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

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
humidity korea
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.

Mother and Child Reunions

I lost my pyeonghwa this weekend. As far as I can tell, pyeonghwa means “peace” in Korean. It’s an addictive state that isn’t harmful but can be elusive. I’d lost mine for a couple years. Moving to Korea was a stressful and anticipatory experience, filled with a lot of excitement. We took possession of our rental house on June 1, and a dining table and chairs, a refrigerator, a television, and a couple sofas arrived on the same day. I received a lot of instruction that I’ve since forgotten. Our house is lovely but has many idiosyncrasies. The stove is run off propane tanks. The boiler that heats the house and water is run off the same gasoline used in your car and is filled the same way. The windows are beautiful but have never known energy efficiency. And, of course, all the electronics (frig, microwave, washer, dryer, etc.) have Korean instructions. So that was June 1.

June 2 was the arrival of my old pups. They made it around 9:30pm. I was jumping out of my skin in anticipation and am so grateful to have them here. The reunion, though, was nothing like any I’ve had with them. They were confused, frightened, exhausted, and maybe slightly pissed off. They spent 17 days away, mostly in a kennel. They spent 29 hours flying from Dallas-Fort Worth airport via Lufthansa to Frankfurt and then Seoul, including a 9 hour layover to exercise and eat in Frankfurt, a 4+ hour drive to Sacheon, and a couple hours clearing customs. I feel a great deal of guilt for putting them through this ordeal. My older girl is 14 and she looked horrible upon arrival.  I could have chosen not to come or found them another home stateside, but those weren’t viable options for me. I spent the night on one of our new sofas to be with them while Chris returned to the hotel. That was June 2.

June 3 brought more deliveries. We received two twin beds and mattresses as well as the “king-sized” bedframe we’d purchased. I ran errands while Chris discovered that a Korean king-sized bed is 11 inches narrower than an American king-sized bed (all the Korean beds are smaller, but the king-sized is the most pronounced). We have our mattress coming in our air shipment as well as all of our bedding. We could just purchase that stuff here, but it is very expensive. Like thousands of dollars expensive. (Side note: Everything here is more expensive. I will need to get over that at some point.) And we love our mattress. So, after phone calls and a trip to a hardware store, Chris managed to get some plywood sheets that he’s going to drill into the bedframe to support our version of a king-sized bed. We moved one of the twin mattresses from the upstairs to the master bedroom downstairs for me to sleep on as the dogs are having a hard time getting upstairs. Chris went back to the hotel. That was June 3.

June 4 was somewhat uneventful, which might have been when I really noticed losing my peace. We went shopping, watered the garden, and took it easy. We had a wonderful meal at a Chinese restaurant with new friends. The restaurant had table-side grills, and we ordered lamb and beef kabobs and some rice. The meal came with kimchi and a couple side dishes, and the owner brought big bowls of soup gratis. It was delicious. I dropped Chris at the hotel and returned to the house.

On June 5, I attempted to go to a Costco. We need a lot of stuff. We’re setting up a household here, and I’ve managed to buy a couple trash cans, a pillow, a couple towels, a very cheap fry pan, and a couple plates and bowls to get by until the arrival of our air shipment. I’ve been feeding the dogs some kind of Purina food for small dogs. I’d brought some of their treats in my luggage, so that helped. So I drove over 2 hours, paid lots in tolls (and gasoline), spent 90 minutes loading a cart, and was told I needed a Korean Costco charge card or cash. Another expat had used his US Costco charge card for a 3% service charge, but they weren’t taking mine. I thought I could use my Korean debit card, but that was a no go. So I went to an ATM in the store to get money, and my card got stuck. A technician was called, I waited patiently, and after all of that, drove home empty-handed. That was a 6-hour ordeal. (I couldn’t figure out the ATM as I’m somewhat – read significantly – technologically challenged.)  June 5 sucked.

June 6 was Korea’s (actually the Republic of Korea’s, not the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s) Memorial Day. I need to write about that – about North and South Korea’s centuries of invasion, occupation, war, and horror. I read some of their history and felt somber. The day meant a holiday, so Chris thought I should jump back on the horse and go back to Costco with him. We bought 3 shopping carts worth of stuff. Everything is cheaper at Costco, and we needed a lot. We also wanted a grill, which seems impossible to find anywhere. Oh, and Chris had to buy a drill so he can jerry-rig that bed I mentioned. It was a better day.

I think we get our air shipment tomorrow. That will be like Christmas. We’re still waiting on a furniture order that includes dressers, tables, a television stand and the like, so right now we don’t really have a way to put things away. All our clothes will be in that shipment other than the things we’ve been wearing for the last month. It was a little chilly yesterday, so I wore the one long-sleeved shirt I brought in my luggage. I’m also anxious to cook and await my pots and pans and all the rest of the kitchen stuff. It gets chilly at night, and I’m using one of Chris’s jackets as my blanket.

Today – June 7 – involved killing a gigantic centipede. They’re called “house centipedes,” and that is a blatant misnomer. The thing was a monster. I’m not a bug killer, but this was no bug. Look them up online. The stuff of nightmares. But I do feel better. Not because I killed the alien insect. I think I feel better because the stress of everything – relocating and all that entails, and then everything that comes with being in a new country – was keeping me from slowing down and feeling some of what’s to be expected: Homesickness, guilt, weariness, fear. I’m very happy and excited and incredibly grateful to be here, but it does come with costs.

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