts.

The Taipei Zoo

After viewing the panda area, Nicole and I walked around the rest of the zoo. Aside from being ungodly hot, it was a pretty nice experience. Most of the animal habitats were quite spacious. There were lots of plants all over the zoo. For most of our walk, it felt like we were trekking through a jungle rather than walking through a zoo.

Maokong Gondola

We spent a good part of the afternoon at the zoo seeing animals and getting really sweaty from all the heat. I would have liked to stay longer, but we there were more adventures to be had. We left the zoo and walked over to the Maokong Gondola. The gondola leads up through the mountains and passes a number of temples and little villages that you can stop in to. There is great hiking up there as well. The whole gondola project was meant to make nature more accessible to the urban residents of Taipei. I think the project was a smashing success as the gondola is wildly popular.

Upon further inspection of the wikipedia page, it seems the gondola system was riddled with mechanical and structural problems and literally hundreds of people have been stranded on the gondola at one time. However, I had a blast and nothing went wrong when I rode on it.

The top of the world, Maokong

At the end of the gondola ride, we arrived at Maokong, a lively little town at the end of the gondola line. Nicole and I had a ton of different street foods like chicken skewers, coconuts, and iced tea. We also tried some tea in a little shop overlooking the mountainside. We bought some back to Korea to share with out coworkers.

Zhinan Temple

On our way back down from Maokong, we stopped at Zhinan temple, a truely amazing place. It was almost entirely empty when we arrived. The stop is the second to last stop on the gondola line, or the first stop on your way back down the mountain. We hopped off and walked off the platform into a small outdoor plaza. The plaza contained a little pagoda with a dragon statue and a rocky grotto with a waterfall pouring over it. It looked beautiful, and like I said we were the only ones there. We followed signs towards the temple and I began to doubt that this was the right way as no one else was around. Both Maokong and the zoo had been packed with people.

When we finally arrived at the temple we were greeted by just one attendant who offered to give us a tour, for free. She spoke limited English, but enough to give us the general idea. She led us into a room of many golden placards, it looked almost like a bank vault of safety deposit boxes. On the ceiling were several sculpted clouds and a painted night’s sky complete with little fiber optic stars. It was unlike any temple I had ever visited

This post ended up being really long, so I split it into two parts. This concludes part one.