Destination Kyoto

一期一会
“One life, one encounter.”

The Republic of Korea recently celebrated Memorial Day, so Chris and I took the holiday opportunity for a long weekend visit to Kyoto, Japan. Osaka is just a little over an hour flight from Busan, and Busan is just about a 90-minute drive from our home. However, getting to the airport early, taking a train from Osaka to Kyoto Station, and getting from Kyoto Station to the hotel makes it about an eight hour “traveling” day. Still, it was an easy journey. And just a note: Our trip included nothing unusual. We covered the highlights of Kyoto, so I’m not revealing any secrets. However, as one who has visited Rome, New York City, and London and who never thought she’d see Asia, Kyoto is a destination city and belongs on the proverbial bucket list.

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Geisha inside Arashiyama bamboo forest

Upon arrival, it was pouring rain, and we walked the ten minutes from the station to our hotel with luggage and umbrellas. Happily, the clothes within the luggage stayed dry.

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Our first meal

After checking in, we walked a short distance to a halal ramen restaurant that had no more than 14 seats and was constantly busy. We ordered and paid from a machine and then gave our ticket to an employee. We went with the spicy miso but ordered heat level one (and it was plenty spicy!).

Our first real day in Kyoto was filled with activity. We started the day walking to a train station a little over a mile from the hotel. We grabbed a quick breakfast from a convenience store and then took the train to Arashiyama, which is a very popular district with tourists that apparently has been popular since the late 700s!

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Bride and Groom photos at Arashuyama

We crossed the Togetsukyo Bridge to the bamboo grove and quickly fell in love with bamboo.

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Arashayuma

From there we went to the Monkey Park Iwatayama. It is located in the Arashuyama mountains and involved a short hike uphill. As every hike in Korea (and most walks) involve going uphill, we were ready for it. After the walk up, there is an open area where hundreds of monkeys roam. It was fun, and we were able to see several young monkeys as well as a baby, but the views of the city were perhaps the most impressive aspect of the attraction.

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Monkey Park Iwatayama
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Monkey Park Iwatayama – Kyoto view

We hiked back down and stopped in the neighborhood for some udon, tempura, green tea ice cream, and a shave ice. We then traveled by bus to Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), a Zen temple with the top two floors completely covered in gold leaf. It is beautiful and apparently most impressive on a sunny day, but we were grateful for cloud cover as the weather made for pleasant outdoor sightseeing. The temple is built

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Kinkaku-ji

overlooking a large pond, and, like so much of Kyoto’s attractions, has lovely gardens. Our last stop of the day was Nijo Castle, built as a residence for a shogun (military dictator). The day ended with dinner at a gyukatsu (deep fried beef cutlets) restaurant. 

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gyukatsu
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Nijo Castle

 

 

 

 

Day two was rainy and overcast, which made for a wonderful touring day but not the best photos. We again started the day with breakfast from a convenience store (conbini). It may sound strange, but the convenience stores in Japan are stocked with a variety of fresh offerings from sando (sandwiches), oden, bento, onigiri (rice balls), and pastries. All are very well-priced. I didn’t try it, but the fried chicken also looked pretty tasty.

We spent the day on the bus and our feet. An all-day bus pass cost about $6 (US) and pays for itself in three trips. We went to Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), my second favorite place of our visit. The gardens are magnificent, so we took our time. We then walked the Philosopher’s Path to a tea house for a little lunch.

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Philosopher’s Path

We seemed to be the first customers in a beautiful little place run solely by one woman. After we finished our lunch, several separate parties came in, and I wondered how she was going to manage cooking, preparing drinks, taking money, etc.

We ventured to the Kyoto Handicraft Center, which has over three floors of wonderful souvenirs. I did some price comparisons, and it is fairly priced. The store has very high-end items as well as more reasonably priced options and a great selection of cultural books (many in English).

Having loaded up on treasures, we lugged our purchases over to Kiyomizu-dera, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Kiyomizu-dera
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Kiyomizu-dera

It is immensely popular but well worth the visit. I had read about the Tainai-meguri (womb of the goddess), a room near the entrance of the temple where one ventures down stairs and a pathway in complete darkness, holding onto a thick rope with large beads. It is supposed to represent the womb of a female Bodhisattva, and emerging from it is supposed to represent rebirth. I knew I had to experience it. I have had moderate claustrophobia, and the idea of being in something unknown in complete (100% complete) darkness fascinated and frightened me. When we entered, I panicked for a moment and had to let the people behind me move ahead before entering the complete blackness. Then I regulated my breathing, moved forward, and tried not to fight the fact that I could not see anything. It was also very hot, which added to the claustrophobic feel.

After walking through the blackness for a couple minutes, there is suddenly a dim light drawing attention to a large power stone. On the stone is engraved a sacred symbol. Visitors spin the stone, making a wish. Visitors then walk forward into brief blackness again and come back out into the light. It was really an amazing experience for me. I don’t think I’m ready for a sensory-deprivation tank anytime soon, but I feel that Asia is helping me conquer fears. (I think Korea helped me largely overcome my fear of heights.)

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Otowa waterfall

From the Tainai-meguri, we went to the main temple. The main hall’s roof is under renovation until 2020, but it is still open and is a wonder of woodwork and massiveness. There are also wonderful views from various balconies. We ventured to the Otowa waterfall from the fountains of longevity and fortunate love life, skipping the fountain of success as it is considered greedy to drink from all three. We could have spent hours at this temple but had limited time. It was definitely a worthwhile visit.

We ended the day with a visit to Nikishi Market, accomplishing everything by bus and foot. The Nikishi Market is great fun and allows visitors to sample all kinds of food on sticks. Unlike the State Fair of Texas, where you can indulge in fried butter, fried Twinkies, and fried corn dogs on sticks, Nikishi Market has little fishes (eyes, tails, scales included) on sticks and various other delicacies. I mainly went for some seasonings to bring back home and scored with some sesame seasonings and dressing. There is also a Nikishi Shopping area with lots of retail, but we skipped that.

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Nishiki Shopping area – American Wendy’s where Chris got a beer!
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Nishiki Market

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then it was back to the hotel for a rest and then dinner at a yakitori spot with about four tables and counter seats. Yakitori is grilled skewered chicken. One orders multiple skewers to make a meal, usually starting out with a few to deter1528453886345.jpgmine what they want more of before ordering again.  We waited a long time for six skewers so opted to not wait around for round two. It was very good though. We moved on to dessert rather than more savory dishes.

Day three started at the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which became our favorite spot. The shrine is famous for its thousands of orange torii gates across many trails throughout a beautiful forest. There is also a bamboo forest, so if you miss the one in Arashuyama, you can see one here. My advice to potential visitors: Wear some kind of hiking shoe or hiking sandal, pack some food and beverages, and hike to the top of Mt. Inari, which is easily accessible from this beautiful shrine. We didn’t dress properly so missed out. A visit to this shrine demonstrates that this is another incredibly popular place. We were there on a Saturday, and the crowds at the entrance could dissuade the most perseverant. Push through anyway because it is large enough that one can get away from the crowds throughout the grounds. And, as mentioned, one can also get in a pretty good hike. We really took our time here because it was so beautiful and shaded.

We then walked a distance to lunch at Dragon Burger for a Japanese burger and some of the best French fries I’ve ever had (the tempura batter might have had something to do with that). We went to the Imperial Palace, which is noted for its beautiful grounds. Going inside is not really worth it because visitors are not allowed into any of the buildings. While free, the inner grounds are a vast wasteland of gravel along with buildings and placards regarding what is inside the buildings. Outside the palace grounds, however, is a huge greenspace with amazing trees, flowers, benches, paths, shade, and relaxation. It’s a wonderful spot for a picnic and the opportunity to interact despite language barriers with families, couples, and various dog-owners (I can’t pass up interactions with pups when I’m away from mine).

 

We ended our day with Gion, which was overwhelmingly crowded. It is an old district with many wood buildings, but it seems to be more of a shopping destination. Perhaps it would be different at night as there are many restaurants and some drinking establishments. We didn’t stay long and then were not creative for dinner, carrying out a local pizza from a place by the hotel.

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Pizza! Pizza!

After all of that fun, we had to head home. We took the train to the Osaka airport and then had the short flight back to Busan.

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Peach Airlines
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Snack Present

On the plane, I loaned a young Japanese man a pen, and he gave me a present! He gave me a bag of some kind of Japanese snack, which is very good. There is so much kindness despite language barriers. It warms my heart. It also warms my heart to return to our Korean home – especially our pups (and our bed). We loved Kyoto, but there really is no place like home. 

 

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Korea House
Home, sweet home

Spring Explodes

Relishing the beauty of spring and my adopted home.

“Is the spring coming?…What is it like?”…
“It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine…”
― Frances Hodgson BurnettThe Secret Garden

Winter finally left Sacheon, and with its departure came spring flowers. The plum blossoms signal the start of spring and came out at the end of March. On the heels of the plum blossoms came the cherry blossoms in early April. Since then, my yard seems to surprise me every few days with new flowers. We moved into the house in June, so many of these colorful treasures are surprises as they weren’t all here by then. I wake up to many perfectly perfect days and think, “Spring is my favorite.” (I will think the same thing about summer, fall, and the first part of winter, too.) It has been so many years since I really experienced spring that I am pinching myself at my good fortune.

I spent my first 36 years in the Midwest of the United States, and that area generally enjoys lovely spring seasons. However, my last 15 years in the US were spent in north Texas, where it seemed that everything was perpetually brown – with a blazing hot sun burning up the grass and trees. I don’t recall much color outside of the months of March and April. The Republic of Korea is simply glorious this time of year. I’ve read and heard that spring and fall are short, but I believe spring will last close to three months. It is time to get outdoors, time for visitors, time for picnics, and time for rebirth.

I have been fortunate to meet a group of Korean women who meet every Tuesday for an outing or just lunch and coffee and who indulge the company and endless curiosity of expat women. Being with them on Tuesday outings means one is guaranteed to see blossoms at peak bloom, visit sites when the fall colors are at their best, know when to visit a festival and where to park, and know where to visit for the best of various Korean foods. The grace and hospitality of these women is limitless, and I am indebted to the person who invited me to join the group. What started as an intimate group has grown tremendously with so many new expats. The Koreans continue to host us and treat us to their wealth of knowledge and pride despite our numbers.

At the end of March, the group brought us to the Gwangyang International Maehwa Festival. The festival is in Seomjin Village – home to the largest number of plum blossom trees in Korea. During the festival, visitors can walk beneath endless plum blossoms, purchase small plum blossom trees, and sample and purchase local organic plum products. The name plum, however, is misleading. The tree species is related to both the plum and apricot and is referred to as a plum in English and Chinese although more closely relates to the apricot. The fruit of the tree is used in Asian cooking in juices, as a flavoring for alcohol, as a pickle, in sauces, and in traditional medicine. It is an early flowering tree (late winter and early spring) so is regarded as a seasonal symbol. The festival allowed me to sample endless apricot pickles, and I purchased a couple containers.

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Apricot pickles

Most US residents haven’t had apricots outside of the dried variety. I’ve been able to eat fresh apricots here, which are juicy, sweeter versions of the dried kind. The pickled versions are sweet and sour, and I find them wonderful on their own as a side dish or on a sandwich or mixed in with a main course. I am fortunate to have two very small versions of these in my yard. Once the blossoms fall off and the fruit develops, it’s the summer. I had no idea what I had last year so did nothing with them. However, this year I am ready to pickle!

The plum blossoms are very quickly followed by cherry blossoms. While plum blossom trees are not hard to find here, cherry blossom trees are impossible to miss. The country is filled with them. Like the plum, these blossoms are fragile, beautiful, and short-lived. The blossom period seems to last no longer than two weeks, and the entire country seems to celebrate them. Tour busses and cars filled with groups of friends, families, couples, and singles flock to the various festivals throughout the country to see the blooms. And while the blossom season is short, they all appear to bloom at once, reflecting trees covered in brilliant and delicate pink. When they blow away, pink “snow” covers the streets, sidewalks, and fields. For me, this was the true start of spring.

The cherry blossoms have been followed by mountains and roadsides covered with azaleas. These lovely flowers last longer, and I’ve been on at least four hikes to see them in various places. And, of course, azalea season is filled with azalea festivals. While azaleas are less exotic to westerners, it is exotic to see mountainsides covered with the blooms.

The biggest surprise for me in my first spring here is our yard. There are at least 17 different flowers and flowering plants in our garden, many of which were no longer blossoming by the time we moved in last year. It is a regular surprise to see what new beauty has opened up to greet the sun. There are plum and cherry trees, irises, hyacinths, dianthus, coryanthes, orange honeysuckle, poppies, and numerous unknown blooms. After what was for me a difficult winter, all of this new life gives me new life. I am brought back to the initial excitement of being here – remembering my joy at all the new discoveries and reliving the wonder at Korea’s beauty. 

The summer will arrive, and with it, the hot temperatures and unbelievable humidity. But I was born in the summer. I love summer and am determined to enjoy it. For now, however, I am relishing the beauty of spring and my adopted home.

*Featured image taken by Amy Beerwinkle.

Winter Blues

Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone. ~Paul Tillich

I’ve spent much of my first winter in the Republic of Korea sick in some way. This has caused loneliness because I haven’t been able to do much with others. People here have told me this happens to a lot of folks in their first year. We’re exposed to new plant life and allergens, apparent dust and pollution from China, and Korea’s own pollution. It takes adjustment. Because I live in a rural, farming area, there is also a lot of burning here – even in personal yards. So, I get it. But it has really, really, REALLY gotten me down. Like depressed. Like REALLY DEPRESSED. To the point that I considered moving back to the States – at least long enough to get well. I can’t spend a bunch of my life ill, you know?

I’ve also been deeply grieving the loss of my dad throughout the month of February, which is the month of both his birth and his death. Losing my dad was the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. However, the first five months of last year left me little time to breathe let alone grieve. I spent time with my dad as he died and then stayed after with my mom. We also did everything necessary to sell a house, two cars, and many possessions to move across the world. And we also lost one of our pups, attended my dad’s memorial, and I visited my mom one more time and Chris went on a trip with his sons before we moved here in May. It makes sense that now would be the time to grieve. But it is also a lonely process, and I found I really had no one with whom to talk. I really miss having a best girlfriend.

To help me with my sadness, sickness, and depression and to help me stay here, my husband (who is truly wonderful) suggested I plan a trip on my own to somewhere I’ve wanted to go. He said I was a good solo traveler, and if that would help me stay, I should do it. Can one imagine the spark that lit in me? At first I thought, what a nice thing to offer to me. And it went no further. Then I read a story about a guy being rescued in Yosemite, and this little fire of curiosity and excitement started in me. I’ve been to Yosemite twice on my own and once with Chris. I’ve solo camped in a tent throughout Utah (Arches, Dead Horse, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce, and Zion), the north rim of the Grand Canyon, parts of Colorado, and Yosemite. I drove a pop-up on my own from Texas to Wyoming and Montana (Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier) and also to California (again Yosemite). I do, indeed, know how to travel alone. Thinking about a get-away, where I can get away from social media and television and just commune with nature somewhere, inspires me. It doesn’t cure loneliness, but it is about solitude rather than being alone. “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone” (Paul Tillich). It seems to be very therapuetic for me. Chris seems to know this.

We have so many travel plans while we are in Asia. One of the reasons many of our fellow expats came here was the opportunity to travel to places that are more difficult to see when in the States. Many people visit Japan, China, Thailand, etc. But how often does a person with finite means get to come to Asia? Most often it is a single, big trip. The journey starts with a 12+ hour flight across the International Date Line with a minimum price tag of a grand for the plane ticket alone (and, depending on where one is going, will amount to a 20+ hour day of travel with likely connections/layovers). So it isn’t something most people can do with much frequency. But we’re here, and we’ve already seen Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore with plans for many other countries.

And we can’t neglect our home country. There is much to see here. We will have our first house guests soon as Chris’s mom, brother, and one of his sons are visiting, and we’re planning a Seoul visit. My mom will come in April, and we may go to Jeju Island or spend a long weekend in Busan. If I go on a solo trip, it may be summer or fall. Just this past weekend, Chris and I went to the first time to the Baekcheonsa Buddhist temple. It is just a few hops, skips, and jumps from our house, yet we didn’t hear of it until the winter and then didn’t make time to visit. As one can see from the photos, it is a beautiful place.

I also posted photos of Daeboreum, which is a Korean celebration of the first full moon of the Lunar New Year. We attended that this weekend as well. There are many traditions that have been handed down through generations for this holiday. People used to play a game called Geuybulnori, which involved burning dry grasses on rice field ridges to kill crop-killing insects. That tradition has become the lighting of bonfires throughout the country, including in major cities. On our walk home from the one we attended, we saw two others burning within a mile radius. Many other traditions exist for Daeboreum involving food, drink, and games. It is said if one cracks a peanut shell in their teeth and eats the peanut, one will have strong teeth and avoid allergies in the coming year. Chris’s workplace handed out peanuts, and I certainly had one to help with my various illnesses! Before judging this, one must consider the traditions in their own and other countries for the New Year celebration.

Perhaps I’m prepared to start up blogging again. There is much to share, including our trips and our daily living. But I find my blog is most about me and personal growth and realization. I appreciate those of you joining me on the journey.

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Magic

I’ve been a bad blogger and am not sure I’ll become much more disciplined. I live in a magical place and a magical situation that allows me so many experiences, and I find myself overwhelmed to write about it. When I have the time, there’s too much to share. I have experiences about hosting a couple cookouts and a small dinner within two weeks (as an introvert); about the incredible “wildlife” in our backyard (the most gorgeous spiders and craziest weeds any North American has seen) and my transition from bug-fearing to bug-admiring; my slow acceptance of Korean food (I feel very ashamed about that but am trying); the whole experience of being an introvert in a primarily extroverted situation; about being away from my mom; about starting to feel some heavy grief over the loss of my dad; about wanting to experience the full spiritual experience of a this Buddhist/Christian/Naturalist land; about hosting long-term guests I like and love versus those to whom I’m obligated. I also intended to post some basic information helpful to expats who were not coming here to teach ESL. As one of those, I was unable to find much of any information regarding life here outside of teaching and less information regarding living outside of the Seoul area. I have good intentions regarding future posts.

 

I just get too busy to write it all down and then, when there’s a lull, I’m overwhelmed with what to share. My most favorite thing about living in Korea is that Koreans love hiking. It’s a national pastime, and everyone seems to do it. Because it is a country made up primarily of mountains, the hikes are up. They aren’t full of many switchbacks. Koreans seem to prefer to just go straight up. When I have to leave this place and move back to the States in 2-3 years, I expect to be in fantastic shape.

I was a runner for years. It’s probably my favorite exercise, and I was addicted to the endorphin high. But my back decided it had enough. I’ve enjoyed biking, but I seem to find it more a mode of transportation than exercise because it requires such a distance to equal the output I got from running.  Hiking, however, fits that whole magical thing. I love it. I love what it’s doing to my muscles and lungs. I love that it brings me into natural beauty. I love that I can do it in any season. When I discovered it about 12 years ago, I was in Texas and had to drive at least a day to get to a place worth hiking. Now I am 30 minutes away from mountain hikes. If there is a mountain or hill here, there are trails on it. And just so you don’t get too cocky, Koreans also put exercise equipment and hula hoops at the top of many hikes, dampening the feeling of accomplishment by essentially telling you that you can do more!

These aren’t “just” hikes, either. So many of them have mountain-side Buddhist temples that are serene and beautiful. As a follower of logotherapy, I’m drawn to Buddhism. I’m drawn to will to meaning. I’m especially drawn to being mindful of the present – essentially living in the here and now. And I’m drawn to Buddhism’s teachings to transform our experiences and to be fully responsible for our lives.  I’ve lived many years in the past, projecting it to my future, which has resulted in missing out on the present. My present finds me living in a very humid paradise for a minimum of two years. I don’t have a work Visa, so my husband has told me my job is to find fun things to do. Much of my initial time was spent getting the household set up. When you move to another country with no furniture and very little kitchenware, there is a lot of shopping and setting up to create a home. But that’s done, so now I’ve been hiking and dining and making new friends. Rough life, huh? And I really like the people I’ve met.

I will offer a piece of advice to anyone coming here. If you are fortunate enough to be invited to hike with a Korean, bring a lot of water, wear hiking shoes, consider a small sandwich or something, don’t skip breakfast, and follow this formula regarding what they say about the hike: If they say it’s easy, assume it’s moderate. If they say moderate, assume strenuous. If they say strenuous, perhaps consider making up an excuse as to why you are unable to participate. But count your lucky stars if you are able to share any part of this country and culture with a native. They are a kind, funny, positive, and healthy people who really know how to enjoy themselves.

Jipdeuli

In Korean culture, it is tradition to hold a housewarming party when one has moved (Jipdeuli /집들이). The expats adopted this tradition and have invited their team members once they’ve settled into their new homes. Team sizes vary from as small as 4 to more than 24, and Chris’s is one of the larger at 18. We held our party on July 4 since had we been in the States, we would have been doing something with friends. And we had a typical American cookout with bratwurst, hotdogs, homemade potato salad, homemade baked beans, a coleslaw salad, watermelon, brownies, and ice cream. And beer. And Soju. Lots of beer and Soju.

 

 

 

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Some of the food
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21.0 liters of water removed. Eek.

We held the party on a weeknight because there are a few team members who travel to Seoul every weekend. They have families there – including spouses and children. I don’t know how I would manage being around my spouse only 48 hours per week. The drive itself is fairly arduous because so many Koreans travel to Seoul on the weekend, and those who don’t travel there already live there. The traffic is very heavy. I traveled that way from here on a Tuesday morning, and the traffic was an issue at a couple points. This is a very populated country with not a lot of land mass. Other team members go elsewhere to be with family, so a weeknight seemed to be the best option.

 

 

Another tradition here is to bring a gift when invited to someone’s home – especially when attending a housewarming. We would have liked to say no gifts, but I think that would be insulting. Common presents are toilet paper and dish and laundry soap as those items were real luxuries for many years. However, Chris’s team is pretty young. They brought us a gorgeous plant that signifies fortune. They also brought us a mug and tumbler, some wine, and a gorgeous rice cake from a bakery.

We played some games as was suggested by others. In the States, they probably would not have gone over very well but were a huge success here.

We also had a “White Elephant” kind of gift exchange, which was very foreign to the guests. Opening gifts in front of others is unusual as well as stealing them, but they seemed to have fun with it. Chris was very proud of developing a beer pong game with a Roomba. He also substituted Soju shots. Soju is made in South Korea and is a very strong rice-based alcohol beverage that varies from 16-50% alcohol by volume.

The best part of the evening for me was just interacting. Koreans seem to be very curious and direct. They are kind and generous and funny. Unlike Americans, though, they seem much more interested in listening than talking. They ask questions – sometimes somewhat philosophical questions – and listen for your answer. They will also tell you that you need to get more exercise or lose weight without hesitation. And it isn’t at all offensive. It’s very matter-of-fact and kind of cracks me up. Someone told us you could feel insulted on a daily basis if you let yourself, but none of it is meant to offend. I like it. Nothing has ever seemed to be about being “better looking” but, instead, about being healthier. I did get a little defensive regarding my dogs though. A. Molly is not overweight. And B. Both of them are ancient. I want to see how active Mr. Lee is when he’s 98 years old!

Regarding the dogs, they are considered large here. And they aren’t used to being around 20 people in their home. They did great though, and none of the team seemed uncomfortable after the initial introductions. I hope someone in the group decides they’ll be willing to dog-sit in the future so we can go away for a weekend. They can stay at the house, and we’ll pay them. We’re just a short bike ride or bus ride from the office, and most of the team members live in a company dorm on the weekdays. It would probably be nice to get away.

Friends

Chris and I are one of approximately sixty American families coming to South Korea as part of a work partnership. Expats were here before us and continue to come after us. It feels a little like college for me. I went out-of-state (back when that was kind of affordable) and knew no one. The experience was exciting, offering limitless opportunity and the chance to reinvent oneself. Upper classmen were there to show us freshman the ropes, and we had the chance to make many new friends. Being part of this group has provided so many opportunities already at making friends. The day-to-day living has a multitude of lessons, joys, and trials.  The “upper classmen” and the locals here are always ready to help. There’s a glaring difference, though, between this experience and college: No gossip. I haven’t heard anyone gossip or speak negatively about others. Not once. This isn’t a popularity contest. The goal seems to be to help everyone be happy and comfortable. If you need help, you just need to ask.

There is also a genuine lack of negativity. People speak matter-of-factly: Communication is hard. It’s very humid. There are giant bugs. Things are more expensive. Traffic is a fact of life. You need to go to at least two grocery stores to get what you need. Peanut M&Ms don’t really exist here. But what a life! So much is a short drive or flight away. Want to go to the beach? It’s 20 minutes away. Want to go to the mountains? Walk out your door. Want to enjoy your stay? Just look around you and experience this magical land.

 

After we arrived, we met a couple of veterans who helped with many tips as well as taking us to some great restaurants. A week later, we made friends with another couple who had just arrived. A few days after that, I met some veterans who immediately offered assistance, invitations, and phone numbers. This was so helpful because a few days later I needed to get Sophie to a veterinarian. One of my new friends let me know her veterinarian information and then offered to go with me because (I’m not complaining) nothing is easy to find here. The parking for the veterinarian was literally on the sidewalk. I would not have known what to do by myself.

We also joined this new friend and a small group at the beach with our various dogs. It’s a quick drive to Namildae Beach, but because South Korea only shares a 160 mile border with North Korea, much of the country is a short drive to a beach. It was a lovely day. My very old pups have been in many bodies of water, but they’d never been in the ocean. I write a lot about these dogs of mine, and that won’t change. I adore them, and I had always wanted to see them walk on a beach. We lounged around a small outdoor café afterward. Many Koreans are, in fact, afraid of larger dogs. But most were laughing as they avoided the pups. The teenagers and young kids wanted to pet the dogs or get selfies, so Molly is probably famous on someone’s Facebook page besides mine.

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Molly in the ocean
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Sophie tasting salt water

A couple days later, I had the opportunity to meet many new friends when a group of us went to the Skyline Luge in Tongyeong. There are only six of these in the world – in Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, and Korea. We rode a chair lift up a mountain and steered a cart down. It was a great deal of fun and also a bargain. The kids in our group might have outnumbered the adults. As someone without kids, it is always a real treat for me to be able to spend time with them, watching their joy and laughter and energy.

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Skyline Luge in Tongyeong

Over the weekend, Chris and I went with one of his coworker friends to an arboretum. It was lovely and seemed to have a lot of historical information as well, but it was all in Hangul. This friend obtained a degree from the University of Kansas, which is also my alma mater (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk!). I asked him if he had difficulty adjusting to the topography in Kansas – especially western Kansas. South Korea is 70 percent uplands and mountains. He said there was everything in western Kansas. He had met many Koreans who lived in Kansas City who had never seen the Flint Hills or much of anything past Topeka. He told them one can visit mountains, lakes, rivers, and flowers throughout the world, but one sees one’s life in western Kansas. It is everything. This was profound to me. And when he told people, they listened. They went. Westerners don’t do that. Someone tries to correct misconceptions, and we ignore them. It was a simple but impactful story. I think you really need to know natives to know a country. I’m very grateful that Chris’s coworkers have embraced him.

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The Flint Hills in Kansas
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Portrait in Green courtesy of the arboretum

I ventured on my own to IKEA, which is outside of Seoul. It’s an almost 4-hour drive from where I am, and then there’s the shopping experience itself. I had an overflowing cart full of things when I got to the place where one orders the large furniture and delivery. I found out I had to get the lamps I needed myself. (IKEA is the place for lamps. Koreans seem to use a lot of overhead lighting, and lamps are really expensive and in limited selection elsewhere.) I paid for my overflowing cart, feeling only mild embarrassment at the huge number of items I had, and took all of this stuff to the car. Then I went back through the IKEA maze and loaded up another full, overflowing cart with lamps. It doesn’t take much. The carts aren’t really conducive to larger items. There were a couple storage items I would have liked to get, but that would have required a third trip, and that was not happening. I wouldn’t consider IKEA shopping fun in any sense of the word and hope I don’t have to return, but it’s a really good place to get pretty inexpensive furniture, and we needed dressers. I had reached my tolerance limit on stacks of clothes on the floor. It had to be done. I had also planned to make a Costco run since there was one very close, but I skipped it. The whole IKEA “adventure” and drive took 12 hours. (And I didn’t stop to eat. Maybe at some point I’ll blog about my 40-hour experience to Grand Teton National Park existing solely on Cheezits and Tootsie Rolls. I’m not always good about self-care.)

After the IKEA trip, there was, of course, the delivery of the items and then the assembly of said items. I think Chris and I could now put together an IKEA dresser while blindfolded. But the house is now finally open for business! Unfortunately, having everything put away meant I had no more excuses and had to clean it. I could run a vacuum and scrub toilets and sinks daily, but I don’t usually do floors. However, because of the climate, there aren’t carpets here. They would rot away. So the floors are hardwood, tile, and linoleum. That means mopping and scrubbing. And because people take off their shoes before coming into their homes, it’s important to keep the floors reasonably clean. So, yeah, I need to get over my floor-cleaning aversion. I’m also not a fan of dusting, but with the windows open and the Mongolian dust flowing down from China, floor cleaning and dusting are the priorities.

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IKEA dresser masterfully assembled by Chris and me

It’s traditional here, once settled, to have the Korean team over to one’s home for a housewarming party (jibdeuli – 집들이). Ours will be on the Fourth of July. We can’t hold it on a weekend night because many team members go to Seoul where their parents and/or spouses live. They stay here during the work-week. We’re at about 17 guests at this point, which I’d consider pretty large. Of course, this did mean another trip to Costco, and this time I selected the closest one, which is in Busan. Busan is the second-largest city in Korea, located in the southeast corner of the country, and it is really pretty. As is the norm, even on a Monday morning, the traffic was heavy in the city. However, we are now set to serve hotdogs, bratwursts, sausages, baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, watermelon, cookies, brownies, and ice cream. I don’t mind cooking, and I LOVE to feed people. I just hope the folks will enjoy fairly traditional American cookout food.

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The house is open for business

A Short Note on Avoiding Politics

It’s not a secret to people who know me that I had no problem leaving the United States when the opportunity arose. The 2016 Presidential election was devastating for me, and then I watched my dad die. I don’t intend to blog about politics, but there’s no guarantee. What I want to mention is that the lack of politics – or, really, of political attention – has probably added back years to my life.

We seem to notice what is much more easily than noticing what isn’t. What isn’t is trash all over the road-side. It took a few drives to realize the roads here are very clean. Like the US, there are still cigarette butts all over the place, but it’s free of bottles and bags and cups and anything else people seem to throw out of their cars. This is made more striking when considering there aren’t trash cans anywhere. The US has trash cans on every street corner and trash on every street, and Korea is the opposite.

What isn’t is road rage. This is despite some of the most daring driving I’ve seen in my half-century on this planet. I fear I may meet a premature end via motor vehicle while here. However, the driving is not aggressive. If there is space (heck, even if there isn’t), a car will move into it. Busses and cabs do whatever they want; know this, and give them clearance. Drivers will go way over the speed limit and then slam their breaks when approaching the moving camera zones. I do it now too. No more searching for hidden police vehicles and radar guns. Just speed and then slow down through the zones. Makes sense. And take none of this personally.

What isn’t is constant negative news – for me at least. I considered myself very well informed in 2016. I watched the national news from a reputable network and avoided the sensationalistic local news. I read stories via the Washington Post and New York Times. I paid attention and prided myself on it. And it all broke my heart. If you had asked me what I thought about people, I would have told you they sucked. The news confirmed that. Politics confirmed that. However, if you asked me what I thought about my neighbor, coworkers, friends, family, the guy on the corner, I would tell you they were great. I didn’t like the lot of us but seemed to love the individual.

Now I am trying to avoid the news. I’m sure there is plenty of the same here as at home. The country impeached former-President Park Geun-hye and then arrested her on corruption charges. But we don’t have Korean cable, and I’m avoiding internet news. We’ve barely watched television – at least compared to what we did in the States. When I look at social media, though, I see what’s going on. I see postings and reactions from friends. I look up whatever is happening and then quickly shut down those stories. They’re all bad. They’re all unbelievable. They make me embarrassed and ashamed for my home country. So I bury my head in the sand, which makes me feel guilty, but I think it’s good for me. I’m happier this way. I am finding ways to do kind things. I am healing my heart and loving again. I’m working on assuming that people are good. Someday I may again get involved in politics, but right now is not that day. Living in a place that has a different language and alphabet makes it easy to stay a little ignorant. Viva la ignorance!