Japan

Winter holiday in Japan

Now that I’m back in Mongolia, I’m still in disbelief that I’ve set foot in Japan. Kyoto nonetheless. It doesn’t feel as if the trip happened. I undertook a solo trip to Japan for 9 days. Some people weren’t surprised and others said: “Alone?!?!” “Aren’t you scared?!!?!”

No.

Before my departure, I experienced a hiccup with my flights. The glee I woke up with on Christmas morning evaporated when I checked my emails and saw one from Expedia stating one of my flights had been canceled. I had to restrain myself as I spoke with someone from Expedia (unsuccessful) and a copious amount of phone calls to Mongolian Airlines (unsuccessful; numbers weren’t working). I finally had to call our Peace Corps Director who patched me over to our administrative assistant. She knew a number and had my itinerary changed, confirmed, and sent to me. A great wave of relief. I was finally flying to Japan.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I knew since middle school I wanted to go to Japan. Flash forward 13 years later. It’s 7 AM and I find myself lounging on the second floor in a near-empty Chinggis Khan Airport with my backpack. I flew UB – Seoul – Osaka. I felt buoyant as the plane was flying over the ocean and islands. From Osaka, I had to take a 90-minute train ride from Kansai Airport to Kyoto Station and then the subway. My airbnb was in a neighborhood off of the Kitauji stop.

Kita Ku

Kyoto is unbelievable. Houses are a combination of modern and traditional. They are narrow at the front and sit so close to each other to almost be touching. The streets are clean and taper down in residential areas.

My airbnb was in Kita Ku. It was a beautiful district of Kyoto! It’s not a crowded area and I gained a great perception of a Japanese locality and every-day local life. My airbnb was tiny but a comfortable apartment. My bed was incredibly soft. Not like my bed in Mongolia where I sleep on top of a piece of concrete and a sleeping bag. There was also a kitchen, bathroom, a washing machine, and a balcony.  I was also provided with a pocket wifi. It was a lifesaver. 

At the first restaurant I went to for lunch called Kyoto Kairikiya, I was the only obvious foreigner sitting at a long counter; looking at a ramen menu as the sounds of slurps, clicking chopsticks, and the host calling out “Arigatou gozaimasu,” every time someone left, filled my ears.

In order to visit main sites, I rode the subway back and forth from Kyoto Station.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Arashiyama

From Kyoto Station, I rode bus 28 to Arashiyama where the Bamboo Grove, a monkey park, Jojakko-Ji and more shrines are. If you walk the main street further up, you’ll arrive at the residential areas with innumerous hidden gems separated from the main tourist area. I had the most fun strolling these streets. Lots of small shrines, cafes, and cute houses.

IMG_7207

Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove was a lot smaller than I thought. It’s just a short path that takes you in a circle around the bamboo grove. Afterwards, I found Jojakko-Ji shrine where the trees and the moss were a heavenly shade of bright green. Autumn colors were also still prevalent despite it being January. I’ve been deprived of so much color in my Mongolian town that it was illuminating. Climbing the stone steps took me to the monk’s quarters and the Tahoto Pagoda where there’s a panorama view of all of Arashiyama.  I did try to visit the monkey park but was an hour to late. Instead, I walked a road with the mountains on my right and the river stretching alongside my left.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fishimi Inari-taisha and Gion

Unintentionally, I ended up visiting two of the most famous sites from one of my favorite movies and books, “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Upon arrival at Fishimi Inari-taisha, the sky was gray and cloudy with the occasional sprinkle but this type of weather only enhanced the bright red tori path weaving up Mount Inari.

There are a total of 10,000 tori gates. The path is crowded with people at the beginning but thins out the farther up the mountain you walk. There are more trails that divert from the main one leading to smaller shrines and fox statues draped in red. The foxes are the messangers for the God Inari.

After sampling some of the street food – rice cakes followed by a nice and salty fish on a stick – I took the train to Gion, the once-famed Geisha district. It’s extraordinary rare to spot a geisha but you will see plenty of young men and women wearing rented kimonos. A historic tradition that continues today due to young Japanese girls continuing to take interest in all that entails in being a geisha: art, dancing, the clothing and makeup, hosting, maintaining poise, tea pouring, and music. However, some will quit because of separation from family and having to abstain from much of modern life and technology.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I walked up and down narrow roads passing by what were once geisha establishments. Untouched and preserved from the wear of time. As the pavement sloped upwards, I came across a black pagoda where girls holding their selfie sticks and wearing kimonos took selfies together. There were many tourist shops and eateries but they were all replicas of each other, selling the same products and food.

It got dark in Japan by 5:30. As the bus back to Kita-Ku crossed the bridge away from Gion district you will come across the shopping district. A brightly lit H&M sign illuminating red next to a Zara was a sight for sore eyes.

Shrines, shrines, shrines

Kyoto has thousands of temples and shrines with over a million throughout the rest of Japan. I visited Rokuon-Ji and Kiyomizu-dera Temple.  Rojuon-ji, notably known as the Golden Pavillion, sits in the middle of a small lake. The temple is gilded in gold-leaf with a phoenix statue perched on top. The gold and surrounding greenery reflected into the lake creating a mirage of blue, black, yellow, and green. Past the temple is a trail taking you to more sacred spots.

IMG_7629

At Kiyomizu-dera the veranda is under renovation but you can still take some good shots alongside the trails without construction interfering.

At these temples and shrines people will wait in long lines to ladle up sacred water to wash their hands in or to swill in their mouths. There are also many tokens to buy for yourself, family, or friends. Tokens symbolizing love, happiness, good luck, having an easy childbirth, plus more.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

An unexpected hike

It took a long time but I finally found the bus to Daigoji Temple. I had to find Keihan Hotel where the Yamashina Express stops. I was the only one on this bus.

There are three parts to the temple grounds. First, there’s Sanboin Garden. You can walk around inside an old home. Simplistic and airy with open windows with views of the gardens and ponds.

Next is the main temple complex area where Daigoji Temple sits perched on the edge of a pond with an orange bridge arching over the water. Tranquil, calm, pleasant, soothing, and harmonious. There were scarcely any other people to disrupt my view.

IMG_7631OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When I walked past the temple, I unexpectedly found myself climbing a steep rocky trail snaking up the mountain. No reasons whatsoever and grateful I was wearing the right shoes, I found myself half way up a forested mountain. My body gets affected by the poor air quality in Mongolia but I felt so sprightly as I trekked upwards. Finally there’s a museum but when I came back down the mountain I was too tired to see it.

Himeji Castle

It decided to rain when I boarded the train to Himeji and it didn’t stop. Of course I didn’t have an umbrella and had to buy one at Himeji’s train station. The owner of my airbnb will appreciate a second umbrella after I leave.

It takes 90 minutes by train from Kyoto to Himeji.

The main attraction at Himeji is Himeji Castle, one of Japan’s three premier castles and the largest. Five-floors with a white façade, the castle survived the bombings of World War II,  while the rest of Himeji was flattened, and an earthquake in 1995.

IMG_7600

I was able to explore inside the castle keep, the west bailey, and the castle grounds.

Himeji also has a large thrift-shop mall.

As a day trip, I highly recommend visiting Himeji.

Walking Kyoto

The food I ate in Japan ranged from ramen, rice cakes, sushi, sashimi (cheap if bought from a supermarket), Italian food at Saizeriya Kyoto Shichiku, matcha ice cream, and even crepes from Creperie Garcon near Gion.

Shirakawa-minami Dori is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets. Most of the buildings have been preserved with bridges draping over the canal. What I really appreciate about Kyoto are its quiet spots amidst the hustle and bustle of city life, like little pockets you can hide inside for a moment before stepping back in to the real world.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the middle of Kyoto Imperial Park is the Imperial Palace. Once the residence of Japan’s imperial family before the capital was moved to Tokyo. Admittance is free but unfortunately two of the buildings were closed due to renovations.

Osaka and Nara

Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, is an hours train ride from Kyoto.

First, I have to mention how often I got lost in train stations. Train stations are huge, clean, and have countless restaurants and cafes, massive shopping malls (Kyoto Station’s shopping mall is calling The Cube), and different sections for what kind of train you need – local, subway, or national. I spent a large chunk of time wandering around aimlessly. It was easy to get distracted. Now back to Osaka…

I took a train to Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, a shopping area in the Minami (Namba) neighborhood. It’s a massive shopping spot with a combination of small stores and prominent, international stores intermingled together.  I didn’t have anything in mind to buy but stopped occasionally when a store looked intriguing. It’s easy to spend a fortune in Japan.

IMG_7616

Osaka has one of the largest aquariums in the world, Osaka castle, and a Universal Studios but I left the bustling crowd of shoppers behind for the roads selling street food and the solitary, quiet streets. So many nice houses and apartments!

I spent my last day in Japan hanging with the deer in Nara. Nara is famous for its deer. At Nara Park, they approach people hoping to be fed. They are curious, cute, and docile animals. Yet I passed by people screaming as they were feeding the deer. You would think they were feeding lions. Nara Park is home not only to the deer but also temples and shrines, most notably Todaji Temple where there’s a giant Buddha. Just like the fox statues at Fishimi Inari-taisha, the deer are considered in Shinto to be messengers for the gods. Consequently, Nara’s 1,200 deer have become a national treasure.

Back to Mongolia

A cab to take me to Kyoto Station arrived at 5 AM.

I woke up at 5:10.

I was out the door in two minutes.

I had to make the 5:45 train to Kansai Airport and was on it two-minutes before departure. 5,000 yen was enough to pay for the cab and my train tickets. I spent the 90 minute train ride rearranging my bag and brushing my teeth, washing my face, and applying makeup  in a small alcove covered by a curtain.

Even in winter, Japan is beautiful. Japan is an efficient and organized country with polite people at every corner. People were always saying thank you and bowing. Language was never a problem. Everyone I met spoke English or understood English. I would go back to Japan in a heartbeat.

A video I made of my trip:

 

Advertisements

Happy New Year

Шинэ жилийн мэнд хүргэе!

First holidays abroad and I must admit, it was tough on me. There were just too many Buchanan traditions I missed out on that I craved all throughout December such as seeing our Swedish Christmas tomtes decorating our home; decorating the Christmas tree; baking Swedish gingerbread cookies while munching on the dough; walking amongst all the twinkling lights that crown Chicago; eating a smorgasbord for dinner; driving to the airport at midnight with my dad to pick up my brother; and pestering my dad with my incessant chatter that makes him wish my brothers came home more often.

But Peace Corps Volunteers must adapt to new changes in their lives. So I made the most of my new situation. Just like in America, all stores in my aimag were decorated for Christmas and New Year’s. The government square had a large Christmas tree in the center. In the market, small Christmas trees were being sold along with lights, ornaments, little Santa jackets, and ribbons. I played Christmas music in the mornings and plugged my Christmas lights in every night.

img_3128

 My school held a Christmas/New Year concert in the sports hall. Each grade decorated a small Christmas tree that were lined up alongside the stage. Students sang and danced and Santa gave out presents to the best students. The Russian Santa isn’t a jolly, fat, and red suited fella we’re used to but is tall, thin, and dresses all in white.

img_3100

I also attended the Young Teachers Christmas (Shinjil) party with my site mate, Jenni. The hall was decorated with snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, a Christmas tree was flashing away in a corner, banners saying “Merry Christmas” hung on the walls, Santa made an appearance, and women wore glittery dresses. At seeing the dresses, it felt like I had been transported back to high school prom while simultaneously feeling under dressed. Yet, the real Christmas miracle was having fresh pineapple delivered to our table. My first taste of pineapple in 6 months.  

15621794_10154902886932962_5618832305745981878_n

During IST, Peace Corps gave each aimag a turkey. Having never prepared a turkey before, I did extensive research before undertaking the task. What did I come to realize? That a big turkey requires a big pot that requires a large refrigerator. A counterpart supplied me with the pot but the pot barely managed to get into my tiny fridge. I was lying in bed when I heard a thumping sound but I thought it was the children next door to me. The thump came again and then I remembered that a massive pot filled to the rim with salt water in which a turkey was floating in was in my fridge. I caught the pot before the entire shelf came crashing down. My Friday night was spent duct taping my shelf back up and cutting up the turkey into many pieces to be put into a smaller pot. There was turkey blood everywhere.

Nevertheless, our Christmas Eve feast was a success with the turkey, roasted potatoes and carrots, and cinnamon rolls. On Christmas, we prepared a brunch that included blueberry scones and strawberries. I chatted with my family and opened my Christmas packages my parents sent.  It was a Christmas spent with my sitemates who become like family during your service. 

img_3140img_3133img_3135

For New Year’s Eve, my counterpart invited me to her home. She had spent two hours the day before preparing buuz, Mongolian steamed dumplings. I feasted on the most delicious buuz I’ve ever had. At midnight, 2017 swept in as little fireworks popped in the sky.  

What’s my New Year resolution? I don’t really have one except to continue my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

img_3191

.

Teacher’s Day

The role of a teacher in Mongolia is reveled. Students respect their teachers and a teacher’s dedication to their job and hard work is rewarded every year on the first week of October, National Teacher’s Day. This is a week-long celebration. On 30 September, 12th graders became the teachers for the day while teachers took the day off and had sport competitions all day and night.

img_2346
12th graders invade the office  as they prepare for the day.

 

img_2312
5 of my Mongolian-English counterparts before the Volleyball games.

 

I rocked up to school wearing my sneakers and volleyball outfit. I just love how everyone assumes I’m a volleyball expert because I’m tall. I usually end up kicking the ball. I didn’t know that all the teachers would eventually change into their sport outfits later. So for the first three hours, I felt very much like an awkward kangaroo, just bouncing on my heels waiting for my counterparts to change out of their fancy dresses and high heels.

Volleyball would have fared better if the ball hadn’t been rock-solid. It seemed every time that the ball ricocheted off of an arm an expletive was heard. The entire competition lasted until 2 AM. Nevertheless, we English teachers came in 2nd place and got silver medals for our bruises, sleep deprivation, and sportsmanship. In between games, we played table tennis. Teachers also bought food and drink. I went the lazy route and bought bags of chips while my counterparts make khuushuur, soup, and buuz. A thermos of hot milk tea and bottles of vodka and wine decorated the table but I had to pass on the first two due to it being 9 AM. I definitely would have been awful at volleyball if I had gone down that road.

Like Stanley Stewart wrote in his book “In the Empire of Genghis Khan:” “When Mongolians party the rest of Asia locks its doors.”  I can wearily support this statement.

At 8 PM, the volleyball competition was put on pause and was replaced with an assembly. Teachers rushed to switch outfits. The lights of the gym were dimmed and music that sounded like music from an action movie trailer started to play. All the 12th graders stood in two long lines on both sides of the gym, clapping and cheering for all the teachers as we walked down the middle. It felt like I was being applauded for winning a medal of valor. The director of the school made a speech and there were singing and dancing performances. I managed to not clumsily trip my way through the Mongolian waltz.

img_2371
The 12th grade class after the teacher-student gift exchange.

 

On 6 October, teachers from all the schools in the aimeg gathered together in the theater for an awards ceremony. There were many long and tedious Mongolian speeches. I found myself nodding off as unintelligible Mongolian was spoken, awards were awarded and pictures were taken on stage. Thankfully, the award ceremony ended and a concert began. This concert was incredible! It was every tourist’s dream who visits Mongolia. Teachers played various instruments such as the horsehead fiddle. Gorgeous outfits were worn. There was dancing and singing including throat singing. Also, when Mongolians clap, they clap together in unison.

After the concert, everyone scattered to their respected school’s party at a venue. My school’s party was held at the Wedding Palace. Dinner was served while more speeches were made and more teachers won awards. Vodka was being chugged at such as speed that I didn’t think anyone was going to show up to school the next day. The entire week was a whirlwind as I celebrated a new holiday in my new home.  

img_2447